How old is Marty Jackitansky, the bug-eyed petty con artist of Buzzard? Not old enough, apparently, to know that cashing homeowners’ checks from the mortgage company where he’s employed as a temp is a stupid, easily caught crime. Not experienced enough to suspect that the banking and convenience-store clerks he tries to dupe might already be familiar with his trifling scam. Marty seems intended to exemplify modern American discontent, but a slacker hero is false to this political moment of digital entrepreneurs. His immature “rebellion” patronizes the very audience for video games, junk food, and immediate acquisition that the young adult Marty resembles.
Marty’s kind is also catered to in Chappie, the $49 million fantasy of a dystopic future where the recession’s new spiritual depression is symbolized in the competition between two types of law-and-order robots, the hand-tooled Chappie and its more vicious technological offshoot.
Though one is low-budget and the other medium-budget, these two films overlap. They are typical of the ways filmmakers pander to social moods, using generic clichés to offer facile social commentary. Buzzard is the more interesting of the two because its writer-director, Joel Potrykus, seems closer to his subject, whereas Chappie, from Neill Blomkamp, the writer-director of the 2009 hit District 9, merely repeats a hollow formula. Chappie makes no more sense than the ludicrous alien takeover of District 9 and is just as visually ugly, but, without a Roger Ebert to shill for it, the formula now seems especially out of date and particularly depressing.
Potrykus and Blomkamp deal in superficial dissatisfaction but provoke a real resentment by not getting any deeper into what used to be called anomie — the feelings of instability and alienation that recent narcissistic indies and violent blockbusters are designed to stroke. Marty, a white Detroit-area prole, lives in a world of boxed sets of The Sopranos, heavy-metal music, and a Nightmare on Elm Street poster. It’s not going too far from Potrykus’s conceit to presume that Marty is also a District 9 geek. He’s only roused from fecklessness to construct a glove with metal claws (either Freddy Kruger–style or like the comic-book hero Wolverine famously portrayed by Hugh Jackman, the star of Chappie).
“That looks like it was drawn by a third-grader,” Marty’s work friend Derek (played by Potrykus himself) describes the glove sketch. It’s the film’s best line, nailing the immaturity of post-anomic cinema and pop culture that incessantly appeals to juvenile taste while exploiting artificial (comic-book) fears. These feelings may well derive from the era’s political delusion almost hinted at in Chappie’s premise: that Western civilization has achieved the perfect expression of its social ideals in so much trashy, aggrandizing pop culture like District 9, video games (Derek boasts of his man cave as a “play zone”), and the so-called “golden age of Television.”
Potrykus’s own third-grade (and third-rate) sensibility lacks the psychological insight of superb social satirists like Todd Solondz (Storytelling, Palindromes, Life during Wartime, Dark Horse) and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos), who view their benighted characters with compassion and social alarm — the same combination that made the mid-20th-century Italian Neorealist directors part of a moral more than a political movement. (Today’s politically confused film culture prevents Solondz and Hess from achieving their rightful status as the most profound of the current American Eccentric movement.) Marty’s pathos is just realistic enough to be recognizable, and yet it’s his ambition that Potrykus uses against him. A good shot of Marty’s crumpled hotel-bed pillow when he leaves the frame, or a visual gag of Derek gulping down snack food that rolls on a treadmill belt, unfortunately also implies condescension toward the class of people who eat Bugles and Hot Pockets and drink Mountain Dew.
Even Marty’s surname, Jackitansky, somehow seems made for ridicule. Actor Joshua Burge recalls the comically anxious William Finley, star of Brian De Palma’s fine early social satires, but Marty is so aggressively anti-social that Potrykus’s critique loses its point and turns against him in a peculiar way. Marty scams the capitalist state as well as the goodness of others; he gets over on people just doing their jobs — fake dissent that only film nerds who are sociologically and politically naïve (or leftist dupes) will find amusing. Is the point to assure hipster viewers that they are not as sick as Marty, or that junk movies don’t disturb them the way they do mental defectives? Like the robots in Chappie, Marty also suggests a snide version of the demography; both protagonists are as objectionable as some found Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks and the hip-hop robots in Transformers.
How young is the audience for Buzzard and Chappie supposed to be, that they won’t recognize these movies as part of a film-culture crisis? Potrykus and Blomkamp falsify the way we regard contemporary and futuristic projections of our own social malaise. Coming 16 years after Mike Judge’s classic working-class farce, Office Space — and even longer after the 1987 cult favorite RoboCop – they are aesthetically and sociologically lazy.
When Marty winds up looking at multiple images of himself in a storefront’s television display, Buzzard becomes insufferably conceited. Chappie posits an unrealistic, dystopic future, while Buzzard roots for that same future dystopia in the personal habits of a recession-era bum. The two films share a corrupted idea about representing modern experience — in either a fantasy allegory or the pompous delusions of a miscreant like Marty. Buzzard feeds off grotesque realism, while Chappie attempts getting away with absurd sci-fi escapism. Both are so far removed from the human condition of the millennium that they intentionally disavow common sense and experience, Buzzard through a doofus protagonist and Chappie through a cyborg one.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.