Science fiction films have long been lambasted as the junior version of motion picture offerings, offering imaginary concoctions of human beings in fantastic circumstances. Even films that surpass that line of thinking are overlooked when it’s time to pass out accolades. However, director Neill Blomkampf is changing that line of thinking one film at a time. The Shadow League was recently in attendance at the Crosby Hotel in New York City for the Chappie press conference. Starring Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Hugh Jackman, Chappie tells the story of a genius robotics engineer whose malfunctioning creation becomes sentient. The conversation was heady, lively and more of an enjoyable conversation on life and what it is to be human.
“One of the great things about working with Neill is he has thought quite deeply about the philosophical parts of this movie,” said Jackman. “Not only about robots becoming sentient, feeling, thinking or that sort of evolution, but also about the very nature of consciousness. What is it? Can we somehow capture or bottle it? He’s actually at a level that I’m well behind. Actually, during the filming of it, I thought about it a lot. Generally, I’m an optimist. I know that at every major turning point in history, the creation of the train for example, there were many, many people that thought this was the end of civilization. That this would be the road to doom for mankind. I’m sure when the television came about, similar things. The Internet as well. I’m a firm believer that the pull for human beings is toward the good, generally, outweighing the bad. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s my naïve optimistic view that whatever knowledge we gain, and if it could somehow come to pass as to what consciousness is, it would be used for good. Unlike my character, I like to think optimistically about these sort of advancements and discovery.”
Pinocchio, Real Steel, Johnny 5, War Games and Transformers are but a handful of intellectual properties that have broached the question of what it is to be human. Blomkampf told reporters why he feels this topic continues to resonate with audiences and his personal view on the likelihood of true artificial intelligence being mastered by human beings.
“My particular point of view for artificial intelligence, which ties into the nature of humans constantly looking into why we exist and why consciousness exists, changed during the making of Chappie. And I’m not completely sure that humans are ever going to be able to give birth to A.I. in the way that films fictionalize it.,” said Blomkampf. “So, we have weak A.I. like robots or computer systems that follow a list of protocols with yes, no answers. It can be as complex as you want. Then you have strong A.I., which is basically like a human. Something that can think up a thought that’s never been thought up or paint a painting or write a poem. So, in the realm of strong A.I., in the realm of human consciousness, I think it’s something that troubles humans or forces us to look at it over and over again for millennia, or as long as we’ve really been conscious, is because there is no answer. There is no explanation for even one percent of us to hold on to. We just don’t know why we’re here, we don’t know how consciousness is created and we don’t know the nature of consciousness. Whether it’s a spiritual or philosophical discussion or whether it’s simply running electrical impulses through synapses and it leads to consciousness. I think it isn’t that. So, it’s probably the most fundamental issues that humans can ask and that’s the reason that we keep asking it.”
In the film, Chappie starts off as a semi-autonomous policing unit in South Africa in the near future and ends up becoming sentient and compassionate. Legendary sci-fi actress Sigourney Weaver (Aliens film franchise) said her preferred form of automaton wouldn’t be so human.
“I’m sure they could program a robot to do all kinds of useful things,” she joked. “Like a butler robot or a full robot for companionship, for company, I actually think Dev’s robots, when he gets home, are so lovely. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ That’s the kind of robot I would like. Not very destructive and not very capable.”
“I have a nickname. They call me el vague-o. I’m very vague and I Forget a lot of stuff. I would love a robot that gives non-judgmental reminders,” chimed Jackman.
The score for Chappie is filled with international Hip-Hop, South African Hip-Hop in particular, with South African rap group Die Antwoord starring in the film as well. Blomkampf says this was initially done to give the film an American film, but that changed as production moved forward.
“There’s two reasons for that. The first, by far, the band Die Antwoord were extremely important for me to put in the film as soon as I came up with it. They’re a natural mixture of several forms of hip-hop and South African rap culture, which is influenced by U.S. rap culture. Just putting them in is 75 or 80 percent of what audiences perceive as real. Also, because I didn’t necessarily want to shoot the movie in South Africa again because I just shot District 9 there. I wanted to put it in North America. We actually did a draft of the script that was in North America to test it. But Die Antwoord were so essential to the film that by putting them in North America it felt like a fish out of water. It felt like the wrong move to do. But keeping it in South Africa allowed them to be in their native environment. It felt legit, but I still wanted to Americanize it as much as I could on purpose. I wanted to go away from District 9 and not delve into the very South African themes that you can easily get into in South Africa. There were choices like putting Jose, who is an American, in their gang. There’s tons of choices like that that add up.”
Weaver, wowed by Blomkampf’s ability to create such poignant imaginary worlds within his cinematic works, was asked to compared to the worlds of Aliens, Wall-E, Galaxy Quest and some of the other cinematic fiction worlds she has been in over the course of her career.
“Every science fiction film I’ve done have been pretty distinctive in terms of their world,” she explained. “What I love about Neill’s films is sometimes people think of sci-fi films as film-lite, but Neill’s films always have an underpinning of something that’s very important for the world to discuss and to think about. So, we had a riotous good time making the movie. It was so happy and it was so exciting for me to work in South Africa with such an international crew, but I also thought the film had so much to say to us in terms of what is it to be human. In a sense, that word human is a hard word to define because there are so many inhumane acts in the film being perpetrated by humans, not perpetrated by robots. So, I love how he has this caldron going with all these very important issues underneath a very entertaining movie.”
Neill Blomkampf has masterfully approached such issues as race, class and, with his current work, what it is to be human. The native South African says his views on race evolved when he moved to Canada as a child and that race permeates much of his work.
“There are so many issues surrounding race in South Africa that it was impossible to escape as a kid. By moving to Canada it kind of amplified it. It’s nothing like going to a country that’s predominately white for you to turn back and look at it with fresh eyes. So, I think race is something that is really on my mind a lot and I think, as a subconscious byproduct, it works its way into everything. I think a lot of the inspirations for me are very instinctual and subconscious.”
Many science fiction films that deal with robots and computer systems that become self-aware have them eventually turning against their makers in an apocalyptic precursor to the extinction of mankind. However, Neill believes that nature tells a different story of how a humanized robot might react to his environment.
“There’s a lot of evidence in evolutionary sciences that shows altruism and acting in ways that are empathic to others are actually beneficial on an evolutionary basis. So, this whole notion that the robot has to declare nuclear war is one part of the discussion, but it may not be a reality. The reality is they may be able to empathize to a far greater degree than we can and able to experience a wider range of emotions. Why not have a robot that can do that? I think if you left Chappie for 20 years he would be in a place that was unfathomable for humans. So, that was the genesis.”
Chappie stars Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver and opens in theaters nationwide today. The Shadow League gives it a B+ for its intelligence, dialogue, action and humor. The only drawback for us was the slow build. However, this train is hard to stop once it gets up a head of steam.