Chappie: Godhood, Parenthood, Creation, and Ownership

Well, here I am, finally ready to join the conversations everyone has been having lately, ready to give my hot takes, ready to share my opinions, ready to talk about this year’s hit sci-fi action movie that really changed the game for us. I’m speaking of course about Chappie. Yes, Chappie came out in March and yes I did finally just see it in December. Yes, I did see Star Wars, and no I am not going to talk about it yet. I’m too busy having Feelings about Chappie.

For those of you who did not see it (or have forgotten since March), Chappie is about a police droid who is granted true artificial intelligence, and then promptly falls into the hands of some of Johannesburg’s gangsters and criminals. Yeah, are you ready for more robot feels? I hope so, because I have a lot of them. What I want to start with is: I know that this is objectively probably not a “good” movie. There’s a lot of varying definitions about what a “good” movie is, but this is probably not it. But it is a movie that, for me, pressed all the right emotional buttons.

So, Chappie is a baby robot. He’s artificially intelligent and he develops extremely quickly, but he starts out as a literal baby. His most formative time is spent with the world’s worst and dorkiest gangsters, Ninja and Yo-Landi. If you are more musically aware than I was when I first watched this movie, you may recognize them as South African rap duo Die Antwoord. I did not know that at first, so I did not have the dissonance that a lot of other viewers apparently had when watching this movie. Yo-Landi is kind and sweet to Chappie (even naming him), teaching him words and reading him stories; Ninja is cruel and mistreats him and wants him to shape up into the formidable combat droid that he knows Chappie was built as. Chappie comes to call them Mommy and Daddy, because of course he does. If I had not seen District 9 and Elysium, I would suggest that maybe Neill Blomkamp has some daddy issues, but I don’t think that’s the case here. But needless to say, Ninja and Yo-Landi fulfill a lot of stereotypes about how mothers are nurturing and fathers are tough (which I know is the case for many parents, but certainly not all). And even though Chappie is closer to Yo-Landi, he still – by the end of the movie – loves his daddy, too.

One of the worst ways in which Ninja mistreats Chappie is that he basically dumps him out in the slums of Johannesburg and tells him to find his way home. A bunch of awful delinquent teens throw rocks at him, and ultimately burn him with a molotov cocktail, all while Chappie screamed “Please, no, Chappie has fears! Chappie has fears!” In a later scene where Chappie is further brutalized (including having his arm sawed off), he begs his attacker to stop, tearfully asking why he wouldn’t stop hurting him even though he said please (because Yo-Landi taught him manners). And let me tell you, I cry at movies all the time, but I have not wept like that at a movie in a very long time. I was half-hysterical, and it is a damn good thing I was home alone. For me, Chappie evokes an omg-baby-robot-let-me-hold-and-protect-him reaction that is even stronger than what I had with Wall-E, and that is saying something (possibly because Wall-E is an “adult” robot insofar as that is possible, whereas Chappie is explicitly a child).

You’ll notice that I’ve talked about Chappie’s “parents” – the people who raise him for most of the film – but not his “creator”. All of the police droids were designed by… some guy who’s name I don’t remember, because Dev Patel will just always be Dev Patel to me, but I’m informed by wikipedia that it’s Deon Wilson. So, Deon managed to create a piece of code to grant AI, and he decides to test it on a defective droid, one whose battery can’t be replaced and is due to either “die” or be destroyed. Chappie notably does not call Deon daddy, like he does with Ninja, or even the more formal “father” – he calls him “maker”. And while Deon does his best to encourage Chappie’s creativity and his learning potential, he also kind of ends up imposing his own ideas of what Chappie should be – Yo-Landi is the only one who gives Chappie the freedom of choice. Even when that sometimes appalls the more upper-class Deon. There’s a frankly delightful scene early on where Deon greets Chappie like “Hello! Have you learned ‘hello’ yet?” as if he were speaking to a toddler. And Chappie turns to him and cheerfully says, “…’eyyyyyy. Sup, motherfucker?” Because of course he does.

Chappie’s relationship with Deon is always tenuous, if only because he spends so little time with him. But at one point, Deon breaks the bad news to Chappie that he only has about five days to live, and then he will power down forever, or die. Chappie, quite understandably (and with more than a toddler’s grasp of mortality) freaks out, and ends up ranting to Deon, “Why would you make me this way? Maker, why would you make me so I can die?” …And yes I started crying again, but a certain parallel struck me in watching that scene – Chappie is having a crisis of faith, much like many people having a crisis of religion. The way that Chappie speaks to Deon is markedly different from the way he speaks to Ninja, and it’s the difference between talking to your dad and talking to a deity, in prayer. Watching this movie, and this scene in particular, called to mind arguments I’ve read about how the Abrahamic God is… basically the ultimate dad. And how one’s relationship with one’s father can affect one’s relationship with God (I’ll use capital-G to denote the Abrahamic deity, and lowercase-g to denote the concept of a deity, for convenience’s sake). I’ve been an agnostic/atheist pretty much as long as I can remember, but this was striking to me.

Unfortunately for Chappie, both his relationships with Ninja and with Deon turn out to be somewhat adversarial in nature, as they lie to him and manipulate him, trying to conform him to what they think he should be. Chappie still loves and cares for them both, but it’s a more obviously strained relationship than the one between him and Yo-Landi. Notably, Chappie’s relationship with Deon improves significantly when Deon is (spoiler alert) implanted into a fellow robot body, effectively bringing him down to Chappie’s level – just another consciousness in a droid, rather than an apparently omniscient/omnipotent creator. Until a certain point in the movie, Deon saw himself as Chappie’s “owner”, as though he were just another item or belonging. When he realizes that Chappie is his own consciousness and is his own person, Deon is able to give up some of that control. His relationship with Ninja never improves to quite that degree, although you can see it a little when Ninja proves himself willing to sacrifice his life to save Yo-Landi. It starts even earlier, when Ninja actually apologizes to Chappie for lying to him, something I would not have believed would happen at the start of the movie. In the end though, Ninja and Deon are both kind of shitty parents to Chappie, while Yo-Landi is the only one who lets him explore and learn as he wishes.

Ultimately, I’d say that the message of the movie – although Blomkamp has said that this movie was made with no political or social message in mind – is that children are a product of the environments they are raised in. If they are raised in loving, caring households, that will be reflected in the child, as it will if they are raised amid violence and crime – and that those things can happen simultaneously. There’s a lot of lessons about parenthood here, I would say – that you can’t impose what you want them to be on your child, that you have to let them discover themselves. There’s some real religious messages, especially with Moose, the main antagonist who I didn’t really cover here – Moose is a religious extremist who thinks that the artificial intelligence is an insult to God and to mankind. There’s conflict over whether or not Chappie is a “real” “person” – the heroes of the movie accept it unquestioningly; the villains do not. And there’s the development and growth of Chappie himself – coming into his own as a fully realized person, struggling with his own mortality (something he would never have to do if not granted intelligence), making hard choices – this is a coming-of-age movie for Chappie. Hell, for all intents and purposes, we could call this a young adult movie, too.  And that’s where I think the emotional balance is struck for me. The deeper questions of this movie – religious, moral, etc – are laid under a veneer of one newly intelligent and newly independent being trying to find their place in the world. And that’s one of the most classic stories of all time.

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