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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. District Nein"
1 stars

When “District 9” came out of nowhere to become a surprise Oscar-nominated sleeper hit in 2009, I liked it well enough, though perhaps not as much as some of my colleagues, but noted that the biggest flaw in writer-director Neil Blomkamp’s debut was that while he certainly had a number of intriguing ideas, he burned through them at such a relentless pace that he more or less exhausted them all by the time he hit the hour mark and had nothing new to offer in the second half. Little did I suspect that this criticism would end up serving as a fairly keen analysis for Blomkamp’s subsequent career, which has so far failed spectacularly at living up to his early promise. “Elysium” (2013) was a tired futuristic take on the eternal clash between the haves and the have-nots that did little more than recycle bits for other and generally better films. That said, at least it was better than “Chappie” (2016) a tale of a robot designed to serve as a police droid that learns to think and feel for itself that was so insufferable that it made one long wistfully for the comparatively dignified and original likes of “Short Circuit 2.” With his latest effort, “Demonic” shifts genre gears to a sci-fi/horror hybrid but still fails to halt his downward creative slide, coming up with a mess so tedious that it almost makes one long wistfully for the likes of “Chappie.”

Carly (Carly Pope) is a woman still suffering from the residual effects of her traumatic relationship with her estranged mother, Angela (Nathalie Boltt), whom she hasn’t seen since she was arrested for inexplicably setting fire to a nursing home she had worked at, killing 21 people in the process and making her daughter a pariah-by-proxy. Carly is contacted by a group of scientists who have designed an elaborate virtual reality simulation in the hopes of entering the minds of deeply troubled people in the hopes of understanding what drove them to do what they did. One of the participants, inevitably, is the now-comatose Angela and the scientists hope that Carly can speak to her inside the simulation and get some answers while they observe. Although, understandably reluctant at first, Carly eventually agrees and is able to make contact with Angela in the simulation but rather than probe for the information that she has been asked to explore, Carly uses the opportunity to tell Angela off for ruining her life and Angela tells her to go away and leave her alone forever.

As was the case with Blomkamp’s previous films (well, maybe not “Chappie,” which pretty much flatlined right from the start), the best stuff in “Demonic” comes right up front. The initial plot concept is not uninteresting and the visualization of the VR world, which resembles an imperfect union of real life and video game stylization is striking, especially when it comes to the little glitches that turn up here and there to suggest that it is a technology that is still in its infancy. However, after Blomkamp gets done setting up the premise and the VR environment, he seems at a loss for a while as to what he wants to do or say with them and there are long sections where the film feels as if it is treading water. Unfortunately, Blompkamp does have someplace that he is heading and when he gets there, most viewers will respond with some variation of “Really?” While I won’t get into the specifics of what is in store—you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway—it quickly devolves into an insipid monster mash in which all of the potentially provocative ideas about memory and trauma are chucked out the window in order to make room for blood, guts and. . . well, don’t ask.

I can readily understand why Blomkamp would go from making reasonably big-budget studio genre films to doing a low-budget horror film. After the critical and commercial failure of “Chappie,” perhaps he saw such a project as a way of recharging his creative batteries and getting back into the kind of headspace that inspired what remains his single most effective effort to date. However, it misses so completely on so many levels—it isn’t thoughtful, it isn’t ambitious beyond its initial setup and it sure as hell isn’t anything that could be remotely described as “scary.” Although certain aspects of the finale are so ridiculous that they are almost worth watching as camp (though too fussily delivered to be considered deliberate), “Demonic” is ultimately too dull and dispiriting to work even on that level. Perhaps Blomkamp will one day regain the creative mojo that caused some observers to see him as the next Spielberg in the wake of the success of “District 9” but anyone hoping that he has accomplished that here will be sorely disappointed.

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originally posted: 08/20/21 01:13:24
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