Looking back at Chappie, with director Neill Blomkamp

Two years on, Neill Blomkamp reflects on the themes and critical reaction to his divisive sci-fi film, Chappie...

“Part sci-fi action film, part crime thriller, part existential drama” was how we described Chappie when it came out in 2015: a genre piece that, beneath its off-beat tone and designer violence, said something quite pertinent and moving about the human experience.

Its central character, an innocent robot installed with artificial intelligence, is as vulnerable to his surroundings and upbringing as any human child; little wonder, then, that in the space of a few days of living with a pair of gangsters, Chappie (played by a mo-capped Sharlto Copley) goes from budding young artist to gun-toting outlaw. For us, this was one reason why Chappie was such an effective, absorbing sci-fi movie – though, to our surprise, this wasn’t a view shared by most other critics and film sites. You only have to look at its 33 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes to get an idea of how Chappie was; while the film had its defenders, many reviews were downright scathing.

Of course, Chappie isn’t the first genre film to be greeted with hostility on its release; Blade Runner and The Thing were both panned by critics. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers was bafflingly accused of promoting fascism. It’s easy to imagine Chappie undergoing a similar reassessment as those films; indeed, cinema-goers seemed to warm to it far more readily than critics did, even in 2015.

For director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp, though, the reaction to Chappie still smarts. We spoke to him recently about his new project, Oats Studios, which will specialise in making experimental short films away from the “test screenings and studio politics of Hollywood”.

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When the conversation turned to Chappie, Blomkamp talked frankly about its critical and commercial performance, and how deeply it affected him. It’s a reminder that, behind every movie – as polished and expensively marketed as it looks from a distance – there are human beings who’ve spent months of their lives crafting what we see on the screen.

“I think that I completely came out of [Chappie] making the right choice,” Blomkamps ays, ” which is that I’m just doing the stuff that I love.”

If you haven’t seen Chappie yet, we’d urge you to track down a copy. If you’re already a fan, Blomkamp’s thoughts on the film’s meaning and its legacy make for poignant reading. 

What are your thoughts on the making of Chappie, now that it’s been two years?

Chappie was unbelievably painful for me. That was difficult on several levels. But the thing with Chappie was, it felt like it was extremely close to the film I had in my head. Up until the film came out, I felt like I had given my all, and that I’d tried my hardest to make the film I had in my head, and I felt like I achieved that.

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It put me in an interesting place, where I was needing to decide how I felt, when I create a piece of artwork that I feel positive about, and then the audience really rejects it – what does that mean? That puts you in an incredibly interesting space. I’m not judging the film based on box office merits or pure Rotten Tomatoes scores. I’m doing it because I love it, and I’m basing how I feel about it on what it makes me feel.

So when the audience turns their back on it, it raises really interesting questions about whether it delegitimises in general. Does that mean it holds no value? Because it still holds value to me. If I react to that, so I’m only try to please the audience, then what value does the artwork have at all?

So it put me in a very strange place for a while. I think that I completely came out of it making the right choice, which is that I’m just going to do stuff that I love. And that could actually lead to me living in the gutter. I mean it could literally lead to complete and utter collapse. But I would rather live in a dumpster, I think, being creatively honest and true to myself than not. So I think overall the result of Chappie crystallised or congealed ideas in my head in a good way.

But I’m still upset the fact that it didn’t work. I wish that it did, but it just didn’t, and I still love it. I don’t know what else to say, but the audience didn’t get what I was going for. It didn’t work. 

But history’s full of films that came along at the wrong time. I think of The Thing, I think of Blade Runner, there are dozens of them. What a lot of critics seemed to miss was that it was about the nature-versus-nurture thing, about how an innocent creature is the product of its environment. I thought all that was incredibly powerful.

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There are millions of things that were missed. But that could have been done by me in the same way – it was directed in such a way that some ideas didn’t come across. For whatever reason, there were many elements that critics in general didn’t pick up on them. One of them is that it’s an artificial intelligence film, and it isn’t. It’s not about AI. Ex Machina’s about AI. Chappie’s not about artificial intelligence – it’s meant to be asking questions about what it means to be sentient.

That doesn’t mean AI, that means sentient at all. If you are sentient, if you are conscious, first of all, what does that mean? Because you’re watching the birth of consciousness with Chappie. And the idea of experience is a huge, huge part of it. I chose AI because it was an easier way to say, “If say is something else is sentient or conscious, is it any more or less important than a human consciousness or sentience?”

To me, the answer is an obvious no. Like, everything that is aware is as valuable as any other thing.

So on one hand, missing that it’s not about AI is a big deal. And the nature versus nurture discussion, the birth of a family, the birth of a soul, those are the things the film is about. The second thing – and this is the much more subtextual, bigger concept, is that when you talk about ideas that have to do with some of the biggest discussions about what it means to be alive at all, the idea of how the hell experience and sentience come about at all, when you talk about something that deep, if you talk about it head on, there can be a ridiculous level of pretentiousness and importance around the way you do it, and I just didn’t want to get into that.

The main reason for Chappie existing in my mind is because it has the most farcical, weird, comic, non-serious pop-culture tone, that is almost mocking or making fun of the fact that it’s talking about the deepest things you can talk about. The fact that those two things exist in the same film is what the film is about. Because that’s what the experience of life is about. It’s an unknowable question, and no one’s going to answer it for you.

So it’s almost a grand joke, in a sense. That was the main thing. People confuse that by saying the film was tonally all over the map. And it’s because they couldn’t comprehend that the tone was existing as one, united thing; it was saying, “Here’s the most important thing you can talk about, wrapped up in a farcical giant joke that looks like we’re all having a big laugh.” And that was the point. Because that’s how I view life in general.

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Existential absurdity.

We could go on for hours about Chappie and where it sits. But it definitely hurt several parts of my career, I think. Those are all secondary to just the repositioning myself as an artist and just thinking about that. I mean, Elysium, I didn’t feel that way. I feel like Elysium wasn’t actually that good. That’s the difference. I feel like I got it right with Chappie, and then when the audience turns on you, that puts you in a different place. 

I like them both. But Chappie was wonderful for reasons that you said. It reminds me a bit of the reaction to Starship Troopers, actually. It was bizarre.

Interesting, interesting. I was 17 when Starship Troopers came out, and I totally loved it. I love Verhoeven, and I like Robert Heinlein too, and I like Verhoeven’s take on it. Seventeen’s too young, I think. I actually am not aware of how the audience responded to Starship Troopers. I am aware of how audiences responded to Blade Runner. But what happened with Starship Troopers?

It came out and critics accused it of being a pro-fascist film. That it was actively promoting fascism. And in the UK, they tried to release it as a 12 film, and there was a backlash because it was so violent.

[Editors note: The film was released as a 15 in UK cinemas and then put out as an 18 on home video. We’ve left the conversation as is, but thought we’d mention the correct information here.]

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So not only was it critically panned, it was completely mis-marketed, and of course it didn’t do well in cinemas and was only discovered on video.

Yeah. I’m a big fan of that. You know what’s interesting about Starship Troopers too, is that there’s this really well-known effects company in Los Angeles, Amalgamated Dynamics. 

Yeah ADI. They’re great.

Yeah. So ADI did Starship Troopers, and inside Oats, we now have our own small prosthetics division, if you want to call it that. But getting it off the ground and helping us, and building a lot of the props before we had the division up and running was ADI. And Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, when I sent the scripts to the Oats films to those guys to get them to budget and work on the first batch of props we needed to have built for us, Alec Gillis wrote back to me and he was like, “Yes, we can build the props, but can I also try out for the role of Bill?” [Laughs]

I was like, “What? You’re putting yourself forward as an actor?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And he totally destroyed that role. He’s awesome in it. So there are a few shorts that we have where Alec Gillis plays a main character.

That’s fantastic.

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The reason I bring it up is because on set, between shooting, he was constantly telling me about doing Starship Troopers. I loved hearing about films I loved and how production went on them. I can’t tell them, because they’re too dodgy, and he would need to determine whether they’re fit for public consumption! [Laughs]

Neill Blomkamp, thank you very much. You can read our interview with Neill Blomkamp about Oats Studios here.