Can Chappie rescue intelligent-robot movies?

Hopes are high for Neill Blomkamp’s forthcoming robot-adopted-by-humans offering, but Big Hero 6 and Automata prove it’s tricky terrain

It’s looking like a mixed year for intelligent-robot movies. Disney Animation’s hyper-stylised, Japanophile Big Hero 6 should provide an offbeat take on the all-CGI superhero film, like an anime imagined by Pixar, but Spanish effort Automata proved a desperately disappointing misfire earlier this year, despite its promising Asimovian leanings. Now comes the long-awaited Chappie, which promises to be a 21st century Short Circuit – if the cult 1980s action-comedy romp had been set in Johannesburg and co-starred Die Antwoord.

This is far from director Neill Blomkamp’s first robot rodeo. His 2004 short Tetra Vaal plays out like an ad for a new and terrifying mechanised police force, while 2006’s Adicolor Yellow is the Blade Runner-esque tale of a human-like robot who escapes from his creators and goes on the run. Best of the bunch is 2006’s Tempbot, which beautifully satirises the spirit-crushing ennui of office environments by imagining a robot struggling to connect with homo sapiens co-workers who often seem as bereft of humanity as he is.

Blomkamp’s last film, Elysium, felt in some ways like a Hollywoodised take on his breakthrough movie District 9, the introduction of A-list American stars substantially reducing the sense of grimy realism. Chappie sees the film-maker back on the streets of South Africa, with a cast that mixes local talent including Die Antwoord’s Yo-Landi Visser with Hollywood stars Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver. The robot himself is voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley.

Patel, best known for Slumdog Millionaire, plays a scientist who has programmed Chappie with artificial intelligence, and yet the relationship between the robot and his creator is more akin to father and son. Chappie’s ability to think for himself elicits joyous awe from his human “family”, and there’s little sense that the robot presents any danger. When Jackman, playing a mulleted meanie named Vincent, expresses concern that Chappie might be unpredictable, he is presented as a villain rather than the voice of reason.

At a time when the debate on killer robots and artificial intelligence has never been more pertinent, this first look at the movie seems to be coming from the opposite end of the argument. The humans in Chappie take great pleasure in introducing their new friend to art and culture, while encouraging his own efforts to create. It’s as if parenting is being presented as a metaphor for the passing on of the sentient torch from man to robot. Just as a father encourages his son to learn the skills that may one day see the younger man surpass him, so it is suggested we should have no fear of the creatures that may one day inherit the Earth.

It’s an intriguing take, suggesting an ET-like robot movie with a Spielbergian sense of optimism about the unknown that will hopefully avoid the mawkish sentimentality of the US film-maker’s own AI. But who’s to say that Vincent, dodgy barnet and all, isn’t the true hero here? Blomkamp’s earlier short film work on the subject hints there is likely to be more complexity to Chappie’s story than we see in this first trailer. The fundamental weakness in the metaphor here is that intelligent robots may not be our mechanised children. They will not look like their human parents, may not think like them and are by no means certain to share their moral values.

If Chappie can reflect this otherworldliness to present a vision of the future that we have not yet seen, it promises much. If it is just another movie in which mankind fails in the most basic tests of humanity when confronted by something alien to himself, I think we’ve all seen that one before.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Being human: how realistic do we want robots to be?
With Google’s AI assistant able to make phone calls and androids populating households in games and films, the line between machine and man is getting scarily blurred

Keza MacDonald

27, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
I’m Your Man review – Dan Stevens is the perfect date in android romance
Near-future tale of a woman who accepts a male ‘companion’ robot played by Stevens is laboriously told and not really funny enough

Peter Bradshaw

11, Aug, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Archive review – anyone for a posthuman wife? She comes with an off switch
A lonely computer scientist in the year 2038 secretly works on an android version of his wife who died in a car crash – is it romantic, or something more sinister?

Cath Clarke

14, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Technology is killing the myth of human centrality – let's embrace our demotion
The stories we tell around technology shape both our understanding and the future of technology itself

Tom Chatfield

27, Aug, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
What depressed robots can teach us about mental health | Zachary Mainen
The idea of a depressed computer may seem absurd – but artificial intelligence and the human brain share a vital feature, writes neuroscientist Zachary Mainen

Zachary Mainen

16, Apr, 2018 @1:04 PM

Article image
Life with robots: 'What people enjoy most is avoiding social interaction'
Silicon Valley Robotics boss says robots can spare people from having to interact human-to-human

Stuart Dredge

03, Nov, 2015 @10:59 AM

Article image
A robot Rembrandt? I'll eat my beret!
Google has invented a device that turns smartphone photos into portraits. Nice try, guys – but machines will never sketch like Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Picasso

Jonathan Jones

23, Feb, 2016 @1:06 PM

Article image
Robots may soon be able to reproduce - will this change how we think about evolution? | Emma Hart
Nature is full of examples of biology adapting to its surroundings. Technology may just be about to catch up, says Emma Hart of Edinburgh Napier University

Emma Hart

21, Jun, 2021 @9:10 AM

Article image
Show us your robot designs
With commercial robots looking like becoming an important part of our futures, we would like to see your very own robot designs and artwork

Guardian readers and Tom Stevens

19, Aug, 2014 @11:55 AM

Article image
‘Some people feel threatened’: face to face with Ai-Da the robot artist
Self-portraits by ultra-realistic android go on show at Design Museum in London

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

18, May, 2021 @1:09 PM