This weekend I saw two films about the performance of masculinity, coming-of-age stories about struggling with machismo, as well as surrogate fatherhood and flawed role models.
One was the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning Moonlight.
The other was the critically panned Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s answer to Robocop.
I don’t feel qualified to talk about Moonlight (though there’s a great discussion here: “Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins’ momentous film”), and besides, this blog is mostly about science fiction and fantasy. So I’ll just say that the accidental juxtaposition of the two films gave me a different lens for Chappie, and one that I think improved the viewing.
In Chappie, an escaped police robot is taught how to behave, how to think, how to be by two very different influences: the cultured but amoral engineer Deon and the countercultural trio Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. (I’d call them punks, but the Internet tells me they’re “Zefs”, the South African equivalent.)
A good chunk of the film revolves around Chappie’s education: Deon brings him paints and books, going for a well-rounded education of the mind, while Ninja teaches him how to swagger, swear, and shoot (and Yolandi provides an unconventional yet feminine, nurturing touch). Chappie veers into feminine pastimes and Ninja tries to “man him up”. Simplistic and played for laughs? Yes, but also poignant, as Chappie tries to navigate these competing influences, please everyone who matters to him, and understand what makes a man.
Deon’s rival at work, Vincent, is yet another representation of masculinity: an ex-soldier full of repressed rage, trying to get approval for his military-grade killer robot, whose ambitions are being held down by his female boss (the fabulous Sigourney Weaver–capable but sadly underused in the role). Deon, slim, bespectacled, and feminized or perhaps asexualized, is everything that Vincent hates.
Chappie’s level of success at integrating these influences determines the outcome of the film…but I won’t spoil it.
If you’re looking for an accurate and nuanced depiction of AI learning, you won’t find it here, but as a more metaphorical exploration of what it means to be a man, Chappie is worth seeing.