Neil Blomkamp - "Social commentary in Science-fiction"
Written by Monica Jowett
South African director Neill Blomkamp is a science-fiction film director whose films often refer to current political and social issues in an action packed yet entertaining way. District 9 (2009) Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015) use a documentary style of filmmaking with use of hand held cameras. This, coupled with the photo-realistic computer generated visual effects makes for a different kind of sci-fi movie.
District 9 develops themes of social class through the depiction of xenophobia and segregation as the aliens, nicknamed derogatorily as ‘prawns’ that have stopped their spaceship over Johannesburg are forced into government encampment, out of the way of the human population. They are then made to register with the government due to clashes between humans and aliens over the years. The crackdown and segregation on the alien population alludes to the Apartheid era of South Africa. Furthermore, the terrible way aliens are treated by the government and military officials, demonstrates how some people act towards things they do not know or understand. Ironically, when Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is infected by alien DNA he relates more to the aliens and finds his humanity as he appears less human.
Filmed in documentary style, with direct to camera interaction from Wikus and then ‘interviews’ with other actors covering the alien invasion and hand held camera movements, Blomkamp creates a sci-fi reality set in the present day. Through the use of visual effects and CGI aliens at a photo-realistic standard District 9 is an example of science-fiction that could be happening now (should aliens exist). His eye for this type of dramatic film draws influence from other present-day set sci-fi films from the 1980’s that have a gritty harsh reality that features in his other films.
Elysium, Blomkamp’s second film moved to the setting of Los Angeles in the year 2154. Featuring actors Matt Damon (Max Da Costa) and Jodie Foster (Secretary Delacourt) on different sides of the system, Elysium focuses on the themes of overpopulation and healthcare. On an overpopulated Earth with many people too poor to afford healthcare and in constant battle with authority figures, Max is hit by radiation poisoning and the only way to save him is to get to Elysium, a space station orbiting Earth that inhabits the rich and powerful and provides healthcare that cures everything from cancer to re-growing limbs. However, Delacourt is strict about who is allowed onto the station, and uses extreme defences to stop Earth citizens from using the medical care. In Elysium Blomkamp has robots to do the law enforcement, similar to Chappie yet the conflict is between the humans. Set over a hundred years from now, the themes and situation are not that different from today. Blomkamp again uses a science-fiction world to show the worst part of contemporary life.
Blomkamp’s recent film Chappie has similar themes to his previous films, dealing with overbearing law enforcement and is again set in Johannesburg. The beginning of the film shows through newscasts how the crime rate in Johannesburg has rocketed and weapons manufacturer Tetravaal has created police robots to keep the crime down. Engineer Deon (Dev Patel) is also working on a programme to develop artificial intelligence, which he succeeds in doing, with the outcome of Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Again, Blomkamp mixes realistic computer imagery in a dark urban world to great effect as Copley’s motion capture performance places Chappie in odd gangster life. Hugh Jackman, sporting a hilarious mullet as Vincent, Deon’s rival, is desperate to prove himself using the MOOSE, a larger version of the police robots that has more gun power than a tank. Chappie, a sentient robot, acting like a teenage gangster is against the odds, and the authorities become extremely wary of a robot who can think and feel. Chappie never questions if A.I. is possible as Blomkamp has created a robot that becomes aware of his own mortality as his battery runs out.
Blomkamp’s films frequently reference technology opposing humans. District 9 has an alien race with their own better developed forms of technology, Elysium has the medical bays which can cure anything, yet are only available to the elite and Chappie has A.I. that realises the cruelty of humanity. This version of social commentary is not uncommon in science-fiction films yet Blomkamp makes it entertaining through the big showdowns and drama in the humanity of his central characters. Neill Blomkamp’s view of the future is an interesting view, often suggesting how the future is now.