Review by Logan
Hard as it is to believe, science fiction is cool now. Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Doctor Who, or the Alien franchise, I’m reminded of something I heard a fantasy author say earlier this year: “We (nerds) won the culture war.” That’s opened up a new horizon for science fiction filmmakers, where it’s much easier to get a big budget and do your imaginative sci-fi film justice. It’s paved the way for new filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, who want to explore, through science fiction, what qualifies beings as human, and what counts as intelligent life.
And so we have Chappie. In the future, amidst growing civil unrest, the police force in South Africa will employ “drones” – robots who are programmed to work for the police department. They function like humans, having arms and legs and some semblance of speech, but they’re robots. The police now get the bulk of their foot soldiers from an engineering firm. The head of the firm, played by Sigourney Weaver, just wants to push out more robots. One of the engineers, played by Hugh Jackman, just wants them to get bigger and badder. But one engineer, Deon, is in the industry for scientific advancement. He wants to create an intelligent robot. And when a gang jumps him and forces him to do just that, wanting one to control for their own means, he gets his wish. Then things start spinning out of control.
The film’s development has a few things that work really well, even just as an entertainment piece. Chappie’s development, while accelerated, is highly convincing from the baby stage to full development. Deon’s part is a joy to watch, and Vincent is far from your typical Hugh Jackman role. As Chappie develops his own personality and grows up, so to speak, he finds himself torn between Deon’s wishes, whom he knows as his creator, and the wishes of the gang’s leader, whom he knows as his father. This in and of itself suggests a dilemma we often face as Christians, being torn between the wishes of our Heavenly father and the wishes of our friends and family who aren’t Christians.
But this isn’t the main point of the film. The worldview goes far deeper than that. As previously mentioned, the film is really about asking questions about humanity and intelligent life. The film’s bigger questions start when Deon succeeds in creating the “formula” for consciousness. Looking past the ridiculousness of that premise in and of itself, the remainder of the film contemplates views of Chappie by comparing Vincent and Deon’s respective approaches. For Vincent, he’s just a robot feigning sentience, following his programming. Deon knows there’s something much more to it than that. So it then becomes a question of what qualifies as life. If Chappie is human, or something similar, is it because he’s intelligent? Is it because he’s self-aware? If so, does being human have anything to do with biological? From a theological perspective, would a self-aware robot be considered human in the same way and with the same spiritual condition as human beings?
These are compelling questions. Though the movie’s second act these ideas are developed with compelling philosophical ideas woven through the script. It’s done in such a way that if these questions have arisen in your own mind, you can continue to contemplate them and interpret through the lens of the filmmaker. If, however, you aren’t pondering those questions and you’re looking for a fun sci-fi flick, the philosophical elements won’t be distracting. It’s a great middle road that is seldom reached in movies with philosophical implications.
But then comes the third act. At the film’s climax and conclusion, it breaks from these compelling questions to give typical outlandish Hollywood-esque answers that do little to address the questions it’s raised and do a lot to revert to predictable endings done dozens of times before, especially in this genre. While the first two-thirds of the movie is creative and innovate, the ending is trite and disappointing. And so, for all of the film’s build-up, with its massive budget, big-name cast, and budding director, ends on a note that my father-in-law summed up quite well at the end of our viewing: “That was weird.”
Strange movies can ask good questions. But at the end of the day, this wasn’t quite one of those movies. It was just kind of a weird movie that ultimately did some of the same stupid Hollywood stuff that we see all of the time. As a result it comes out kind of half-baked, like it tried to be both a deep philosophical film and a turn-your-brain-off popcorn flick, and turned out to be neither, or at least not very good at either.
So what are the theological implications of a sentient robot? I’ll leave you to be the judge of that one, which is the same thing that this film does. If you’re looking for an interesting exploration of this question, you’ll probably have to look elsewhere.