Thoughts on Neill Blomkamp

Hello, friends! You’re reading the first of hopefully many entries at Worrying About Film, which I hope, selfishly, will be a good place to put my thoughts about films I’m watching so they don’t have to be in my brain anymore. This isn’t intended to be an outlet for scholarly analysis of film or even current film reviews, instead I want this to be a place for me to hash out things that I can’t stop thinking about. Like why I keep going back to Birdman even though I know it’s mostly hot air. Or why I need resign myself to the fact that there’s nothing interesting lurking beneath the surface of Quantum of Solace, as much as I want something to be there.

AHOY MATEY: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD.

Chappie in 'Chappie'

Ever since I saw Chappie a few weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Neill Blomkamp. I have (had?) high hopes for him and I want him to succeed, especially since very few mainstream directors do what Blomkamp does, i.e. make hard-R original sci-fi on a relatively big scale. District 9 had a very modest budget and made the most of it, but both Elysium and Chappie were substantially larger productions. The enormous success and near-universal acclaim for District 9 afforded Blomkamp larger budgets for his subsequent projects, but at least at this time it appears that Hollywood’s faith in Blomkamp may have been misguided.

Shortly before Chappie’s release, a headline spread across the internet that Blomkamp, speaking with Uproxx about Elysium, admitted that he “fucked it up.” Many patterns are becoming increasingly apparent as the director’s filmography expands, the most striking of which to my eyes is that Blomkamp has big conceptual ideas that he has no ability to follow up on. Blomkamp has admitted that he bases his films off large sci-fi concepts, which can be fine, but in the case of Chappie and Elysium, the actual films behind these concepts are hollow and weak. All three films descend into messy, gory, and mostly boring shoot-em-ups by their respective third acts. With his latter films, Blomkamp is also demonstrating a bothersome habit of tying up his films with lazy, easy happy endings that feel incongruous with the ugliness that precedes them. To draw a comparison, I still maintain that the end of Total Recall is terrible, but that film is good enough to overcome it. Elysium’s ending especially is similarly cheery, and just ends an ugly film on a false note.

Matt Damon in 'Elysium'

While the success and acclaim for District 9 were great for Neill Blomkamp’s career in the following years, it’s hard to say if it’s been a good thing for audiences seeing his later films. Blomkamp has said in interviews that getting Chappie greenlit during the production of Elysium was not an issue, but perhaps a bit more oversight would have been helpful. District 9 is a good movie, and was rightly praised for its uniqueness at the time of its release. It remains unique and singular in the cultural allegory of its premise, but suffers when placed next to Elysium and Chappie as the similarities between all three films make themselves apparent. All three films feature a disadvantaged protagonist with a ticking mortality clock (Sharlto Copley turning into an alien in District 9, Matt Damon’s radiation poisoning in Elysium, the title character’s faulty battery in Chappie), an antagonist that poses a mostly existential threat to the protagonist (Louis Menaar’s MNU chief in District 9, Jodie Foster’s defense secretary in Elysium, Sigourney Weaver’s executive in Chappie) and an angry, brawny dude that fires guns at the protagonist (David James’ mercenary in District 9, Sharlto Copley’s Kruger in Elysium and and Hugh Jackman’s mullet in Chappie). All three films start with an intriguing premise, but apart from District 9 fail to explore these themes in any kind of meaningful regard.

District 9 explores themes of xenophobia and oppression rather succinctly in its first half, before heads start exploding. A sequence in which the bumbling corporate stooge played by Sharlto Copley attempts to collect signatures on eviction notices from the “prawns” with the help of some private guns plays as both disturbing in its brutality and darkly comic. The transformation of Copley’s character both emotionally and physically over the course of the film as his human form is gradually shed (bearing a striking similarity to Jeff Goldblum’s transformation in The Fly) is a far more interesting arc than anything on display in Elysium or Chappie. Matt Damon gets welded into a mech suit, but his return to the gangster crowd from his past is borne strictly from necessity and doesn’t represent any significant character growth. The character of Chappie builds out from a blank, “childlike” state into something unlikable and frankly, kind of horrifying.

David James in 'Elysium'

I can’t tell if Neill Blomkamp intended for the character of Chappie’s transition from naive infant to day-glo “gangsta” under the tutelage of Die Antwoord’s Ninja to be funny, but it’s not. It’s depressing and off-putting in a way that makes the act of watching the film difficult to stomach. Scenes in which Chappie participates in heists and learns how to shoot a pistol while holding it sideways are played for laughs, but come off as disturbing and tragic in a way that I’m not convinced was intentional. By the end of the film, Chappie has morphed into an unsympathetic, grating caricature. When Chappie transfers his “consciousness” into a new body at the end of the film so he can live forever, I was disappointed that the film took the easy way out of a situation that has at least some dramatic potential. I also spent all of Frozen waiting for Olaf to melt and die, so take that as you will.

Blomkamp has not yet written a film with a third act deserving of its’ film’s premise. The final acts of all three films are dumb shoot-outs, and while the conclusion of District 9 does display some gravitas with the tragic fate of Sharlto Copley’s character, it fails to live up to the film’s excellent, and far less violent, first half. Matt Damon’s character does make a sacrifice at the end of Elysium, but the moment is undercut by a remarkable stupid final scene in which another character magically gives every citizen of the world magic free instantaneous healthcare with a few keystrokes. The deus ex machina of Chappie, by which the concept of digitally thwarting mortality via flash drive is presented out of nowhere in the last 10 minutes, is similarly asinine.

The striking similarities between the narrative structures in all three films lead me to two possible conclusions: either Blomkamp is more concerned with fetishizing futuristic military hardware than telling a compelling story, of he doesn’t trust his audience to stick with the more interesting narratives these films could have explored. Either way, Neill Blomkamp’s filmography so far represents a massive, and tragic, waste of potential. Blomkamp is a tremendously gifted visual artist, as the production design of his films and his striking concept art can attest to, but lavish visual design alone does not a film make. One can only hope some smart people are watching over him and his screenplay as he develops that Alien sequel.

That’s all for now folks, let me know what you think below. Thanks for reading!

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