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Neill Blomkamp
Director Neill Blomkamp amongst robo prototypesCourtesy of Sony Pictures UK

Neill Blomkamp’s futurist fixation

The South African sci-fi apostle is probing AI's possibilities in his new robo-comedy Chappie. Has he finally cracked what the future will look like?

Many people raised a brow when District 9 director Neill Blomkamp cast Die Antwoord's rap-ravers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser for his third film, Chappie. They play dad and mum, respectively, to Chappie – an ex-police force robot equipped with artificial intelligence. Bringing him into the fold of thug life, Ninja teaches him how to hold a gun ‘gangsta style’ in order to service the pair's last heist to pay off a South African crime boss. It's, perhaps unexpectedly, hilarious.

Long before coaxing controversial SA rappers to robo-sit in his AI fantasy, Blomkamp hypnotised LOTR director Peter Jackson with a short film set in the Halo video game universe. Jackson then commissioned the director to make Halo into his first feature film with 20th Century Fox. Pre-production was a nightmare, with Fox and Blomkamp disagreeing at every turn, forcing the project to its knees. The silver lining? Jackson decided to fund District 9 – an alien apartheid feature-length adaptation of his short Alive in Joburg – marrying his signature CNN documentary style with explosive action. He followed up with Elysium, a Maaatt Daaamon last-days-on-earth caper where the poor are bound to earth and the wealthy live in a floating Polo mint in space.

Chappie is his third film to explore technology's relationship to humanity. Blomkamp is impatient for AI; he's glimpsing humanity's destiny on his own terms. Through Chappie, Blomkamp probes the possibilities of robotics and artificial intelligence. Now, as he embarks on his next project – a Ridley Scott-produced Alien sequel – has he carved out his path as a fanatical futurist? All signs point to yes.

I saw your TED talk and was curious about your fascination with the future. Computer scientist and author Ray Kurzweil says that by 2045 we will witness a moment when our AI takes over control of our destiny. Do you think that could look similar to what Chappie portrays?

Neill Blomkamp: No. The conversation is split into two discussions: there is the discussion about actual strong, artificial intelligence taking over and then separate from that is the discussion about whether artificial intelligence is possible at all. When I started making Chappie I was convinced it was possible, but in the process of making Chappie, in some spiritual sense, I’m not sure that AI in the Ray Kurzweil sense is possible. I think there’s a lot of promises and not a lot of results. If it were to happen it would be totally different to Chappie. It would be a server-based piece of information that would self replicate around all of the computers it had access to around the planet. Then if it decided to take on a physical form it would probably take on the most efficient non-human looking shell. So it would be radically different. 

What did you come across when creating Chappie that put you off the possibility of AI? 

Neill Blomkamp: It’s more about getting older. I think in the same realm as Kurzweil you have guys like Aubrey de Grey that talk about how there are children today that will live to 1000. He calls it a bridge to a bridge to a bridge. So you’ll have technology that gets you to 120 and then technology that takes you to 300 and then the technology’s caught up to get you to 800. Even though the facts and the numbers look different because you have Moore’s law and exponential growth in micro processes, I just think that when you cross over into God’s work that it gets muddy. There’s also soft AI that is weak artificial intelligence that follows a very complex list of protocols: yes/no protocols. You can write a program that appears to be human, something that could fake the Turing test. I think that will happen in a Kurzweilian timeline. But something that actually thinks shit up that humans don’t think up, I don’t know about that.

How did you come across Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey? 

Neill Blomkamp: It’s just being interested in those topics. Kurzweil has become mainstream. As soon as guys become mainstream I lose interest in them. 

Why’s that? 

Neill Blomkamp: They start talking in sound bites and they wanna be on CNN or whatever and it just gets lame and their research gets stale and they’re just not interesting. It’s the more underdog kinda guys, (the ones) that aren’t defined by whether they’ll lose their million-dollar grant at some place that will say whatever. Those are the dudes that are interesting. A lot of the stuff that interests me just interests me as a person, not as a filmmaker. I’m interested in that shit and then later it works its way into a film. It’s like the opposite way around. It’s not like I decided to make Chappie and then I researched AI. Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey are just interesting guys in interesting fields. 

Are you obsessed with futurology? 

Neill Blomkamp: I think so. I’m just interested in evolution, the planet and us. I don’t really think of humans as something different from all the other organisms on the planet. I’m just interested in where it goes really. So AI just means that you’re handing the evolutionary process over to us for a short bit of time and we can help speed it up and it takes on a life of its own and it keeps going. 

Do you think you’ll continue to explore that with the rest of your work?

Neill Blomkamp: I don’t know. I guess it depends on whatever you’re interested in. The thing that I’ve become aware of lately is that you can become intently focused on the cinema experience for people. An example would be a horror film: if you make a horror film and you make it properly like The Shining, that experience is about nothing other than trying to scare the shit out of the audience and putting them in psychological places that they don’t want to go to – but they kind of want to go to because they bought a ticket – and that’s what the filmmaker is trying to do. That’s an interesting thing to me and something I’ve never done before as a filmmaker, which is learn to actually affect the audience on a purely visceral level. That’s totally disconnected from evolutionary science fiction concepts and ideas. It just depends on what you’re interested in at that moment.

“Whenever I see a director make something that they think they should make because other people are gonna give them some kind of gold star, it’s tripe. As soon as someone makes something from the heart, it’s rad”

Kip Thorne wrote a paper about Interstellar and the science behind it. Do you think you could have made that film?

Neill Blomkamp: There’s a lot of different ways to interpret whether I could’ve made Interstellar. I think that the way Christopher Nolan made Interstellar could only have happened when you’re as successful as Chris Nolan. That’s one of the things that I respect about that film so much. He has a track record of enough box office-mixed-with-cerebral hits that he is able to get a film like that made and to have it singular and representative of himself. That’s just rad that films like that get made that aren’t based on franchises. For me, personally, Interstellar feels like a film that I would need to be older to make. I still need all of the dumber, younger, popcorn stuff of shit exploding for fun and guns and stuff.

For kids that want to get into film or start making films, is that what you would suggest? 

Neill Blomkamp: Totally. Whenever I see a director make something that they think they should make because other people are gonna give them some kind of gold star, it’s tripe. As soon as someone makes something from the heart, it’s rad. For aspiring filmmakers, go out and shoot shit even if it’s on your iPhone. Same to adult filmmakers in the industry: don’t make stuff because you want an award.

Are there any political messages that you are putting across in Chappie? 

Neill Blomkamp: Not in Chappie. Every endeavor that you embark on has to be based on some root idea and the core idea of Chappie is that my personal view of earth is that it is a very harsh place. I have a weird mixture of a highly optimistic outlook mixed with an extremely pessimistic outlook; it’s a strange mixture. I think that humans are capable of both things and in my own correct or incorrect way of viewing humans it can be distilled down. I can come up with a reason biologically for why we are both things; we are this black and white, yin and yang thing that is responsible for the Holocaust and war and we’re also responsible for all of this other positive stuff. Life on earth for me is those two things. The reason for making Chappie was just to make a movie about those things. That’s why he’s pure and innocent in this shithole of an environment with violence and crime and people trying to take advantage of him. It’s how I see the world. I didn’t want to set it in South Africa for that reason. South Africa was a by-product of wanting Die Antwoord in the movie. I wrote a script that put them in America because whenever you put something in South Africa it’s burdened with South Africa’s racial history, which is why I made District 9. I also couldn’t put them in America because they felt like a fish out of water. 

You tried to get Eminem for Elysium. Why didn’t that work out?

Neill Blomkamp: It didn’t work out because he didn’t want to shoot outside of Detroit and I didn’t want to shoot in Detroit. I wanted it to be set in future California. I like Mexico City and I wanted to shoot in Mexico City. There was also the unseen politics of things like half of Elysium takes place on Elysium and when you’re on Elysium you’re in sound stages and if you’re in sound stages they can be anywhere in the world so then I should be in Vancouver because I live in Vancouver, I’m not gonna go live in Detroit because Eminem wants to live in Detroit. He seemed cool, it just didn’t work out. 

Do you have a fascination with putting rappers in your films?

Neill Blomkamp: I don’t think so. I think the interest comes from not wanting to follow the normal rules in film. Chappie to me feels awesome because I have people like Die Antwoord and also Hugh (Jackman) and Sigourney (Weaver). District 9 was all one way, Elysium was too much the other way and Chappie is the perfect balance.

There are these two extremes then. Does that fascinate you?

Neill Blomkamp: Probably. A lot of these are subconscious. I’m the most instinct driven person. I hate over-intellectualising stuff. If it feels instinctive to me, years from now it will still feel instinctively correct. If I intellectualise stuff and you try to find reasons why, you get into weird territory.

“People don’t come out of theatres and join political movements, it just doesn’t happen. I never think that I’m making a difference”

You’ve spoken before about your past films being an allegory for something greater.

Neill Blomkamp: The filmmaker cannot be making a film without a reason. The reason can be as simple as what I was saying with horror movies. It can be that simple but it’s still a reason. Or it can be like Aliens with James Cameron, which was a play on Vietnam; we’re more heavily armed, we’re more technologically sophisticated, why are we losing? It doesn’t appear that way, it appears when you watch it that a Xenomorph is gonna eat you. There’s always a reason.

After seeing your films, do you hope people will change how they think?

Neill Blomkamp: Not necessarily.

Then what’s the point?

Neill Blomkamp: Well that’s a really big question. In a sense that is the core reason behind what is art. For me, when filmmakers start to talk about changing the world, that’s when I grab my coat and leave. There’s a million better ways you could effectively change the planet than making a film. I have no misunderstandings about how limited I think films are. People work in the week and then want two hours off and they want an emotional journey or an emotional connection to something. People don’t come out of theatres and join political movements, it just doesn’t happen. I think that a slow burn with hundreds of films in a single topic can begin to push the needle in one direction. You can take the most influential films on the planet, let’s say Star Wars, the results of the film on a societal level are not able to be determined. You can make an argument about Avatar being about environmentalism and it being the biggest film ever made and that kids in elementary school now are more acutely aware of not polluting the planet, but it’s still incremental changes. I never think that I’m making a difference.

You’ve created a huge fan base now with your films. Do you ever think about that?

Neill Blomkamp: Shit, no. What I hope doesn’t happen to me – and maybe it will – is that I don’t feel any pressure. When people say that Elysium didn’t live up to the pressure of District 9, so do I feel pressure with Chappie? I don’t feel any of that because when you feel that you make dumb choices and you start second guessing yourself. That may happen to me later but I don’t have any of that shit right now which is a blessing. I hope I don’t ever have it.

But if you’re making Alien then how is that going to work?

Neill Blomkamp: I think I’m the right person because I don’t look at the situation like now I have to live up to these movies and all the fans are looking. It’s the inverse in that now I get to make the third film of the first two, which I think never happened. I think they made the first two and then went off the rails with these other ones. I wanna try as a fan to fill in that gap. It all stems from being probably one of the most ego-less directors in Hollywood and I think that that plays a big role. If you’re inward focused and narcissistic and thinking about your fans then that’s when weird shit starts happening. If you stay grounded then you can make stuff that actually is balanced and has something to say.

What can we expect from Alien? 

Neill Blomkamp: Alien and Aliens are my favourite films and where it went after Aliens was incorrect to me as a fan. I didn’t want that world, I wanted the first two and that’s what I want to go back to.

Is Sharlto Copley going to be in it?

Neill Blomkamp: At the moment he is not. It’s still early days. 

What would be the most uncomfortable type of film to make? 

Neill Blomkamp: Something really pretentious and striving to win an Oscar and was about drama between people. That would be difficult. I hate that shit. All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films I love but a film that I could never make would be something like There Will Be Blood. The bad version is when it’s just drama with people trying to win an award. I may not be able to make the good version either but I definitely couldn’t make a drama aiming for an Oscar.

Chappie is out in cinemas Friday 6 March