When dealing with high concepts in blockbuster, Hollywood drama, it becomes difficult to discern where to trust an audience to decipher the underlying message of the film’s script. For some, over-the-top action sequences and cheap characterization become tools by which more personal filmmaking may be rendered easier to understand. A cinematic spectacle is at times just the right hook to lure an audience into entertaining a given rhetorical dialogue that some big budget action flicks are actually provoking their audiences into engaging. While Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is on the surface a superhero movie, it would be entirely disingenuous to say the film is about Batman. Nolan’s masterpiece is infamously well regarded, and quiet possibly the best psychological drama of the past decade.
On the other end of the spectrum, some directors seem unable to hurdle the hump of a critically lauded debut, and fall into a sophomore slump that can last anywhere between ten years to an entire lifetime. While many believe James Cameron to be a man who can do no wrong, there is a marked difference in quality on a conceptual level between his breakthrough 1984 classic The Terminator and its big budget sequel in 1991. Terminator 2: Judgment Day throws narrative consistency out the window in favor of special effects and propulsive action sequences. While T2 is undoubtedly a blast to watch, its script is seriously lacking. Clichés and lazy sci-fi writing mar it from the inspired, raw speculative fiction of its predecessor; Cameron shows no sign of returning to his comparatively humble roots. His epic sci-fi opera Avatar is already being made into a franchise, despite the lack of substance at the heart of what is quite possibly the worst film of the past decade.
In the case of Neill Blomkamp, whose third feature film CHAPPiE opened this past weekend to near universal derision, Blomkamp’s characteristic engagement in theoretical and socio-political postulation has proven too lightly handled. His new film’s status as yet another big budget action vehicle drowns out the more subtle, human drama lying at the heart of Blomkamp’s artistic yearnings, a film entirely dissimilar from CHAPPiE implied in the film’s redundant and deafening bombast. While this young, South African director previously claimed to have learned his lesson from Elysium (sequentially his sophomore slump), CHAPPiE is purportedly an even worse film, signaling the collapse of a young talent in the midst of creative fruition.
If we, as a movie going audience, proclaim Blomkamp a summarily bad director on the merits of his first three films, including his critically lauded 2009 debut District 9, they would become the only means by which this still inexperienced director would be judged into perpetuity. Whatever future projects Blomkamp may undertake or have in mind, including the previously announced, and until just recently eagerly anticipated, Alien sequel, his initial failures would cast a pall over his entire career going forward. No matter how conceptually ambitious Blomkamp’s oeuvre may prove, regardless of whether or not each film is individually lauded, Blomkamp’s ineptitude arguably inherent in the creative direction of what is only his third film may very well follow him for the duration of his entire career. This would be a sad state of affairs, evident of the entitlement of an audience unwilling to engage with individual talents, following them wherever they may go based on the potential of even a single great movie going experience.
In a situation not all that dissimilar from Blomkamp’s current predicament stands Canadian director Jason Reitman, whose sophomore feature Juno was embraced whole-heartedly by the mainstream, with its successor Up in the Air receiving multiple nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Following his initial success, Reitman’s fourth feature film Young Adult was victim to dwindling audience enthusiasm, and its successors, 2013’s Labor Day and last year’s Men, Women & Children, were giant steps back in terms of courting critical approval. Seemingly, Reitman’s career is over unless he can take a hatchet to his very essence, hacking away at the expressive passion of his subtle, private tragedies in order to make way for something more obviously public.
But there’s much to be said for what Reitman is doing, even in his less-than-well-received films. Even though Labor Day is a cringe inducing, Hallmark card of a drama, and Men, Women & Children was too diverse in its over-ambition toward social appraisal and commentary. Reitman’s voice as an auteur is evoked in both of these films, the very same thematic tone that made Juno and Up in the Air such remarkably pervasive successes. Even Young Adult has something going on, its black comedy tastefully articulated through an anti-hero made sympathetic through the compositional immediacy of Reitman’s direction, making Charlize Theron’s ice queen into a Juno of a different sort but of the same kind.
At one time, film criticism was about celebrating the directors, writers, and actors that make our world come alive through the magic of the movie theatre, and those who wrote about movies were at times a bad picture’s only friends, even if they didn’t like the most recent film from one of their favorite filmmakers. During the 1970s, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, one of the great creative voices that still imbue what we call film criticism today, was on friendly terms with several of Hollywood’s star players. Kael was often relied upon for encouragement and support, her opinions on their creative output collaborative as opposed to combative. In decrying Neill Blomkamp’s CHAPPiE as garbage, we set the art of writing about film back, the ease of descriptive review replacing personal reflection, which is perhaps the difference between a film reviewer and a film critic in the first place.
It would be truly unfortunate if we don’t see another Blomkamp film receive as much attention after the box office failure of CHAPPiE. Blomkamp’s sci-fi playgrounds are visually stunning, his intentions obviously good and at times suggestive of a maturity perhaps not quite fully formed in an artist still attempting to find his voice. It also might behoove the conversation to cite the fact that Peter Jackson, who initially experimented in the horror genre before receiving notice for his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, was the one who saw artistic potential in Blomkamp in the first place, lending him the reins by which to tame his District 9 into creative fruition. Jackson and Blomkamp are kindred spirits. It’s unclear whether or not Blomkamp’s designs for the new Alien sequel will give birth to anything great, but if we don’t choose to go on the ride with Blomkamp we’ll never know.
If we choose to use what limited power we have as movie goers to say no to a director’s request to entertain, our purported love for District 9 will be forgotten in the service of being part of a club of movie reviewers that have more in common with each other than the directors whose films have brought them together as a community. Ironically, such a regressive stance is fundamentally incompatible with the artistry of writing about movies that makes for cohesive, interesting, and collaborative film criticism, analysis in the service of the movies we subjectively love or hate being more important than internet trolling of movies we don’t really care all that much about in the first place. Instead of bashing CHAPPiE outright, try to approach it with Blomkamp’s intentions as a director in mind, and then try to correct its faults through an acceptance of the director’s intentions, regardless of whether you think they were cinematically interesting or redundantly un-compelling, and then wait for Blomkamp’s next move.