Chappie, with Spoilers

I was avoiding going to see Chappie partly because of a series of deeply unflattering reviews, and partly because Neil Blomkamp's previous film Elysium was universally acknowledged to be a car crash - even by its creator. I certainly thought it was a car crash. All that, plus a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a fairly damning review on i09.com, put me off even further.

Then I saw a series of tweets by William Gibson, of all people, saying the film was unfairly maligned and deserved to be seen. And since there wasn't actually anything else on here in Taipei worth seeing this weekend, I figured what the hell. If Big Bill, the author of Count Zero, digs it, then maybe I'll dig it too.

And you know what? It's much better than the critics say. Is it worth seeing? Yes, it is. More like 80%, than 30%.

But that's not saying it's not a deeply flawed film regardless, and I think it's worth briefly addressing these on behalf of anyone who doesn't mind tripping over a big bunch of SPOILERS from here on in. You have been warned.

The film is set in 2016, unless I misheard the dialogue. Apparently in 2016 we'll be able to build robot armies of sufficient sophistication to patrol the streets of Jo'burg with minimal, if any, human police participation.

I really, really don't think so.

Also, it appears in Jo'burg that if a clearly unbalanced office worker in your weapons firm slams another down on his desk and pushes a pistol against his cheek, no one else in the office will even blink. As opposed to, say, evacuating the office, calling the police, having security manhandle the violent prick to the floor, or any of the other and various strategies that might be employed in a movie with any relationship whatsoever to real life.

The movie also ignores the fact that the bad guy, and we know he's a bad guy because he literally cackles insanely while ripping people apart with the aid of a huge ED209 lookalike (in fairness, this is a point also brought up in the i09 review), actually has a really good point. He's against allowing robots with guns to run around a city taking decisions on whether or not to use them on living human beings: he thinks we'd be safer if cops instead had direct manual control of an alternative technology -  essentially drones with legs.

Further, apparently 'neural helmets' in 2016 are capable of reading the mind of a person with sufficient sophistication to create a complete, working, conscious map of that person. Not only that - not only that - the same helmet will work on the mind of a police robot, despite its lack of anything even remotely resembling a human or organic brain.

Also, waking up in a robot body isn't, apparently, going to drive you insane. Being a machine consciousness hacking whiz apparently makes you immune to going crazy (you'll recall in RoboCop, the previous attempts at machine/human interface resulted in the subjects going immediately berserk - a far more realistic take).

Also, you'll be able to store a complete copy of a human consciousness on a cheap memory stick.

I can't type the word 'no' often enough to express just how much is wrong with the world building here. I'm actually kind of amazed, because Blomkamp has made his name through the use of lifelike CGI, suggesting (unless he's a master delegator, which is always possible) he's pretty handy with a computer. Which would further suggest he knew enough about the whole idea of consciousness-as-data to be able to frame the world building in a more realistic context  than is demonstrated here.

But despite all this, it still is a movie worth seeing. It's not the best movie you'll ever see, and it's sure as hell never going to be the go-to-classic on machine consciousness it might hope to be, but it's fun. In fact, nearly every single one of the problems outlined here could be solved by a single simple strategy: changing the stated date from 2016 to, say, 2036, or even further away.

That's it. That's all they need to do. Because we've no idea how sophisticated such machines might be in even just twenty years. But we've got a really, really good idea how sophisticated they will be in twelve months. Not nearly sophisticated enough for the purposes they're put to here.

And I know it seems like damning with faint praise, but it is an enjoyable movie. It's an action movie some people have clearly been expecting to have something serious to say about machine consciousness. On the contrary, it's an action movie with lots of explosions and running around and a non-human character who's far more identifiable than any of the humans. The 'nature of consciousness' stuff gets a faint nod before someone starts shooting at someone else. It is, essentially, a mid-1980s 2000AD strip brought to cinematic life, which should give you some idea just how deep it gets.

But if you're anything like me, it helps a lot if you press your hands over your ears when somebody says '2016' and just pretend they're saying some other, much further away date. Because when you factor in technology that doesn't yet exist, the whole plot immediately comes together.

In fact, I have a theory why it's 'set' in 2016: because it's a way for the marketing team to pretend it isn't really a science fiction movie and thereby guarantee a greater number of bums on seats. And I'm prepared to bet it's the marketing team who have the most trouble switching on their PC's.

Further, it's perhaps impossible to address the complex issues alluded to in Chappie through the medium of a two-hour film, and it's perhaps unfair to expect it to do so. We live in a world where a movie has to recoup preferably all of its investment in the first weekend of its showing or its regarded as a flop. That means investors are going to want things guaranteed to bring in an audience, and shooting and things blowing up is far likely to result in that return of investment than philosophical treatises on the nature of consciousness. On the other hand, I've been binge-watching Person of Interest over the last several months, and that undoubtedly is the go-to visual drama based around machine consciousness - and it even has room for lots of shooting and things blowing up. 

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