The film’s biggest shocks aren’t on the screen, they’re in the audience

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

If the highest aim of good cinema is to make you stop and think, Chappie, the science fiction thriller directed by Neill Blomkamp, brilliantly hits its mark. 

Target demographic?  (Photo by Ilya Haykinson, via  Wikimedia Commons )

Target demographic?  (Photo by Ilya Haykinson, via Wikimedia Commons)

But as my wife, our teenage son and I left the theater, we didn’t find ourselves thinking primarily about the film.  We wondered instead: why did so many parents bring so many small children to see it?

When one of the characters was hurled against a wall and splattered, boys and girls not yet old enough to be in school were laughing and squealing in back of us.   Their running commentary was more like something I’d expect to hear in the back row of The Lion King.  “Wazzat?”  “He go boom!  He go boom!”   “They hurt, Mommy!” 

One toddler became full-on hysterical and disruptive following one of the film’s many gory explosions.   The parents, tellingly, did not remove the child from the theater.  (Maybe they’d leave for a diaper change?)

Obviously, it’s beyond inconsiderate for parents to bring small children to an R-rated feature, and allow them to wreck everyone else’s experience by acting out.  There are rules about filmgoing that we all understand.  Smoking was banned long ago.  So were cameras and tape recorders.  We are now lectured about how rude it is to text during a movie, and warned to turn off our cell phones before the feature begins. 

But there is a larger point to be made here, and the irony is unmistakable.  In many ways, Chappie is a movie about child-rearing.  The film’s lead character did not become a thug - until he was taught.  

Cuddly and likeable

Billed by Columbia Pictures as “the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself,” Chappie – whose design requires that he learn piecemeal, processing what he sees, hears and feels - is one of the cuddliest machines ever to grace the screen.  In likeability, he is right up there with Wall-E, R2D2, and for those of us old enough to remember, Astro Boy

The official trailer is almost Disney-esque, in a post-apocalyptic kind of way.  Chappie has ears that perk up like a bunny rabbit’s. He watches cartoons.  He snuggles in bed with a storybook.  He is startled when he spills milk from a carton in the refrigerator, in a scene reminiscent of ET, Hollywood's paradigm for cutie-pie humanoids.

The trailer’s message was clear.  If you liked Gremlins, you’ll love Chappie. 

But when you lay your money down to see the whole movie, Chappie is hijacked by the bad guys - and the fantasy almost literally crashes and burns.   The narrative degenerates against a backdrop of numbing violence, gangsta swagger, language that would make Lenny Bruce blush, and copious blood.  

“People are shot at, crushed, punched, stabbed, and even sliced in half,” writes a review on commonsensemedia.org.  “Motherf—-er is thrown around casually, even by the robot.”  Even in front of 2 and 3 year olds.

So what do we have here?  A truth in labeling problem on the screen?   A parenting problem in the seats?   A failure in society’s responsibility to its children?  Or all three? 

R rating a “badge of street cred”

To be fair, Chappie is a deep film for a mature audience.  It asks profound questions about whether man-made machines can ever acquire human consciousness.  It reminds us that the brains behind our increasingly digital society are still flesh and blood human beings, with all the foibles and weaknesses that implies. 

But an R rating, for many kids (and their parents), is a badge of cultural street cred these days. 

We stayed and watched them exit.  The parents seemed to take it all in stride, as casually if they were leaving a soccer game.  If their consciences bothered them, either for the psyches of their children, or for the other patrons who were expecting a distraction-free evening at the movies, it didn’t show.

It’s heartening to learn of the action of Classic Cinemas, a small, family owned theater chain in suburban Chicago.  For three years running, Classic’s policy is that children under the age of six are not allowed into R-rated features at any time, even when accompanied by a parent or guardian. 

“Our intent is not to dictate family values or determine what is appropriate for children,” Classic’s web site states

But the fact is, we all need to be deeply concerned about what content is appropriate for young children. Any responsible parent knows the risks inherent in allowing their child's mind to become inured to extreme violence.  Or they should know.  

And that, ironically, is one of the central messages of Chappie.