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.

Contributor

Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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