REVIEW: Demonic (2021)

dir. Neill Blomkamp

There was a time when Neill Blomkamp was heralded as the new-face of genre cinema. Back in 2009, his ferocious debut District 9 tore-up the big screen with its hyper-real aesthetic and throat-punch politics, garnering a wild-card Best Picture nom in the process. But with subsequent flops Elysium and Chappie – plus a series of never-to-be franchise outings, including his much discussed Aliens reboot – it seemed the South African wunderkind had fallen onto some kind of Hollywood blacklist: and unfairly so. Whatever the issues with his previous films, Blomkamp has remained a singular director, a unique voice of big ideas and blistering visuals.

So it is with some regret that his latest – a smaller, pandemic-shot film – doesn’t signal a return to form: for though there is much to enjoy here, the issues from previous pictures persist.

Things start out promisingly enough: 30-something Carly (Carly Pope) is haunted by violent dreams of her mother, so when an old friend tells her she’s now being cared for by private bio-firm Therapol – instead of in prison – Carly visits in the hope of finally getting some closure. Things are complicated however when she discovers mum Angela (Nathalie Boltt) is comatose, the medical staff trying to communicate with her via a VR simulation. And when Carly plugs into Angela’s mind it turns out that that there might be something else in there with her.

As ever with Blomkamp it’s a great set-up, marrying his favourite themes of shadowy corps, military-industrialism and the blurred boundaries between biology and tech. The plugging-into-someone-else’s-mind gag feels reminiscent of Inception and recent high-concept horror Possessor, and there’s some fantastic performance work across the board, not least by Pope who essays a rich character in Carly as someone who has lived with trauma for a very long time. The script too is initially strong, whilst the visual representation of the sim feels compellingly authentic: a glitchy mix of HD photo-realism and Sims-esque RPG, Carly entering an imagined (remembered?) space that feels like a videogame of underseen spook-house movie Session 9.

Issues start to arise however as the plot progresses, and whilst on paper it might have worked, the execution falters. A third act twist heralds a step into absurdity, and from there unfortunately the narrative is fatally wounded, bleeding into progressive ridiculousness. It’s a trajectory not helped by some ropey prosthetics, with the titular demon – once on screen – failing to look like anything other than a man in a rubber suit.

It’s a real shame, since – as ever with Blomkamp – the ideas are good, and this feels so close to having been a rousing success. However as the finale descends into abject silliness there is not enough to save it: the potential of the premise – and director – sadly unfulfilled this time.

⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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