Then Man Created the Heavens and the Earth: What Chappie and Ex Machina Reveal About Our Desire for Power and Progress

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (
Gen 1:27, NIV)

God created the heavens, the earth, man and woman…all out of love. But what if progress was the fuel behind the creation of life? ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (A.I.) has been around conceptually since the 1950s, but there seems to be a surge of potential in the field of self-aware machines in recent years. Science and technology powerhouses Elon Musk[1], Stephen Hawking[2], and Bill Gates[3] have all expressed their concerns regarding the A.I. fervor, warning that we may be “summoning the demon” that is out of our control[4]. This buzz within the scientific community has transferred onto the big screen with a slew of A.I.-related films, most of them rehashing the most obvious fear surrounding technology: intelligent robots/computers violently destroying the human race. This year, however, we see A.I. films moving in a new direction with Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. [SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS BELOW]

Going for the unexpected, Chappie (2015) succeeds in thrusting a highly intelligent and surprisingly sensitive robot into the dog-eat-dog world of gangsters and corporate executives in dystopian Johannesburg. Fusing a coming-of-age story with stylized action and comedy, Blomkamp delivers tongue-in-cheek entertainment that easily slides audiences from funny action sequences to tear-inducing moments that stab long after the credits roll. Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the inventor of police droids who tests an A.I. prototype on a damaged droid, later named “Chappie.” Deon and Chappie are kidnapped by a group of low-level outlaws Ninja and Yolandi (real life zef rap duo Die Antwoord), who raise Chappie to help them with a robbery. Chappie’s new programming is successful, but his intelligence grows like that of a child, influenced by his ‘creator’ Deon, ‘mother’ Yolandi, and ‘father’ Ninja. Chappie must navigate his own identity in this hostile world as well as discover a way to transfer his consciousness into another droid body before his faulty battery runs out.

The film’s tension lies within the battle between the brawny Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), fighting for the success of his human-controlled robots, and Deon, with his ambition to create independently-intelligent life. While Vincent’s rage is an obvious sign of human corruption, Deon’s blind pursuit of A.I. design reveals a different kind of flaw within human nature, and raises the question of why humans would create independent life: 0ut of love? A desire for progress? Or the sheer reason of ‘why not’? With characters verging on the brink of caricatures, perhaps Chappie feels outlandish because it is navigating outlandish waters, and Blomkamp’s daring film-making choices may be touching on something more nuanced: that the casual stumble into the invention of A.I. seems just as ridiculous as a robot-child raised by a group of rapper-gangsters who must transfer his consciousness to escape mortality. The film has a decidedly negative view of humanity, exposing our paranoia and reluctance toward A.I.; but the potential for immortality (human consciousness in a droid body) provides a glimmer of hope that the eventual embrace of robotic consciousness could save the human race.

Ex Machina (2015) approaches A.I. from a claustrophobically character-driven quietness, as opposed to Chappie’s full-frontal explosiveness. Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has been chosen to participate in evaluating the beautiful A.I. robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), invented by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an eccentric and reclusive tech CEO. Hidden away in Nathan’s isolated cabin, Nathan observes Caleb’s “Turing Test” interactions with Ava, who is quick to reveal to Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted (Nathan’s bedroom closets eventually reveal previous models that have been callously deprogrammed). In his week with the increasingly unstable Nathan, Caleb discovers that Ava’s programming will be “wiped” and replaced with an updated version–effectively killing her–and agrees to help Ava escape. But both the earnestly sensitive Caleb and the selfishly destructive Nathan are ultimately defeated by Ava, who uses her intellect, strength, and feminine mystique to escape and leave both men for dead.

Ex Machina, like Chappie, exposes the underbelly of humanity, but takes this a step further by foreseeing A.I. as the inevitable replacement of human beings. In Chappie, A.I. will eventually benefit humanity despite the negatives within human nature; in Ex Machina, A.I. will replace humanity because of the inescapable depravity and weakness of human nature. Both films probe the question of ‘creators’ and ‘creations’ and seem to declare that A.I. creations will morally outshine and physically outlast their creators. If the Creator God of Genesis made humans out of and for the purpose of love, what are we to make of human creators who strive to create for the sake of progress?

Chappie, Ava, and their human creators are all driven by a fear of death. While the artificial beings successfully evade mortality, human beings seemingly entice an early extinction. Previous sci-fi films that parade the terrors of technological advances are sidestepped in Chappie and Ex Machina as they uncover the depths of danger within human nature. A.I. is either a perfected creation that outshines its less-than-perfect creator, or an evil monster formed by a reckless Dr. Frankenstein whose inherent evil is transferred to his creation. Can human-created A.I. be ‘good’, or is it impossible outside of the perfect, love-driven Creator God?

 

[1] Elon Musk: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/27/elon-musk-artificial-intelligence-ai-biggest-existential-threat

[2] Stephen Hawking: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/02/stephen-hawking-intel-communication-system-astrophysicist-software-predictive-text-type

[3] Bill Gates: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jan/29/artificial-intelligence-strong-concern-bill-gates

[4] Musk: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/27/elon-musk-artificial-intelligence-ai-biggest-existential-threat

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