• Chappie

Last week I argued that the new live-action version of Cinderella deepens (or some might say stultifies) the classic fairy tale with lessons in European social history. I could have added that, in this regard, the film represents the inverse of two current mainstream hits, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, which employ fairy-tale narratives to consider real-life social issues. Kingsman is something of a modern-day Cinderella story, telling the tale of a working-class goon (Taron Egerton) who gets transformed into a dapper, world-traveling spy with the help of an older agent-cum-fairy godfather (Colin Firth). Chappie, which has its roots in Pinocchio, tells the story of a “police robot” who acquires a soul, gets separated from his benevolent creator, and discovers the evils of humankind. Both films communicate a sense of blunt, political anger—conservative in Kingsman, leftist in Chappie—and in both cases, the fairy-tale trappings provide a context in which that bluntness feels relatively plausible.

I prefer Chappie to Kingsman, which says as much about my politics as it does about the films. In quite a few ways, Vaughn’s movie is the “better-made” one—there’s a commanding fluidity to the action and storytelling, and the impressive visual design approximates in live action the intricate pleasures of Disney cartoons and certain Marvel comic books. (The film is based on a 2012 comic book series by Dave Gibbons, the brilliant artist of Watchmen, and Mark Millar.) It’s chockablock with nifty details, particularly the various weapons made to resemble ordinary items, which suggest Ian Fleming-style imagination taken to giddy extremes. The typically unflappable Firth makes a memorable cartoon spy, and most importantly, Vaughn and cowriter Jane Goldman really get the irresistible appeal of Disney fairy-tale narratives. Like many Disney protagonists, Egerton’s Eggsy is poor and fatherless, and his heroic triumphs feel even more satisfying because they arrive in tandem with the more relatable triumphs of finding financial security and a sense of belonging.

Chappie isn’t so reassuring. It’s a grim, gritty film, marred by choppy editing and sloppy action choreography. Yet the violence is never as ugly as Blomkamp’s graphic depictions of poverty. A recurring image is a bird’s-eye view of one of Johannesburg’s sprawling shantytown communities, and the depictions of lower-class thugs lack the sort of distancing humor one finds in a movie like Kingsman. (Many have compared Chappie to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, another satirical critique of police militarization, but Verhoeven’s Detroit seems almost like a theme park attraction next to Blomkamp’s Johannesburg.) Aside from Chappie the robot, the characters are all grotesques. Even the Geppetto figure played by Dev Patel is an effete man-child who’s apparently shocked to realize he might have compromised his humanist values when he signed on to work for a weapons manufacturer. In fact nearly everyone we meet falls into one of two camps—amoral criminals on the one side, employees of a corporatized police state on the other. One doesn’t identify with Chappie so much as pity him. Presuming he escapes the influence of those two camps, the movie doesn’t suggest what, if any, direction he can take.

  • Kingsman: The Secret Service

The chief villains of both Kingsman and Chappie are technocrats with murderous aspirations, though the characters’ differences point to the films’ oppositional worldviews. In Kingsman, Samuel L. Jackson’s electronics tycoon Valentine is essentially a hateful caricature of a philanthropic, liberal businessman—his idea of environmental activism is annihilating a billion individuals to curb humans’ impact on the planet. He plans to do this by implanting an explosive device inside as many people as he can under the guise of giving them free Internet service (a mission that evokes Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to provide Internet access to developing regions). The filmmakers show him successfully pitching his idea to a number of government leaders, including Barack Obama and a fictional King of Sweden, a nation widely considered to be one of the most liberal in the world. At another point Firth’s character boasts that the spy organization referenced in the title lacks affiliation with any national government. The men of Kingsman are free agents in a world of laissez-faire espionage.

Chappie directs its antiestablishment anger at the military-industrial complex, specifically the influence of the American arms industry around the world. American iconography is everywhere, and the film’s one American character, played by Sigourney Weaver, is the CEO of a weapons manufacturer. Her company produces the police robots that have replaced 150,000 human cops in South Africa (it’s indicative of Blomkamp’s political outlook that he presents the phenomena of unemployment and rampant crime as interrelated). These anonymous-looking, self-operated fighting machines inspire associations with drone strikes, much like the remote-controlled attack planes in Blomkamp’s Elysium did. Despite trading in brutality, Weaver’s CEO is cool and personable, showing how easy it can be to defend violence when you don’t actually have to see it. More loathsome is the war-obsessed engineer (and Afrikaner caricature) played by Hugh Jackman, who wants to design bigger and more brutal police robots than the ones already in service.

  • Chappie

Blomkamp’s robots are almost as impressive as Vaughn’s gadgets. Both are crime-fighting tools, though the latter are presented as fun whereas the former are presented as monstrous. Chappie, a broken robot whom Patel installs with artificial intelligence, doesn’t understand at first that he was designed for combat—just like a real person, he has to be instructed to fight. His education takes the form of an afternoon tour of the Johannesburg slums, as Chappie, taken for a typical robo-fascist, inspires murderous rage in nearly every dispossessed person he meets. The development doesn’t feel like a screenwriter’s shorthand so much as a satirical exaggeration of Johannesburg’s dire economic inequality.

Chappie doesn’t try to disguise its left-wing political bias, and in so doing, illuminates the political bias of many other violent spectacles. I wish that Kingsman had been so up-front—at several points, Vaughn’s characters compare their adventures to other espionage fantasies, as if to say this is only a movie and we should just enjoy the spiteful depictions of liberal politicians, working-class Brits, and pretty much anyone besides the Tory spies and their pals. The movie reminded me of those bullies in high school who say “just kidding” after branding another kid with some offensive slur. I suppose that bullies are as much a part of growing up as fairy tales, though there are some aspects of childhood that I’d just as soon forget.