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Chappie (2015)

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Kim Nicolini
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Life and Machines at the Bottom of the Pit

by KIM NICOLINI

Okay, I am ready to put myself on the line and be one of the few people who have dared to give Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015) a favorable review. Quite frankly, I loved the movie, and I really feel no need to apologize for my enthusiasm. Sure, there are many reasons why certain people feel obliged to be Blomkamp Haters. His second film Elysium (2013) was a complete bomb compared to his groundbreaking first film District 9 (2009). Still, both films are dystopian visions of contemporary economics and expose the ever growing chasm between the Haves and Have Nots. The films focus out outsiders in general and put class before race, and as such they provide universal messages about the marginalized in an economic System that continues to shove the large majority of people into impoverished to the fringes while the few and the privileged live high on the hog. I have no complaints about either of the films from an ideological standpoint, even if the second as a disappointment.

Many criticize Blomkamp for the color of his skin because he is a white man making films set in South Africa, but South Africa happens to be his home, and certainly economic “violence” strikes across race in South Africa as much as it does across the rest of the world. To up the ante for the Chappie-Haters, Blomkamp chose to use the band Die Antwoord to star as the human leads. This put yet another iron on the fire of disdain from the politically correct Left. Both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have been pulled under the rug for being white while providing cultural commentary on a country that savagely endorsed racism (Apartheid), the legacy of which is strewn across the slums and economic failures that populate the Post-Apartheid South African landscape.

However, whether you endorse the color of their skin or not, when you look closely at what they are doing, both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord are offering their own form of socio-political critique, even if you don’t like its flavor. Sure, they are white, but the violent landscape of Global Capitalism cuts across race. Die Antwoord provides a form of satiric commentary which is as biting and savage as the Systems which brought us Apartheid and its aftermath – a world economy that has pushed the vast majority of the world population into the economic margins. They expose the simplistic and fetishistic views of South Africa that are perpetuated on the Left as well as the Right. Nothing is as simple as black and white in the world we live in, so to critique Blomkamp’s film or its stars based on the color of their skin or their use or re-appropriation in their art and music is missing the point of the film – a point which is universal and human.

If people could put aside their compulsion to put others in boxes (a tendency that Blomkamp addresses in all his films) and just let the film work on them on an experiential level, they may findChappie a lot more than they initially think it is.

Certainly the film offers a story we have seen before in Sci-Fi and asks familiar questions. Can robots be more human than humans? What happens when we employ machines to police people? What is Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, and can they be wedded? These are familiar sci-fi plot devices. But ultimately Chappie is more about humanity, and the robot Chappie is one of the most human characters to grace the multiplex screen in recent times.

Set in the dystopian near future of 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa (Blomkamp’s childhood home), the movie pays tribute toRobocop (Blomkamp’s favorite film) as it shows a city that has completely run amok in crime and corruption. A giant corporation Tetravaal profits from the economic demise by creating a force of robot police to maintain order amid chaos.

One of the robot cops is a real failure at his job. He’s a loser of a robot who keeps getting sent back to the factory for repairs. He routinely is blown to bits; his battery is fused to his chest (ultimately giving him a death sentence since it can’t be replaced); and he loses arms, legs, and ears daily on the job. He wasn’t fit to be a cop, so his designer Deon (Dev Patel) takes the robot’s scraps and decides to use them to test his experiment to infuse robots with human consciousness. In other words, Deon wants to instill Artificial Intelligence with Authentic Human Emotions. This robot will become Chappie.

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Deon is kidnapped by a gang (played as themselves by Die Antwoord) who wants to use Deon to shut down all the robocops so they can go on a crime spree and get money to pay off a gang leader. When they discover that Deon has the parts and ability to build them their very own Gangster #1 Motherfucker (or as Chappie later will say Fuckermother), the gang forces Deon to build the robot for them to help them with their robberies and heists. Deon builds the robot, gives it artificial intelligence, and it is born as a baby.

Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja play themselves and become Chappie’s “parents.” While Yolandi raises him like a child (giving Chappie his name and becoming his Mommy), Ninja and his partner in crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to toughen up Chappie and turn him into the Bad Ass Gangster they need him to be. In the meanwhile, Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore. Moore is a total jackass Christian veteran bully with a mullet. He is the kind of guy who thinks everyone at the office likes him, when really they hate him. Moore wants his giant unwieldy big-balled robot the Moose to take over the streets and replace Deon’s much more efficient and tidy police force. Signourey Weaver plays the self-serving CEO of Tetravaal, the company that is literally making a killing by policing a city populated by the disenfranchised and the desperate.

The movie comes down to a lot of different things: corporate interests versus human toll; economic competition; alternative family; the brutality of the world; artificial intelligence versus consciousness; the ultimate battle between the less bad and the worse bad. In the end, it is a sincere and authentic vision of how to find a place for outsiders in an unlivable world. I was hooked from the beginning, watched it twice, and would see it again in a heartbeat. This is why.

First and foremost on my list is Chappie. The film’s director and human leads may be white, but Chappie the robot is beyond race. He is the universal underdog who everyone can root for. He is a pile of salvaged scraps – corporate refuge turned into a being who is vulnerable, gullible, smart, and completely empathetic. What’s not to love about Chappie? From the early scenes when we see him return to the factory as a beat-to-shit reject ready for the Crusher to watching him grow and learn as a child, crying for him while he is brutalized by gangs and aforementioned asswipe Vincent Moore, and cheering for him and feeling for him during all his confused and bewildered travails. We are with Chappie through the duration of the film, and we feel for and with him (if we allow ourselves to be “human”). Chappie is a mess of conflicts just like people are. He tries to please his parents and defend his family and honor while also coming to terms with concepts of economic necessity, social hierarchy, mortality and consciousness.

We root for Chappie from the beginning. Sharlto Copley “plays” Chappie, and it is his voice and his movements (which were then inscribed with animation) that bring Chappie to life. Every phrase Chappie utters went straight to my heart, whether I was crying or laughing. His innocence is heartrending as he has to learn to survive in a world where innocence is a tremendous liability. Chappie is the underdog of underdogs. He is adopted by underdogs; he makes friends with a dog, and he is taught the brutality of a dog-eat-dog world.

Every expression, every gesture brings Chappie to life. He makes a promise to Deon “his maker” that he will not kill. Because of this he refuses to participate in Ninja’s ass-saving heist. Ninja brings Chappie to a monolithic, gutted half-constructed, luxury high rise apartment building to get explosives for the heist. The building is a real-life construction that literally was never completed. It stands as a symbol of hopeless economic hope. When Chappie is left to wait with the dogs (literal fighting pit bulls), he discovers a dead pit bull. Ninja points to the dead dog and then to a caged live one and asks Chappie which one he’d rather be. Chappie says he wants “to live” so he chooses the live dog, but Blomkamp makes it clear that neither choice is a viable option. This is a brutally impossible position. The pit bulls represent people on the economic fringes who or being pushed to die or live in a cage cannibalizing scraps from other underdogs.

This is the world of Chappie, yet Chappie still maintains integrity and a painfully aware innocence amongst the carnage. It is no surprise that Chappie ends up being the most intelligent character in the film. He figures out what humans are incapable of figuring out for themselves. He certainly is a hero for our times largely because he shows that nothing is simple when you occupy the bottom rungs. Somehow the fact that Chappie is a defunct, mortal, fucked-up yet innocent robot makes the fragility, complexity and brutality of humanity much more effective.

I think that one of the reasons people panned Chappie is because the trailer made it look like some kind of WALL-E meets Short Circuit mash-up. It looked like Blomkamp was taking the road of human sincerity and sap. There is plenty of sincerity in this film, but it comes from a place of brutal reality which is not remotely sappy. Yes, we have to suspend our disbelief to feel for Chappie, but I found that quite easy to do. After all, that is what movies ask us to do. SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF. So get over it.

Chappie lands himself in an alternative family, but he also gets a powerful and painful dose of the “real world.” This is not a world that we are going to find at Disneyland. This is a world where the Have Nots battle other Have Nots fight for pieces of the pie that corporations and global economic interests hold tight in their grip. It is a world of slums, violence, and economic despair. It is a world where people scrap and scrape for anything they can get. So it makes sense that this robot made of scraps would be our hero in a world where people really are like dogs fighting over the bones that are thrown their way.

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But there is also a lot of sincerity in this world. That comes not only from Chappie but from the oddball casting of Die Antwoord as Chappie’s family. Living true to the band’s aesthetic, Yolandi and Ninja (performing as themselves except washed up and living a life of crime), the band/gang lives in a gutted industrial building which looks like a post-apocalyptic child’s playroom. Both Yolandi and Ninja deliver incredibly nuanced performances. They are both cynical and childlike. They will brutally commit crimes to survive, yet their survival centers on love of family. It’s a tough mix. They wear cast-off clothing that children would wear (a t-shirt with a kitten on it or a sweatshirt with dolphins), or they wear their own obsolete band fashions. They are repurposed cast-offs just like Chappie, and in many ways they are equally conflicted. They need to survive. They need to take up arms. They need to fight the fight, but at the same time they really just want to be a family. When their other family member Amerika is brutally murdered by AssWipe and his Moose, it is shocking and devastating.

I can’t imagine a better casting choice by Blomkamp than Die Antwoord. Pink slippers, teddy bears, TV cartoons, and plastic toys fill their squat along with firearms and drugs. This is a complicated world where economics and innocence collide.

Die Antwoord’s repurposing is an ode to times past as well as a testimony to the wretched excess of human waste that just ends up as garbage – social and cultural waste. This meshes perfectly with Blomkamp’s aesthetic. I must note that Blomkamp hand-built his robots from “scraps” before his designs went to the animation table. From dirt bikes to outdated computer monitors, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink to turn garbage into art and then into cinematic life. This can be felt in the movie. It is also reflected in such details as Chappie’s use of a stack of Sony Play Stations to transfer human consciousness.

In interviews, Blomkamp always says he’s an artist more than a filmmaker, and that definitely shows in Chappie. Whether in the magnificent trash-turned-beauty sprawl of Die Antwoord’s hideway or in the dystopian shots of Johannesberg, the film is great looking.

Speaking of repurposing, not only does the movie use Die Antwoord’s actual music playing diegetically (within the context of the narrative) on car stereos, etc to lend the movie a sense of the culturally obsolete, but the musical score by Hans Zimmer is performed on actual Moog Synthesizers (more repurposing from the past). The score is utterly fantastic, one of the best musical scores of the year for sure.

The movie also has no shortage of action and explosions as well as laughs. It pulls us in so many directions at once, ultimately leading us to the same final place – what does it really mean to be “human”? Can we be human without human bodies? Would we be better off that way?

Don’t underestimate the political economics of this movie either. While Blomkamp’s earlier films District 9 and Elysium very clearly showed the divide between those who have power and money and those who don’t, this film brilliantly shows life at the bottom of the pit, how those who are left with scraps survive, and how they ultimately maintain humanity in an inhumane world.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is currently completing a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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Solstice Publishing, 320pp.
$4.99 at Amazon

Book Website

“There is nothing about Transfixion that won’t excite you and keep you reading late into the night. So if you’re ready for an ‘end of days’ novel with a one-of-a-kind experience, I say you order now and buckle up.”
“This book was AMAZING! …I loved this story! It was action-packed, constantly moving, and definitely worth the read!”
“Every so often, you read a book that makes you stay up till all hours of the morning just so you can finish it. Transfixion is that book.”
“Fast paced page turner!!!!! Can’t wait to see more by this new author!!!!”
“The plot was brilliant. Kaylee is both brave and resourceful, showing strong characterization. This book is well worth its price.”
“Loved it!!! I couldnt stop reading!!!”
Transfixion is a window into a world gone insane and asks us how long we could fight against insanity before falling prey to it ourselves. It’s The Hunger Games meets The Walking Dead! More than worth a look.”
“I found that I could relate well with Kaylee Colton… The fact that she returns to her book is that she isn’t ready to realize what her new reality is. She would rather hole herself up in literature.”
Transfixion held my attention from the start. A fight to survive against extreme odds with the heroine of the hour nose buried in a book more often the not.”
“Great YA thriller – be hooked!  …The story is cleverly elaborated, focuses on Kaylee and her personal growth. I was drawn in, felt like a member of her comrades.”
“It will have you questioning what you would do if in their situation.”
“She has enough drive to keep you on her side and enough smarts to stop you looking down on her or her choices without Kaylee turning into some kind of action hero movie star.”
“At its core, the novel is a thought-provoking science fiction thriller. At the same time, however, Giambrone weaves in elements of paranormal fiction.”
Transfixion is an action-packed novel that will leave you breathless and full of adrenaline. You might need to stop and take a breath every third page or so. At least, I did.”
“Giambrone’s integration of Kaylee’s coping mechanism with the storyline is a nice touch that could be missed if you aren’t reading too closely. As it is, I think that it enhanced the story and the characters, and definitely made me smile at the end.”
“This book is a great YA book, the violence is not so descript that I would fear young teens reading it, it did not have a lot of sexual content and I have actually already recommended to several teens in the 12-15 age range. I really enjoyed this book, it moved very quickly and had a great flow to it.”
“J. Giambrone did a great job of building up the depth of the confusing emotions the characters were experiencing as they muddled their way through a scary turn of events. He gave the teenage characters faults that were realistic and true to their development.”
“This is a good read, great for YA. I will be seeing if my 13 year old son wants to read it.”
Lastly, this analysis by Kieran Kelly is fascinating:
“Fast-paced, thought-provoking and at times moving.”

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The lack of budget and slick effects hampered this Philip K. Dick film, but the story is interesting and topical. What’s more Phil wrote himself into the movie.

Snared in the rising fascism of the Reagan era, the paranoia and political persecution of dissidents are strong threads running throughout this one. The former McCarthyism red scare paranoia influenced this assault on free association in the land of the free. Dick was personally targeted, and this appears to be his response to an out of control security state, going after sci-fi writers and dissidents of the new “conservative” social order.

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In a purely personal moment, the actress playing the lead neo-nazi bitch looks a lot like my own stepdaughter. And yeah, I can see it.

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Dick brought a lighthearted treatment to this serious descent into totalitarianism. The situations are not new, but the alien contact twist certainly tosses in a monkey wrench. The ending was a bit weak, and this may have relegated it to the desperate-indie bin. With a stronger finish, it could have had the bucks it needed to succeed. C’est la vie.

Fast-paced, thought-provoking and at times moving.

by K.R. Kelly


COVER-FINAL-texture - -3 copy.jpgTransfixion
is in the speculative fiction genre that has really come to dominate in the young adult market, and it is a good example of why the genre is popular.

Author J. Giambrone hits the ground running. The reader is not left with much time to draw breath as action piles on action. The pace never flags throughout the book which transitions from a place of surrealism and suspense through watershed moments of growing clarity. In time it reaches a climax in which concrete reality has been recovered – though only through the brave efforts of a protagonist who refuses to let go of her humanity when the entire world has turned dangerously insane.

Transfixion mines some of the same veins of disquiet that have fueled the success of the Hunger Games trilogy, but where Suzanne Collins aims for emotional effect and pathos Giambrone aims for something more elusive – a moral understanding of violent conflict. The result is a bit like what might have happened if Frantz Fanon had got hold of the script of 28 Days Later and insisted that denying the humanity of the zombies would only cause the normal people to become zombies: “There had to be a solution to win without becoming just like them.”

But the “dupes” in this book aren’t zombies – they are anti-zombies. Zombies have stood for many things in political allegory, but they almost always embody the epitome of the enemy “other”. They are implacably violent; they are usually mindless or, if not, they are utterly deranged; they are always incurable. In short, they are unquestionably legitimate targets for violence who are to be killed without compunction. In films zombies are killed for self-defence, but there is also a common tendency, first established in Dawn of the Dead, for protagonists to prolifically splatter zombie brains just in order to perform banal tasks like going from place to place.There is no reason too trivial to be worth taking the “life” of a zombie.

In short zombies are the human-shaped essence of life undeserving of life. Transfixion‘s “dupes” turn this notion on its head. These are every bit as implacably violent as any crazed zombie, but even more deadly for their ruthless and calculating rationality. For those embattled few survivors of the shock and awe of the initial onslaught of violence, the dupes are zombies. You kill them and you don’t think about it, or at least pretend not to. The dupes could literally be their brothers and sisters, but the shared humanity is forgotten by both and lost in both. One side is driven mad by a brain-altering signal, and the other side simply follows suit in many respects.

Young Kaylee Colton resists this amnesia and the disjuncture which creates a rift in humanity. In a brutal world she struggles to recreate a sense that she herself is a real person: “She was not herself, and she wasn’t sure which version of herself she wasn’t.” But, she never quite loses sight of the personhood of the other – even the knife-wielding maniac who will kill her without compunction. And she is right.

The reader is taken inside the mind of a dupe and find not the haze of hatred, but a different sense of reality. Now we are in the territory of Philip K. Dick – the science fiction author for whom reality was fragile and fungible not just in epistemological terms but in political, psychological and social terms. Under the guise of “out there” explorations of drugs and virtual reality, Dick made many astute political and social observations. He explored the significance of what academics would now refer to as a “subject position” decades before the term was coined. To put it another way, Dick’s writing and Transfixion have more in common with Battlestar Galactica than with The Matrix.

And that is the problem of the dupes. They are not different in nature. They are not inhuman. It is the mental landscape they inhabit that is different. That is not to say that their reality is somehow valid. The world they inhabit is not only ultimately senseless, it is extremely limited. The filters through which they see everything turn these human beings into remorseless killers who act like mindless zombies without the mindlessness. For this, Giambrone gleefully indicts the medium of television – the carrier signal of their derangement: “The sign on the door said “Editing,” and a sickly blue glow throbbed out from inside the dark chamber.”

Any young adult who has read this review this far should probably read Transfixion. The novel is a lot more accessible than my review and I really haven’t given any major spoilers. Despite all that I have written, it is still basically action driven and all of the political and philosophical considerations are delivered as subtext.

For adults the above also applies, but if you are thinking of acquiring it for a young person to read I have just one caution. Transfixion is very much in the soft science-fiction/speculative fiction allegorical idiom. The sense of suspense and mystery may lead more literally minded youngsters to think that the resolution will involve the standard denouement where the villain is unmasked and vanquished. This does not happen. Some will definitely find that unsatisfying, but then maybe it might cause them to reflect on the nature of such conventions.


TRANSFIXION is now available through Amazon.

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New upcoming sci-fi anti-war novel for YA readers.

 

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Art House Disaster

What a royt mess this one is. For an hour it seems like nothing is going to change. The story lacked an arc for an eternity.

You figure naked Scarlett, freaky aliens – what could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out. The shots are so long and laborious, full of themselves with art house sensibility, that the story drags into tedium.  It never achieved liftoff. This is yet another one with potential, but couldn’t deliver the goods. The character took too long to deviate.

Some of the serious moments are unintentionally funny too.  Shame.

2/5