Although we weren’t crazy about Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic, the South African director remains one of the more exciting talents in genre filmmaking today. Between his cult-hit feature films (particularly 2009’s breakout District 9 and 2015’s unjustly maligned cyberpunk blockbuster Chappie) and the technically impressive shorts on his Oats Studios YouTube channel, Blomkamp has repeatedly proven himself to be an innovator on the cutting edge of visual technology with a pure-hearted love of science fiction and an irrepressibly chaotic sense of (naughty, violent, populist) fun. His eye for artfully uncanny special-effects creations furthers his unifying motif of hyperreality, as his creations blend flesh with machine and realism with fantasy, the better to fully immerse us in his richly imagined worlds. That love of immersive CG has also drawn him to video games, with an open admiration for the medium still rare among filmmakers––an admiration he’s been able to act on, as just last month he announced his first professional entry into game development at newly-formed studio Gunzilla Games.
We spoke to Mr. Blomkamp about the ideas he’s chasing in Demonic, his work’s relationship with video games, and what kind of aesthetic experiences might be unique to games and interactive software.
The Film Stage: Obviously, you have a reputation for making science fiction films, while Demonic for the most part is supernatural horror. What made you decide to pivot genres?
Neill Blomkamp: I wouldn’t really say I was pivoting––it’s more a case of, I just felt like I wanted to make something that was slightly more in the horror genre than other stuff that I’d done before. So I’ll definitely go back to science fiction––I think the next thing I’m doing is sci-fi––but I love the [horror] genre, and I wanted to make something that was in that camp. With COVID and the film industry taking a pause, it felt like the time to do something that I always wanted to do, which was a small self-financed horror film. It just grew out of the timing, really.
What do you feel is the current state of science fiction cinema? What would you like to see more or less of?
Of the stuff that I like to watch, my favorite––which is really a blending of both [horror and sci-fi] genres––is Alien. It’s science fiction horror that is amazing, so more stuff like that would be cool.
The most compelling image in Demonic for me is that of a psychic “space” of the protagonist’s childhood home rendered into a computer-generated environment with an isometric UI like The Sims. Do you think video games are closer than films to representing our unconscious worlds, or the way we experience architecture and spaces?
I think video games allow the audience member to be an active [participant in] looking around, which allows for a very different piece of the brain to be used. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that: as the fidelity and level of immersion in the gaming arena becomes higher and higher, it’s going to be more and more of a believable environment and that’s going to draw a lot of people to it for a lot of different reasons. Film isn’t really going to change for [a] while: it’s a passive audience receiving a story from a filmmaker’s POV. There’s something wildly different about being active and having agency over what you want to do in an environment built by a bunch of CG artists. It’s very interesting.
But I was playing on that with the isometric view: it’s my favorite shot in the movie. It just looks unusual because with her motions, you can tell [Carly Pope] is real––it’s a real character, really walking around––but you can also tell that it’s totally synthetic, the whole environment is synthetic, and the God’s-eye view of this crushed isometric POV, and the way that layers of the roof of the house disappear so [the characters watching on the monitor] can always see her… I was definitely riffing on games, there. Actually, that whole sequence runs in a game engine–it’s built in Unity–so you could theoretically walk around [in there] with a keyboard and mouse, like in Call of Duty. It’ll render that in real time for you.
So do you think that games can tap into a place in our memory and subconscious that films can’t?
Yeah, I do. The difference is because when you’re passively watching a film, if it’s a film that has merit to it, it’s because the filmmaker has a POV about some topic or element that they are sort of imparting upon you. You’re learning something about their life experiences through what you’re watching. It’s very much [about] listening. Whereas games are very much [about] not listening at all, taking control, and walking around and doing things. I think [cerebrally], the pieces of the brain that are used, the chunks of the psyche that are active, are very different. As I was saying before, as the fidelity and the realism increase for locations that you’re able to walk around as a “player,” that will set off a whole bunch of things in the user’s mind that I think films would never. So like, if you’re looking under [an object], if you’re going through closets looking for stuff, witnessing weird and unusual architecture, being isolated somewhere… it’s a whole bunch of different neural activity, I think.
Where was Sharlto Copley for Demonic?
I should’ve put some kind of Sharlto easter egg in there. It was stupid of me not to have done that. Fuck! I should’ve done that.
I thought maybe he was the demon.
No. That would’ve been amazing, though.
Not many filmmakers have been as open about being influenced by video games as you have. What are some of your all-time biggest inspirations in terms of video games, and what have you been playing lately?
I would probably say Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are the biggest inspirations. The Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2 was the direct inspiration for the exosuit in District 9. Also, I was––and still am––very inspired by the world of Halo [Blomkamp was involved in an aborted live-action adaptation during the mid-2000s]. I love the bigger world that was created there, and it’s very much lodged in my brain in a way where I spent a lot of time thinking about that world, doing design work in that world, and also looking at the design work from Guillermo del Toro, who was the previous director on it. In terms of what I’m playing, I think it’s just Warzone from Call of Duty.
You recently announced your new position as creative consultant [“Chief Visionary Officer”] for Gunzilla Games. Is this the first time a game developer has approached you for consultation? What do you feel specifically distinguishes a narrative that works in games from one that works in cinema?
It’s not actually consulting! I’m very much embedded in the company and part of the whole thing. Other game companies have approached me before, but this one is different. I can’t really talk about the narrative stuff, because [that ties into] what we’re doing. At the right time, we will be able to talk about it.
I also just wanted to say, Chappie was unfairly treated by critics. I was a big fan of Chappie.
[Laughs] Thanks, man.
Demonic opens in theaters and digitally on Friday, August 20.