Chappie isn’t much of a science-fiction action film, what with its wild variations in tone and juvenile fetishizing of weaponry. Yet like even the most dunderheaded of sci-fi enterprises, the movie does offer some tantalizing speculation about where the human race may be heading. And according to Chappie’s future, downloadable souls will be the next big thing.
Part E.T. and part Pinocchio – but without the charm of either – Chappie centers on the artificially intelligent police robot of the title, the first of his kind. While his fellow officers are programmable automatons, Chappie has had an experimental AI program installed that grants him, in the movie’s terms, a consciousness. Kidnapped by a gang of drug-running thugs, however, Chappie is “raised” in a way that encourages cringingly comic criminal behavior. Will his designer (Dev Patel) save his soul before his depleting battery runs out?
There’s a lot going on in Chappie – too much, in fact. The director, Neill Blomkamp, has a track record of imagining elaborate sci-fi scenarios that fall apart in the end (his previous films are Elysium and District 9). As a filmmaker, Blomkamp has a distinctive aesthetic, one defined by the shanty settings of his native South Africa and an eye for tactile production design. (Say what you will about Chappie’s silly antics, he looks terrific.) Yet when the time comes to really dig into the ideas at play – whether they involve artificial intelligence or military ethics – Blomkamp’s films instead give way to chaotic gunplay, of the sort I’m finding increasingly difficult to excuse as satirical irony.
In the midst of all this messiness, however, remains the intriguing narrative involving Chappie’s existential fate. As his battery begins to dwindle, Chappie and his designer work to capture his evolving consciousness in a way that will allow them to transfer it to another, fully charged robot. In theological terms, this makes Chappie a compelling figure, one teetering somewhere in between the Gnostic belief that our souls are meant to escape our bodies and the Christian orthodox understanding of humans as embodied beings.
Chappie isn’t Chappie until his consciousness has been united with a body.
On the one hand, Chappie would seem to be a poster robot for Gnosticism. The material – the literal nuts and bolts – don’t matter, as long as Chappie’s consciousness can be downloaded on a flash drive. Writing about Chappie at Reel Spirituality, Kevin Nye expressed frustration over this characterization. “My body is not just a shell that contains me but an inseparable part of what makes me, me,” Nye wrote. “While this might cause problems for views of the afterlife, many wonderful theologians and Christian psychologists have demonstrated that Scripture shares this view of humanity and that it has important implications for Church-life, discipleship, spirituality, etc.”
And yet, Chappie isn’t a complete rejection of the body, or this world. After all, if Chappie is going to survive, it’s not by becoming immaterial, but by embracing another physical body. One, in fact, that would be remarkably similar given that all of the police robots come from the same design. In a way, then, Chappie affirms what TC’s Branson Parler wrote about when addressing the technology of egg freezing: “Christians ought to be cautious about reproductive technology that assumes a reductionist view of the human person. Reproductive technology does this when it reduces bodies to mere matter to be manipulated in whatever way we see fit. But for Christians, we humans are not two things - raw matter and immaterial soul - but a single, body-soul unity.” Chappie isn’t Chappie until his consciousness has been united with a body.
Perhaps a better question to ask is not whether Chappie is in line with something like the Nicene Creed, which speaks of the “resurrection of the dead,” but rather if the movie helps us understand, in any way, what this mysterious promise might mean. Chappie surely doesn’t capture the particular details of being a resurrected body, but might it, in some way, illuminate the experience?