Chappie—What if Only a Machine can Save Us Now? (Scott Midson)

PT and Culture

. . . In other words, Chappie can be read as an allegory that calls for us to recognize our ill-treatment of the other, and the film seeks an alternative ethic that does not recourse immediately or uncritically to fear or hostility, leading to violence. We are to be more embracing of the ‘other’ who is, ultimately, more complex than we might first assume, and is never entirely ‘other’.

“Humanity’s last hope isn’t human.” (tagline, Chappie)

 

In the recent film, Chappie (2015), directed by Neill Blomkamp and set in a crime-ridden Johannesburg of the not-too-distant future, a police force comprised of robots works to keep the population safe. One defective police-bot earmarked for disposal is ‘rescued’ by an ambitious designer (Deon), who is incidentally the same person that created the bots in the first place. Not content with producing a functional product line of robots, Deon has been working relentlessly at developing an A.I (artificial intelligence) that is independent and agential. When his trials succeed, he installs the A.I program onto the defective ‘bot. The result is Chappie, a self-declared conscious being that acquires a sense of self-identity through his interactions with others.

Some characters perceive Chappie’s existence and autonomy as a threat, though, and this coincides with a broader, common theme in sci-fi that draws on our uncertainties about technology. Particularly in bigger-budget Hollywood productions within the sci-fi genre, there is a notable tendency to portray robots and machines, including artificial intelligence, as the ‘bad guys’. (The gendered term here is not insignificant; there is a lot of commentary and critique worth making of gender, technology and culture.)

To give but a few examples, HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey was infamously homicidal; various robots in the Terminator series wage war against humans; and machines and Agents in the Matrix series draw their power from opiated and imprisoned humans. These are not the only examples: filmic adaptations of comics such as Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers have a tendency to technologise the enemy, so to speak; in both of these film series’ latest installments, for example, artificial intelligences are the enemy and are to be overcome.

Such presentations of machines both respond to, and influence, our attitudes to technologies more generally in an everyday sense. Daniel Dinello, in his insightful book Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology, cites philosopher of technology Langdon Winner: “Technology is a source of domination that effectively rules all forms of modern thought and activity. Whether by an inherent property or by an incidental set of circumstances, technology looms as an oppressive force that poses a direct threat to human freedom.” These sorts of concerns clearly feed into the believability of the sensationalized threat of technology as is conveyed in much sci-fi. The undergirding logic is that our increasing use of technology is alienating us from our own natures; here, we have something that we fear to lose, such as our freedom, or our identity.

On a deeper level, then, what may underscore fears specifically about robots such as Chappie is that they compromise the human in terms of its uniqueness. In theological terms, we have something potentially devastating to lose: imago dei, or the image of God in which humans were made (Genesis 1:26-27). Over history, imago dei has typically been linked to notions of human uniqueness, manifested in characteristics such as rationality, use of language, or even bipedalism. Animal studies have since challenged the credibility of these claims (see Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, 2013), so it should not be a particular shock that our technological progeny in sci-fi films challenge them too.

Machines, though, are made by humans and are arguably created in our image. This could be literal (consider the repulsion that the anthropomorphic androids in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 flick A.I: Artificial Intelligence encounter), or it could be considered in terms of how they are programmed to use language and enact other human traits in order to serve and to exist in a human world. This causes us a degree of unease: machines and robots become a little too like us, and we respond by seeking to contain and overcome the threat.

Notions of uniquely human freedom and identity are expressed in Chappie via Deon’s equally ambitious co-worker Vincent. Unlike Deon’s visions of an agential machine consciousness, Vincent wants only robots that he can control; he wants only what renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan saw as ‘extensions of man’ (cf. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man) where humans remain central. With the promise of such extensions, though, there is always the shadowy threat of technologies acting as what French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, drawing on McLuhan’s ideas, saw as ‘expulsions of man’ (cf. The Perfect Crime).

 

In the film, Chappie’s autonomy is presented as dangerous because it is unstable or unpredictable, which suggests that humans want to be able to control robots, or at least be able to place ourselves above them hierarchically. (Consider here Rodney Brooks’ vision of a future, described in his book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us. Here, “we (the robot-people) will be a step ahead of them (the pure robots). We won’t have to worry about them taking over.” Bridging the gap between this vision of the future and now, it is worth noting that Brooks is founder of company iRobot that manufacture devices such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Although robots at present are simple and lack independence, Brooks’ claims would suggest that robots, true to their etymology as ‘slaves’ (cf. Čapek, Rossum’s Universal Robots), will always be distinct from humans and will remain instrumental means to human-defined ends in a humanocentric world.)

Interestingly, though, Chappie is not presented as a threat in the film: audiences are encouraged to develop empathy for the outcast robot, and Vincent instead is the antagonist. Vincent is portrayed as relentless and as domineering, leaving a path of destruction – both human and machine – in his wake. Solidifying his role as the antagonist, Vincent seems either unwilling or unable to face up to his own role in the destruction: although he accuses Chappie as being a threat, Chappie is the victim of far more violence than the cause of it. Vincent, in his narrow-minded vision favouring his drone-machines, has, to paraphrase Baudrillard, expelled his own experiences and human(e)ness, and has given himself to the machine that he creates.

At the same time that machines deliver us a degree of good, then, making our lives easier, longer, and more enriched (according to the plots of many sci-fi films in which we find these machines), they also potentially deliver us from good; we find ourselves surrounded by machines and technologies that, like a fairground hall of mirrors, entomb us in our own warped reflections and enclose us from the ‘real’ world outside. In this sort of view, humans are seen as separable from technology, as well as the outside world, or non-technological nature. Such clear-cut distinctions, however, may be neither feasible nor desirable.

Daniel Dinello goes on to say, “science fiction taps into these existential fears while reinforcing our concerns about the misanthropic humans who serve as technology’s collaborators in domination.” Significantly, humans cannot be opposed to machines because humans play an instrumental role in designing and developing them. The threat of the machine, in this reading, may be ultimately the threat of the human, or the human seduced by money and power, which becomes a kind of misanthropy that plays out through technological means. This is what audiences are certainly presented with in the figure of Vincent.

 

With Chappie, we are exposed to the threat of the other (i.e. the uncontrollable), as well as to the threat of the same (i.e. that which encroaches upon safeguards of human uniqueness, such as freedom or agency). These threats come from the same position that begins with the human as a starting point, though. An alternative perspective represented by Chappie and his allies suggests a more promising vision of human-computer interactions.

Chappie’s persona is marked by a tendency towards infantilisation in the film, and this seems like a useful way of garnering empathy among audiences and other characters alike (including South African alternative music act Die Antwoord) towards what is apparently a threatening non-human being. Strikingly, Chappie’s childlike character seems to juxtapose the juvenility of humans in the film that seek to destroy Chappie on the grounds of being different, or on the grounds that they do not understand him. Nor do they wish to; oppose and destroy is seemingly the name of the game.

On this point, Chappie (the film) presents us with two approaches to ethical natures. One is marked by a Hobbesian disposition to war where “every man is enemy to every man” (Leviathan, Chapters XIII-XIV), and technological apparatuses are inculcated in that very human conflict. An alternative, more hopeful approach to ethical nature is embodied in the figure of Chappie. Here, a more Rousseaunian view of the state of nature as a ‘blank slate’ contrary to Hobbes’ proposals seems operative: Chappie must navigate and learn his own way through the messiness and brutality of a world succumbed to violence and war. In this predicament, Chappie emerges as the ‘noble savage’, and the appeal is to a similar ‘nature’ in humans, except that it is one appropriated to the technocultural world in which we find ourselves.

In other words, Chappie can be read as an allegory that calls for us to recognize our ill-treatment of the other, and the film seeks an alternative ethic that does not recourse immediately or uncritically to fear or hostility, leading to violence. We are to be more embracing of the ‘other’ who is, ultimately, more complex than we might first assume, and is never entirely ‘other’.

On this point, due to Chappie’s strong anthropomorphism, it is not difficult to trace parallels between the othering of technology here and the ill-treatment of Chappie, with otherings within the category of humans in the real world. Prejudice and discrimination on the basis of sexuality, race, religion, belief, class, nationality, etc are widespread across human society and history. One thing that we can take from Chappie is an ethic that condemns callous, unreflective treatment of the ‘other’, because the ‘other’ is never such a clear-cut entity. In the film, the most violent humans are demonized, rather than the techno-beings, of which Chappie is one (among others). If we are able to recognize the futility of violence, then Chappie has taught us something, and the machine has arguably ‘saved’ us – arguably, from ourselves.

 

Scott Midson is currently working towards a PhD in Religions & Theology at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on posthumanism and queries our relationship with technology in theology and popular culture, specifically asking what it means to be ‘human’ (or ‘nonhuman’) at the intersection of these fields and ideas. https://manchester.academia.edu/ScottMidson | @scadhu

One thought on “Chappie—What if Only a Machine can Save Us Now? (Scott Midson)

  1. Thanks for this post, Scott. Very helpful. I’ll be teaching a seminar — Humanity 2.0? — concerned with these questions and sources of insight. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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