This is Chappie. He is the robot namesake of Sony Pictures’ latest, a rowdy, messy, brainy rampage from Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9 and Elysium. He’s also a sweetheart.
Like Blomkamp’s previous films, Chappie is steeped in cultural criticism and big questions. It’s more Robocop than Short Circuit, fast-paced action even frantically intense, a bit transparent, but rooted in heavy themes of creator/creation and sentience, as well as diversity and social justice in South Africa and mistrust of police. And, like we’ve seen before, a maker is the hero (or one of them).
Deon, played by Dev Patel, is introduced early on as the creator of police robots called Scouts, before he goes rogue and uploads a consciousness to one damaged model. He is a maker, as evidenced by scenes in his apartment, where home-built robots bring refreshments and a MakerBot is placed prominently on his desk. As the movie progresses and Chappie grows, he refers to Deon repeatedly as “maker.” It’s more than a moniker; it’s meant to explore the relationship between the maker and what he’s made. What roboticist hasn’t felt some connection to her robot? There are arguments for and against whether robots should be humanoid, but when they are, it’s a little easier to see the humanity in them.
Then, of course, there’s the (somewhat implausible) approach to artificial intelligence. Humans, says Blomkamp, are constantly looking for the reasons we exist — based in consciousness — and often explore such issues in fiction, from golems to Pinocchio to robots. “It’s probably the most core fundamental question that humans can ask, and I think that’s the reason that we constantly keep asking it,” he says. His beliefs aren’t necessarily reflected in the movie. “My point of view on artificial intelligence,” he says, “changed during the making of Chappie. I’m not actually completely sure humans are going to be capable of giving birth to AI, in the way that films fictionalize it.”
Of course, that doesn’t stop Deon. His consciousness program is one of a number of fairly simple tropes and plot devices that, while transparent and not always believable, are effective in moving the story forward. If that stuff bothers you, well, prepare to be bothered.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of the robot’s physicality. Said consciousness, which grows throughout the film and is pulled in different directions by contrasting influences on the child-like personality, is embodied in a complex robot that is designed to be functional.
No, Chappie does not actually walk, fight, and make gang symbols. He’s a visual effect, painted over the acting of Sharlto Copley by visual effects studio Image Engine. (Though stationary versions — i.e., when Chappie or one of the other police robots are turned off — were practical, poseable models built by prop-makers at Weta Workshop.)
It all started with Blomkamp’s vision for a robot. He and the team that worked on Chappie made sure the robot reflected humanity, from Copley’s lilting walk to the emotion in his LED eyes. His antennae, which appeared on robots in Blomkamp’s early short films — watch Tempbot below if you haven’t yet — and owe an acknowledged creative debt to the anime/manga Appleseed, give him an emotive, if animal, quality.
And there’s far more to Chappie’s form than his expressions. He’s full of detail, and many (many) parts. Each element was selected intentionally, down to the smallest bolt, says visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey, of Image Engine. They began with Blomkamp’s art, and then implemented features from real robots. “It’s really purpose-driven design,” he says. “That was probably the big thing Neill was very adamant about, if we’re putting something on him, why is it there?” Parts of Chappie that weren’t even apparent in the film were designed this way; Harvey points out prongs on the Scouts’ arms that were made to hold riot shields. Weta 3D printed digital models from Imagine Engine’s designs and sourced real parts for the physical versions.
Harvey uses Chappie’s shoulder as an example. It’s an amalgam of designs from different robots, intentionally avoiding any ball-and-socket joint. This way, each axis is given optimal strength. Power can be diverted to any particular vector. It’s not one single joint, but three different ones, all working together.
“Almost all of it is taken from the real world,” says Harvey. “When we were going to show Neill something, it would always have an accompanying photograph … this joint is actually the joint from this arm, or this joint, see this Boston Dynamics mule, see that thing there? That’s what we put on him.”
Chappie changes throughout the movie, too — damaged, graffitied, blinged out — so there are actually some 20 versions of him, used in more than 1,000 shots. Chappie evolves, but Blomkamp also considers him to be a possible evolutionary step. “There’s a lot of evidence in evolutionary sciences that show that altruism and acting in ways that are empathetic to others are actually beneficial, on an evolutionary basis,” he says. “Maybe [AI] can empathize to a far greater degree than we can. And experiences a way wider range of emotions … I think that if you left Chappie for 20 years, he would be in a place that’s sort of unfathomable for humans.”
Blomkamp is suggesting that, particularly when viewed beside the atrocities committed by humans, in the movie or in real life, a blank-slate robot could out-human us all. Whether it’s intentional or not, he’s also saying that, as makers, as we design robots and the other tools that will make the future, we have the opportunity to define how they inhabit the world. Where technology can be used by the powerful to subjugate the powerless, as makers, builders, and engineers, we regain some control over that technology. As Deon tries to maintain control over Chappie, it evolves instead into a relationship, which is one of the most poignant aspects of the movie: Chappie is not about humans vs. robots — it’s about humans with robots.