There's no shortage of ways that Neill Blomkamp’s science-fiction robot story “Chappie” goes off the rails. The movie is a retread of so many bots-gone-wild/bots-still-cute movies, and the way Blomkamp and longtime screenwriting collaborator Terri Tatchell fill out the story does it no favors. You can amuse yourself greatly counting the ways.
Is it the script’s less-than-crisp dialogue that does it in? (“I’m gonna be Chappie’s daddy.” “You’re gonna be Chappie’s daddy?”) Or perhaps the lead villain who seems to have spent a little too much time watching Ali G before shooting this role?
Maybe it's Hugh Jackman as an underdeveloped symbol of thwarted masculinity. Or perhaps it's the armchair theology. ”If you’re my maker, why did you make me so I would die?” is a question people have been aiming toward the heavens since biblical times, though not, as a rule, to Dev Patel.
But more interesting than those factors — indeed, more interesting than anything happening in the film — is what’s happened to Blomkamp. The South African burst on the scene a little more than five years ago with “District 9,” a movie that was both a brilliant sci-fi tale and a sharp allegory of apartheid-era South Africa. (“District 9” also had the help of Peter Jackson, which in retrospect may have had more of an effect than we realized.)
But the shine has since come off the armor. Blomkamp tried to repeat the sociological concerns, on a grander scale, with 2013’s “Elysium” but ended up with a muddled overreach that was more interesting for the discussions we sought to have around it than for anything happening in the film.
And now comes “Chappie” and its hodgepodge of dystopian landscapes, gangsters, weapons companies and, of course, those chestnutty sentient robots who we’re all supposed to love because, you know, they’re just so much more human than the rest of us.
The best that can be said of the movie is that it tries, like an off-key teenager at the high-school talent show, really hard, especially when it’s borrowing from Blomkamp’s own repertoire. Much of this doesn’t work either — the non-human creature that deserves our human sympathies was conceived much more interestingly in “District 9,” as was the framing device of on-camera experts and journalists looking back at the events in the film.
But at least Blomkamp was knocking off himself in those scenes. Much of “Chappie” seems like reconstructions off the junk pile of much better movies made by someone else -- “Robocop” and “Short Circuit,” to take two '80s examples, albeit without the sleek thrills of the former or the comedy and character of the latter.
I was thinking about the Blomkamp question after reading my colleague Kenneth Turan’s review of the film, in which he wrote that it “marks the continuing devolution” of Blomkamp, and then again after I laid down 15 bucks to see the movie this weekend. (Hey, we don’t always go to screenings.) Just what is it that has so many directors failing in their follow-up efforts?
Storytelling trends do move quickly. And modern Hollywood is almost designed to make people repeat themselves; so risk-averse are most studios and financiers that a success is often the worst thing that can happen to you as a filmmaker, because too often you’ll be doomed to make inferior versions of the same movie again and again instead of branching out in a way that would benefit both your career and your fans.
But the problem seems to especially afflict sci-fi directors, or at least has been especially afflicting sci-fi directors lately.
In the fall, Christopher Nolan, greeting a fan base that could not have been more primed, became carried away with theories of wormholes and time travel with “Interstellar,” a movie that lacked the imaginative spark that made his previous science-fiction effort, "Inception," so beloved.
Last month the Wachowskis unveiled, with “Jupiter Ascending,” a movie assembled from the spare parts of their other movies, right down to the chosen-one archetypes and secret-world-of-warring villains. God may not play dice with the universe, but He does have Eddie Redmayne mining it for immortality juice.
The reason why all of these filmmakers have fallen prey to the repeat curse may actually be pretty simple. Sci-fi is an idea-driven genre, and most directors, like most people, only have so many big ideas. While some filmmaking disciplines reward experience — many other types of directors, like dramatists, get better as they become more seasoned -- science fiction is about concepts. And coming up with a new one is hard -- especially since, once you have the clout, you don't need quite as bold an idea to break through the clutter the way you did as a newbie.
That’s perhaps why some of the most successful sci-fi and sci-fi-ish franchises are those that switch out directors midstream (the rebooted "Planet of the Apes” comes to mind), and why so many great stand0alone sci-fi movies are from relatively young or new voices.
Ridley Scott had made just one minor feature before "Alien” (and sputtered when he tried to revisit similar territory with "Prometheus" nearly a quarter-century later). George Lucas was a lot better making his early-career “Star Wars” than his later career “Star Wars.” And when it comes to Spielberg, would you rather watch “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “A.I.” and the alien mishmash of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”?
Of course, veterans can make some good sci-fi too. James Cameron has been doing it for years, and J.J. Abrams still has the touch. But if you had to bet, repeat sci-fi efforts won’t hold up as well as a director's earlier work.
This shouldn’t actually be surprising. If filmmakers were in a less abstract business — say, inventing physical objects — we wouldn’t be at all thrown if someone came up with one or two nifty contraptions and then called it a day. But in the world of ever-increasing fan expectation, directors are expected to keep delivering, making movies that are better and more original than the original ones they came up with before.
One way around all this for a filmmaker is to switch up genres so sci-fi is only one notch in a very diverse résumé. Kubrick knew this intuitively, and Scott sometimes seems to know it. Or a director can simply wait many years between movies, as Cameron has, stoking our hunger and letting new technology fill in the idea gap.
But other sci-fi directors feel they want to continually succeed in the genre. They want to play the very difficult game of topping themselves and matching our growing expectations, a decision that in turn prompts a timeless question: “Why do you make these movies only so they will die?”