Exasperation with Neill Blomkamp’s latest film, Chappie, leads one to wonder if the Alien franchise has landed in the wrong hands….
by: Christopher Rockwell
Neill Blomkamp is not the man for the job.
It’s a shame really, as it appeared for a brief moment in time that Neill Blomkamp was a revelation. Following the release of 2009’s District 9 – a rare sci-fi Oscar’s Best Picture nominee – it seemed clear as day that we had a savant on our hands. A director that would take the oft-panned genre of science fiction into the future. A man capable of seamlessly melding futuristic technologies into everyday settings. A visionary of grim speculative fiction who had the capacity to craft jaw-dropping visuals on a minimal budget. But, the failures of Elysium, and of the recently-released Chappie, have me convinced that District 9 will forever be looked back upon as Blomkamp’s only triumph. And while many may believe it is too early to write off Blomkamp, that is exactly what I am here to do.
In countless ways, Neill Blomkamp just doesn’t get it. So much so, it is hard to know where to start in dissecting the inadequacies of his last two releases. For fun, let’s commence with the gold-tooth faux-thuggery which has become a linchpin of Blomkamp’s films. Championed by Sharlto Copley as Agent Kruger in Elysium, and continued through the street criminals Ninja and Yo-Landi (played by musicians Ninja and ¥yo-Landi Vi$$er of the South African rap group Die Antwoord) in Chappie, these belligerent, testosterone-junkies masquerading as villains make these films basically unwatchable unassisted. In Chappie, Vi$$er and Ninja’s performance are so woeful, so deeply cringe-inducing, that even awarding them with a Razzie for their acting would be too kind. The erratic and ineffectual wails of dialogue are ear-piercing and brassy, yet dull and ineffectual – and wholly distracting. And what makes their performance worse is that you are reminded throughout the movie that these are not actors, but members of the band Die Antwoord. How? Because somebody (Blomkamp?) thought it was a good idea for them to wear shirts with their own bands name on it scene after screen throughout the movie (while several Die Antwoord songs appear on the soundtrack!). What the F#*k!!!…..
Blomkamp’s understanding of the behavior of those who inhabit the underworld of society, those who are desperate and who turn to crime as a last resort, is beyond comical. His characters aren’t merely underdeveloped – that would be a vast improvement on what actually is the case – they are overly-exaggerated and hyperbolic to the point of ludicrous. To the point where they exist as caricatures of the prototypical villains (or in other cases – of the hero, or government representative, or what have you) they claim to represent. And Vi$$er and Ninja represent this weakness of vision and of casting scrupulously. Add to that the inexcusable squandering of the talents of two fine actors in Matt Damon (Elysium) and Hugh Jackman (Chappie), and the red flags become unmistakable. These are two performances I am sure Matt and Hugh would like to forget as soon as possible. I know I would.
Elysium and Chappie follow directly in the footsteps of District 9. To a fault. All three films are set in the near future and accommodate a similar narrative; the dispossessed underdog clamoring against the tyranny of a high-tech corporate state. And while science fiction as a genre has continually – and impressively – dissected pressing social concerns by displaying to an alarming degree what our future could be, it feels like Blomkamp just keeps playing the same note over and over again. While Chappie incorporates provocative ideas about the concerns of leaning too hard on artificial intelligence, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the very notion of sentience and consciousness – none of the ideas are explored to completion. And instead of adding dense context and insight into the riveting thoughts presented, Blomkamp’s patterned narratives does not find him moving forward as a filmmaker, but rather presents him as a director stuck in a rut. It’s self-plagiarism at its finest. The same old car with a new coat of paint.
Chappie is what you get if you put District 9, Appleseed, Short Circuit, ET, Robocop (The Moose is a dead ringer for the ED-209 from Robocop), Frankenstein and Jar Jar Binks in a blender and allow them to amalgamate. But what pours out is a water-downed version of the depth it is so obviously reaching for. Blomkamp’s awareness of the techniques of visual storytelling involving a grasp of poignant subtleness is non-existent. The manner in which he shoves plot points down the viewers throats is as graceful as a tidal wave. Chappie’s transformation from Navin Johnson to Robot Rambo, while often intriguing, was a complete failing, as although he attempted to vigorously, Blomkamp was unable to put the heart in Chappie. And that was the point. One that was dramatically missed.
Nerds remain a finicky bunch. But even with all our nit-picking and over-analyzation, we are not that hard to please. We love robots. We love spaceships and dystopian settings. We just can’t get enough of it! And so, when Blomkamp displayed in District 9 a distinctive scrappy visual sensibility and paired it with weighty political commentary, we – us nerds – were on board. Fully. But Blomkamp isn’t making it easy to love him any longer. With the bountiful character failings and the unsatisfactory story-lines he has now told us back-to-back, there are concerns. Houston, we have a problem.
With Blomkamp now poised to take the helm of the Alien franchise, I would like to remind you – the reader whose voice matters – that it is still not too late. Something can still be done. While Neill Blomkamp has indeed signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to make a new Aliens movie, and Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn (Corporal Dwayne Hicks!) are rumored to be attached to the project, shooting has not yet begun. There is still hope. I have no doubt that working with a well-established canon that has a life of it own will be revitalizing to Blomkamp, and I truly do not question that the proposed Aliens films directed by him would look good. But that isn’t the question we should be asking. What we really should be asking is will this film be good? At this point, it appears doubtful. Which leads us to one more final question: What is JJ Abrams doing after Star Wars?