“I Am the Entertainer”: The Young, Uneven Career of Neill Blomkamp

Blomkamp“I suppose I’m an entertainer.”

Neill Blomkamp said this of himself during a TED Talk video recorded in November of 2009, three months after the release of his debut feature, “District 9.” He noted that many TED Talks are given by people with PhD’s, those who are the tops in their respective fields. Blomkamp seems to think himself a notch lower, someone undeserving of lecturing, teaching, someone who has too little to say. It’s almost an admission.

Set in the director’s native country of South Africa, “District 9” follows the relocation of an alien species by a government task force led by Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). It is by all means entertaining (certainly in the slightly demeaning context established by Blomkamp) but to label it so dismissively is to ignore the larger ideas at work. Many movies are ultimately submarined by attempts to shoehorn a morality tale into an otherwise competent structure. The insistence with which “Snowpiercer” tried to be a commentary on the class system detracted from what was, in all other regards, a highly enjoyable flick.

“District 9” is based loosely on the events of the apartheid era, yet manages to evade grating on the audience by bashing us over the head with its message. There’s enough heart, enough wit and intelligence, that whatever lessons the viewer learns or doesn’t learn never feel forced or cheap. A cast of obscure character actors (including a brilliant turn by Sharlto Copley in his debut performance) lends the film the very humanity it needs to actually connect with the audience rather than feign artificial connection and, by doing so, makes null everything and anything the movie has to offer.

Sharlto WikusThe same cannot be said for another recent sci-fi epic, “Elysium,” which, in a poetic twist, was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. It is shocking that the very same hand that delivered “District 9” so deftly also molded something as heavy, tiresome, and just plain forgettable as the Matt Damon vehicle that hit theaters two summers ago. It’s preachy and dull and, worst of all, lacks the fun of the best adventure movies. How often have we seen the “us versus them” conflict ham-handedly presented to us on a platter rather than leave it up for a more rewarding interpretation?

As starved as Hollywood is for some quality, original science fiction, perhaps Blomkamp would be better served steering away from the genre. His films already have political, dramatic undertones to them; “Elysium”’s was as clumsy and self-serving as “District 9”’s was brilliant. With his latest film, “Chappier,” set to be released in a few days, I cannot help but consider it with apprehension. Early trailers made it out to be a thought-provoking drama about the nature of what it means to be truly “human” (haven’t seen that before, have we?) yet recently the film has been marketed as an action movie. Now, this quasi-sci-fi/drama/action/meditation of the meaning of life is currently being lambasted by early reviews, making Blomkamp one-for-three with two straight stinkers.

ElysiumThe premiere of “Chappie” comes on the heels of the announcement that Blomkamp will be helming the upcoming “Alien” movie, for which Michael Biehn (Hicks from “Aliens”) has been rumored to return to the franchise. The history of the “Alien” franchise – two excellent films followed by two total duds followed by “Prometheus” (which is an article in itself) – makes this a risky venture for the greenhorn director.

“Alien” and “Aliens” were fairly straightforward sci-fi horror and action, respectively, albeit with whatever layers further analysis may lend to them. Blomkamp has shown a lack of interest in making anything as easy as that. All three features credited to his name have some sort of philosophical depth to them, some additive putting them a level above the common genre film. It is ironic then that Blomkamp says of himself in November of 2009, “I suppose I’m an entertainer.” The word “entertainer” as Blomkamp uses it conjures up images of a huckster circus leader, tricking people out of money, overcharging for access to artificial thrills, people oohing and ahing at something that isn’t there.

ChappieA scene in “Jurassic Park” sees Dr. Satler speaking with a beleaguered Dr. Hammond, his dinosaurs wreaking havoc, his dream ruined in a matter of hours. He tells a story of his youth, when he had a flea circus. There were, of course, no fleas, and the swings and diving boards and such were mechanically operated. Nonetheless, he says, people swore they could see the fleas jumping and swinging and swimming. He describes the park as “something that wasn’t an illusion…something that was real.” He strives for credibility, yearns to be a real magician, not someone who relies on gimmicks and distraction and smoke-and-mirrors. Blomkamp wants legitimacy as a thoughtful filmmaker while remaining true to the entertainment he sees as being a lower art form than his contemporaries practice.

I have never met Neill Blomkamp. It is likely I never will. I don’t mean to accuse him of being a phony or of being insincere. This is all speculation, my own interpretation of his career, where it’s been and where it is currently headed. Many people thoroughly enjoyed “Elysium,” and I’m sure many people will enjoy “Chappie” despite the less-than-promising reception of late. I too will likely find myself sitting in a theater, a seat costing twelve dollars, waiting for the movie to begin. Because with a film as good as “District 9” comes a certain amount of leverage, of respect. He’s been brilliant before, why can’t he be brilliant again? I’m uncertain of how good it will be, how wide the chasm will be between an enjoyable movie and a quality one. I do know this: a half-baked idea will lead to a half-baked product. That is an undeniable law of creating something from nothing.

Article by Lucas Dispoto

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