Just over four years after the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop landed in theaters with far too much self-seriousness, Joel freakin’ Kinnaman, and not nearly enough of Verhoeven’s satirical slant, MGM Studios is giving the franchise another go. On Wednesday, MGM announced that its newest RoboCop entry, RoboCop Returns, is in the works. Given how difficult it’s become in recent years for even established IP to break out at the box office — unless you’re Marvel, a Pixar sequel, or a Star Wars movie not about Han Solo — producing a successful new RoboCop movie that makes back its budget (which was $100 million in 2014) seems like a Herculean task, one that would require not just a creative auteur with a flair for cyberpunk and dark satire, but a steady hand that can deliver a smooth, finished product. Instead, MGM hired Neill Blomkamp.
Blomkamp’s science-fiction-inclined directorial résumé is a slew of missed opportunities, the lone exception being his first feature film, the Best Picture–nominated District 9. The director’s other two feature films have been a mixed bag: The Matt Damon–starring Elysium was wholly forgettable, and the legacy of Chappie — which featured a WALL-E-esque robot and known thespians Die Antwoord — is a meme:
[whispering to date while watching Chappie when Chappie first appears on the screen] That's Chappie— vineyille (@vineyille) March 23, 2015
That Blomkamp has only three feature films to his name in the nine years since the release of District 9 is less about his ability to find the right projects and more about how he’s failed to meet their expectations. Two major blockbusters have already become white whales for Blomkamp. First, a Halo live-action movie never got off the ground in 2007 because of creative differences with Fox. That ended up being a blessing in disguise — after the clash, he moved on to direct District 9 — but it was also a sign of conflicts to come. In 2015, it was announced that Blomkamp had been tapped to helm a new sequel in the Alien series. Blomkamp’s Alien movie wouldn’t have been without some controversy — he planned to undo the events of Alien 3, in which Aliens’ Newt and Corporal Dwayne Hicks are killed — but the prospect of an Alien movie from the guy behind District 9 was undeniably enticing. Unfortunately, by 2017 it became clear that the movie wasn’t getting off the ground.
Despite how much Blomkamp hyped his Alien movie — going so far as to tease dank-looking concept art on his Instagram feed in 2015 — according to Ridley Scott, there was never a script to begin with; just a 10-page pitch. “It didn’t evolve,” Scott told The Guardian. Having a fleshed-out pitch is pretty standard when trying to get a project green-lit, but what Scott’s quotes implied was a lack of creative gestation beyond that. Blomkamp’s 10-page pitch was successful — he got a green light — but he apparently never took any of the steps that are supposed to come afterward. For one of Fox’s most prized pieces of IP, Blomkamp’s creative inaction was far from encouraging. (Scott released his own Alien sequel, Alien: Covenant, with far less behind-the-scenes theatrics in 2017.)
Since the Alien sequel fiasco, Blomkamp has retreated back to indie work, creating his own production company in 2017 and releasing experimental shorts — mostly science fiction — online. Blomkamp has admitted that his hope is that the shorts will build enough hype and fan support to be parlayed into capital for feature-length films. For a minute that did appear to be the case with the 27-minute action-horror short Firebase — until Blomkamp’s company announced that it hadn’t raised enough money. “Unfortunately we didn’t raise enough to do something truley [sic] awesome,” the studio said in a since-deleted tweet. “We would rather over deliver than create an average film.”
For almost a decade now, a cloud of false starts and creative differences have followed Blomkamp. By no means is he the first director to clash with a studio, but the pattern of his development process is worrying, especially because of his status as a creator who’s released one great feature film and two mediocre ones. His arc is not unlike Bryan Fuller’s, the talented showrunner behind the canceled-to-soon Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, who has followed those series by dropping out of CBS All-Access’s Star Trek series, Apple’s Amazing Stories anthology series, and American Gods’ second season on Starz after a reported dispute over that show’s budget. Like Fuller’s Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, there’s no denying District 9 was one of the most creative and visually arresting works of its genre, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence when the mind behind that project continuously fails to hit expectations, or stick with projects long enough to see them through.
After the tepid response to the 2014 RoboCop remake, MGM needs to strike gold with its next RoboCop reboot — there are only so many times you can shell out north of $100 million for diminished returns. However, hiring Blomkamp to take a multimillion-dollar blockbuster to the finish line is a huge gambit in and of itself. If the director strikes out again, it’s hard to imagine that any level of fan support, District 9 nostalgia, or crowdfunding will put him at this level again.