It’s been six years since Neill Blomkamp’s last feature film, and in the meantime he’s been attached to failed franchise reboots (Alien, RoboCop) and has been quietly making short films with his Oats Studios company. Blomkamp’s new indie feature Demonic feels like an outgrowth of those proof-of-concept short films, a thinly conceived genre story that exists primarily to show off some new special-effects technology that Blomkamp has been tinkering with.
For Demonic, that’s something called volumetric capture, which scans actors into a virtual environment. At least as employed in Demonic, the result looks like a glitchy video game, which doesn’t seem revolutionary but is thematically appropriate for what it represents in the movie. It’s incorporated as part of the work done by a shady company called Therapol, which contacts Carly (Carly Pope) to participate in an experiment alongside her long-estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt). Carly hasn’t talked to Angela since Angela was convicted of a horrific murder spree many years ago, but now that Angela is in a coma, the Therapol researchers want Carly to enter into a virtual world that will connect her mind with her mother’s.
Carly is remarkably willing to participate in this obviously dangerous and sinister project, which almost immediately results in her being haunted by some sort of demonic entity that follows her out of the dreamscape. For all the effort he put into showcasing new developments in visual effects, Blomkamp uses the volumetric capture scenes sparingly, and the majority of the movie takes place outside the simulation, with Carly facing some basic horror-movie terrors.
The jittery look of the special effects gives the simulation scenes an inherently eerie quality, and the technology allows Blomkamp to create whatever alternate worlds he can imagine. Yet he continually returns to simple, spare locations that are limited by the restrictions of shooting during the pandemic. For a filmmaker initially praised for his unique vision (with his 2009 debut feature District 9), Blomkamp proves not to be much of a visionary here, instead recycling familiar horror elements with underwhelming results.
Blomkamp’s script is clumsy and full of blunt exposition, especially from Carly’s childhood friends Martin (Chris William Martin) and Sam (Kandyse McClure), who were with her at the time of her mother’s crimes and attempt to support her as she deals with renewed trauma. But Blomkamp fumbles the story’s emotional resonance, and while Pope projects some of her character’s anguish, the mother-daughter relationship never feels like more than a plot device to move the story along. Blomkamp is more interested in his silly concepts about the Vatican’s secret team of commando priests than he is in his protagonist’s internal journey.
The flat characters would matter less if Demonic delivered more effective scares, but the generic-looking demon isn’t particularly frightening, and there aren’t any deeper horrors to be found as the movie progresses. The climax is a murky, confusing showdown between Carly and the demon, which is also meant to provide closure to her relationship with her mother, but fails on both fronts. Blomkamp’s world-building was one of his strong suits even in his weaker past films, but the world of Demonic is haphazard and underdeveloped.
It was easy to imagine that Blomkamp got lost in the weeds of blockbuster ambitions following the surprise success of District 9, and that the small-scale Demonic would allow him to return to his roots of creative genre storytelling. But very little about Demonic is creative or unique, and its muddled mix of sci-fi ideas, poorly defined characters and jumbled themes falls right in line with Blomkamp’s big-budget boondoggles Elysium and Chappie. Rather than revitalizing Blomkamp’s filmmaking career, Demonic just reinforces how limited his artistry has always been.