Monday, 8 February 2016

Chappie Chat Part 1: Chappie Is Robocop

Headline first: Chappie is at heart an entirely undisguised combination of the Robocop and Short Circuit franchises, refracted through a 21st century prism. But whilst that might do as a soundbite, the specifics are worth commenting upon.  At the very least, Blomkamp deserves credit for realising that a less cynical Robocop and a much darker Short Circuit darker actually lets the two stories join up in more or less the same place. Beyond that, though, there are concrete ways in which Blomkamp has improved upon the originals, or at least reshaped them in ways I find interesting.

Spoilers from this point on.

Robocop, obviously, is not a subtle satire. '80s Reagan capitalism wasn't in any way subtle either, of course. Maybe a mockery of it needed to be two-fisted. But there's always a problem with this kind of hyperbolic approach to bad behaviour; it lets those who actually practice it off the hook to some extent. Because they can always tell themselves and us that they're at least not that bad.

Chappie doesn't have its corporate arseholes fronting beside urinals or hiring thugs to off the new vice president. Really, Michelle Bradley seems like a perfectly normal woman trying to run a business. This is deliberately underlined in the third act. After watching the Alien movies so many times it's something of a jolt seeing Weaver scream and run from a fight, but that's exactly what a regular person would do.

It's just that this perfectly normal, regular person happens to be running the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal; just happens to be in the business of generating revenue by helping murder people. She doesn't actually have to twirl a hypothetical moustache or grin at the deaths of her rivals to be thoroughly objectionable. She just has to care about the bottom line in the job she's chosen. She just has to believe in that crap about "a corporation's job is to make money", rather than the actual truth that a corporation has the same job almost all of us do, to generate something of use for people for which they are then paid with money.  When your business is getting people killed, I can see why you'd want to think death was how you got money rather than why, but the rest of us are under no compulsion to humour that delusion.

This isn't comprehensively tackled in the film itself, but there are hints of it. Bradley objects to the MOOSE because "it's overkill", but soon it becomes clear that her objections financial, not moral; it costs too much because it's got too much features. She waves away a computer program that could help a pilot identify genuine threats because it's cheaper to rely on human police officers to do that. Which is, of course, entirely backwards. It's hard to overstate how out of touch one needs to be to believe that modern police forces don't need any help in determining who does and doesn't need to be shot at. Weaver's line must have sounded particularly callous and clueless when the film came out about six months after Michael Brown was executed in Ferguson. That's too recent for it to be plausible that the script had that incident in mind, but t's not like Brown is the only black man recently murdered for the crime of not trusting implicitly in the same people killing them. Nor is it just America that is struggling with it's police forces' application of fatal violence: here's a Guardian report from 2013:
In July 2009 South Africa's then new police commissioner, Bheki Cele, told a newspaper he wanted the law to be changed to allow police to "shoot to kill" suspects without worrying about "what happens after that".

Two months later a young woman, Olga Kekana, was going out with three friends in a Pretoria township when she was shot through the head. The car she was travelling in was "mistaken" by police for one driven by car hijackers.

Survivors said the police had given no warning. Eight policemen opened fire. The car Kekana was in had 13 bullet holes. The police fled the scene and did not help the injured.

When news broke on Thursday morning that Hilton Botha, the lead detective in the prosecution of Oscar Pistorius, was facing attempted murder charges after firing at a minibus taxi carrying seven passengers in 2009, many began once again to wonder about the state of the South African police.
It would seem that in Blomkamp's homeland, just as in Weaver's, the absolute worst thing you can do is leave a human being in charge of who needs to be swiftly shot to death. The idea of ignoring that in order to save on production costs isn't any less horrifying because it's suggested in the same tones one might use to ask whether the office has finally managed to cut down on its use of paperclips.

And so Chappie asks the obvious question, which is both utterly cliche and depressingly relevant; how could machines possibly be any worse at all this?

There seems to be no doubt in the mind of any of the characters in this film that robots are better than people in at least some narrow sense. Even the criminals who lament the arrival of a mechanical police force jump at the chance to get one of the Scouts under their control, and the cops themselves seem utterly delighted that felons are busy shooting at something else for a change. No-one wants Moore's vision of a giant drone controlled by a human. They want to go full metal.

This, in an important sense, is an inversion of the situation in Robocop, in which it's the combination of human and machine that wins out over the entirely robotic ED-209.  Of course, one could just argue that in both cases its the hulking monstrosity that has to sit out the turf wars, but the failure of Moore to use the MOOSE in anything approaching an ethical way underlines the fact that MOOSE isn't the problem; his controller is.

There are objections, doubtless, to the bleak picture of the police I'm painting here. And to some extent I understand them (I have both friends and family in or formerly in various forces). It's all in the context, of course. There are different police forces; referring to "the police" is no more helpful than referring to "the church". Which police? Which church? But then that's part of the problem, because there's not just multiple police forces in the sense of geography or nationality. There's a police force for white people, and a police force for everyone else, operating in the same space but separate in almost every other sense.  The degree to which a given person believes that the police are actually doing the job they're supposed to be doing seems to very highly correlated with race.  Which means, in its own way, that the police and the church are similar in another fundamental respect - they operate on faith. Faith that they can deliver justice, in this life or the next.  And like any institution in which one must place one's faith, different people in different circumstances can find it easier or harder to generate or maintain that faith.

For all its cynicism when it comes to corporations, Robocop is full of faith for the police, portraying them as dedicated civil servants on the verge of collapse because no-one gives a shit about them, and who when they finally go on strike demonstrate their worth with the crime-wave that then ensues. To the extent the film admits there is a problem with American police forces at all, the suggestion is there's an easy fix; just help them to die less whilst shooting people more. The damage this basic idea that the police will perform better the more guns and armour are thrown at them has done to various states is becoming more and well documented.

So this is a problem. There are clearly major systemic issues with police forces all over the globe, and yet western movies usually cast the police as unambiguous heroes, who at worst suffer personality flaws because they care TOO MUCH about justice (see Jack for more). When they are villains, they're villains of the "one bad apple" variety; aberrations the system as a whole is actively seeking to expunge.

But the bigger enemy isn't the aberrations, vile as they are. It's those who give the aberrations cover by insisting they are a failure of the system rather than the result of the system. This is what makes Vincent Moore a villain; he's convinced the biggest problem for the Johannesburg police - the Johannesburg police - is that they can't fire bullets that are big or fast enough.  His faith in God might be what sets him against Chappie [1], but it's his faith in the police - and in himself - that causes all the trouble.

This realisation, though, raises its own issues. Blomkamp doesn't reply to the police-worship in Robocop by casting them as villains here, or even as antagonists, he does it by almost removing them entirely. The police here are essentially a MacGuffin, an excuse to have robots running around South Africa with guns. Instead the focus is on the weapons manufacturers, and how they're screwing up. Now, I'm hardly about to play any violins for people in that line of work, but the ultimate result can be accused of focussing on the wrong things.  I'm reminded here of all the time spent by progressives during the Iraq War raging against the horrible things being done by companies like Halliburton and Blackwater.  And yes, absolutely, both companies are grotesque examples of the very worst of humanity. Punch away. But focus too narrowly on them and you risk feeding the narrative that those corporations were the problem, as oppose to a symptom. You risk implying that things would have gone OK if only the nasty capitalists stuck like leeches to the side of the American war machine had been shrivelled with salt and fire.

And just as you can't meaningfully discuss how much damage and death and misery and violence was unleashed by Bush and Blair if you just focus on the private contractors, you can't get to grips with the problematic ways in which armed police interact with the civilian population they are employed to protect if you don't actually talk about the police themselves.

There is a counter to my objection here, though, and that is the suggestion that the film fights against the idea of hero-worshiping the police not by criticising the police themselves, but by humanising the criminals they are targetting. Which is an interesting argument, though one that has some holes in it. But I shall discuss that idea in more details in the concluding part of this essay: Chappie is Number Johnny Five.

[1]  I can see an argument that this idea is terribly underdeveloped in the film. But then it's not like grotesquely bigoted opinions can't spring forth from a certain kind of religious mind without the slightest coherence or need for genuine justification. I think the fact that there's no attempt to connect "I believe in God" to "I must destroy a sentient robot" works just fine; what connection exists between "I believe in God" and "I must threaten gay men with death because they want to get married", after all?


Gooder said...

Some interesting thoughts but I don't think a lot of it is actually tackled or addressed by the film. In small part I can see reading them onto it but for me the film doesn't suggest them itself.

The film doesn't really address issues of police violence, as you mention the police themselves are barely in it and the project to replace them with robots is pitched much more as protecting their lives than dealing with issues of police violence.

The focus is the criminal gangs and even the 'good' gang are shown as being pretty violent with no real sense that they are persecuted by authorities for any other reason.

Weaver's Bradley is pretty much a non-entity, it's a role of exposition and plot move alongs. Even the deployment of the MOOSE is not really her decision. Meanwhile Jackman's character for me is the career obsessed guy manipulating things for the sake of promotion/money. Exactly like the backer of ED209 in Robocop.

In terms of looking violence towards minorities from authorities Bloomkamp's District 9 deals with that much more and quite interestingly. In fact thinking about Chappie is almost District 9 with one of the themes removed. In fact the more I think about Chappie is very much a remix of District 9

I would say there examples of fiction dealing with police forces as corrupt/oppressive (however you want to phrase it), not as common as the straight forward police heroes versus criminals certainly, but there are examples.

Things like The Wire, The Shield from television, L.A. Confidential, Training Day, The Hurricane, Gone, Baby, Gone, Serpico, the recent Sicario (although that's more FBI). There are certainly things out that deal with issues of policing and much more than Chappie ever gets close to doing!

In fact the newer Robocop actually deals with these themes much more than Chappie does in terms of the militisration of police forces. It caught flak but I actually enjoyed it as it approached the subject from a different angle. (I also give the original Robocop points for committing to be a satire, something Chappie flirts with only)

Anyway, I do think you're giving the film far more credit than it deserves around this. There are other things about the film I think are poor but I'll wait until part 2 in case you bring them up.

SpaceSquid said...

I'll talk about the way Ninja's gang is presented in part two. As a taste, though, I absolutely agree that Chappie falls desperately short of considering minorities (although perhaps oppressed groups would be a better term in the case of South Africa), and I don't want to ignore that. I thought about this after watching it, and I can only think of one person in the film at most who's played by a black South African.

And yes, of course you're right that there are other examples of stories that consider the police as something more complicated than heroes/flawed heroes/flawed heroes with bad apples lurking about. My point is a) there need to be more, and b) I think Chappie does better here than does Robocop on this specific issue, for all that I agree the former film has a more coherent message.