It’s not all that often that I part company with the horde at RottenTomatoes.com. I generally use them to see how in tune I am with the zeitgeist after I watch a film. Sometimes I like to reverse that order when I consult the zeitgeist before the fact, like when I ask my typical question to the waiter at a new restaurant, “What’s the most popular item on the menu?” as a way to outsource my taste buds and not order something horrible. Don’t worry, it’s safe to read; there are no spoilers.
As a general rule, people in the same culture tend to think the same types of food taste good. So it is with film. Americans loved The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s performance. Americans loved Gladiator.
I sat through two hours of Chappie with my wife, and we both loved it. It’s no Dark Knight, it’s not Contact, it’s not The Matrix, and it doesn’t even live up to District 9, but it’s good, really good even… in it’s own quirky way.
Then I read the reviews, and it had a 33% rating on Rotten tomatoes1, and I think I know exactly why.
(1) People don’t understand that this isn’t meant to be an existential, life changing, perspective altering, dystopian harbinger of an AI film. It’s not meant to be anything close to that. Traditional Sci-Fi movie lovers will probably be split down the middle. There is no epic gravitas, like the Matrix.
Really, it’s a coming of age film about family. You have the caring, protective mother who wants to hold your hand, and the harsh and distant father who throws you into the river to learn to swim, mostly because that’s the way he was taught. More than that, it’s a coming of age film that’s an analog of the vast chasm between a human child and a Chimpanzee child. While the chimp is throwing rocks and sitting in trees, the human child is learning to read, draw, sing, and play piano. Yet, despite that great difference in capability between the two species, it’s obvious by their behavior that they are still children.
Neil deGrasse Tyson can clarify:
(2) It suffers from a lack of “clean room”. Let me describe it before I define it. Clean room is the idea that the first true AI ever created would be in an underground government lab on a US Air Force Base, or in a secret silicon dye manufacturing warehouse of some multinational megacorp owned by an eccentric billionaire, or a bunch of hipster programmers in silicon valley headed up by a Ph.D. professor of Machine Intelligence at Stanford.
Clean room is American exeptionalism. Sometimes, clean room is white supremacy.
The unwritten movie rules are: AI’s don’t get created in Mexico City, any more than aliens land in Stalingrad. Superman is from Kansas, not Shanghai.
And to think that the first AI could be created by an Indian – in South Africa of all places – is a slap in the face of the prejudices we unconsciously hold dear.
(3) It’s counterculture in a way the typical sci-fi audience will be unable to relate to or sympathize with. I think I probably get this point more than most, because I’m the exact type of person that should hate this movie. Yet, I find myself loving it. Call it, self-awareness.
The truth is, the sagging pants and tattoos, and bravado, and swagger is just a form of survival in one world, no different than a polo shirt, a Breitling and an ivy league alma matter is a form of survival in another.
I don’t like pressure to live up to “black” American stereotypes. That being black means I need to sag my pants, or drive a gas guzzling SUV, or get a hundred tattoos, or fulfill some white girl’s Save the Last Dance fantasy. I’m not a thug. I didn’t have a hard upbringing in the South Central district of any place. I didn’t loiter on MLK street.
Now, I have no problem with those things, if you grew up in a place where that’s the cultural norm. It’s called being from somewhere, and that’s perfectly normal.
But if you weren’t raised in the projects, but try to project that onto your suburban middle class upbringing2… in an effort to be civil, I simply shake my head and say, “To each his own. Who am I to judge?” Just don’t expect that from me or be disappointed when I don’t give it to you.
Also, as an African, I don’t like it when Africans who have no connection to the history or specific oppression that created American hip-hop, try to imitate American rappers. It turns into a caricature. Africans, you don’t get to stand on top of a lowrider pouring out champagne and throwing hundred dollar bills at the video camera. 3 You look like an idiot when you do that, because that type of artistic expression has nothing to do with your story or history.
That’s why I have so much respect for Fela Kuti, and so little respect for some of the newer African musicians. Fela is original. He’s not trying to copy a formula that makes money in another country.
So I’ve painted an opaque picture of my personality. I like originality, and not a caricature. I don’t fully understand or really appreciate the idiosyncrasies of “hood culture.”
But I do understand command, and hierarchy, and social status, and expectations, and machismo. The truth is, the sagging pants and tattoos, and bravado, and swagger is just a form of survival in one world, no different than a polo shirt, a Breitling and an ivy league alma matter is a form of survival in another. One isn’t inherently “better” than the other.
Americans like Italian gangster movies, because they’ve been taught western history their whole lives, and they can tie that back to Julius Caesar, and Rome, and family ties, and brutality with an honor code.
It’s much more difficult for Americans to understand the psychology of a Mexican Drug Cartel, or a an African American Gang. There’s not much difference between a Drug Cartel and a government. They both protect special interests. They both kill people as they wish. They both rule by force and finesse as needed.
Die Antwoord, the South African hip hop duo, play lead characters in the film. As much as I hear it was a headache to work with them, I think they did a great job. The problem is they don’t fit the sci-fi mold4.
Shout out to my favorite White African
The best character in the entire film? Hippo, hands down. He’s played by a man named Brandon Auret, and wow, just wow. I’d never seen a white person who could play the role of African Warlord. I guess it does help that he’s South African…
Ok, actually Elon Musk is my favorite white African, followed by Neill Blomkamp, followed by Brandon Auret.
Chappie is unsuccessful in America for the exact reason Ex Machina is a hit.5 Ex Machina is all about that clean room. Would the world’s first AI be built in South Africa and would he embrace gangster culture? Or would the world’s first AI be a built in a top secret underground laboratory and be a sexy white woman.
You decide. *rolls eyes*
I wrote this a long time ago, but never published it. As of publishing, it’s down to 30%↩
Though it’s seen as tasteless even in American music videos. I do understand why it’s a thing, if you consider American history. ↩
I actually bought the Die Antwoord song that played during the credits. It’s called “Enter the Ninja”↩