CHAPPiE, Child Soldiering, and Corporate War Mongers

 

ChappieUpon watching the trailer for CHAPPiE, it is tempting to simply frame the film as Short Circuit meets Robocop. But Neill Blomkamp, the film’s writer and director, does more than simply make science fiction films; he makes socially conscious films.  His debut feature film, District 9, used a narrative akin to that presented in Alien Nation to demonstrate the flaws of xenophobia and offer analogous social commentary on the brutality of Apartheid as it played out in District 6 of Cape town South AfricaCHAPPiE likewise makes use of the genre to speak to broad issues, and though the theological questions it raises seem rudimentary at best, the child soldiering parallels are compelling.  The film also deals with issues related to the militarization of police, and illuminates the ways in which corporations have a frightening amount of authority over our military and police forces.  As with District 9, Blomkamp is able to package up his social commentary in an entertaining narrative that compels the viewer to appreciate the childlike innocence of the titular character and invokes their empathy whilst simultaneously entertaining the audience with a cast of eclectic and eccentric characters.

 

THE MILITARIZATION OF THE POLICE

 

Hugh Jackman, who sadly, does not g shirtsleeves in CHAPPiE.

Hugh Jackman, who sadly, does not g shirtsleeves in CHAPPiE.

Given that the film centers on robots used to replace law enforcement, and that the weapons they use include rocket launchers and military-grade helicopters, most viewers will likely be able to identify the film’s criticism of the militarization of the police.  A sequence that is described as a ‘shoot out’ between ‘cops and robbers’ looks less like a bank heist gone wrong and more like a clash between NATO forces and al-Qaeda.  With rocket launchers, machine guns, grenades, and a team of pilots, snipers, and militarized robots, the sequence of events is clearly framed as a military action.  In addition to the robots, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a representative from a fictional weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal, tries to sell the Johannesburg police a military robot called MOOSE, which has anti-aircraft missiles and a host of other superfluous weapons; however, the police assert that they don’t need such a weapon.  Given the brutal violence of the conflict, it seems likely that the pastry-eating police would welcome such a weapon. In fact, they see the MOOSE as excessive in the context of their highly militarized conflicts, which, by contrast, highlights the extreme militarization of the American police force.  With the Americans bringing  in tanks and using flash grenades when raiding the homes of families in search of drugs, breaking up poker games, or killing a man for placing some friendly bets on college football games among friends, this restraint on the part of the Johannesburg police serves to highlight the excessive use of force on the part of American police.

 

 

Yolandi Visser, star of CHAPPiE and member of Die Antwoord.

Yolandi Visser, star of CHAPPiE and member of Die Antwoord.

The scenario also illustrates how violence in the street is often a response to excessive police force.  When Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones) seeks to pull off a bank heist, he must first secure high-grade military weapons, and the drug dealer he works for likewise makes use of military weapons, such as a grenade launcher and a host of automatic weapons.  This weaponry, though, is largely a response to the military robots.  By militarizing the police, law enforcers escalate conflicts as they create an arms race with criminals.  Though some might argue that the law doesn’t make the criminal, it is important to note that much of this is in response to moral policing.  Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), for instance, tells his Chappie (Sharlto Copley), the AI he created, not to participate in the drug business, but Yolandi (Anri du Toit), Ninja’s partner, tells Wilson to let Chappie make his own choices.  In linking the militarization of the police with the drug trade, the film highlights how the moral policing associated with the war on drugs creates and escalates the violence associated with the drug trade.  This escalation has implications for people not deemed criminals.  In America, the Department of Justice recently released a report that outlined how the police in Ferguson have extorted money from Black citizens. In some cases, officers have pulled  weapons on citizens who refused to give up their Fourth Amendment rights.  With police engaging in unlawful arrests, this escalation of violence is not only linked with moral policing, but also with police brutality.

 

PRIVATE SECTOR WAR MONGERS

 

dick cheney

War criminal Former vice President Dick Cheney, for whom killing people was very profitable.

Though the militarization of police is frightening enough in and of itself, Blomkamp highlights what is perhaps most problematic: the private sector is not only profiting from this trend but has far more control than they ought to have.  Governments are usually set up with a system of checks and balances, but corporations do not usually embrace such thorough self-regulation.  Though the police robots act on behalf of the government, and though they are meant to enforce the law, the government does not control them. Instead, their programming can only be accessed with a key that the corporation alone can access.  This allows both Wilson and Moore to access the robots, and in both instances endanger the safety of the civilians that law enforcement is supposed to be protecting.  This issue is highlighted by the fact that companies like Halliburton, was being awarded contracts from Dick Cheney, the defense secretary at the time, before making Cheney their CEO.  The fact that government officials are using tax dollars to award contracts to companies they are invested in is an overt conflict of interest.  What’s more, is that it is in the best interest of these companies to exacerbate conflicts.  Just as America sold arms to both Iran and Iraq, these companies often either directly or indirectly arm both sides of urban and military conflicts, thereby creating and filling the need for their weapons.  Blomkamp highlights this through Moore, who deactivates all the police robots in order to heighten violence in the street, thereby increasing the need for his MOOSE design.  When we allow corporations to turn a profit on blood, the only result will be an increase in violence.

 

CHILD SOLDIERING

 

Omer Khadr: terrorist, child soldier, or torture victim?

Omer Khadr: terrorist, child soldier, or torture victim?

Perhaps the most compelling element of the film is its commentary on child soldiering.  Throughout the film, Chappie is presented as a childlike figure.  Though adult in size, and though he has a vast intellectual capacity and immense power, he is naïve.  His ingenuity makes it easy for the likes of Ninja to manipulate him into engaging in acts of violence.  By immersing Chappie in violence, lying to him, and instructing him that the world is defined by strict binaries, Chappie becomes easily manipulated.  Given that Cape Town, the inspiration for Blomkamp’s first film, held a symposium about child soldiering, and that Africa, the continent on which the film is set, is home to an estimated 50% of the world’s child soldiers (somewhere between 100 000-200 000), it is clear that the topic would be familiar to Blomkamp.  The film does not only address the ways in which child soldiers are recruited, but also the international response to them.  Instead of a call to protect and help Chappie, a military response is organized.  This calls to mind the case of Omar Khadr, an adolescent who was picked up by NATO forces and brought to Guantanamo Bay, where he claims he was tortured by the CIA, testimony that is consistent with the CIA torture report.  Though Khadr was considered a child soldier by international law, the American and Canadian governments treated him as an adult, using a confession Khadr claims was procured through torture to convict and imprison him.  Though much sympathy is offered to young women who are recruited into militias and terrorist groups, as demonstrated by the response to a recent Saturday Night Live skit, little sympathy is offered to young boys in similar situations.  Chappie, then, is emblematic of the violent response to child soldiers that is endorsed by many, demonstrating how those who have been manipulated by militant groups seldom get the support they need.

 

 

CORRECTING BIASES?

 

disctrict 9Upon its release, Blomkamp’s District 9 received considerable criticism for its presentation of Nigerians, criticisms which Blomkamp seems to have taken into consideration when filming CHAPPiE.  Some argued that the portrayal of Nigerians as criminals and cannibals in Blomkamps debut feature film, was disparaging to Nigerians.  Though the film certainly does not suggest that the antagonists are representative of all Nigerians, ensuring that there is a balanced presentation of various ethnicities is a central component to responsible film making.  By highlighting the prejudicial biases of government agencies and polices, as Blomkamp did in District 9, that film make considerable efforts to underscore the flaws and prevalence of prejudice.  Still, there was a lack of diversity when it came to characters of colour.  In CHAPPiE, though, Blomkamp offers a much more balanced presentation.  The filmès antagonists and criminals are primarily Caucasian, whilst the protagonists are either people of colour, or are framed as such.  Wilson, for instance, is portrayed Dev Patel, a British actor with Indian ancestry and he is the film’s most intelligent character. Chappie, though a robot, is described as a ‘black sheep’, and of the film’s characters is likely the most moral.  In presenting the exceptional intellect and morality of people of colour, Blomkamp brings a diversity to his filmography that balances the negative portrayals of people of colour in District 9.  The film presents no instances of cannibalism, and whilst the film’s cast seems to be comprised of an overtly light pallet and can be said to lack diversity, the presentation of people of colour seems to be far less problematic than were such presentations in District 9.  Though not ideal, there seems to be a conscious effort to create a more balanced presentation.

 

CHARACTERS AND CASTING

 

Though it is refreshing to see female CEOs in movies, Sigourney Weaver's talents seem  to have went unused in CHAPPiE.

Though it is refreshing to see female CEOs in movies, Sigourney Weaver’s talents seem to go unused in CHAPPiE.

As far as casting goes, the performances were certainly adequate, but there was a lack of enthralling performances.  Sigourney Weaver seemed to be there merely to link the film with past science fictions films that dealt with private corporations endangering civilians with their military plans, namely Weyland-Yutani Corporation featured in the Alien franchise.  Patel is convincing as the well-intentioned engineer, and Hugh Jackman wears the suit of a villain with ease, though some audience members may have a hard time seeing him as the antagonist.  Sharlto Copley’s voice acting effectively conveys Chappie’s naivety, but the most interesting casting selections were for the roles of Yolandi and Ninja, played by the members of Die Antwoord, who portray incarnations of their stage names.  Yolandiès performance is surprisingly compelling, and though it seems obvious in some scenes that Ninja does not have much experience when it comes to acting, his over-the-top performance seems well suited to the role, and he is able to convey his utter indifference and pitilessness with persuasive proficiency.  Though there aren’t any performances that stand out, the cast collectively accomplishes what every cast should hope to as they are able to convince the viewer of the authenticity of the world presented in the film.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Dev Patel, who stars as Deon Wilson in CHAPPiE.

Dev Patel, who stars as Deon Wilson in CHAPPiE.

Though Blomkamp expressed that he was not happy with the end result of 2013’s epic sci-fi film Elysium, the release CHAPPiE demonstrates that despite any doubts he may have had about his last production, Blomkamp has perhaps the most potent voice in the science fiction genre today.  With the exception of a scene where a torso is torn in half, the film’s special effects are so fluidly incorporated into the film that one wonders where or not Chappie is an actual robot, or at the very least, a human in a robot costume.  The narrative and themes are seamlessly woven into a compelling and engrossing narrative, and though the action sequences aren’t terribly original, what propels the film is the social commentary.  The only criticism one could offer is in regards to the ending, which seems perhaps a little too optimistic.  With District 9, Blomkamp found that perfect balance between despair and hope; with Chappie he seems to have given into the kitsch when it came to penning the epilogue.  Still, the films is mandatory viewing for any fan of science fiction or social satire.

 

If you enjoyed this review and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonJohnHorn.

 

Further viewing:

Alien NationDistrict 9:  Peter Jackson saw Blomkamp’s vision and decided to help produce and promote his first feature film, an insightful analogy for apartheid.  Though CHAPPiE is great, it will be hard for Blomkamp to every top what he accomplished with District 9.

Alien NationJames Caan and Mandy Patinkin are science fiction’s answer to the odd couple, but more than a gimmicky piece of sci-fi, this film works to address many of the same themes presented in District 9 about twenty years before the release of Blomkamps’ instant classic.

The Alien franchise: Considering that the Alien franchise addresses corporate war mongering through its fictional Weyland-Yutani Corporation, like Blomkamp has done with Tetravaal, and considering that Blomkamp has signed on to direct the next installment in the Alien franchise, it seems like getting familiar with the original films would be a good idea for anybody who hasn’t yet seen them.

City of God: Child soldiering is a metaphor in Chappie; in City of God audiences can get in touch with the issues in a more direct way.  The film is a sober awakening for those who are blind this important global issue, showing how poverty, violence and naivety can poison the development of any youth, whilst demonstrating how the process of child soldiering is overtly akin to the way organized crime recruits youths into their ranks.

RoboCopBlood Diamond: If you can get passed Leonardo DiCaprio’s distracting ‘South American’ accent, this film, like City of God, will provide a more literal presentation of the themes surrounding child soldiering, which were dealt with metaphorically in CHAPPiE.

Short Circuit: Easily the worst movie on this list, but also the most age appropriate film for youths.  It is like the family friendly version of CHAPPiE.  Why Steve Guttenberg said no to Short Circuit Two, but yes to Police Academy 2, 3 and 4, I will never know.

Robocop: In hindsight, it seems that Robocop was well ahead of its time. Corporations turning a profit from escalating violence in the streets seems like a relatively new idea, but Robocop dealt with the militarization and privatization of the police long before Bill Maher did.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Catherine Bennett-Garrigan says:

    Ah, another puzzling sceanario. The humanization of a robot. Freaking yikes! But, Okay, better a machine then a human in combat as long as that machine does not combat against humans ! Ironically I can see kids gigin on this film. I long have held the stance that the government, the corporate elite 1% and the drone cops have an orgy everyday and lie to the public like pinochio. I have been looking around to see who actually protects children in war.Long,long after NATO and the Geneva Conventions I see the
    ICRC, a Red Cross division but then ,Um not so much. If so,kids like Omer Khadr would have been protected under the law. But the laws are no longer enforced so the endless circle of deception continues. The government has become a corporation (of sorts) hell bent on promoting war. If CHAPPIE dies in the end will the patriots cry? If so, look around at the self serves (and every other machine that replaces a human for labor puposes) shutting down in your local markets and feel free to throw a full blown tantrum when it won’t take your money !

  2. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. Catherine Bennett-Garrigan says:

    My pleasure, especially when you bring to light the very real dangers of the Oligarchic Regime. There can not be enough done or said to warn or protect the public from this evil! But hey, God Bless You Jason, at least you do your best to say it like it is and to do so often. i thank you for that !

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