Although Blomkamp’s feature film career is young, his films have shown remarkable consistency and commitment to his vision as a director. Blomkamp started his career as a 3D animator. He worked on television shows before being promoted to lead animator for several feature films, and becoming more well known due to his talents. He created several short films which caught the eye of Peter Jackson. With Peter Jackson’s support, he was hired to direct his first feature length film, which was supposed to be a film adaptation of the video game series Halo. That film never got off the ground and Peter Jackson agreed to produce a feature length version of one of Blomkamp’s short films. That became District 9 (2009), which was a critical and commercial success. His next project was the big-budget Elysium (2013), which failed to live up to expectations. His latest film, Chappie was released in 2015, and is another adaptation of one of his short films. Chappie was not well received by audiences or critics. Blomkamp claims that his next feature film will take place in the Alien universe and pre-production has began.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Neill Blomkamp film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Blomkamp’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
All of Blomkamp’s films so far have used science fiction as a vehicle to explore significant social or economic issues that effect everyday life. Each of his films has a major issue on which the premise is based, but it also explores other social or economic issues at the same time. District 9 explores the issue of segregation. At first it shows a perspective of trying to enforce the segregation. As events unfold, the main character gains new insight, and later fights against the injustice. Another important issue the film covers is xenophobia. In Elysium, the issue is wealth disparity. The poor live on earth amid horrible conditions, while the wealthy live above in a space station, and have everything they ever wanted. Other issues include health care, bureaucracy, and overpopulation. In Chappie, the main theme is the implication of artificial intelligence, but that premise is presented against a backdrop of other important issues. The film explores the implications of living a life of crime while also questioning the motivations of a military-industrial complex.
All of the protagonists in Blomkamp’s films so far have undergone major changes during the course of their film. In District 9, Wikus van de Merwe is the man in charge of the efforts to relocate the Prawns, but when he accidentally becomes contaminated his body begins to transform. As his body changes, he can’t return to humanity, and ends up fighting to help the Prawns. In Elysium, Max Da Costa is a humble factory worker when an industrial accident gives him radiation poisoning. He is weak, but has to fight to get to Elysium in order to save himself. To assist his efforts, he has a metal exoskeleton grafted onto his body and he becomes more powerful. In Chappie, the titular character is a robot gifted with artificial intelligence. At first, when the AI is new, it doesn’t know anything, and so it has to learn. Chappie initially behaves like a child, and as his intelligence grows he begins to adapt to his surroundings, becoming a gangster, and then later becoming more capable of thinking for itself.
Sharlto Copley plays a major role in all of Blomkamp’s films to date. The story of Blomkamp would be nothing without Sharlto Copley and vice versa. Copley began his career in television as a producer, and ran his own company in South Africa. During this time he met Blomkamp, who worked for Copely in exchange for the use of his computers so that the young filmmaker could work on his special effects. As Blomkamp’s talents grew, he had an opportunity to direct a feature film, and decided to cast Copley as the main character. District 9 made Copley a famous international actor due to its success. Blomkamp then cast Copley as the antagonist, hit-man Kruger in Elysium. Most recently, Copley lent his voice and his movements to the titular character in Chappie.
Cinéma Vérité Tendencies
Blomkamp’s films may not actually be cinéma vérité (or sometimes called observational cinema), but they mimic it. Cinéma vérité is a type of filmmaking often used in documentaries and in the media. In this type of filmmaking, the filmmakers, including the camera, are often intruding into their subject matter. Rather than just watching an event unfold, the audience watches as an interviewer or the filmmaker themselves instigate or become involved in the event that is taking place. Blomkamp used this technique a lot in his short films, to add a sort of “realism” to his science fiction renderings. In his feature films, he uses this technique to add context and exposition. In District 9, the opening scene of the movie is a shot of Copley’s character addressing the camera directly in documentary fashion in order to explain what he does. Later the camera follows him around as he is doing his job before later switching to a more traditional perspective. In Elysium, there are no sequences of cinéma vérité as obvious as in District 9, but the film still has moments where the camera seems like it is involved in the scene rather than just observing it. Blomkamp makes sure you don’t forget about the camera as it bounces around after Matt Damon almost like a documentary, and characters sometimes stand in the way, obscuring part of the picture. In Chappie, Blomkamp uses news clips to fill in the story, and also Dev Patel’s character uses a camera (and addresses it directly) to record his progress while attempting to create artificial intelligence.
Robots and Other “Blended” Special Effects
Blomkamp’s films are all heavily special effects driven, yet there are few sequences that are completely CGI. Instead, Blomkamp uses a lot of blends, combining real location shots with CGI images added in as overlays. Most impressive is his ability to create realistic CGI characters, especially robots. This is especially true with Chappie where Blomkamp did not use traditional motion capture. Instead, he uses a technique that he developed for his short films where the CGI is added in after recording the movements of the actor in the suit during the scene instead of using the suit itself as the reference. In District 9, the “Prawns” are completely computer generated, yet they are based on the movements of actors. Elysium features security robots not unlike those in Chappie, and similar in design to the robots featured in Blomkamp’s short films. In addition to using blended CGI to create characters, Blomkamp uses the technique to create settings. In Elysium, Blomkamp used a dump in Mexico City as his future Los Angeles. To make the setting feel real, the filmmakers blended shots of the actual location with CGI renderings of the overpopulated mega city. This is similar to the Prawn ship in District 9, eerily hanging over the skyline of Johannesburg, which was a real shot.
Check out the last installment in the series: