With his new film “Demonic,” writer-director Neill Blomkamp has done something he’s never done before: He’s made a feature film that’s almost completely pointless.
The man behind “District 9,” “Elysium,” and “Chappie” has never been particularly subtle about his allegories, whether the films are acclaimed or not. So far he’s used sci-fi trappings to explore the evils of apartheid and health care, and to address at least some of the bigger questions about artificial intelligence. They’re usually big swings, the sci-fi films of Neill Blomkamp, so it’s hard to begrudge him for going for a bunt this time.
But “Demonic” isn’t just a low-budget supernatural–sci-fi thriller; it’s also a shallow one, a boring one, a poorly conceived one — and the characters stink too. It’s a horror movie with no ideas and only half a scare. It’s a sci-fi movie where you could remove every single sci-fi element and the movie would be basically the same. And it’s a film about trauma that doesn’t demonstrate even the tiniest understanding of how trauma works.
Carly Pope (“Suits”) stars as Carly, a woman who likes backpacks and puffy, brightly colored jackets. She has no other interests. She has no passions, no goals, no hobbies, and ostensibly she has a job, but apparently she doesn’t need it, because when they call her (the contact is listed as “Work,” so we know it’s work), she doesn’t even need to pick up. What Carly does have is a mysterious backstory, which she and her best friend Sam (Kandyse McClure, “Love, Guaranteed”) discuss in the vaguest possible terms for no reason other than it’s supposed to be revealed to the audience later.
It turns out that Carly’s mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt, “Riverdale”) is now in a coma, after decades of estrangement. When Carly was a teenager, Angela killed more than 20 people in a fire, and also a couple of other people by poisoning, even though in the flashbacks we see she couldn’t possibly have had the time. Also, the poisoning thing never comes up again, so it just sits there like a vestigial remnant of a previous draft.
Carly is asked by a pair of doctors, Michael (Michael J. Rogers, “Siren”) and Daniel (Terry Chen, “Coffee & Kareem”), to reach out to her mother. Specifically, they want her to do it by projecting them both into a virtual reality program that will allow Carly to walk around in her mother’s memories. Carly puts on a swimmer’s cap with wires on it and steps into a glitchy video game universe, where anything is theoretically possible, but all we ever really see is Carly walking around a couple of abandoned buildings that could have been filmed just as easily without the use of CGI.
What Carly discovers is that her mother isn’t alone inside her own mind. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a demon in there with her. Reaching inside her mother’s consciousness has turned Carly into the new target of this supernatural creature, which leads to conspiracy theories about Vatican special forces teams, missing-persons reports about her friends, and vivid hallucinations about being attacked by monsters.
“Demonic” sure does take the circuitous route to its main plot. The storytelling potential of reaching inside the memories of a parent who left you emotionally scarred is nearly infinite, yet writer-director Blomkamp demonstrates no interest whatsoever in exploring that potential. Instead, Carly just finds out that her mother was an innocent victim this whole time, functionally invalidating all the pain and trauma Carly experienced throughout her life — trauma of which, incidentally, we hardly see any evidence — instead of giving her an opportunity to work through it.
Blomkamp’s film doesn’t explore the possibilities or deeper meaning of its sci-fi technology, which isn’t a great thing to say about a sci-fi movie. Worse, Blomkamp’s obliviousness to the emotional complexities of Carly’s character render this completely inert as a horror movie. There’s no underlying psychological reality to “Demonic,” so almost all the scares — except for one creepy bit with McClure and a bird mask — are powerless.
By the time “Demonic” has stumbled into its action climax, complete with a night-vision goggles sequence that goes almost nowhere and the sudden appearance of a spear that can kill demons (which a whole team of demon-killers had with them the whole time but decided not to use for some reason), the movie has flown completely off the rails. And not in a way that makes you go “wheeeee.” In a way that makes you go “whomp-whomp.”
The worst sin “Demonic” commits is that it’s extremely dull. Again, this is a movie with dream-insert technology and giant bird demons and super-powered spears and Vatican black-ops agents who have enough money to build VR technology but who don’t know how to Google the location of a house. There’s no excuse for any of that to be humdrum. Heck, by leaning into the weirdness and silliness, Blomkamp could have made a thoroughly entertaining B-movie romp out of this.
Instead, “Demonic” gestures in the direction of deeper meaning without taking any steps in that direction. The cast flounders in the underdeveloped script, and the generic production values undermine any sense of wonder that Blomkamp might have achieved from his big sci-fi ideas and supernatural mythologizing. It’s a hell of a bad time.
“Demonic” opens in US theaters and on demand August 20.