Technology has always been the dominant creative force behind the films of Neill Blomkamp, a former special effects artist whose “what if Apartheid, but aliens?” metaphor “District 9” earned him a Best Picture nomination before he was 30, whose dopey Matt Damon vehicle “Elysium” took class warfare to intergalactic levels, and whose Twitter-famous “Chappie” — perhaps the best movie ever made about a psychotically obnoxious police robot being captured and reprogrammed by the South African rap group Die Antwoord — forever redefined people’s ability to identify Chappie.
And yet, despite those increasingly ridiculous examples, Blomkamp’s impetus to let digital tools drive his storytelling has never been more transparent or contrived than it is in his DOA new horror film “Demonic,” which leans on three sequences created with volumetric capture (described by Blomkamp as a kind of three-dimensional video system through which the actors are simultaneously recorded with 260 cameras and then “turned into geometry”) to spice up an undercooked possession saga. That new-fangled tech offers a clever solution to pandemic-era restraints, as Blomkamp is able to send lead actress Carly Pope through a vast and unnerving computer-generated world from the safety of a Vancouver soundstage.
Alas, the 80 minutes of the movie that are set in flesh-and-blood reality can’t help but seem flat by comparison, as the thrust of the film’s story is so functionally reverse-engineered from its central gimmick that “Demonic” winds up feeling like a glorified proof-of-concept video that should have been exorcised of any grander ambitions.
While Chappie may be one of the most frightening creations in the history of modern cinema, Blomkamp’s gift for visualizing unreal beings and spaces doesn’t seem particularly well-served to the shadowy inference of the horror genre (it may be for the best that his “Alien” reboot never got off the ground). “Demonic” begins in a literal nightmare, as a traumatized woman named Carly (Pope, clenched and wounded but also intrinsically likeable) finds her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) inside of an abandoned mental hospital on the edge of a golden wheat field, but the sequence — for all of its palpable unreality — is lacking any sense of dread.
That neutral dullness extends to Carly’s waking life in the hills around Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, where she’s bothered by texts from her estranged friend Martin (Chris William Martin) and treated to oodles of ominous exposition from her bestie (Kandyse McClure), a rich wino prone to saying things like “No one needs to hear Martin’s insane theories after everything that happened with your mother.”
So what exactly happened with Carly’s mother? Carly isn’t quite sure. Angela went on some kind of rampage 20 years earlier, killing scores of innocent people out of the blue, and her daughter hasn’t heard from her since. Martin knows the reason why: Angela’s been in a coma the whole time. In fact, he just saw her at a focus group run by a bleeding-edge medical company called Therapol from their offices just outside town. The next thing we know, our heroine is standing before her mother’s unconscious body as a stone-faced physician named Michael (Michael J. Rogers, radiating all sorts of sketchy vibes) tells Carly they want to send her digital avatar into a simulation of Angela’s sleeping mind in the hopes that she might be able to figure out what’s going on in there. At a time when people are so distrusting of science they won’t even take a vaccine, who are we to warn Carly against participating in a VR mindmeld with her homicidal mother?
Unsurprisingly, Angela’s subconscious is a pretty scary place. The picturesque lifelessness of its photoreal environments — captured in nature and then tinged with digital artifacts and raytraced lighting to create a vaguely unreal aesthetic — recall the backgrounds found in survival horror video games like “Silent Hill,” though Blomkamp never weaponizes these spaces in a way that gets under our skin. More disquieting than the backgrounds are the character models that move through them, as the main “actor capture” makes it look as if Pope’s face was flattened onto a blocky PlayStation 2-era body (her head sometimes glitches through the back of her neck, as Blomkamp needlessly goes out of his way to remind us that we’re not in Kansas anymore).
The ultimate effect is something between a memory and a cut-scene, but if the volumetric footage feels like an alpha test for something that might have broader applications 10 or 20 years from now, there’s something undeniably arresting — even haunted — to the liminal instability of its current form. Blomkamp elicits minimal scares from the dawning realization that Angela’s mind has become a playground for a black-clawed bird demon (the writer-director gate-checks his imagination in order to let the tech fly solo, which leaves us with precious few moments that take full advantage of what the volume can allow these character models to do), but the inkling that reality itself might collapse at any minute is enough to hold our attention. Underdeveloped as the idea might be, “Demonic” is able to eke some bleak pleasure from conflating the blurred line between real and virtual worlds with that between possession and insanity.
But then Carly exits the simulation, “Demonic” leaves volumetric capture behind (seemingly for good), and Blomkamp’s funky “World on a Wire” jazz is forgotten in favor of some third-rate supernatural horror that hinges on a wild plot twist — one seeded in the least satisfying way imaginable, as Martin spells it out in one of his “insane theories,” only for the movie to confirm it a few minutes later. The deeper that Blomkamp digs into his pixel-thin premise, the more glaring it becomes that “Demonic” lacks the genre fundamentals required to support any sort of broader mythology.
While it’s telling that this future-minded film’s best thrill comes from a simple home invasion sequence (based around a practical stunt) in which the bird demon spills out into the real world, even that jolt is so light on suspense that you don’t feel the need to watch it through your fingers. At least the failure of this setpiece can be ascribed to a lack of skill, and not the lack of interest that seems to plague all of the other live-action passages in Blomkamp’s half-hearted experiment.
Once again, if on a much smaller scale than his previous features, the wunderkind effects wizard has made an effects-heavy movie set along the crumbling border walls of what it means to be human. And once again, he’s been so focused on peering over at the other side that he’s lost his footing and tumbled all the way down. All you can do is watch along, wonder if Blomkamp’s vision of the future is worth falling for, and wait for the right moment to lean over to your date with a half-confident uptick and say: “That’s Demonic?”
IFC Midnight will release “Demonic” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, August 20.
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