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Despite initial reviews and perceptions, peel back the spray-painted sheet metal and the explosive us-vs-them facade of Chappie and find a beating heart and a thinking mind. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s latest release uses its robotic mitts to grapple with the power of artificial intelligence, the signifiers of consciousness, and the barriers between controlled and sentient beings.
Chappie, the police bot captured and reprogrammed to think for itself, reenters Blomkamp’s South African world a child, a blank slate who understands life through the perspectives of those around him, mainly his creators and care takers, and is forced to reconcile an identity from them.
“It was a case of one father being street-smart and one father being ethically and morally smart,” Blomkamp told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s New York City premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. “And him digesting both of those pieces of information and also assessing the world and what his point of view on everything is.”
That duality is represented by Dev Patel’s Deon, a programmer who creates the synthesized consciousness, and Die Antwoord’s Ninja, who plays a fictionalized version of himself, a gangster with his back against the tagged-up wall. Beyond his paternal influences, Chappie also see’s Ninja’s counterpart and bandmate Yolandi as a motherly nurturing figure, and Hugh Jackman’s Vincent, a military-minded weapons developer who finds Deon’s meddling a little too ambitious and his creation a significant threat.
“My character hates him, fears him, wants to destroy him,” Jackman said. “And I don’t think [Chappie] can understand at first, but it ends up bringing out anger in him and sort of violence within the robot, too. But my character represents a very valid argument against artificial intelligence. A lot of people would agree with him. Even the religious side that creating consciousness is the domain of god only.”
Sigourney Weaver plays Deon and Vincent’s boss, who, when presented with the idea of a conscious bot, rejects it outright. “A robot that paints pictures and writes poetry can’t make me any money and also, I have the feeling that as far Michelle Bradley is concerned, she doesn’t even think people should really waste time doing that. I think I obviously underestimate the value of a thinking, feeling robot. I think as CEO, yes it’s not going to make money right away, but there would be a lot of uses for that kind of strong AI if Dev Patel’s character were to succeed. But I’m not thinking like that, I’m thinking dividends.”
It is this sort of conflict of interests that shapes who or what Chappie eventually becomes. “Everybody wants to kill Chappie and everybody wants to replace Chappie and everybody wants to steal Chappie and use and abuse the blank slate of a robot that he is,” Brandon Auret said. “And at the end of the day, he turns out to be the hero and turns out to be more human than most of humans.”
That is in part thanks to Deon, who Patel describes as “the optimist, the dreamer, the guy who wants to impart the right morals to this robot, this young child who he’s worked all his life trying to create,” and Sharlto Copley who voices and stands-in for what would become Chappie.
“It’s almost like the opposite of what I did with District 9,” Copley said. “In District 9, I had a character and then I’m stripping him away. And this is, you’re starting as a baby and then molding the character as you go and getting to react a lot from the other actors, which was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had playing a character.”
The question of whether Chappie is a person or not is up for interpretation, but to the cast, the resonating notion was uniform. “In the hands of Sharlto Copley, he’s definitely a complete character,” Weaver said. “He reminded me, when I first saw the film, of Pinnochio because you love him.”
Jose Pablo Cantillo echoed the sentiment. “I do think that Chappie’s a person because I love him. It’s a really amazing question that Neill has posed through the film and Sharlto has been able to run with. Emotionally, I have to say yes.”
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