The Inverse Interview

Why Neill Blomkamp made a sci-fi thriller that 'District 9' fans will hate

“I always wanted to make a small horror film.”

The director has a new indie sci-fi thriller, 'Demonic', that offers more than meets the eye.

Neill Blomkamp is aware of the memes.

When Chappie premiered in March 2015, the movie landed with a thud, mostly because the charming story of a robot that learns to think for itself couldn’t measure up to the director’s visceral sci-fi debut, District 9. But Chappie made history just a couple of weeks later when a clever joke went viral and turned the film into a Twitter mainstay.

You’ve likely seen it before, but if not:

“That's Chappie.”twitter.com/vineyille

Some directors might be mad if their film’s greatest legacy was a tweet.

Not Blomkamp.

“It's hilarious. I don't care if people pick it apart online,” the director tells Inverse. “There's just something very funny about that.”

Blomkamp hasn’t released a new movie since Chappie (until now, but more on that later), which you’ve probably already noticed came out over six years ago. Along with District 9 (2009) and Elysium (2013), Chappie forms an unofficial trilogy of science fiction allegories — and a reminder of the types of movies Hollywood used to make before superheroes went from popular sideshow to mainstream culture.

“I think humans want to share.”

Not that Blomkamp has anything against Marvel and DC. When asked if there’s a superhero movie he’d like to direct, he confirms he’s interested and then hesitates before offering a potentially revealing answer.

“I shouldn’t be directing this, I’m not saying I should be directing this, but my favorite Marvel character is Black Panther, just as a spectator and a fan,” he says. “But my favorite character of all time is Batman. I love the Christopher Nolan movies immeasurably.”

But Blomkamp isn’t just sitting by the phone waiting for Marvel to call, either. In the years since Chappie, the director stayed busy, putting out a series of impressive shorts through his production company Oats Studios. Now, he’s back with his first feature film in half a decade: Demonic, an IFC-distributed indie sci-fi thriller about a militia of priests who use virtual reality to fight demons.

That’s putting it simply, but when it comes to Blomkamp, there’s always something hiding under the surface.

Downsizing with Demonic

Blomkamp was born in Johannesburg but moved to Vancouver at 18, and his South African accent flows in and out of noticeability over the course of a 30-minute Zoom interview. But as the 41-year-old filmmaker discusses the human condition through the lens of science fiction, one thing becomes instantly clear: he’s not making movies for Hollywood or even for his fans. He’s just trying to communicate his own ideas.

“You're trying to share with the world your perspective of how you see things,” he says. “My films are a window into the way that I view the world. I think humans want to share with one another.”

With Demonic, it seems that what Blomkamp wants to share is a low-budget thriller about religious trauma with a VR twist. The film follows Carly (Carly Pope), a young woman who undergoes a risky procedure to communicate with her comatose (and possibly possessed) mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt).

These moments are shown in shimmery, pixelated images, courtesy of volumetric capture, a technology that uses multiple cameras to create 3D models of actors. Demonic features the most volumetric capture seen in a feature so far, giving its scenes an uncanny and foreign feel.

Demonic is definitely not of the same caliber as Blomkamp’s other features, and that’s partially by design.

“I always wanted to make a small horror film at some point,” he says. “I was really blown away by what the filmmakers of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity did with very limited budgets. I liked the idea of finding a way to do a small self-financed horror film.”

As a result, Demonic may come as a disappointment to die-hard Blomkamp fans. However purposefully its small budget is utilized, it lacks the blockbuster feel of his most renowned films. The plot and pacing feel rushed and inconsistent, though it’s easy to see the story’s appeal when Blomkamp explains it himself.

“What if you could portray the church in a more 21st century way where they're buying up corporations and using capital to fight perceived demons?” Blomkamp asks, posing a question that’s never addressed in his film.

“It was more about pulling from the tropes of religion more than me believing in demons.”

Demonic is gory, traumatic, and in many instances surreal. The story seems to be cut whole cloth from a mid-90s B-movie and brought into the 21st century via new filmmaking tricks, which may be pretty to look at but can’t always mask over the schlock.

Blomkamp’s keenly aware of the flaws in Demonic. Asked what his fans might like about the film, he makes no fuss about responding.

“Potentially nothing,” he says. “I don't know. It's possible that they enjoy nothing.”

This doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

A religious experience

Religion plays a major role in Demonic.IFC Midnight

As someone raised in the Catholic church, Demonic resonates with me personally, and the director’s face lights up when I mention this connection.

Then, he drops a bombshell.

“I'm religious in the sense that I think that there are higher forms of intelligence and we're in some kind of a solipsistic echo chamber that's controlled by something, but I don't think I'm religious in the classical sense,” he says. “In this film, it was more about pulling from the tropes of religion more than me believing in demons.”

He turns the question back to me. “Do you believe in demons?”

I laugh, explaining that I’m now more culturally Catholic than anything else after a time contemplating religious life. “Everyone who’s Catholic always says that,” he replies. “It’s super interesting!”

“I think that there are higher forms of intelligence and we're in some kind of a solipsistic echo chamber that's controlled by something.”

The fact Blomkamp isn’t actively religious isn’t something you’d sense from his work. His features tackle larger ideas of humanity and identity, usually in conjunction with technology that forces characters to question what defines them. Whether it’s alien tech in District 9, body mods in Elysium, or sentient A.I. in Chappie, this theme crops up again and again.

Blomkamp’s fascination with technology isn’t limited to the fictional world, either.

Total Immersion

Adam is a short film created by Blomkamp rendered in real-time using the game engine Unity.

While I speak with Blomkamp, he’s sitting in a high-end gaming chair and wearing a headset in front of a green-screen background. Were he not discussing sci-fi movies and simulation theory, you’d think he was a Twitch streamer.

That isn’t far off. Blomkamp has always loved video games. He was supposed to make his feature debut directing Peter Jackson’s Halo film adaptation (the project fell apart, leading Jackson to produce District 9 instead, using much of the same VFX technology).

But when I ask which video game he wants to adapt for the silver screen, he turns the question on its head.

“It's always, How do you make a good film adaptation of a famous game?” Blomkamp says. “If you look at the technology, if you look at the quality of the renders that you get from something like Unreal 5, I think that you could begin to see game adaptations of movie worlds.”

“You could hang out in Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner.”

To Blomkamp, the future of video games isn’t seeing The Last of Us in live-action. It’s about putting yourself into the worlds of famous films.

“If you could hang out in Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner, and it's photo-real, and [you could] go down the elevator and walk around that version of L.A. that Ridley Scott created, that's almost possible now,” he says.

This isn’t a “movie video game” like the cheap tie-in cash grabs we’re used to, but entire interactive stories that adapt a film into an immersive experience. That’s what Blomkamp foresees, and he’s making it happen with an upcoming project.

In July 2021, video game studio Gunzilla Games announced Blomkamp as the company’s “Chief Visionary Officer.” The mysterious European company hasn’t announced its first game yet, but Blomkamp will help craft the narrative for its upcoming big-budget multiplayer shooter. (Altered Carbon author Richard K. Morgan is also involved.)

He can’t say much about the project, but it’s clear he’s excited.

“We’re starting to really begin on it now,” Blomkamp says. “There are almost a hundred people. A lot of them are real game veterans and seriously know what they're doing. I'm bringing my directorial aesthetic and feel to the game.”

So while we may be a while off from stepping inside classic sci-fi works, an interactive Neill Blomkamp adventure is on its way. But it’s far from the first time he’s dipped into the gaming world.

Working on his Short Game

Concept art for the grotesque anatomical character design in Zygote.Doug Williams - image courtesy Neill Blomkamp

Though Demonic is Blomkamp’s first feature in seven years, he’s been busy starting his own production company, Oats Studios. Through this studio, he’s slowly been releasing standalone short films on YouTube and the popular video game platform Steam.

These shorts often feel pulled from the worlds of Blomkamp’s first three features. Look up any Oats Studios short on YouTube, and the comments are filled with people praising the high production quality.

Take Zygote, a short film that could be the climax of a sci-fi feature. In a dystopian world, the last two miners attempt to escape a monster created from an amalgam of human bodies. The small cast is dedicated, the world feels real, and the creature design is the stuff Stranger Things’ directors dream of. Blomkamp’s other shorts include an enthralling live-action teaser for Anthem's failed blockbuster video game, Vietnam-era war short Firebase, and the Sigourney Weaver-led alien-human revolution film Rakka.

But after making three grand-scale features, why is Blomkamp messing around on YouTube?

“I think short films can be incredibly helpful to filmmakers getting into filmmaking and also for working filmmakers to kind of just experiment and sort of play around,” he says.

That’s evident in everything Oats Studios has produced, even in Demonic. Blomkamp cut his teeth in Hollywood and is now pushing envelopes of his own making, whether a small budget or a small runtime.

More Than Meets the Eye

Chappie is an underrated sci-fi thriller with plenty of heart.Sony Pictures

Ahead of my interview, I watched every Neill Blomkamp film — shorts and all — in reverse chronological order. When I tell Blomkamp my favorite feature of his was Chappie, he almost looks confused for a second but then switches to appreciation, interjecting with “Awesome!”

Arguably his most misunderstood film, Chappie followed a friendly sentient A.I. robot as it “grows up” in a family of criminals and learns how to be a “person.”

Chappie was a victim of comparison. Next to the “grittier” District 9, it seemed almost childish, but viewed on its own, it’s a sci-fi crime thriller full of heart and asking big questions about what makes us human.

Film two was about A.I. scaling up all over the globe.”

Chappie was also developed as a trilogy, and though Blomkamp never wrote the scripts for the other two films, there was a treatment detailing what those two would explore. However, the likelihood of those movies happening remains low, even though the concepts they would have explored are tantalizing.

“A sequel would almost certainly not happen,” Blomkamp says. “But I feel like I shouldn't give it away just because who knows what happens in the future. Film two was about AI scaling up all over the globe. But the actual movie, on a deeper level, is not about that. It's not about AI. An AI movie is much more something like Ex Machina than it is Chappie.”

Like all of Blomkamp’s work, Chappie is deep beneath its shiny surface.

Chappie on a deeper level is about the corruption of a soul; the nature of becoming physical makes you imperfect,” he says. “You take a pure soul, and you watch it become corrupted through the act of existence. And so it asks these massive, massive questions about the nature of being and many existential questions, and it's wrapped up in like the most ridiculous bubblegum lunacy that you could put around them.”

The Towering Inferno

Neill Blomkamp on the set of Chappie.Sony Pictures

What’s next for such an insightful director? He’s got a lot of balls in the air — he couldn’t say anything about the growing possibility of District 10 and didn’t want to comment on the Alien rumors — but there may be life in one project still.

In October 2019, Blomkamp was announced as the director of an upcoming sci-fi thriller entitled Inferno. The film would star Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch as a cop called in to investigate a murder in the New Mexico desert, a murder that could have supernatural consequences.

Like so many films announced in late 2019, it appeared a casualty of pandemic cancellations, but Blomkamp says the project is still in development. “The pandemic slowed it down, but Inferno is still going. I’m stoked about it.”

“The pandemic slowed it down, but Inferno is still going.”

Though it’s traditional science fiction, Inferno apparently has more in common with Demonic than you may think.

“It’s also got a lot of religious themes,” Blomkamp says. “There are a lot of Gnostic concepts in it.”

So while he frames Demonic as a one-off experiment in low-budget horror, it may just mark a sea change in Blomkamp’s filmography, bringing the bigger metaphysical questions that have lurked in the subtext of every film into the forefront — and redefining how we think about science fiction in the process.

Demonic is now available in theaters and on VOD.

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