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“You know what’s a black sheep?”

“No.”

“It’s like when you’re different from everyone else.”

Watching Chappie (2015), I was reminded of two things. One, that Neill Blomkamp is one of the greatest directors alive today. Second, Hollywood has got a lot of catching up to do.

The film throws us into a near future Johannesburg where police employ armored robots to battle the high rate of crime in the city. There’s no gentle easing into the story, no dipping the toes in the pool. We’re shoved straight into the action and left sprawled in the dust.

Deon Wilson, the inventor of the robots, manages to create a prototypical artificial intelligence that’s capable of thinking for itself. In the process of transporting a damaged robot unit to test the program on, he is kidnapped by a peculiarly nasty (yet memorable) trio deep in debt to a particularly violent gang member. On the hunt for some cash, they force Wilson to boot up the program so the robot can perform a heist with them. Of course, things don’t exactly turn out as planned.

It’s impossible to discuss this film without bringing up Blomkamp’s two previous features. First came human-alien interactions and the appalling way humans treat “nonhumans,” and then came a post-colonial dystopia build around class systems. Elysium (2013) held water as a film, but it didn’t do much more than that. District 9 (2009), however, took the world by storm, a major blockbuster that came dashing out from the unlikeliest of places, even earning itself a Best Picture nod. While the film could have been made elsewhere, there’s no way Hollywood would have let such a feature pass unscathed where the budget and productions are concerned.

Indeed, South Africa seems the ideal place to make such a film, and Blomkamp certainly takes advantage of his country’s history. While not an apartheid feature (as stated by the man himself), the film’s depiction of xenophobia and social segregation in the form of speciesism feels brutality genuine. It cuts far too close for the bone for comfort. The bitter irony of Wikus becoming more humane as he slowly descends into an alien form packs such a powerful punch that other films have scampered away in failure, shaking their heads.

The film’s setting is gritty and immediate. There’s no high-tech billboards or evidence of mass consumerism like most future cities. Poverty is still very much present, the city clearly suffering from wear and tear. It’s a place of dust and dirt, somewhere that could have come straight out of an Ian McDonald or Paolo Bacigalupi novel. Like with District 9 and Elysium, Neill Blomkamp is very comfortable working in the niche genre of global, gritty post-cyberpunk. It’s a sad misconception that the general public has when it comes to science fiction. It’s either in a 1984

And then there’s the added bonus of the film being set in South Africa–a location rarely seen (if at all) in major science fiction films. In fact, to my knowledge, District 9 was the first big-budget sci-fi flick to ever emerge from the continent of Africa. It’s a welcome change of pace from nearly every major sci-fi film being set in the US. Accessible it may be, but a change of scenery is always welcome, especially when science fiction makes an effort to stretch outside of America. And Blomkamp makes an effort to portray both sides of Johannesburg in all its stark and gritty glory. We travel to the air-conditioned robot factories and the slums. We travel to the lush green suburbs and the rolling grasslands and watch the sun sink over the chrome buildings. It feels like a living, breathing organism, something that traces back to the film’s core message.

As far as acting goes, it should be no surprise to learn that Dev Patel plays his character with great gusto. While his performance won’t be snatching up many Oscars, he plays a solid role. He’s not had much time in the spotlight since his incredible debut in Slumdog Millionaire (2009), so it’s fantastic to see him on the big screen where he belongs. The rest of the cast is rather average, with Hugh Jackman donning a mullet to play the evil guy (a new role for him) and Sigourney Weaver’s very humble screen time sees her playing the stiff-necked businesswoman.

Of course, none of them are the reason the film exists. Indeed, the film is even named after the center of attention, the robot himself. He is innocent and child-like, loveable despite his central being as a lump of metal. This is a recurring theme seen in District 9, where we found sympathy with the crab-like aliens, designed to evoke initial disgust from the audience. However, the theme isn’t as strong here, with Chappie instantly becoming the central protagonist. And as the film progresses, he is further shaped and molded by those around him. This is verified during a scene where two gangsters drop off the robot far from his comfort zone, planting him in the slums where a gang (composed of both white and black members) call out their disgust with his form and mercilessly attack him. It’s a moving scene, in particular as several shots take place from his point-of-view, demonstrating his first vicious encounter with the outside world—and human beings—at large. To quote the film, “people are always fearful of something they don't understand.”

The recurring theme of the film is Chappie’s struggle for humanity and his eagerness to inhabit self-awareness, a consciousness of his own. It’s like watching a child desperately trying to mimic his older siblings or parents. Indeed, Chappie refers to the humans around him as “maker," or even “mother” and “father." The film succeeds in evoking a genuine emotional response when Chappie is in pain or in a position of suffering—something we would normally reserve for humans or pets. Despite his poor treatment by humans, he’s still eager to protect and rush to the aid of “maker” and “mother” when they require such help, going so far as to shield them from bullets using his body.

A particularly fascinating aspect of the film is its allusion to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, or a variation of it. Regardless if this was intentional or sourced from Blomkamp’s ingenuity, it was executed with nuance and subtlety. For example, Chappie has a limited battery supply; something the gangsters (falsely) tell him can only be remedied if he helps them on their heist. Yet he was told by “maker” that he is forbidden from performing these heists. So far most attempts at persuasion from the gang have failed. Now Chappie sits in the bucketing rain, examining the carcass of a dog, prodding at its body innocently. In the corner, a fattened dog chews at a hunk of meat. He is asked whether he wishes to be the dead dog—or the living one. The very nature of survival—a basic, human instinct—overcomes his programming and he agrees.

While he’s definitely comfortable in the little rut he’s settled himself in, Blomkamp isn’t afraid to experiment with different film genres. Chappie has its share fair of laughs, mostly from watching the robot imitate the gangsters, messing up curse words or spurting out awkward one-liners. But the best moments come in the vein of dark humour when Chappie patrols the streets, searching for cars to steal and sell. I had a great chuckle, watching spoilt rich people get randomly forced (or even flung) out of their cars by a babbling robot. And I’m not afraid to say I enjoyed watching him nearly beat someone to death, all the meanwhile scolding the person for “being a very bad man." It’s surprising that Blomkamp decided to go down this route, for his previous films have only the tiniest slivers of humour. But it definitely works well enough.

Unlike his previous films, there’s very little action in Chappie, and much of it is condensed into the final thirty minutes or so. Speaking of which, there’s also far less violence. District 9 and Elysium alike saw gore being splattered on the camera lens and gibbets of flesh flying in the air, coating bystanders. And the absence of it in Chappie makes me wonder whether Blomkamp was asked to remove or tone down some of the gore, now that the major studios have gotten involved. Not that this is a bad thing by any means, and it’s clear that Chappie is his most accessible film yet, but I’m curious just much meddling the studio had in his project. Blomkamp himself said he was unhappy with the way Elysium turned out, and that the studios got just a little too involved for his taste.

I was never bored while watching Chappie, but things did noticeably speed up during the last half-hour or so, with more than a few things unfurling far too conveniently for certain characters. But in saying that, the narratives manages to do a wide loop and tie itself up again, securing all those loose ends. Seemingly insignificant events at some point in the film rear their head to become instrumental in the film’s conclusion. And it’s definitely not a conclusion I would have predicated from the outset. It’s connected all back to themes of consciousness and self-awareness, of man and his maker, of rebirth and recycling. Organic and mechanical. Body and soul. It’s the sort of ending that gets your spine tingling. It’s far from tidy, but that just makes it all the better.

Chappie isn’t the near flawless masterpiece that is District 9, but it’s leaps and bounds ahead of Elysium, and the majority of science fiction films released today. It’s easily the best film released this year of any genre. Like the film title suggests, this movie is about a robot. A robot treated like trash because he is the “black sheep." A robot that desires to live. A robot that desires to be human, to dream and to think. Instead he gains so much more than that. He becomes more humane, more important, more emphatic, anyone around him.

“I'm consciousness. I'm alive. I'm Chappie.”

Thus, Chappie is alive because we consider him to be. He has convinced us with feral conviction that he is human, that he is consciousness, that is he what we are. No matter how much we want to deny it to ourselves, we cannot regard him as anything less anything less than human.

Jeremy Szal has had over thirty publications in various venues, including Strange Horizons, Bards and Sages, and Grimdark Magazine. He's earned an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future and a nomination for the 2014 Parsec award. He is also the assistant editor of Hugo award winning podcast StarShipSofa, and has worked with authors such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson and David Levine. He's nineteen years old and lives in Sydney, Australia with his parents, sister, and the world's most hyperactive Jack Russell. Find him at: http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/



Jeremy Szal has had over thirty publications in various venues, including Strange Horizons, Bards and Sages, and Grimdark Magazine. He's earned an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future and a nomination for the 2014 Parsec award. He is also the assistant editor of Hugo award-winning podcast StarShipSofa, and has worked with authors such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, and David Levine. He's nineteen years old and lives in Sydney, Australia with his parents, sister, and the world's most hyperactive Jack Russel. Find him at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/.
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