Neill Blomkamp suggests that District 9 may have been a lucky fluke in this dull supernatural techno-horror.
Neill Blomkamp’s films have always been interested in the ways technology allows humanity to leap forward, but not enough for us to overcome our inherent nature. Demonic is his latest and most perfect example of this. Not because of anything that happens in the film, but because watching this dull movie will test audiences’ willpower not to constantly check their phones.
This techno-horror snooze-fest follows a woman named Carly (Carly Pope) who finds herself at a mysterious and not suspicious at all research facility owned by a company named Therapol. There she finds her long estranged mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt), who has a history of violent acts, including lighting retirement homes on fire and poisoning churchgoers. Now she’s in a coma and in very bad shape.
Because no one questions anything in this movie, Carly happily agrees to get plugged into a simulation which acts as a peek into Angela’s subconscious to figure out what’s going on with her. There she discovers her mother is a homicidal maniac because she’s been possessed by a fire-hungry demon this whole time.
The script fumbles the central mother-daughter relationship by barely spending any time with it. When we do get any insight, it’s through exposition dumps recited with no emotion by the actors, or awkward flashback sequences where it’s impossible to pay attention to anything besides the ridiculous wigs the actors wear to make them look younger. The secrets behind Therapol and why the simulation was built are eventually revealed, but without doing the basic groundwork to make us care about these two women, everything else falls into a pit of nothingness.
One thing the film has going for it is the look of the simulation itself. It makes sense that Blomkamp is venturing into the world of video games, because these sequences are the only time the writer/director seems to be having any fun. He uses a “volumetric capture” technique that looks like the rotoscoping animation of Waking Life, but has the “glitchy” setting set at ten.
Some of the shots use an overhead angle that’ll look familiar to anyone who’s played too many hours of strategy or role-playing games (there’re even a few shots outside the simulation where the camera glides behind characters like in 3rd person action games). Towards the end of the film these simulation scenes become a queasy headache, like trying to play The Sims upside down, but it’s the only section of the movie that tries for something unique.
The rest of the film is a plodding mess to endure, with a series of dream sequence fake-outs that are used so frequently it seems like a joke. When we finally get to one genuinely creepy sequence involving a late-night hang with Carly’s friend, Sam (Kandyse McClure), it’s hard to be completely invested because you know it’s probably going to end with someone waking up in a bed.
The film is a plodding mess to endure, with a series of dream sequence fake-outs that are used so frequently it seems like a joke.
Characters make no sense, like Carly’s friend, Martin, (Chris William Martin) who goes from a normal dude to an expert demonologist out of nowhere, just when the plot needs him to be. There’s also nothing much to look at here. Besides the beautiful real life setting of British Columbia around the edges of the frame, the movie looks and feels like it was leisurely shot over a weekend. The camera lazily hovers around flat conversations, and for a director who knows how to visualize richly detailed worlds, Blomkamp seems to have forgotten to hire an art department, which makes sense because he shot this around his house during quarantine.
Maybe he’s going for a lo-fi horror experiment like Steven Soderbergh did with Unsane in 2018, but without the visual creativity or storytelling chops. Blomkamp is an excellent action director, but there are several set pieces that are completely skipped over, where we only see the aftermath of what I assume would have been a cool demon fight. It doesn’t come off as an artistic choice like when we just miss the heist go wrong in the opening of Reservoir Dogs. It feels like they had the budget of a middle school haunted house.
Approaching a demon possession movie through a technological lens is a refreshing idea, but Blomkamp doesn’t have anything to say with it. The strong themes of inequality and caste systems that helped carry his earlier work are missing here. He doesn’t even bother trying with the usual themes that come with demons like religion or good versus evil. Demonic is just a simple, low-budget genre home movie, which can be good, but not in this simulation.
Demonic opens in theaters August 20th.