Chappie (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:8


Engineer Deon Wilson  wants to install A.I. into one of the police robots he has invented. (c) 2015 Columbia Pictures

 Director Neill Blomkamp in his 3rd science fiction film returns to his native South Africa where in the near future Johannesburg is the first city to replace most of its human cops with robots called Scouts. As a result street crime has been greatly reduced. The brainchild of engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), they have enriched the corporation where he works, Tetra Vaal, but he wants to raise the robots to the next level, artificial intelligence. His boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is content with them as they are. He also has a rival employee Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) whose invention The Moose is like a tank set on legs. It’s ugly and cumbersome, but with the success of the Scouts the company has set his invention aside. He will stop at nothing to discredit Deon.

Matters become complicated when Deon begins to experiment on a damaged Scout and then is kidnapped by three klutz’s who want to use a robot in their criminal activities. Out of this mess emerges the Scout with A.I., its mind like that of a child. They name it Chappie. Deon wants to instill ethics into it, but the crooks work to turn it to crime. There is a lot of action involving the crooks and some higher up thugs demanding they pay a past debt, and of course Vincent and his Moose. Some of the events are funny, a couple poignant, reminding me of some of the intimate scenes in the animated film The Iron Giant, and some aimed at viewers who enjoy the mayhem that erupts when Chappie and The Moose engage each other in combat.

A good deal of the humor is provided by two members of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord. Its members Ninji and Yolandi are the whacky 2/3s of the bumbling trio of small time crooks. Ninji is the dumb one, and Yolandi the sentimental one, whose fate is touching.

The strange ending depends on the Cartesian concept of the split between mind and body and might remind you of Johnny Depp’s character in Transcendence who enters into an existence that transcends his body. The film might not be up to the standard of the director’s first film, but it offers plenty to think about and discuss in regard to mechanized law enforcement and the body-mind (or spirit) dualism Descartes vs. the Biblical fusion of soul and body.

The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.

Transcendence (2014)

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:1-4

You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
on the heights of Zaphon;
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
I will make myself like the Most High.’

Isaiah 14:13-14


Computer genius Will Caster has his wife and colleague upload his mind to a computer server before his body dies in this sci-fi cautionary tale.
(c) 2014 Warner Bros.

America’s favorite pirate, Johnny Depp, dons a lab coat to portray computer genius Dr. Will Caster who suggests that his work on Artificial Intelligence makes him God. When shot and poisoned by anti-computer rebels, his collaborator and wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads his mind into a server before his body dies, and he is soon absorbing all the knowledge of the Internet and the power that knowledge bestows upon its recipient.

Director Wally Pfister and script writer Jack Paglen’s film is another cautionary tale that joins the long list of such sci-fi films as The Fly, Jurassic Park, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein. The title comes from a presentation Will makes to a large gathering of computer experts, “ For one hundred and thirty thousand years, our capacity to reason has remained unchanged. The combined intellect of the neuroscientists, mathematicians and engineers pales in comparison to the most basic A.I. Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology; in a short time, its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world. Some scientists refer to this as the Singularity. I call it Transcendence.”

Someone shouts from the audience, “In other words, you want to create a god.” Will gazes at the heckler, and in his reply we can hear an echo of the Genesis Tower of Babel story, “Isn’t that what man has always wanted?” Will and Evelyn’s colleague and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) at first helps them upload Will’s mind and to build a huge facility in the New Mexico desert, but then, seeing the moral and spiritual problems of their project, raises questions. So does their appalled mentor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). Agent Buchanan of the FBI (Cillian Murphy), drawn in because of the terrorist’s attack, also is concerned that Will, with access to all bank records and intelligence information, is now a threat to national security.

Far more opposed to Will is Bree (Kate Mara), one of the anti-technology terrorists who launch an attack on the new facility in the desert. The minds of the locals have all been brought under Will’s control, so he has quite a small army equipped with incredible weapons to defend his project. Evelyn because of her loving devotion has been blind to the arguments of Max that the project must be stopped, so part of the pathos of the tale is her struggle, when she wakens to the moral questions it raises, between her love and her knowledge of what is right.

The story is told by Max after his friend’s project has destroyed the civilized world. He is visiting Will and Evelyn’s weed-overgrown former home, which leads him to the series of flashbacks that constitute the tale. The exact nature of his friends’ scheme is a bit fuzzy, and the climactic battle threatens to derail the intellectual theme of the film by bringing in too much of the action-thriller genre. Still, as a film of ideas, this one belongs aside that of Her and A.I., providing a good opportunity to discuss the moral and ethical issues raised by our ever developing technology.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4


Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.