(Rated: 14A [Canada] and R [MPAA] for violence, language and brief nudity; directed by Neill Blumkomp; stars Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret; run time: 120 minutes.)
Of droids and souls
By Ted Giese
Building on the aesthetic and thematic groundwork of his previous feature films “District 9” (2009) and “Elysium” (2013), director Neill Blumkomp’s dystopian sci-fi action film “CHAPPiE” wrestles again with what it means to be a human in a world that increasingly devalues life. Its central focus is the nature of the will and consciousness held in tension with the fragility of the body, and the ever-growing anxieties associated with death and dying in a modern, technologically advanced world.
Set in 2016, the story centers around a droid, Scout 22, manufactured for policing in Johannesburg, South Africa. During its regular police duties, the robot is damaged and slated for demolition and recycling primarily because its battery has fused with its chassis, making replacement impossible.
On his personal time, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the engineer who originally designed police droids while working for the manufacturer Tetravaal, writes a computer code that transcends artificial intelligence (AI). Upon being denied a test subject by his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), Deon steals the damaged Scout 22. After being carjacked by a street gang, Deon is forced to upload his untested code into the droid and leave it with the gang, who become its adopted family.
With the AI code installed, Scout 22 becomes CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley). The rest of the film details the consciousness-infused droid’s rapid development from an AI infant through childhood to adolescence. The droid slowly develops a relationship with Deon, who asks CHAPPiE to promise not to be involved in the crimes committed by the droid’s surrogate family. The gang wants to use CHAPPiE to rob an armored truck to pay off a debt owed to a crime boss. CHAPPiE’s navigation of these competing loyalties creates one of the film’s dramatic tensions.
Another tension develops based on the damage CHAPPiE experienced before receiving consciousness. It forces an answer to a big question: “When the droid’s battery dies, what will happen to its consciousness? Will it die, too?” It’s quickly revealed that the battery will die in one week. Likewise, the gang members — Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) — have one week to pay off the crime boss, Hippo (Brandon Auret), or face death. This threat of death links CHAPPiE and the gang together, solidifying their growing “familial” bond.
Add to this tension another antagonist, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a rival engineer and Deon’s co-worker at Tetravaal. He resents the popularity of Deon’s Scout droid program and is “spiritually” opposed to artificial intelligence. Vincent wants to see the Scout droid program replaced with his own droid policing program called MOOSE, which is operated by a “moral” human. The morally questionable Vincent, who invites Deon to church just seconds after threatening his life, is the film’s most obvious “Christian” character. Blumkomp and co-writer Terri Tatchell depict him as a person just as violent and self-serving as any other of the film’s characters. By making Vincent a Christian, albeit a poor example, Blumkomp invites people to think about religion in relation to “CHAPPiE.”
A couple of other spots in the film invite religious contemplation. While acting as “mother” to the droid, Yolandi tells CHAPPiE that it has a soul and that the body doesn’t matter because it is temporary. What she loves about CHAPPiE is the droid’s soul/consciousness, not its body. This attitude toward the body is Gnostic in nature and discounts the Christian promise of the bodily resurrection of the dead. Interestingly, in a movie that favors evolution as the mechanism of life over and against God being the “Maker of heaven and earth,” the idea that a soul exists and consciousness could outlive the body is decidedly unnaturalistic.
Ninja, the droid’s “daddy,” provides the opposing viewpoint as CHAPPiE looks at a dead stray dog. While comparing it with a living dog, Ninja explains the harshness of the world, saying CHAPPiE must fight to stay alive or wind up dead. Overall, Blumkomp paints a picture of a world with little kindness or selflessness. Life is nasty, brutish and short; everyone lives with the continual fear and danger of violent death.
From a Christian worldview, “CHAPPiE” shows the fallen nature of the world and the impact of sin on the motives and activities of every character. In no way does the film pretend that any of its characters is without sin. Even CHAPPiE, who at times seeks to follow its maker’s commandment to avoid being involved in crime, finds itself manipulated into criminal activity.
While Blumkomp holds up a person’s consciousness and free will to think and feel as unique and admirable, something to be cherished and safeguarded, he simultaneously presents a view that this same consciousness and will are the source of all the pain and suffering. The humans use their will to lie, deceive, hurt, steal, murder and create chaos, and even a droid’s titanium and wires can’t spare it from the ravages and impact of sin. The film “CHAPPiE” presents a world where a droid with a soul can struggle with the passions of the inorganic and, along with the rest of humanity, be by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
The film’s effectiveness comes in Blumkomp’s ability to ground the sci-fi elements in the painfully mundane harsh details of ordinary urban South African street life, corporate cubical culture and industrial manufacturing. There is little in the film that is traditionally beautiful. It creates a kind of hyper-realistic, documentary-style detail that lends a sense of importance to its bigger questions, providing legitimacy to the questions CHAPPiE asks.
Christians will want to take a step back and think about what they’ve watched. For Blumkomp, physical death is the enemy of the soul/consciousness, regardless of whether that consciousness is human. “CHAPPiE” says the problem of death must be dealt with in the present by ingenuity, or eventually in the future by evolution, not by God. As may well be expected, in the face of death “CHAPPiE” doesn’t place much hope in Jesus.
With its relentless and brutal violence, this is not a film for everyone. Even a “happy” ending doesn’t make “CHAPPiE” a pleasant film to watch. However, it is intriguing and poses important questions even if it arrives at unsatisfying answers from a Christian perspective.
In “CHAPPiE,” Blumkomp gives viewers a movie bearing his unique style and aesthetic, yet also the unmistakable influences of movies like “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Short Circuit” (1986) and “Robo Cop” (1987). It is lighter in tone than the exceedingly grim “Elysium,” less focused than “District 9,” and it seems to revel in perplexity, exhibiting a sort of cafeteria-style mishmash of philosophy and religious ideas.
Blumkomp is quoted as saying he makes the kind of movies that he would like to watch as a sci-fi fan. The question then needs to be asked, “Does the rest of the movie-going public share his tastes in filmmaking?” The box office will soon tell.
The Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to “Reformation Rush Hour” on KFUO-AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted March 11, 2015