I’m not a scold about scientific accuracy in film. As long as a movie is not built on a fundamentally stupid premise ("Lucy," the Scarlet Johansson vehicle predicated on the false notion that humans use only 10 percent of their brains, comes to mind), I am happy to let myself be entertained. You might say I endeavor to use only 10 percent of my brain when I watch Hollywood movies.
Keep that in mind when I tell you that I enjoyed Chappie. It is a loud, silly, violent quasi-dystopian Short Circuit/Robocop tribute, and it is every bit as ridiculous as that sounds. Actual professional film critics will tell you all about the movie’s problems. (Check Rotten Tomatoes.) But I enjoyed watching Sharlto Copley, via motion-capture, play a charming and sympathetic robot, and visually, I thought it was great. As a bonus, I finally learned who Die Antwoord are.
But I’m not here to play movie critic. I went to see Chappie with a specific question in mind: What does the movie have to say about one of the big debates of our age—whether we should embrace artificial intelligence or fear it?
The story goes like this: In the near future, a company run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) builds police robots, called Scouts, that keep Johannesburg under control. The Scouts are effective but not entirely sentient. An engineer at the company named Deon (played by Dev Patel) spends every off-the-clock moment working on a computer program that can simulate consciousness. He succeeds, but Bradley isn’t interested in his invention, so Deon installs his program in a scrapped Scout robot that comes to be named CHAPPiE. Deon and CHAPPiE are kidnapped by two thugs (played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord) who want to use CHAPPiE to rob banks. Ninja and Yo-Landi take CHAPPiE back to the abandoned warehouse they call home, boot him up, and just like that, the world’s first sentient robot has been released into the wild.
CHAPPiE is a digital child in the body of a weaponized police robot. He learns at an exponentially increasing pace; for the first few days, he’s fumbling through basic phrases, but before long, he’s pouring the Internet into his robot brain. Most important for the film’s theme, CHAPPiE is innocent and intrinsically honest—the opposite of most of the film’s human characters, who are incarnations of the worst of humanity. Sigourney Weaver’s defense-CEO character represents amoral capitalist avarice. Hugh Jackman’s pious war-vet engineer is an ideologue determined to prevent sentient robots from becoming reality. When he finds out about CHAPPiE, he sets out to destroy him. You can probably guess where things go from there.
Chappie has the seeds of a nature-versus-nurture argument in it. A generous reading of the film is that robots will become whatever we make them. Under the tutelage of Die Antwoord, CHAPPiE becomes a criminal. Deon, his maker, pulls him in a more righteous direction. But this argument is undercut by the larger theme of the movie, which seems to be that human beings are irredeemably rotten, and CHAPPiE, as the movie poster puts it, is humanity’s last hope. That flips the usual formula—robots evil, humans good becomes humans evil, robots good—which is a nice change of pace for Hollywood, but too simplistic to count as a real argument about AI.
Is it fair to expect an action film like Chappie to deliver a nuanced critique of the relationship between humans and machines? Maybe not. But Blomkamp’s previous films dealt with big ideas, and Chappie’s publicists were offering interviews with a Caltech roboticist (who, to be fair, did not consult on the movie) as part of their PR campaign, which suggests they take the movie’s depiction of AI seriously. Plus, Blomkamp has been giving interviews on the subject, and from those we can gather that he thinks fear of robots is overblown, that we should be looking to artificial intelligence to help us solve problems.
He may be right. But I doubt the resolution to a debate that now involves some of the world’s smartest technical minds will be that simple. On one hand, we have Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Nick Bostrom warning that superintelligent machines could pose an existential threat to humanity. On the other, we have AI researchers and experts telling us these fears are misplaced. Meanwhile, technology is evolving quickly. Last week in Nature, researchers from Google’s DeepMind artificial-intelligence division announced that their deep Q-network algorithm could teach itself to play 49 classic Atari 2600 games with only minimal input. On about half of those games, the algorithm could play as well as a human.
An Atari-playing computer is a long way from either CHAPPiE or Skynet, but its existence shows that a discussion about the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence is not paranoid, frivolous, or fantastical. And if you’re a director interested in making a science fiction film that deals with subtle questions of personhood and machine intelligence, there is still an opening.