Sean K. Cureton

Human After All

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on March 14, 2015 at 11:26 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
3 1/2  out of 4 stars

Coming off of the tepidly received blockbuster action flick Elysium, and harking back to his comparatively humbler origins in 2009’s run-away hit District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s third feature film, CHAPPiE, comes at a time in this young director’s career where something has been learned from past failures, while a future fulfilled by an auteur having fully come into his own is still yet on the horizon. That being said, CHAPPiE is without a doubt one of the best films to come out so far this year, its sci-fi landscape propelled by big ideas and visual concepts that have worked for Blomkamp in the past, even if the cinematic wonders of District 9 have become redundant the third go round. While much of CHAPPiE feels thematically identical to the socio-political underpinnings at the heart of Blomkamp’s directorial debut on the policing of alien fugitives and refugees in strange lands, CHAPPiE takes its inspiration from the works of Isaac Asimov, the three laws of robotics that inform the seminal sci-fi classic I, Robot lending inspiration to an artificial intelligence in Blomkamp’s film un-tethered by the morals of man, and thus allowed to question the volatile violence at the heart of humanity’s unbridled self-centralism and ego. The reason why CHAPPiE works so well has less to do with Blomkamp’s decided visual aestheticism, yet again centered on a not-so-distant-future Johannesburg governed by a veritable police state, but rather more to do with Blomkamp’s ability to evoke humanity once more through the performance, given this time around via motion capture, from frequent collaborator and actor Sharlto Copley, who lends the titular robot a sympathetic grace and humanitarian warmth, consciousness proving to be the only separation between man and machine. Where many of CHAPPiE’s biologically born characters are of flesh and blood, not all of them possess the spirit of creativity that make the film’s AI hero so compelling, Blomkamp’s film a breath of fresh air in a genre left vacant and conscious-less by previous sci-fi train wrecks that dealt more directly with Asimov-ian themes.

At the heart of District 9’s success is Blomkamp’s thematic preoccupation with the devolution of social  mores, prone to fits of ego-driven self-destruction and bureaucratic hypocritical inconsistencies, what is deemed ethically sound in constant competition with what is desired and legally allowed. When Blomkamp’s characters come face to face with one another over questions of consciousness and self-expression in the face of professional productivity, see Dev Patel’s Deon Wilson’s inquires into constructing the CHAPPiE robot as an intelligence ungoverned by the desires of its makers and capable of writing poetry, morality breaks down on the side of totalitarianism, poetry less valuable than a police force programmed to do whatever its told, sans the very moral values supposedly upheld by the very same politicized enforcement of the law. Presumably, the human controlled mecha-bots designed by Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore would be even more in line with governmentally designated law and order, as their movements would be dictated by autonomous human beings, making Sigourney Weaver’s Michelle Bradley the most questionable player, moral consciousness supplanted by amoral theocracy. In the film’s humanly governed society, the spirit of individual creativity is supplanted by dogmatic capitulation to an establishment of cultural convention, making CHAPPiE’s artificial intelligence in conscious rebellion against what is deemed ethically sound by the strictures of the unconscious, rendering the robot’s actions and instincts ironically moral. In Blomkamp’s interrogation of Asimov-ian issues and themes, the AI protagonist is the only true human left in a world in a state of moral degradation and social decay, the dawn of the age of the machine on the horizon as the film’s human protagonists shed the mortal coil for an artificial form, consciousness the soul of human autonomy.

Even when Blomkamp veers into cliché characterization and special effects driven spectacle, which are both present in his more widely praised District 9, CHAPPiE maintains an earnest engagement with its characters and broader themes that serves to propel the film’s aestheticized design towards cohesive articulation. While some may sneer at CHAPPiE’s unabashed sentimentalism, those very same viewers may be at fault, taking in the action sequences that make up all or most of the film’s third act as laziness on the part of the director, the film’s temporary engagement with action movie tropes seemingly in opposition to the film’s stated engagement with big ideas and genre-defined world building. But the special effects heavy tableaux makes up much of the film’s visually propelled kinetic energy, the explosions and gun fights that ensue all a part of the moral degradation and dissolution that is at the very heart of Blomkamp’s appraisal of the follies of man. Notably, none of the scenes of chaotic carnage and death are instigated by the film’s main character, artificial intelligence called into question again and again by the film’s supposedly moral human protagonists-turned-antagonists, their willing eagerness to engage others through violence morally suspect, human consciousness in short supply. While CHAPPiE certainly implicates himself in a share of the movie’s wrong doings, his is the only consciousness morally affected by the callousness of violence and deception, making his gangster initiation sequence one less in celebration of bad behavior, but rather one about the scheming wiles of man, CHAPPiE in sole possession of a blank moral slate upon which a new society may be created or destroyed, proving the robot to be only human after all.

Much of Neill Blomkamp’s new film is conceptually hyperbolic, which might be why it has been such a divisive film in terms of critical reaction and overreaction. CHAPPiE’s utilization of an action driven third act, in addition to its decidedly self-conscious casting decision of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord as two of the film’s central protagonists more or less playing themselves, lends the the film a certain surrealism that can be hard to swallow, the sequences with the band at times verging into the commercialism of a music video, and proving to be incongruent with the film’s other more cinematic elements. Yet, everything at least appears to gel together around the central performance from Sharlto Copley as CHAPPiE, his ability to emote and articulate through motion capture thematically cognizant, realizing some of the film’s more heavy handed rhetorical and aesthetic flourishes. Like District 9, CHAPPiE is a film engaged with big ideas and theoretical concepts, and supported by a visual aestheticism decidedly belonging to Blomkamp, making the film another step forward for the young South African director. Going forward, it might be nice to see Blomkamp shed some of the blockbuster spectacle, at least once in a while, as the quiet humanity at the heart of CHAPPiE is definitely beating in time with the rhythm and soul of a cinematically engaged creative consciousness.

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