Chappie and the Curse of a Distinctive Debut

By  · Published on March 10th, 2015

Columbia Pictures

Critics still haven’t lost faith in Neill Blomkamp. That much is evident from many of the middling-to-negative reviews of his newest, Chappie, an ostensible robot-with-a-heart fable that met critics last week with befuddlement and audiences with only minor interest.

The way that Chappie is talked about – as opposed to other badly received wide releases – betrays a sense that the film produces a gap between the particular talents, sensibilities, and concerns that make a filmmaker like Blomkamp interesting against the disappointing reality of the finished product. Our own Rob Hunter stated that the film “arguably continues Blomkamp’s descent since District 9.” In fact, many of the reviews of Chappie aren’t only about Chappie, but assess Blomkamp’s body of work, the overarching concerns that tie this work together, and even his future potential as a filmmaker.

“Absent District 9’s subtle apartheid allegory or Elysium’s health-care brief, but offering a bizarre performance showcase for the rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Blomkamp’s third feature exhausts its meager ideas and the viewer well before the end of its two-hour running time.” Justin Chang, Variety

“…both his previous features similarly show a leaning toward major metaphor and smart underpinnings for his jittery, nervy, daring stories about desperation and deprivation. But he’s never fully fused his frantic plotting with his deeper thinking. District 9’s unsubtle but empathetic apartheid metaphor came closest, while Elysium’s haves-vs.-have-nots messages about health care and financial privilege were suffocatingly heavy-handed. Chappie falls between the two, as it struggles not to overplay its philosophical questions, but at the expense of never really letting them land.” Tasha Robinson, The Dissolve

“Following District 9 and Elysium, Chappie continues Blomkamp’s trend of telling effects-heavy stories about dispossessed underdogs set up to challenge a high-tech corporate state; a box set of these films could accurately and easily be summarized with the title “Fight the Power (in a Motion-Capture Suit).” While it’s certainly nice to see a genre filmmaker engage with social concerns, it’s also worth asking if Blomkamp has literally anything else on his mind to share with the audience.” James Rocchi, The Wrap

“Few people (if any) have displayed such an impressive knack for building an outsized studio movie around such convincingly organic CG on the cheap (District 9 cost just $30 million), and the fact that it’s always the same outsized studio movie doesn’t appear to be much of an obstacle.” David Ehrlich, Little White Lies

According to such reviews, Chappie isn’t only about Chappie – or, its importance doesn’t extend only to the particular qualities or lack thereof within this film exclusively. Chappie is about the efficacy of Blomkamp’s career as a potentially inventive voice in studio-level science fiction. Chappie is about Blomkamp’s upcoming Alien movie. Chappie is about how we recognize talent and vision, and how that initial recognition becomes refuted or repeated with subsequent work. It’s about the difference between an auteur and a one-trick filmmaker.

It would be a gross oversimplification of the auteur theory to apply it to the idea of an artist essentially making the same work over and again. But this idea does speak volumes about the way we often see the relationship of artists to a body of work, not to mention how artists often see themselves: as laboring through, if not obsessing over, a particular idea or theme throughout numerous works. There’s a very thin line, then, between a particular work seeming derivative of a previous iteration of an idea, and a particular work that builds upon, develops, or revisits an idea in an interesting way.

Sony Pictures

And this potential for derivation is particularly pronounced when the filmmaker in question has produced a landmark debut. Does the distinctive first feature become a sign of promise later realized, or an albatross that the filmmaker unwittingly carries through their career as a reminder that the peak of their skills and the extent of their thematic interest was communicated loudly and fully with a first feature, turning all subsequent works into an echo of the qualities that were once distinguishing and now familiar? Worse still, does the impactful debut lose its luster as a result of what critics and audiences see as diminishing returns, transforming that film from a distinctive, promising, unique first feature into something that, in retrospect, may not have been doing everything it seemed to be?

Neill Blomkamp seems to be at a particularly uneasy stage in terms of the reputation he’s developed since 2009. After the down-the-middle reception of Elysium and the mild-to-negative responses to Chappie, his means of combining inventive science fiction visuals combined with allegorical social commentary resonates with many critics less like a signature and more like a continuously revisited and gradually receding well of ideas. This speaks to a particular dilemma for directors who have distinctive first features to which they’re expected to live up. How much should their subsequent efforts resonate with established work so that later films are recognizable in conversation with earlier films as their films, and to what degree should a director deviate from the ideas and themes that informed their previous work so that they don’t come across as a redundant talent? It’s a difficult act to balance, one that runs the risk of repetition on the one hand and becoming an illegible brand on the other.

And for some reason it’s a trap that directors of initially well-regarded high-concept, genre based films run into with some regularity. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko gradually developed a dedicated cult until the film became essential dorm room viewing. And while his subsequent two features continued to explore apocalyptic themes through the tools of science fiction, neither Southland Tales nor The Box quite struck the unanimous chord as his initial feature. Similarly, M. Night Shyamalan’s career has taken a gradual dive from associations with high-grossing, critically beloved puzzle-like thrillers beginning with The Sixth Sense (technically his sophomore effort, but the first to make his name known) to accusations of technical ineptitude and empty, predictable storytelling. In each of these cases, it’s precisely what was interesting about these filmmakers’ earlier works that formed the criteria by which their subsequent works were deemed lacking.

Many filmmakers spend their entire careers not only attempting to get movies made, but to make their mark to any degree within film culture. Yet maintaining that mark seems almost as difficult as making it in the first place. With the mixed-to-negative reception of Chappie, Blomkamp – who by all means seems to practice critical self-awareness about his own filmmaking, and can certainly be said to be a rare studio director making the exact types of films he wants to make – is arguably within the Lady in the Water stage of his career’s discourse: a critical and commercial stumble from which the results of his next move could be significantly determinative in regards to the future economics of his career as well as his critical reputation.

I haven’t really talked about Chappie itself here, but rather the ways in which Chappie has been discussed because discourse itself plays a significant role in the arcs of directors with distinctive, name-making debuts. Movies like District 9, Donnie Darko, and The Sixth Sense were not rolled out as inevitable successes, and in the first two cases were highly improbable productions. They were cases in which a filmmaker’s name seemed to come out of nowhere, in which discourse became the life force that fueled the film’s circulation – first lauding it and subsequently exploring ways to make sense of what it does so differently from the rest. It is part of an inevitable cycle that this same discourse creates expectations for said filmmaker’s future work, expectations that didn’t exist before their debut. And often the worst thing a filmmaker can do in such a scenario is pretty much what is expected.