Two days before I moved into my college dorm room my freshman year, I received a copy of Entertainment Weekly with this cover:
And I thought "Whoa, what is this film?"
That film was the tiny budgeted District 9, a film I would go on to become completely obsessed with and, eventually, run out to purchase on Christmas night with the cash I had raked in at the last Blockbuster that was left within my hometown's city limits. It is currently in my Blu-ray player as we speak on mute. Occasionally, I look up and take a moment to marvel at its genius, as I have done ten thousand times before.
The architect of this film that I have come to admire so much, writer/director , was little-known before his out-of-left-field hit in 2009. Being a loyal fan, I had heard whispers of his work as a producer on a science fiction flick with style. I had also caught wind of a rad viral marketing campaign, but hadn't witnessed it for myself (I had only just bought my first computer. I wasn't yet aware of the endless possibilities the Internet had in store for me and my desire to soak up every detail of my film obsession). But, even with the groundswell, I could have never imagined it would have been as successful as it was upon opening (Just a tidbit of trivia for you, this film scored a total box office gross of more than seven times it's $30 million budget. Seven).
And so of course, I am completely pumped about Blomkamp's next project, Elysium, which has an estimated $100 million budgeted for production. Let's all take a moment to consider what this man did with a third of that. You have my permission to get off-the-wall stoked.
Naturally, I got curious about this Blomkamp character. Being an aspiring director myself, I did some digging. Well, a lot of digging. Actually, I got a little crazy about this guy. It was an addiction of sorts (not unlike the 'prawn’s' love of cat food, to be honest.
I couldn't get enough of the man. I found out District 9 was his first feature (That's right, people. I said first) and that he was a mere 35 years old when the film was released. The allegory for the Apartheid in South Africa was pretty obvious to me and anyone else with a brainstem, but I was fascinated to discover Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg and that most of the footage was gathered in the slums around Chiawelo, Soweto (In fact, the only shack that was built specifically for the film was Christopher Johnson's). Blomkamp also spent several years working as a computer animator, with credits for episodes of Stargate SG-1 and Smallville, which is why so much of his work is digitally animation-centric.
Naturally, I hit upon some of his short films, all of which are available to view via one of the Internet's true triumphs, Youtube.
We're going to work backwards because his oldest short is the one I am most excited to talk about. So, Tempbot is Blomkamp's most recent short film (if you don't count the mysterious Crossing the Line, a project he co-directed with Peter Jackson in 2008 but is completely impossible to locate in its entirety to this day) and is totally fascinating. Take 14 minutes and check it out here
It's easy to pick up on Blomkamp's niche: he's a sci-fi man, through and through. The wonderful thing about this short, and really all his films, is that Blomkamp goes for the tried and true, every time. He doesn't just go for the approach (rooted in reality as much as possible) but he goes the whole nine yards and everything but what could not physically be created is as realistic as humanly possible. This film is, of course, allegorical as well, as it features an artificial intelligence android being placed within the HR office of some corporation and addresses alienation in the workplace. It's the only of Blomkamp's films I find even remotely comical, but that's important when discussing Chappie, his newest feature-length (Hold onto your butts people. We'll get to that).
The best thing about Tempbot is that he never actually says a word of dialogue throughout the duration of the 15-minute short. Of all the shorts, this is the most impressive when considering a lack of verbal communication because it is so pivotal to the story. Tempbot's interaction with everyone at the office is an essential part of what makes the short unique, and Blomkamp creates a complex character bearing the weight of prejudice and rejection. Its touch of humanity, despite the plot's focus on an artificial intelligence device, is something truly special.
Next is one that will be eerily familiar to anyone who's seen District 9, Alive in Joburg.
Obviously, this is the short film on which District 9 is based. It's a simple seven minutes total, featuring a series of on-site interviews discussing the arrival of alien life in Johannesburg. It's pretty much the opening sequence of District 9 (though several of you will notice Sharlto Copley, appearing as a dramatically different character than the one he depicts in District 9).
I could write a true dissertation on the ways this short (and, by extension, District 9) is pure genius, but many of the points will be reiterated when I discuss his oldest short film and, really, what else is there to be said? The most exciting part about watching Alive in Joburg is that I witnessed the seven minutes that turned into a brilliant feature-length film. It was truly spectacular to see where Blomkamp started and where he ended up. There are variations just as there are some similarities that are so astounding I'd be less than shocked to discover the same footage was used for both projects. Of course, at the same time, it's pretty awesome to consider how much Blomkamp fleshed the story out. The short contains only a similar series of shots as District 9's opening sequence, thus, all it discusses is the arrival of the 'prawns'. So the rest of the story is something completely new. Sharlto Copley's interacting with the aliens and his eventual transformation is not even touched upon. Thus, the meat of District 9's story was created after the fact. The beauty in realizing this fact is that we see what a great story can come out of Blomkamp's mind from just a few simple ideas. And that talent will come in handy very soon.
Next up is Yellow, a short Blomkamp directed in 2006 and is simply fascinating.
Like Tempbot, Yellow focuses on a single artificial intelligence (named 'Yellow', as every A.I. is identified by their color to indicate the strengths/weaknesses of their design) that develops sympathies, passions, and other human-like qualities that eventually drives him to escape his creators. A bit grittier than Tempbot, however, Yellow has this Bourne series feel mixed in with some mismatched footage and interview spots that give us a real-world feel. No awkward sci-fi voice-over, not much of a conclusion, just a simple study of one A.I. and his ability to break the mold.
You guys starting to see a pattern, here? Good. 'Cause it's about to all come together. Lastly (which means this is Blomkamp's first short film) is Tetra Vaal. I will leave you hanging no longer. Here it is, in all its 1 minute and 20 seconds of glory.
Okay, so this short has all the Blomkamp-isms packed into a very short amount of time. It's a sci-fi allegory, this one focusing on the use of police force in slums. Most of the short was shot in the slums of Johannesburg, making the A.I. the only digital elements in the film at all. It's all very raw and without any awkward voice-over or highly-scripted interaction. Put simply, it's a great little sci-fi short with lots of potential. Which is exactly what Blomkamp thought when he began adapting it.
You heard right. This tiny short with infinite potential is being adapted into Blomkamp's third feature-length. And here's the crazy part, the film has already been written. As a matter of fact, Blomkamp has publicly said that he wrote Elysium alone, but adapted Chappie with District 9 co-writer Terri Tatchell at the same time. Okay, you guys ready for the craziest part? Chappie is a comedy. As a matter of fact, Blomkamp has gone on record saying the film is "fucking hilarious".
Now, we've seen elements of humor in Blomkamp's projects before (there were a few moments in Tempbot where I laughed out loud and, of course, Sharlto Copley takes a few great moments towards the opening of District 9), but a comedic film is not something I would've predicted would be Blomkamp's next move. As if whispers of this film weren't intriguing enough, Blomkamp casting choices for Chappie include Sharlto Copley and the South African rap group Die Antwoord. Yup. Both Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er (a serious contender when searching for the perfect Lisabeth Slander for David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) have nabbed leading roles in Blomkamp's third project. Huh. Now, that's an interesting choice.
But honestly, I'm thrilled. I'm so grateful that his hype hasn't forced him into a corner with big studios. I'm thrilled that he's still trying new things. I'm thrilled that after being involved in a major Hollywood blockbuster, he's fallen back into smaller, lower-budget projects. Mainly, my happiness consists of Blomkamp's ability to escape the big-budget scene before his talent and creativity gets completely squashed. Good for you man! You give us hope! So, without even seeing his second feature-length project, I'm already excited to see his next project. That's hype that money can't buy, my friends. Though, I guess, having friends like Peter Jackson and Matt Damon helps, for sure. For now, I guess I'll just have to settle for Elysium. I'm sure there will be enough content for me to revel in for the next three years. I hope. Stay tuned.