Wednesday, May 20, 2015


CHAPPiE is one of the latest in a slew of near science fiction films that explores the idea of artificial
Do you want to play a game?
intelligence (AI) and all the issues that go along with that.  What amazed me most about the film was not the portrayal of the titular character, CHAPPiE (Chappie) as an infant intelligence learning through direct exposure (although Neill Blomkamp certainly delivers on that score), but rather all the issues that the movie touches on, only to barrel right past.

These missed opportunities for potential depth are not necessarily a bad thing.  Blomkamp has a good sense of pacing, and the movie stays on target throughout the climatic scenes to deliver on all the promises offered from the first two acts.  But the questions of AI, and its seemingly inevitable birth into our world, are ones that both fascinate and frighten me.  Given proper time, Blomkamp would have had to make three (or more) movies to properly explore the major themes he offers more in passing through this scifi/action thriller.

In Ex Machina, a very slow-paced and thoughtful look at the question of AI, when character Nathan Bateman (well-played by Oscar Isaac) is accused of creating artificial consciousness without considering the effect, he offers (and I’m working from faulty memory here) that AI was never about one person creating it.  Instead, it is an inevitability of a process that we mere mortals put into motion long ago.  It’s what theorists call the Singularity.

If you’re thinking that this is pure science fiction, you’ll definitely want to check out this Ted Talk with Martine Rothblatt, who created Sirius Radio, and founded United Therapeutics.  We may be days, years or decades off from true AI, but it’s certainly coming, and the myriad uncertainty and questions that come with it remain wholly unanswered.

This is where CHAPPiE falls down, not as a movie, but as a vision of the future where AI, placed into a police/military-grade robot, has abilities far-exceeding human limitations.  One of the first missed opportunities comes when Chappie himself has the chance to question his creator Deon (excellently played by Dev Patel) as to why he would put the AI into a body doomed to die.  This is exactly the conversation most people would love to have with our own “creator”.  It’s the start of a slew of deep self-aware questions for which humans have been struggling to answer throughout our existence, and which have led, directly, to the creation of AI. 

Don't worry, he's only an analog!
The film also provides a very brief, nearly glossed over religious response in the character of Vincent (Hugh Jackman).  Blomkamp provides no hand-holding with Vincent’s character, and so if you’re not careful, you’ll miss his all-too-few religiously-based, wholly negative, responses to the question of AI.  Time really isn’t on Vincent’s side to share with the audience the basis for his feelings and his personal bias (which is strange for a guy in the heart of the robotics industry).  But the message is clear enough—a spiritual crisis will likely exist for humans in general and theists specifically when mankind creates unique, individual, self-aware life.

Finally, and possibly the worst sin of the movie, is the question of consciousness.  If you watched the Ted Talk about with Rothblatt, you can see that she’s not talking about transference of everything that is RobRoy into an immortal frame.  Instead, she’s talking about (nearly) everything that makes up RobRoy, to the extent that technology currently will allow, and creating a unique analog that is RobRoy 2.0.  Such a creation is separate from me in all respects, except how others will view him, and how he will interact with them.  For Chappie, though, consciousness, despite Deon’s admittance that human don’t understand it, is wholly definable by the AI, and potentially transferable.  This isn’t RobRoy 2.0.  This is RobRoy, leaving his 40+ year old, frail, battered and disease-stricken body, and being place . . . anywhere.  In a computer mainframe, in an internet cloud, in the titanium body of a military-grade robot with the potential for immortality.

Don't hate me because I'm better than you and may destroy
you're entire world and life as you know it.
That, right there, is the real question, the real concern, the real fascinating and frightening idea.  That is where AI peers through the void to find an answer and finds something peering back.  I don’t fault Blomkamp and CHAPPiE for hand-waving past a question that theorists, philosophers, and scientists struggle with.  It’s as if he glanced at the idea and ran (screaming) right past it.  That serves the pace and plot of the movie, but it’s another missed opportunity to really look through another door that Blomkamp cracked open and never shut.

The future is AI, and thus AI movies (along with scientists and philosophers) will delve deeper into the questions in, and of, our future—while having robots fight and blow things up for our amusement.  Despite all that, CHAPPiE delivers what it promises, and offers just a glimpse into more.

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