‘Chappie’s Roots in the Robots of Neill Blomkamp

By  · Published on November 13th, 2014

The first trailer for Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie told us what Blomkamp enjoys most in life. Dingy brown landscapes. Socio-political commentary wrapped in a veil of science fiction. Sharlto Copley (this time, heavily autotuned).

All were present in District 9 and Elysium, and all seem to play a part in this story of a robo-boy becoming a man.

Also, robots! Blomkamp definitely loves robots. Kind of the same robots, every time, actually. Because if you take a thorough look at Chappie, and then the robots of Blomkamp’s other work, you’ll see the same distinguishing details every time.

Here’s Chappie:

Chappie

Columbia Pictures

Now a few of Elysium’s androids:

Columbia Pictures

Now District 9 and its lumbering prawn mech.

Notice the similarities?

Each one is segmented, made up of blocks and plates – large, recognizable pieces jointed together. Each one is generally human-shaped (or alien-humanoid-shaped, as the case may be) but they’re not meant to ape us exactly. No Terminators here, where pipe and wire imitate muscle fiber and bone; these are people assembled from LEGO (maybe old Transformers toys, circa 1984).

This is function over form. There’s little in terms of what you’d call a face (although Chappie’s design comes with a few pieces of eye and mouth) and a lot of no-frills, military-looking roboticness. It’s also worth noting that each bot has some kind of fins or antennae in place of ears.

But what does that mean for the movies that feature these bots? Well, the other previous Blomkamp movies feature some immense and not particularly subtle social crisis, usually involving the mega-rich vs the mega-poor. And in each crisis, robots are tools to be used by one side against the other.

It’s why those Elysium droids are entirely faceless, or why the prawn-mech is one indistinct shade of brown. They’re military tools, not characters. No sweet, huggable Baymaxes here; only cold metal we’re meant to run screaming from (or cheer on as it drives our enemies away in the same fashion).

Chappie, however, looks like a step in the opposite direction. A robot with personality, who’s meant to be at least mildly huggable (although he does have a lot of pointy corners). But to find out more about where Chappie came from, let’s take a more detailed look at Neill Blomkamp’s previous robotic creations.

District 9

A few things stand out in District 9’s bot design. One, there are no autonomous robots in the film, the only robot is the mech suit, which needs a pilot for any action beyond standing in place and shooting people (and freezing bullets in mid-air like this is The Matrix which is, admittedly, so awesome). Without someone inside to work the arms and legs, it can’t move at all. See? No agency whatsoever.

And obviously, it’s not meant to look human, but like the aliens that pilot it. Which explains the little robo-tentacles that hang down from its face, and the pointed crotch that juts forward (which comes standard on all of District 9’s extraterrestrials).

In our class vs. class conflict? The prawn mech is power. Alien power, mechanical power, the power of the disenfranchised, the power to liquify any oppressive agent that might stand in your way. Power for the aliens who eke out an existence in the slums, while the MNU tortures and exploits them to unlock the secrets of their potent, laser weaponry.

Which is why it’s such an unbelievable Fuck Yes moment of catharsis when Wikus climbs into the mech and shreds the endless army of jerks who are out for his blood. The robot (and the power it represents) mark a turning point in the film, when District 9 stops throwing tortuous, life-ruining hardships at its protagonist, and lets him vent his frustrations with cannon fire and by punching a fridge into those who’ve wronged him.

Elysium

Elysium isn’t limited to just one bot. It’s a bounty of robots, all of them variations on the Blomkamp standard. Homeland security droids are a polished sports car red. Cop/security guard droids are black and dusty yellow, blending with the permanently dirty future Earth. Waiter-droids are classy old jukeboxes. But each one is a blocky humanoid with a face resembling a security camera more than anything human.

And yes, there is one droid that’s extremely human-like – the parole officer-bot. He may be stiff, unmoving and scrawled over in angry Sharpie, but looks pretty much like you or I. But he’s the exception that proves the rule, the robot designed to distract humanity from the fact that it’s held in place by unfeeling automatons.

In Elysium, the class-on-class stakes have been raised planet-wide. Instead of one disenfranchised shanty town, we’re looking at a shanty Earth. There, rule is enforced by proxy. In Elysium’s Earth, human authority figures are practically non-existent, replaced by cold metal cops, doctors and POs. The idea, of course, is that the jobs that most require the human touch – doling out parole sentences or informing someone of their recent fatal diagnosis – is left to a hunk of metal that does a truly terrible job at it.

A human cop might be able to talk down the sarcastic, ex-con Matt Damon with a chip on his shoulder. Droid-cop shoves him into the dirt and fractures his arm with a hammer blow, nearly without warning. Robo-parole officers are just as efficient, throwing out instant parole extensions and a curt “stop talking” anytime the conversation goes on too long. Which manages to sound snarky, even if there’s no way a computer program could possibly have an attitude.

The bots, once again, are the power in this power struggle. Only, unlike District 9, they’re power in the wrong hands; power used to stomp the poverty line downward and into submission, keeping the income gap as wide as possible. You can’t rebel against a robot. It won’t respond to threats, and when it comes to physical force… it’s a robot. Unless you can punch through metal, it’ll win in a fistfight.

Which is why, again, it’s such a big deal when our hero gets his body wrapped in something mechanical. Once Damon’s character can wield a little bit of robotics himself (even if those robotics are agonizingly bolted into his nervous system), he can fight back, eventually punching his way through unjust 22nd century health care reform.

Chappie

Columbia Pictures

Which brings us to Chappie. Chappie is a robot born from years of Blomkamp bots.

Yes, there’s a mess of detail that’s not nearly as readable as one of those Elysium droids, but the gist is still there. The orange chunks in his arms, the solid blocks of (graffiti-covered) blue in his legs. Same deal.

But he also strays from the norm in a key way: Chappie has a face. It’s not much – a strip of LED lights and a bar for a mouth- but it’s leagues beyond previous Blomkamp robots. Plus, his head’s actually skull-shaped, and not just a big rectangle.

Chappie’s also got personality. He likes He-Man (as well he should), and, from what we can make out in a two-minute trailer, a childlike sense of wonder.

Granted, that trailer also hints at the same class distinction tango that characterizes all of Blomkamp’s films. Our Die Antwoord gangsters live in peaceful squalor, while Hugh Jackman looks very rich and very dickish. But a personable Chappie is very much a big deal.

District 9 and Elysium were extraordinarily similar films. Take a current piece of political strife (post-Apartheid slums in South Africa, American immigration/healthcare debate). Blow out the conflict with some element of grand sci-fi (what if immigrants in Johannesburg slums were really aliens? What if immigrants had to immigrate across outer space?). Send the protagonist through a traumatic metamorphosis (via the addition of alien/robot parts) until he sacrifices himself for the greater good.

There’s not much we can gleam from under a minute of Chappie designed solely to sell, but we know two things for certain.

  1. Chappie will look more or less exactly like a typical Neill Blomkamp robot.
  2. And Chappie will not act at all like a typical Neill Blomkamp robot.

I’d say that’s enough to get us excited about Chappie.