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Flixist Discusses: Neill Blomkamp

4:00 PM on 03.11.2015 // Jackson Tyler
  @headfallsoff

Which kamp do you fall into?

This past weekend saw the release of Chappie, third feature film from Neil Blomkamp, and it's safe to say reactions have been mixed. Per wrote a great review if you're on the fence about checking it out, but for those of you who've seen it and are familiar with the man's filmography, I chatted with Matt Liparota about Blomkamp's body of work in an attempt to get to the heart of his approach.

I came onto this firmly on the pro-Blomkamp side, and Matt on the anti, but in sharing our perspectives and diving in, it becomes clear there's a lot of common ground in our reasoning despite the difference in conclusion. There are passing mentions of spoilers for each of his movies, so be aware of that, but if that's no trouble, then come right on in!

Jackson: Let’s start with District 9. To me, it’s a very muddy film from a talented first-time director, one with incredibly strong and affecting moments, but more than a little incoherent, thematically speaking. There’s stunning moments, like Wikus’ eviction tour through the District, and the weapon test scenes. But it just doesn’t know what to do after that first act; it’s made its point about apartheid, its made its point about the evils of bureaucracy, and then the arcs just feel perfunctory. Wikus redeems himself, technically, but that doesn’t have any bearing on what the film is trying to say. It’s a great example of a short film expanded to full length that just couldn’t support it.

This is opposed to Elysium, which I think makes the story an active part of its metaphor, not just a necessary element of a movie that exists to slap an allegory to (but we’ll get to that later). What did you think of District 9?

Matt: Reading that, I don’t think our opinions on District 9 differ all that much, Jackson. I don’t hate the film – far from it – but I think it’s a very flawed film that struggles to find a deeper message, if it has one at all. As you said, that first act is pretty great – it’s thematically rich and visually interesting, leaning on the mockumentary format to immerse the viewer into this world that’s so similar to our own yet so different. Even if the viewer is ignorant of the historical apartheid that District 9 draws inspiration from, Blomkamp really sells the horror and injustice of the setting. But I think it kind of loses steam after that first act – it all but drops the mockumentary format, and it moves into more generic sci-fi territory.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily; not every science fiction story has to have some deeper message about the real world nestled within, although some of the best often do. It’s just that that first act is so rich in that sense that I can’t help but find the rest of the film disappointing – it feels like Blomkamp says what he wants to say on a deeper level in the first 20-30 minutes but keeps going until he hits a more feature-friendly length. 

Jackson: Exactly, Blomkamp made his point tonally rather than narratively. It was a metaphor that existed to be a metaphor, it drew parallels and then once that world was established, it tacked a story on to the back of that. The manner in which Christopher’s mission is carried out is ultimately weak, and doesn’t tell us anything about him, his race or his world. It’s strange when you watch the movie, because District 9 changes in front of your eyes from pointed and angry, to bland and generic.

And don’t get me wrong, I really like District 9, because like you say, a film doesn’t have to be this perfectly coherent thing to be good, but I don’t think its inaccurate to say that both its flaws and successes are those of a relative newcomer. Then - and I think this is why everyone was put off - in Elysium, Blomkamp proceeds to drop the realism, the documentary gimmick, and double down on the generic elements. Elysium is a silly genre movie much like the back half of District 9 is, It never reaches his prior film’s heights, but as a whole piece, it’s more assured and together. I know my Elysium opinions are far from the norm, so I’m curious as to how you saw that movie.

Matt: I think you’re correct when you say Elysium is ultimately a more assured piece than District 9, but I also think some of that movie's narrative and constructive flaws are more apparent in Elysium. Blomkamp’s second feature outing again puts us in a not-so-out-there sci-fi world - this time a little more than 100 years in the future instead of District 9’s alternate present - in which he seems to be crafting a narrative to comment on very relevant social issues. The message seems to be kind of muddled from the start though - is he commenting on wealth inequality? Class warfare? Labor issues? Immigration? Access to healthcare? It seems to shift which of those it’s “about” at any given moment during the first act and, while it’s true that those issues have a tendency to overlap in the real world, in Elysium it just comes out feeling muddy and confusing.

Of course, this is just for the first act - like District 9Elysium seems to largely abandon the prospect of a deeper message after that first act in favor of something akin to a heist movie and a more generic sci-fi action sequence to cap things off. I can never shake the feeling that Blomkamp seems to establish really interesting worlds ripe for exploration (both thematically and visually) which are quickly set aside in favor of material I consider less compelling. Don’t get me wrong - Blomkamp has a hell of a style, and his films are visually interesting throughout and his action scenes are kinetic and fun to watch; I just find it drops most of the intellectually engaging material after the first act. But I’ve rambled on enough for now - I have a feeling my view is fairly in line with popular opinion and you suggested yours deviates from that, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Jackson: So to me, Elysium is a film about revolution. The reason for Elysium’s success is every character’s clear, selfish motivation. It sets up all those ideas of wealth inequality, class warfare, immigration, what have you, in order to build this broad strokes world in which every character is desperately trapped. The key scene is when Matt Damon is arrested for making a joke, his humanity repeatedly denied as he’s passed from robot to robot, and reminded of his throwaway nature to this society. Elysium is not a movie about any of those ideas individually, it is about when all of those factors add reach a breaking point, and the status quo can no longer sustain itself.

It got a lot of flack for being a preachy film, but I feel this is a thorough misunderstanding of the movie’s message. Nobody in Elysium is a good person, none of those who carry out the revolution are doing it because it is the right thing to do. They’re doing it because they are desperate, because they have a need that isn’t being fulfilled by the world as it is, and they have an opportunity to change it for themselves.

What Elysium lacks in nuanced social critique, it by far makes up for in the understanding of systemic inequality as a concept. What Blomkamp presents is not the heroic few fighting for their freedom, but merely the collapse of a system that is incapable of sustaining itself. And he does all that within a film that is far more content to be this ridiculous genre piece. Look at Sharlto Copley’s knife! This isn’t a film that wants to be capital I Important in the way that District 9 did, it wants to be this ridiculous, silly sci-fi action flick that just happens to be backed up by a broad but clear thematic push. Like a Verhoeven movie, or even Jupiter Ascending (which, shocker, I’ll also defend for days).

Matt: You make a really strong case there, Jackson. I think where our opinion differs is that I see what you see, but really only in the first act, maybe the first half of the film if I’m being generous. That sort of understanding of inequality is used as a means to an end, to motivate characters into positions where they can take part in big action setpieces. Contrast that with, say, Verhoeven, who finds a way to keep the darkly satirical commentary running throughout his films.

At this point, though, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least point out the impact that marketing and buzz and hype have had on Blomkamp’s movies and my mindset while viewing them. It’s sort of taken for granted that Blompkamp is a director with something to say – some of that is the way his movies have been marketed to the general public, some of that is the way his movies have been covered prior to release, some of that is from the movies themselves.

It’s possible I’ve lost the ability to take his movies at face value and am judging them by what I expect them to be – which is, generally, more meaningful and socially relevant than they tend to be. Maybe that’s not a great way to try and consume these films, but isn’t that how all of us analyze our movies, in part? Besides, nothing exists in a vacuum and Blomkamp has certainly cultivated that reputation as a big ideas director, which seems to persist to this day, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend.

Jackson: That's a key reason that I believe Chappie is, in many ways, a Blomkamp maturation. By this point, the veneer of making an important allegorical film is completely worn away: this is just a Verhoven movie, through and through. It’s tonally all over the place, it’s visually garish, and it’s a weird mix of violent action and childish earnestness that clearly comes from someone for whom Robocop was a formative experience. I mean: the plot of the movie is "A robo cop fights that robo cop from RoboCop!" I know some people consider that kind of aesthetic to be juvenile, but I honestly think embracing that sci-fi silliness in an earnest manner is a maturation. We’re getting a sense for Blomkamp’s voice by now, and it’s not at all the one he was originally pegged with.

Where Chappie falls down, is that it’s thematically bankrupt. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the movie is about, and I saw it about three hours ago. I enjoyed it immensely, though I couldn’t really call it a good movie. It’s a failure, landing far short of every ambition it has, but the manner in which it falls down is glorious to behold. And like you say, much like Jupiter Ascending, this is another silly sci-fi film let down by its advertising (maybe we’ll get one of those every month this year! I should be so lucky).

The advertisements - and even the opening moments of the movie itself - frame it as this grand story of artificial intelligence and humanity, and if you’re expecting that then of course you’re going to be disappointed. I saw comparisons to A.I. multiple times, but its approach to questions of humanity have way more in common with Total Recall. But as you say with Verhoven, his satire is strong, pointed and consistent, and whilst I do think Elysium’s counts (though I understand why others disagree), Chappie goes out of its way to be targetless and ends up saying nothing at all. That final act is a beautiful, incoherent disaster that really has to be seen to be believed. 

Matt: I’m not sure I entirely agree that Blomkamp drops the veneer of having big ideas and something to say with Chappie. It’s a movie about artificial intelligence and what it means to be alive and to be human, but again, it walks right up to the door of saying something interesting about those ideas – or anything at all – and chooses to walk away and head home instead of ringing the doorbell. It’s got all the thematic depth of Short Circuit (or worse, Short Circuit 2), but with better cinematography and nicer set-pieces; though, Chappie might have been better served if he had gone 80s gutter-punk and chased down a mobster to Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero."

It flirts with some really big ideas that would have been really interesting to explore. Hell, Chappie introduces a huge, seismic concept in the last 20 minutes of the movie andnone of the characters seem interested enough to comment on it even in passing, not even the one character directly impacted. But though Blomkamp’s worst tendencies are on display, some of his best are, too – his world-building and visual design is top-notch, and the dude can stage a killer action scene like few others, big scenes that pop even when two of the primary actors aren’t even real people. I enjoyed Chappie (though at some points more than others) but I don’t think it was a good movie or that I even liked it all that much, if that makes sense.

Jackson: Chappie has ideas, but it doesn’t really care about them in the way that its prior efforts do. Those final twenty minutes are why I say it’s a film about nothing, because it includes all these sci-fi concepts, all these very serious topics that have been debated in film after film, then throws them in the air and (spoiler) turns all the main characters except south african macklemore into robots! It suddenly decides it’s going to be Lucy and all the characters are like “sure, I guess we’re gonna be robots now!”

It’s entertaining to watch, even though the movie itself is thoroughly incoherent. It’s the rare kind of ‘bad movie’ which ends up making me more interested in the director’s forthcoming work. Before Chappie’s neon melodrama, I knew exactly in my mind what Blomkamp’s Alien movie was going to be. Now, I have no idea, and to me, that is incredibly exciting.

Matt: Yeah, I think that last 20 minutes is where Blomkamp really reveals that he’s not terribly interested in exploring those big ideas. Dev Patel's Deon treats having his consciousness transferred into a robot as a curiosity, a minor annoyance at worst. This seems like it would be a big, big moment – not only has Chappie learned what consciousness is, he’s figured out how to transplant it, effectively opening the door for humanity to become immortal! Deon has just had his life irrevocably altered in ways he couldn’t have imagined, but Chappie glosses over this and all the big questions it raises without so much as a passing mention (not to mention how Deon just sort of rolls with it even before he puts that helmet on – you couldn’t have asked to be taken to the hospital?).

In that way, I think, Chappie is sort of demonstrable of Blomkamp’s entire body of work (so far) and what I hope I’ve gotten across here – full of lofty ideas but entirely unwilling to engage with them in any real way, thus making the whole endeavor an extremely vapid affair that’s very, very enjoyable to look at. I guess when you get right down to it I can’t say I hate any of Blomkamp’s work, but I don’t think he deserves nearly as much praise as he tends to get. I’m intrigued by Blomkamp on Alien, in part because I hope working on an existing franchise will reign in some of his more troublesome filmmaking tendencies. But right now I can’t say I’m all that excited for it.

Jackson: I don’t want him to reign in his more troublesome tendencies; if a franchise film smoothed Blomkamp’s rough edges that would be a tragedy. I want him to keep being him, striking out, and if he manages to hit gold, then that’s great. But ultimately, I don’t think “is Blomkamp good or bad?” is even a question worth asking. In a genre dominated by sequels and comic book adaptations, he’s at least trying to put out films with a unique voice, and at this point I’m along for the ride. I want him to keep reaching further than his grasp allows, because whether he falls or makes it, the end result is so much more more worthwhile than another Man Of Steel. If he starts making good but bland movies that could have been made by anyone? That’s worse than ten Chappies in a row.



Jackson Tyler, Editor
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Flixist's previous coverage:
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