Sympathy for the Robot

Johnny 5 and CHAPPiE: Heralds of the End Times or cute widdle wobots?
Johnny 5 and CHAPPiE: Heralds of the End Times or cute widdle wobots?

Cute widdle wobots or heralds of human extinction?

[Editor’s Note: This article may contain spoilers.]

Most of the time, I couldn’t care less about a computer’s feelings. I distrust them, frequently cuss at them, and occasionally smash them to pieces. Pretty callous, right?

You’d think a colorful robot on the silver screen would tug at my heartstrings, but no, not really. They usually make me uneasy. I didn’t bat an eye when C-3PO got blasted apart in The Empire Strikes Back. As a kid I thought The Terminator was super-cool, but seriously, it wasn’t a big deal to see half of his face crunched off—he’s tough, he can take it, he’s just a machine!

Things were different with Neill Blomkamp’s CHAPPiE.

This is not a review of CHAPPiE the film, by the way, or a character analysis of CHAPPiE’s algorithm. It’s about a key scene that almost made me cry, and how such scenes can shape a person’s heart. In general it takes a lot to bring tears to my eyes—like a death in the family, or pepperspray. In this case, all it took was a neotenous droid confronted by the collective sadism of homo sapiens. Either director Neill Blomkamp is an artistic genius or I suffer from emotional constipation, you decide.

Insofar as cinema picks up where religion leaves off, crying during a movie could be considered a religious experience. Young people are as likely to take their normative cues from film, fiction, and pop songs as they are from traditional religious sources. When youngsters actually do turn to religion, it tends to be those sects that adopt the aesthetics and high-tech trappings of modern pop culture. Today’s entertainment industry is a myth-making machine that shapes worldviews, teaches moral lessons, and cultivates the public’s affinity and enmity.

The uptight rational mind grits its teeth and asks, “How do myths sway sympathies so effectively? Christ alive!! They strain the limits of credulity until my synapses snap!” But the human soul refuses to listen.

CHAPPiE is no exception. The film stars the warped South African rappers Die Antwoord, who play themselves, and the script is pocked with enough silly plot-holes to break an ankle—think This Is Spinal Tap meets Escape from New York. And yet there I was, swallowing golfballs and begging God to have mercy on poor little CHAPPiE. It’s possible that I’ll never slap my laptop again.

The tale begins in the near future. Deon is a mild-mannered tech geek who writes software for Tetravaal, the military corporation responsible for manufacturing Johannesburg’s robotic police force. On his own time, Deon is working on an artificial intelligence program which learns organically—a baby brain on a motherboard.

Meet CHAPPiE, whose metal bunny ears perk up when he’s happy and turn down when he’s sad, who has an orange sticker on his forehead that reads “REJECT,” whose expressions and mannerisms are so startlingly human, you’d swear he has a soul. Deon created CHAPPiE by stealing a damaged police-bot from Tetravaal, jamming a USB stick into its head, and conferring the sacred breath of life by installing his homemade AI software.

Enter Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-landi: two near-future thugs who have apparently wrecked their rap careers and are forced to take up armed robbery to pay for their P-town mullets and Williamsburg bling. Ninja and Yo-landi carjack Deon, kidnap CHAPPiE, and try to convert the police-bot into a Los Locos face-kicker so they can pull the ultimate heist.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in near-future Johannesburg, and Ninja is an alpha dog from the wrong side of the tracks. He isn’t interested in right and wrong—not really. He displays tribal loyalty to the clique, but it’s all about dominance and power with him. Money is power, so Ninja wants that, too. He is determined to show CHAPPiE how to be a “robot gansta number one.” The problem is that Deon makes CHAPPiE promise not to hurt other people, leaving Ninja with an AI goody two-shoes who refuses to kill. There is no choice but to toughen him up through fear and pain.

Did I mention that CHAPPiE is a cute little guy? His fresh metal face smiles and frowns with the slight turn of metal bars moving in tandem. His bodily movements are gentle and awkward, like a curious child’s. He cringes at harsh words and is fearful of violence. That’s just how God made him. So when Ninja drives him out to Johannesburg’s gangland and kicks him out of the car, we all squirm in our seats.

The real world is no place for innocent humanoids.

A pack of feral young men sit on a pile of rubble outside the city. They see a robot, a police robot, approach them timidly. Here comes The Man who threatens them daily—only this one is weak and afraid. Being naïve, CHAPPiE tries to make friends with them.

“Don’t trust it,” one shouts. The boys surround the robot. One chucks a stone at him, denting his armor plate. Another cracks his hinged knee with a stick. They move in and the boot party begins. CHAPPiE doesn’t understand why these boys want to hurt him. He begs for mercy and gets smashed with a Molotov cocktail. The Man shows no mercy, so there is no mercy for The Man. The helpless robot cries out in uncomprehending agony as the hoodlums pummel him relentlessly.

So yeah, I got verklempt watching those piranhas pick CHAPPiE apart. What are you gonna do about it, abuse me in the comments section? It never should have happened—me getting all watery-eyed, I mean. CHAPPiE is just a machine, for God’s sake. And a make believe machine at that, just a character in a sci-fi movie. You might go to church and get worked up hearing about Joseph sold into slavery, or Paul beheaded in Rome, or St. Lawrence roasted alive, but there is the possibility that those men actually existed. CHAPPiE? He’s the ultimate simulacrum, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Maybe that makes him even more real to us, because he’s designed to push all the right buttons.

Cinema is Dionysian, especially in the context of an ornate theater, and even more so when wine is served. The weepy catharsis during a tragic ending can be intense. More importantly, the narrative impressions left in one’s psyche can linger for a lifetime. We are compelled to sympathize with others, perhaps those unlike ourselves. (We are also left with adversarial archetypes to hate, but we’ll leave that alone for now.) This tradition of cinematic empathy, opening a window into every soul, is at least partially responsible for the proliferation of open hearts seen in the world today. It has shaped me to the core.

That’s how Neill Blomkamp clubbed me in the chest: using images of the human herd’s mindless cruelty. Having been the bloody guest of honor at a few boot parties myself, I reflexively sympathize with anyone facing down the mob—even if it’s just a simulation of a simulation.

Don’t get me wrong, I get where those street kids are coming from. There are good reasons for humans to band together and attack the unusual outsider. It’s likely that such instincts evolved in archaic times to protect human tribes from invaders and social parasites. But that was then. To my mind, there are better reasons to transcend the mob’s blood-thirsty mentality today. This isn’t Gaul, and those people you can’t stand are not trolls and sorcerers. One never knows when the black sheep might prove to be a friend, and God knows my best friends are black sheep.

Still, we have to draw the line somewhere. As a former raver and current Web news addict, I’m convinced that unchecked technology could wreck our society. Even if demonic electronics don’t come alive and turn us into jet fuel, they might lull us into becoming the living dead. They don’t need to have souls in order to steal ours. It starts with Facebook and ends with drone strikes.

CHAPPiE made me question all of that. What if robots actually do become vehicles for consciousness? And if so, what if some are vulnerable, sympathetic, or even benevolent, just like us? It makes me wonder if I’m just being paranoid about the immanent robo-apocalypse. Maybe human nature is the real enemy. Then again, maybe that’s what I’m supposed to think.

© Joseph Allen

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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