A dumb robot movie made me cry

I recently watched the mostly terrible but maybe-accidentally-poignant “Chappie,” a forgettable movie that, days after watching it, had stirred an existential crisis worse than most of my daily existential crises.

“Chappie,” directed by the guy who directed “District 9” — which you really must see — is about a South African robot police force used to counter skyrocketing crime rates. A robotics developer obsessed with the notion of consciousness in machines gives the gift — if we want to call it that — of consciousness to a discarded robot that we get to know as Chappie.

I’m hardly in the mood to spend three thousand words panning a flick that has been thoroughly panned by people who watch movies for a living. Forget that the movie missed a half dozen opportunities to comment on the militarization of law enforcement or police violence or the erosion of personal liberty in the face of technological advances that makes Orwell’s vision look downright cute.

“Chappie” made me cry, and I don’t know why.

I guess I do know why after mulling it over for weeks, talking to friends about it, and reading endlessly about why a police robot with soul activated my tear ducts. The reason “Chappie” had such an impact on me is, as far as I can tell, a crisis of hopelessness in our condition, in the way we are, the things we do, and our ability to be — or become — better.

The systematic mistreatment of Chappie made me cry. The cruelty toward that machine — the inhumane way in which people treated it, treated him — was eventually too much. I cleared my throat the first couple times a human being shot or beat or screamed at Chappie. I suppressed a laugh because I found this bubbling of emotion so ludicrous.

This movie is dumb, I told myself. You’re dumb. Everything is dumb.

But it remained — that nagging sorrow, that forceful empathy. Then it burst through my defenses when Chappie called desperately for his mother — a vigilante woman with a cool futuristic haircut who had adopted the machine as her son early on. He called for her after being tormented, tortured, and dismembered by Hugh Jackman, whose heinous mullet is the only thing worse than his character.

Chappie can feel and think, like any person, and in this moment of extraordinary distress, he wants his mommy. All he wants is to be soothed by the woman who speaks kindly to him amid a villainous world of crime and hate and violence. Chappie cries out for comfort and protection. And it was this collection of wires and steel and buttons that overwhelmed me with sympathy and empathy, and made me cry.

The question, naturally, was why. I consume a lot of media people would identify as dark and depressing. I read “The Road” last month and never felt a twinge of emotion. Documentaries about the horrors of the modern political system and the untold human suffering it causes don’t make me misty. But the sight of a robot imbued with consciousness hit me, and hit me hard.

Like I said, existential crisis de jour.

The answer, it turns out, is a fairly simple one: I saw Chappie, a decidedly non-human entity with human feelings, as innocent. I saw him as pure, as unstained by the nature of being a person. Chappie was guiltless by virtue of being a machine. He had no connection to the creature I know as a human being — a deeply, irrevocably flawed animal at the root of everything that is wrong with the world; an unknowing and unapologetic parasite sucking dry a planet that probably can’t wait to shake us off; a cruel and disgusting thing driven entirely by self interest; a frothing-at-the-mouth monster obsessed with money and power, even if it means misery and death for fellow human beings.

Chappie was separated from that. He was his own entity. That’s what triggered my empathetic reaction. I felt flooded by it as I watched this hurt and panicked robot call for his mommy. Forget that he had no flesh or blood, or that the vigilante who read books to the machine was not, in fact, his mother.

Why don’t I feel the same when I see a suffering person on my TV screen? I suppose it’s because that person — crying out for relief, hurt, desperate — is not blameless. Their guilt is in their humanity. They’re people with the same basic biological composition as people who do very bad things, who create a deeply unjust world brimming with pain.

There is no reason for the jury to retire, I hear in my head. In all my years of judging, I’ve never seen someone who wasn’t guilty of being human. Or however the judge in Pink’s head said it.

Am I justified for thinking those thoughts of automatic condemnation? Am I right for blocking my empathy and sympathy receptors just because the subject of the suffering is a human being? Of course not. It’s a horrific mindset, in fact. It’s shameful, at best. At worst, it makes me as bad as those who willingly inflict suffering on others.

I’m grateful for “Chappie.” I try today to see human suffering through the lens I viewed that innocent robot with the grating South African accent. Humanity shouldn’t be damned because some of humanity is damnable. I remind myself of that maxim when I witness suffering, knowing that my disdain for this planet’s dominant species is no excuse for shrugging at the sight of people in pain.

Try seeing people as robots. Try replacing bones and blood and skin with machinery. It might just chip away at your loathing for people.