Neill Blomkamp took the film world by storm with his first feature-length, District 9 back in 2009. The movie became a box office hit, was loved by critics and fans, and went on to earn four Academy Award Nominations.
District 9 blended gritty “hard-R” science fiction action with thinly-veiled social commentary (in this case, Apartheid in South Africa). This mix harkened back to a lot of science fiction films of the 1980s, which was a great time for R-rated science fiction films with something more than aliens and space travel on their minds. Films like Predator, Aliens, Escape from New York, and The Road Warrior would become “best of” list staples for decades. They gave audiences the best of both worlds: a straight forward allegory for a social or politic moment in time and explosive, visceral action, which cunningly disguised a film’s intelligence with heaps of dumb.
When District 9 made a splash, it seemed that this oft forgotten tone in science fiction had a new champion. To be fair, there were R-rated science fiction films being produced all throughout the ‘90s and early aughts, but none of them really captured the raw, do-it-yourself tone of so many science fiction films of the 1980s. Neill Blomkamp didn’t seem to have any interest in emulating the works which came before, but he certainly presented District 9 as a love letter to them. And while Blomkamp’s subsequent features, Elysium and Chappie, certainly had their merits, neither of them were able to recapture that ‘80s vibe in quite the same way. A lot of the heavy-handed allegory was present, but they both lacked a certain oomph (except for that crazy rail gun scene from Elysium; that was messy).
Now it seems Blomkamp has the chance to not only bring back the magic he weaved in District 9, but also play in a world that influenced him as a filmmaker. It was recently announced the Blomkamp has been tapped to helm a direct sequel to the Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic, Robocop, which is arguably the epitome of smart and gory ‘80s science fiction films. The tentatively titled Robocop Returns is perfect for Blomkamp’s style of film making. The 1987 original film was rife with social commentary, tackling subjects of mass consumerism, trickle-down economics, corporation overreach, and the death of the “rust belt,” all of which are as relevant today as they were then (if not more so).
Those themes weren't exactly handled with subtlety, either. In fact, Robocop's social commentary was so on-the-nose that you would be forgiven to think it was being a bit cynical... which is kind of was. However, a lack of subtlety can easily be overlooked when the action is genuinely confrontational. The sheer audacious gore of Verhoeven's film originally earned it an X-rating, something that was pretty rare for mainstream films of the time, especially when they were not marketed as "adult entertainment."
And that's where Blomkamp comes in. His films carry a lot of weight with them, and they want the audience to know how heavy it all is. There is an certain level of earnestness in Blomkamp's work that might actually improve upon the more cynical tone of Robocop. Blomkamp understands the notion of hope is important to an audience. While his films don't always have a traditionally happy ending, there is always a glimmer of hope for a brighter future for either his characters or the world they populate. Robocop doesn't, at least not in the same manner. The cynicism rode the film's wave to the very end.
This notion of hope Blomkamp employs coupled with his gritty style (which will be right at home if they shoot on location in Detroit) and knack for straight forward allegory, has a really good chance to create a Robocop sequel that could be something special. To be fair, Blomkamp doesn't have the highest of bars to clear in terms of the quality of his previous two films or the current Robocop sequels and remake, but we'd love to see him soar over them like a blood-splattered eagle back from hunt screeching, "dead or alive, you're coming with me."