Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Chappie: A modern Joburg morality tale, with robots

Chappie: A modern Joburg morality tale, with robots

Neill Blomkamp’s back with Chappie, a typically thought-provoking foray into the perils of artificial intelligence. Sharlto Copley and Dev Patel star, as do Hugh Jackman’s calves and the city of Joburg itself, which looks splendid as the brutalist backdrop to an action-packed but tender tale of a robot who finds himself and a family – with a little help from Die Antwoord. By SIMON ALLISON.

The denizens of Los Angeles may be used to seeing their landmarks immortalised on the big screen, but it’s still a new feeling for us Johannesburgers. It feels good. There, driving out of the cinema parking lot at midnight, is the neon red spiral that crowns Ponte Tower, the same spiral that’s just been the backdrop to two hours of car chases, shoot ’em ups and a surprisingly affecting love story between Die Antwoord, Dev Patel and a robot. Maybe Hollywood’s not so far away after all.

Of course, this can only be a Neill Blomkamp movie.

Watch: Chappie Official Trailer

Chappie, the South African director’s latest sci-fi action flick, is once again set in a gritty, anarchic, relentlessly urban Johannesburg. It’s the story of the world’s first artificially intelligent robot and how, instead of letting it develop its own morality, us humans, with unseemly haste, immediately begin to mould it in our own selfish, venal image.

Chappie owes a lot to District 9, Blomkamp’s iconic breakthrough, and Blomkamp acknowledges the debt. The new movie begins like its inspiration, with a documentary introduction, and ends like it too, with a robot wondering through a crowd of shacks. There’s a strong critique on the role of police in society, and the South African Police Service (SAPS), as usual, don’t come out looking particularly good (the police emergency number in the movie – 10012 – is a nice touch, one only South African audiences will pick up).

The lead is once again Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s unlikely muse, although this time he plays a robot who becomes more human, rather than the other way round. He gets a lot of help from CGI.

The star of the show, however, is the city itself, in all its brutalist glory. Ponte and the Telkom Tower feature prominently, as does the double-decker highway, and the abandoned warehouse next to the Orlando cooling towers (which is, incidentally, the same warehouse that collapsed in June last year). It’s all graffiti and grey concrete, a gangster’s paradise, and the kind of industrial urban aesthetic at which Joburg excels (there are plenty of echoes here of excellent local tsotsi film iNumber Number). Don’t look for Parkhurst in this landscape, or Fourways or Bedfordview; there’s no room for white privilege in Blomkamp’s vision of the future.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Die Antwoord gets a lot of screen time, and soundtrack almost the entire movie. Yolandi and Ninja play their stage personas, bringing the Zef Show (with all its cultural appropriation overtones) into the heart of Soweto and lending the film their zany, other-worldly aura. They, together with Dev Patel’s not-so-evil scientist, bring Chappie to life – perhaps the weirdest parenting triumvirate in history. It kind of works, especially coupled with Hugh Jackman’s narcissistic, short-wearing villain, but it can be a bit much. Chappie is not meant to be a feature-length music video.

It is meant to be a modern-day morality tale, and a warning. It was just a few months ago that Stephen Hawking said artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race”. Hawking is probably right, as usual, but maybe not in quite the way he intends. What if it isn’t the robots and the AIs that are the problem, but the humans that build them and shape them and pass on all humanity’s worst traits? Robots that are just enhanced, exacerbated versions of ourselves? Or what if Hawking is wrong, and robots somehow develop the capacity for love? Is that not the truest form of artificial intelligence?

Chappie doesn’t answer these questions, but it certainly makes you think about our future, and our rapidly-closening relationship with technology. By the end of the movie, the line between what is human and what is robot becomes very blurry indeed. Joburg, however, remains sharply in focus – even if much of the city lies in tatters by the end. DM

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