Neill Blomkamp has had a pretty rough couple of years. After being touted as an exciting new voice for his directorial debut “District 9,” he stumbled with “Elysium,” which took all of the worst aspects of “District 9” and few of the best. His new film, “Chappie,” is getting such toxic word-of-mouth that it’s essentially been dubbed a disaster in some quarters, and the announcement that he’s directing the new “Alien” film has a lot of people groaning, both because of his demonstrated trouble with telling stories without devolving into rote action territory and because, renewed talk about the greatness of “Aliens” notwithstanding, it’s probably a franchise better left alone at this point. The close proximity to the “Alien” news and “Chappie’s” negative reception has many viewing Blomkamp’s career as a major director essentially plummeting, with many writing him off altogether. But perhaps they’re being too quick.
This morning, Tony Zhou of “Every Frame a Painting” fame wrote on Twitter about his frustration with how quick people are to start dissecting directors’ careers. The idea includes directors who make one or two disappointing or disastrous efforts, be they Blomkamp, David Gordon Green or Andrew Stanton (though I like “John Carter” better than most), but it also applies to the likes of Colin Trevorrow and Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who’ve moved so quickly from nifty indie debuts to multi-million dollar budgeted tentpoles that some already wonder whether they’ll get stuck as franchise directors:
One thing that really disheartens me today is how few films a director has to make before people start talking about “career trajectory”— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
Like, Rashomon was Kurosawa’s 11th film. Can you imagine anybody today being given 10 chances before they made a masterpiece?— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
Say what you will about the old studio system, one of its benefits was that every filmmaker worked a lot and got a lot of practice.— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
I get that ppl want their money to be well-spent, but if no filmmaker can past 5 films without failing, how do you expect that to happen?— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
On one level, I blame the studios: there’s no reason to take someone who’s done one indie film successfully and giving them a blockbuster.— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
But on another level, I blame the audience: as soon as something looks like it could go south, people pile on and start mocking it.— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
Imagine a baseball system with two levels: high school and the World Series. It would be a nice Tony Danza movie, but not good baseball.— Tony Zhou (@tonyszhou) March 5, 2015
I’m not much of a fan of Blomkamp’s work. “District 9” is entertaining for about 40 minutes before devolving into a fine but routine shoot-em-up, “Elysium” has one of the least coherent allegories I’ve ever seen, and while I’m going into “Chappie” with an open mind, early word from people I trust doesn’t have me optimistic. I admire his ability to create detailed, tactile worlds and think he’s a wizard with special effects, but he’s yet to create a film that’s more than a collection of cool ideas. That said, I can’t help but think that the jump from “new director” to “hack” is awfully premature, and the amount of hatred he’s getting in some circles is disproportionate to the amount of bad work he’s done. Yeah, “Chappie” doesn’t look very good, but would you rather see that dire-looking Vince Vaughn comedy “Unfinished Business” this weekend? His post-“District 9” elevation did him few favors, but I’m wary of writing him off immediately.
Similarly, I don’t disagree that the immediate jump from indies to tentpoles for Trevorrow and Vogt-Roberts feels pretty hasty, and I’d rather see them doing something that comes directly from their muse than their takes on franchise properties. Their voices are still developing, so putting them on such a gigantic stage so early doesn’t lead to a terribly forgiving environment. At the same time, I’m in the group of people who thought Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” only his second film, was one of the most exciting blockbusters in recent memory, so the jump isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Even if “Jurassic World” and “Kong: Skull Island” end up being duds or mediocrities, I’m curious to see their next few films to see how their voices develop. They have a model if the blockbuster route doesn’t work out: David Gordon Green “Your Highness” and “The Sitter,” but it didn’t take him long to return to more idiosyncratic works with “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe.” Some (not all) of the indie-to-blockbuster hand-wringing feels knee-jerk, anyway: anti-“Star Wars” people lamented Rian Johnson taking on “Star Wars Episode VIII,” but hasn’t he built up enough good will with his first three films to make this, or at least whatever he does after that, worth sticking around for?
None of this is to say that people have to be overly excited for Blomkamp’s next film or go into it ignoring that they’ve disliked his past two (or never thought he was all he was cracked up to be in the first place). But let’s not ignore that for every director who’s brilliant pretty much right out of the gate (Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, Wes Anderson), there’s a Kurosawa example of someone who slowly found out what worked for them and what didn’t – Alfred Hitchcock worked on a number of forgettable movies between “The Lodger” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” while William Friedkin’s pre-“The Boys in the Band” career includes a Sonny and Cher vehicle. Other directors (Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, John Huston) have relatively fallow periods from which they eventually recover. I’ve no reason to suspect Blomkamp, Trevorrow or Vogt-Roberts are going to match any of the above filmmakers, but I also have no reason to believe that they’re going to spend their whole careers making nothing but crap.