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CHAPPiE: Failing From Great Heights

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CHAPPiE is the mainstream cinema’s latest robo-epic. It’s a strange combination of District 9, Short Circuit (that movie from ‘86 with Rick Moranis) and the original Robocop all remixed with popular themes out of the current mainstream geopolitical paradigm (the evil terrorist-type antagonist whose only desire is power and chaos justifying private weapons companies capitalizing on the militarization of police) and questions about the nature of life (true innocence and its corruption, the fear of death and power of suffering, and what makes human life the ‘special’ thing that it is).

Personally, as much as I like movies about robots and artificial intelligence (ai), I doubt I would have made the effort to see this if it wasn’t for my dad welcoming it as a father-son outing. I am, however, glad to have done so, even if it fails to fully deliver.

CHAPPiE’s plot is basically about a weapons company that is militarizing the Johannesburg police force with robot soldiers in order to battle hyperbolized criminal organizations controlling the streets with an iron fist. In this company is our young savant protagonist. He has invented the robot drones, but his passion is the creation of true artificial intelligence (ai). His conflicting other is the always tough Hugh Jackman representing his native tongue as an Australian and playing a bad guy warmonger whose man-powered, mega mecha-suit isn’t selling due to the drones’ success in reducing crime rates. This creates in Jackman a hate for our young savant and he eventually sabotages the drones to create chaos on the streets in order to justify the launch of his prototype mecha suit (and wreak some seriously inhuman havoc), but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before Jackman’s occupational psychotic break, our young savant has, after nearly a thousands nights of destroying his nervous system with Red Bull at 5am finally succeeded at creating true ai – ‘consciousness.dat’. (In real life, his drugs of choice would probably be Modafinil and micro dosed LSD, but I don’t think provigil pays for product placement).

Now with the program finally ready, all he needs is a vessel. Coincidentally, a drone, whose story was made special at the beginning of the movie, and who had been labeled for destruction due to an RPG attack making his battery pack irreplaceable, is the perfect test subject for the savant’s creation. (I know, this is fast paced, but if you’ve seen the movie you would know the rest of the back story, and if you haven’t seen it and you’re reading a spoiler article, you obviously don’t care.) Unfortunately, savant’s boss denies him access to the droid because weapons sell, true ai does not sell, and as a for-profit company, her priorities are clear. Alas, yet another good hearted scientist wanting to make a difference is bound in potential by profit-seeking priorities.

But then, inspired by a cute motivational poster at his cubicle, he decides to break the rules, steal the decommissioned robot and load the software. Unfortunately as he is leaving with the Robot, he is kidnapped by some hapless criminals (played by Die Antwood who play, uh, themselves, I guess). Savant ends up loading the consciousness into the droid under duress at Antwood’s private hideout. And Voila! CHAPPiE is born with the hapless criminals as mommy and daddy, and the plot further unfolds towards what could have been one of the most moving pieces on the beauty and tragedy of life in the contemporary mainstream movie era.

CHAPPiE comes into this world like an infant, but instead of having the genetically imprinted personality dispositions of its parents and nine months of behavioural adaptations primed in the womb, CHAPPiE’s slate is completely blank, raw potential. Even more so, CHAPPiE doesn’t have a biological sex, so it is essentially genderless as well (but I will be using masculine pronouns for ease of reading).

As the film goes on, you begin to relate and cherish CHAPPiE’s innocence like one would a child. We watch his identification and relationships with mommy and daddy (Die Antwood), and his maker (the savant). We participate and relate to CHAPPiE’s developing love and trust for them. All the while, we powerlessly voyeur as his innocence is corrupted, he is mistreated, beaten, manipulated and frightened, that trust destroyed. One of the most powerful scenes for me was when Jackman’s character has captured CHAPPiE and is trying to get some computer switch out of his head and the gentle, innocent CHAPPiE (who was kidnapped and brought into a windowless van while he was watching the sunset and petting a stray dog) is beaten, tortured and has his arm sawed off while crying out and pleading for mercy: “Please no, please!, CHAPPiE has fear! CHAPPiE has fear!”. It was heartbreaking.

There’s more interesting themes and plot points, but let’s jump ahead. At the end of the film, CHAPPiE, whose battery cannot be changed and thus will essentially ‘die’ soon, has become convinced that he can transfer his consciousness to a new body with tech he invented by rapidly searching the internet on everything possible. So when Jackman goes all monster with the mecha-suit and starts killing everyone, a fantastic opportunity for a profound statement is being offered. Pretty much all of the supportive characters are killed off in this final action scene, including mommy, CHAPPiE’s battery is on its last reserves, daddy gets shot is the leg, and the young savant, CHAPPiE’s maker, gets shot in the stomach and is slowly dying; basically everyone is faced with death and tragedy. CHAPPiE, risking his own life to save his maker, brings him to the weapon company’s laboratory to try and transfer savant’s consciousness to a ‘tester’ drone in the lab in order to save his life. Time is short, CHAPPiE’s battery is about to fail, savant is about to die, and the police are angle-grinding through the the locked door ready with guns a blazing to destroy CHAPPiE, knowing nothing of his honest spirit, sentience and authentic sense of self.

This is a great opportunity, the entire movie has built up to this point. We have watched as this new life has learned family, loneliness, love, loss, betrayal, sadness, fear, and forgiveness. We have participated in this new life’s discovery, and subsequent fear, of death. All that is left to present in order to make this a masterpiece is a profound statement on the beauty and authenticity of life being in the honesty of suffering and eventual end we will all face.

An hour and forty five minutes of setup, and now this movie is ready to drop a climax that jerks tears and echoes ‘humanity’ through the hearts of those filling the cinema seats.

In order to have pulled this off, here’s how it needed to end:

As CHAPPiE goes to transfer the consciousness of his maker into the tester drone, just before savant dies of a gunshot wound to the stomach, CHAPPiE hit’s ‘go’ on the computer and it fails. We see that consciousness as it is expressed through the identified self is not something so simple as to be transferred into another vessel, that it is precious and that preciousness is that it dies with the body. We watch CHAPPiE come to this conclusion, we feel his extreme grief as the police come in to bear witness to CHAPPiE holding his maker, crying, screaming in pain, completely broken hearted. The police roll in ready to destroy CHAPPiE but put their guns down as the bear witness to the power of true humanity expressed in suffering. We all bear witness to this ultimate expression of vulnerability in stillness as CHAPPiE, holding the dead body of his maker says to him and also to his now dead mommy (she died in the meca-suit shoot out) that he’s sorry he failed to save them, that he is ready to join them in the “other place”, and dies. Then cutting to ‘daddy’, holding the dead body of his lover, ‘mommy’, completely distraught with grief and having no one else left in the world, takes his own life laying next to his love. Everyone who we as the audience had come to care for in the film dies.

Epilogue with some newscast clips that expose the true story of CHAPPiE as an inspiration to the world, and an example of the value of life, love and sacrifice and BOOM! That’s some profound stuff right there. I’d cry, you’d cry, we’d all cry and though we would walk away sad, it would leave a mark of consideration for the preciousness of life. It would go down in movie history because it broke the mainstream rules and made something truly moving that actually said something of value.

But that’s not how CHAPPiE ends, no. The consciousness transfer is successful, they are both moved to new bodies that can live forever before the police come in. They escape and when we cut scene to daddy standing over a bonfire (who, BTW has been an asshole throughout the entire movie until he stands honourable in the end by attempting to sacrifice himself to save his lover). As he is burning all of mommy’s things, he comes across a USB drive with “mommy’s consciousness” recorded on it. We see a flashback of them all happy family as CHAPPiE recorded mommy’s consciousness, and daddy looks down with pride and love (which is total garbage because for the entire movie this guy’s a complete dirtbag and then last minute they throw in this loving daddy scene. Common?). So then, the movie ends with mommy’s consciousness being remotely uploaded to a new droid that CHAPPiE (now in hiding with Savant and daddy) has designed on his laptop and had built at the weapons factory after hacking their system to gain remote access. Seriously, the movie actually ends with mommy-droids eyes opening in a closeup before the credits drop.

So there we have it. Instead of a powerful movie about the ephemeral beauty of life and the power of suffering to show us life’s true value, we get yet another contribution to the death-phobic culture through transhumanist escapism. How disappointing.

With all that being said, I did enjoy the movie. There are several powerful moments and is a rather insightful experience. It’s commentary and exploration on socio-emotional conditioning and humanity are only the overtones to subtle questions about genderfication and the blurred lines of ‘morality’. Even with the ending’s dismal failure to make any actually relevant statements (and ultimately let the entire movie and the audience down), it somehow leaves a space for contemplation. This film is an obvious notch on hollywood’s current remix and revamp movement, but there is something special about CHAPPiE that makes it worth watching, even if the ending traded profound beauty in tragedy for a weak transhumanist fantasy.

Here’s to hoping the director’s cut on DVD comes with an alternative ending option.

 

Please visit James Jesso’s new IndieGoGo campaign: The True Light of Darkness, an exploration of the turbulent struggles involved in entheogenic shadow-work.

 

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