I like Neill Blomkamp. I think he has a raw and exciting style that is unlike anything on the cinematic landscape today. His films are edgy and pulsating, filled with social commentary and bursting off the screen with moments of outrageous violence (in many respects, he’s like a young Paul Verhoeven). To this day, Blomkamp’s feature-length debut District 9 is still one of my favorite movie-going experiences. The film had flown under the radar and been brilliantly advertized through viral marketing for months, so we all had a vague idea of what it was all about, only to enter the theater, watch the lights go down, and see the silver screen explode in a way that shocked my body like a cinematic adrenaline shot to the chest.
And I was far from the only one who reacted this way. The movie was a box office and critical smash, earning Blomkamp widespread acclaim, nerd cred, and an Oscar nomination in the process (for Best Adapted Screenplay). Science-fiction is a genre that demands radical reinvention every decade or so, and Blomkamp had done just that. At last, here was an original and much needed voice in science-fiction that demanded to be heard.
Oh, how six years and a couple movies can change all that.
I didn’t like Chappie and didn’t care much for Elysium either, but the vitriol that has been thrown at Neill Blomkamp these past few weeks just seems unnecessarily harsh. I think both movies are filled with great imagery and fantastic sci-fi ideas, but are about a draft or two away from being a good story. They’re not perfect, but they’re certainly not as bad as the trash that becomes blockbuster successes every year. But a lot of fans and critics, most of whom seemed to adoreDistrict 9, act like they’re the worst movies ever released. I don’t think the problem with Elysium’s reception was the fact that people didn’t care for the movie, but rather that they got excited for it based on the strengths of District 9, so when the film failed to deliver, their disappointment became a little blown out of proportion. But the air around Chappie feels different.
The film is getting such toxic word of mouth that it’s already being called a disaster by some people (it’s box office and critical reception having since confirmed that), and the announcement that Blomkamp is directing the new Alien film has a lot of people complaining, both because of his seemingly recent inability to tell a good story and because the Alien franchise already has its own complicated history with fans that’s not too dissimilar to Blomkamp’s. The close proximity ofChappie’s failure and Blomkamp’s Alien talk has many believing that the young director is already plummeting, grasping at whatever he can to stay on good terms with his fans. It certainly doesn’t help that Blomkamp basically turned the entire Chappie press junket into an apology tour forElysium and an audition for his potential Alien sequel. But are we being too quick to dismiss him as filmmaker? I’ve already seen people call him “the next Shyamalan,” which I think is unfair to both Neill Blomkamp and M. Night Shyamalan. But nonetheless, it raises an important question. How many films does it take to accurately judge a filmmaker? Two? Three? How about four?
It seems like in today’s world of cinematic analysis, it doesn’t take long before we start talking about a filmmaker’s “career trajectory,” a side effect of the auteur theory that presented the director as a film’s true author. Before, directors used to be journeymen, going from one project to another and genre to genre, learning and perfecting their craft. But now every film in a director’s output has to come out as a complete vision, while also somehow speaking to the big picture of their filmography. And if general consensus is to be believed, then Neil Blomkamp’s career isn’t going in a good direction. But how many of our great filmmakers knew where they were going just three films in?
For example, it took legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa eight films before he madeDrunken Angel, his first film to truly gain recognition, and another three before he madeRashomon, his first masterpiece. Likewise Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford made dozens of silent and sound pictures before they ever produced a film as great as The 39 Steps or Stagecoach. Can you even imagine a filmmaker today being given ten, or even just five, chances to perfect themselves? Say what you will about the old studio system, but one of its benefits was that every filmmaker that came through worked a lot and got their practice in. People in lower positions could easily work their way up and see if they had a knack for directing without it being a huge gamble on the studio’s part.
One the one hand, it’s a problem with the modern studio system. There’s no reason for these companies to take independent directors who have done one or two successful films and start giving them the keys to their billion dollar franchises. Marc Webb is probably the biggest and most unfortunate example of this. His 500 Days of Summer was one of my favorite films of 2009 (interestingly enough, the same year District 9 came out) and I was eager to see what he could bring to the Amazing Spider-Man. And while I’m not at all a fan of the final products, the best parts of those films are clearly the work of Webb, despite the constant studio interference. But we shouldn’t be rewarding people who do a good job on smaller films with headaches on bigger ones.
Back in the day, the studios had their important A-movies, the films that supported the studios financially and gave them prestige, and unimportant B-movies, which were just there to fill out the bottom half of a double bill. The B-movies where were people learned their craft, and while there was always the pressure to shine, the success of the studio was never riding on their efforts. The problem is that most of the B-movies of yesterday have become the A-movies of today, leaving little space for directors to test themselves without consequence.
I don’t know how Colin Trevorrow or Jordan Vogt-Roberts will fare with Jurassic World and Skull Island, but I hope they succeed. I would just rather see them doing something that comes directly from their own hearts than seeing their take on franchise properties so soon. Their voices are still developing, so putting them on a gigantic stage this early doesn’t feel like it will lead to a terribly forgiving environment.
But on the other hand, it’s also problem with modern audiences. As soon as something looks like it’s going to flop, people are not hesitant to pile on and start mocking it. We like watching a ten car pile-up as much as we like a good comeback. And oftentimes it feels like we encourage the former so we can eventually rejoice for the latter.
Like I said before, I like Neill Blomkamp. I admire his ability to create detailed, tactile worlds and I think he’s a genius when it comes to integrating special effects in real world environments. Have his last few movies not lived up to his unexpected rise to fame? Sure. But I can’t help but think the jump from “exciting new director” to “hack” is premature and the amount of hatred he’s been receiving is disproportionate to the amount of bad work he’s actually put out.
None of this is to say you have to be excited for Blomkamp’s next film or ignore the fact that you may not have liked his past couple of films. But let’s not forget that for every director who was gold pretty much right out of the gate (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc.) there are others who slowly found out what worked for them and what didn’t. Neill Blomkamp could be one of our great directors in a few years, and this rough patch he’s experiencing merely a footnote in his career, but we aren’t really giving him a fair chance to fail and succeed on his own terms.