Neill Blomkamp’s Oats Studios is doing something special right now, and you may be missing it as it unfolds.
No, you won’t see any of these films at your local multiplex. You won’t see them at your indie art theater, either. You won’t see them in any theater, because the director’s new series of short films is online-only. But perhaps more accurately, you won’t see these concepts in a theater anytime soon, because Blomkamp’s full creativity (and lust for bloodshed) have been unleashed. The nightmares being dreamt up by the District 9 director online are so extreme and so visceral, most studios would never dare to touch them. And for genre fans, that should be seriously exciting.
It’s a little difficult to succinctly explain what exactly Oats Studios is, and how it operates. Essentially an independent film studio with a hand-picked crew of artists FX technicians, it’s the engine for taking abstract ideas out of Blomkamp’s head and turning them into beautifully actualized realities. In the last month, as part of the ongoing “Volume 1” portion of the project, they’ve released three 20-plus minute short films: Rakka, Firebase and Zygote, along with a handful of shorter, more comedic entries. The results are frankly incredible, displaying both astonishing creativity and boundary-pushing, along with technical acumen that can compete against the best big-budget films in Hollywood. How the studio has the funding to put these kinds of visuals together, I have no idea—nor have I seen any answer in any of the other pieces written about the studio.
Given that the shorts are being released online for free, primarily through YouTube, they’re largely unmonetized. The only way the company is actively soliciting fan funding is via an interesting partnership with Steam, which is offering $5 “assets” packages for each film, which include textures, 3-D models and visual effects used in each of the films. It begs the question of what the “average viewer” is really expected to do in support of the creative venture, given that the assets in question are only really usable in their intended way by fellow filmmakers or at the very least people with a background in digital art.
Volume 1 of Oats Studio’s output has yet to conclude, with one more 20-minute short entitled Lima on the way, described by Blomkamp as “a current day thriller.” That stands in fairly stark contrast to the three previously released, which are all more easily classified as either science fiction or horror. Let’s dive a bit deeper into each of those films.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the three films released by Oats Studios so far is the way that each of the trio take vastly different approaches to not only what they’re presenting, but the structure of how they’re presenting each of their settings. If all three films are meant to be immersive introductions to concepts and properties that could eventually become TV series or feature films, they go about doing this in very different ways. Where Zygote feels like a contiguous chunk that has been cut out of a larger film, and Firebase has similarities but is somewhat less linear, the first sci-fi story, Rakka, is all about world-building rather than narrative. Its entire goal is to show us as many tantalizing corners as possible of this world—a survey of the human protagonists, alien antagonists and the mysterious “angelic” creatures interacting with both and spurring the conflict. We’re a fly on the wall, watching select moments of a story that feels so big it could be spread out over multiple films rather than one.
Rakka is, at its heart, an alien invasion thriller with obvious stylistic parallels to Blomkamp’s own District 9. The visitors this time around are invaders rather than castaways, and they’re reptilian in design rather than insectoid/arthropodal, but the action set-pieces and “rusted-over” look of the world is eerily similar to the shantytown junkyards of the Prawns in District 9—not to mention the human hovels of Elysium, for that matter.
Blomkamp uses the setting, where humans have been reduced to cattle and slave labor for a species now actively terraforming our planet against our will, to explore what kinds of people would likely survive such a scenario, and where they would fit in the new world. Politicians are still around, having capitulated to the side of the reptiles. They now march through the streets, telling rogue humans to turn themselves in because the reptiles “have built a conservatory!” for us as a species.
Also alive are the inventive sadists, as seen in the character of Nosh, a pyromaniac and seeming misanthrope who, if not for the alien invasion, would surely be languishing somewhere in a hospital for the criminally insane. It’s interesting to see Sigourney Weaver’s commandant character bargain with him for equipment and weaponry—she despises him, but she needs his services. Even when his price is that he wants a chance to blow up and burn some of her people alive, he’s asking in the context of making the elderly or infirm into bait—to use them in a trap that could be used to kill an even larger number of the reptiles. And it speaks to the desperation of this situation that Weaver doesn’t shoot him for the suggestion. She doesn’t even reprimand him. Rather, she’s actually considering it, weighing the pros and cons.
Of the three films, it’s easiest to imagine Rakka getting big budget Hollywood treatment. It has the kind of art direction and scope (a planetary resistance to the alien invaders) to command a major studio FX budget, and it’s also the closest in tone and source material to Blomkamp’s previous works, while having room for a large, ensemble cast. Moreover, it has a mystery of the “angelic” creatures that is only vaguely hinted at in the short, and would obviously be explored in much more depth in a feature-length film. But it’s also the most conventional of the three projects in terms of its ideas—we’ve all at least seen an alien invasion film before. As a genre fan, I’d be happy to watch more stories set in the Rakka universe, but it’s ultimately Firebase and Zygote that are more creatively stimulating, offering elements I haven’t seen before.
The second short, Firebase, may well be the most unique of the three, in the sense that there are far fewer films with which you can compare it. Essentially a fusion of demoniacal horror and Vietnam war movie, it’s some serious nightmare fuel that is not to be watched by the faint of heart.
It follows a soldier who has sworn to destroy a Vietnamese necromancer of sorts; a peasant who has manifested terrifying powers to raise the dead as unstoppable golems, and is now being referred to as “The River God.” It’s a bit more exposition-heavy than the other two, relying on narrated flashbacks from various characters, such as a hideously wounded soldier, to tell about the horrors they experienced at the hands of the River God and his undead legions. The adversary is presented in a way that is quite daunting, with an array of powers that seem to bend space and time in a manner that can only be described as metaphysical. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr. Manhattan being used by the U.S. government as godly artillery against the Viet Cong in Watchmen. The similarities are obvious, although this time the shoe is most definitely on the other cloven hoof.
Of the three, Firebase is also the most uneven. The performances aren’t on par with either Rakka or Zygote, and it waffles between supernatural horror on the front lines of the fight and science-based countermeasures that may or may not be just as magical. I do love the term “relativity castle,” which is the device strapped to the back of our protagonist soldier that purportedly will protect him “from the breakdown of spacetime” caused by the River God, but it feels like a fun bit of techno-babble that hasn’t been fully written into a fleshed-out script—they’re not afraid to describe it here because the short ends before the soldier goes into combat and has to actually USE it. Firebase is like that as a whole, sporting some beautifully bonkers ideas—including vertically landing Russian jets equipped with flamethrowers that may or may not be real—but it feels the most like a true “short film” without intention to later go back and explain itself in a feature length project. If this one ever got adapted into a feature, I would expect it to be significantly re-written, unlike Rakka, which feels more polished, or Zygote, which is more intimately realized.
My personal favorite of these three films is the harrowing, truly horrifying monster movie known as Zygote, which features production design and creature work that surpasses anything I’ve seen in a wide release horror film in years. The most obvious and oft-made comparison will no doubt be to John Carpenter’s The Thing, but the film also seemingly draws upon the DNA of the third act of Aliens, as well as the Necromorph designs of the Dead Space videogame series to create what is legitimately one of the scariest monster movies of the last decade.
All discussion must begin with the mind-blowing creature design. The monster of Zygote is similar to The Thing, in the sense that is assimilates the biomass of the human beings it kills, but unlike The Thing, it doesn’t try to blend in and hide inside the appearances of normalcy. Rather, as this thing kills more and more people, the bodies (especially the limbs) just become fused or grafted onto a vaguely bipedal shape. After a few dozen people, this has generated a hulking monstrosity with pseudopod-like “arms” and “legs” made of countless human appendages, and a head of sorts that is studded with dozens of eyes. It’s a truly nightmarish design that would easily fit the aesthetic of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, to make another gaming comparison.
Opposing this mass of writhing limbs is a young woman played by Dakota Fanning, although “opposing” is probably being far too generous—she just desperately needs to get somewhere more secure, while simultaneously trying to guide a badly wounded colleague along, and dealing with a personal revelation that is completely redefining how she’s seen herself through her entire life. Suffice to say, Dakota is having one rough day in Zygote, and her terror feels very real and very earned. It’s easy to forget that the elder Fanning is still only 23, and may yet become a bigtime Hollywood leading lady. If Zygote were ever made into a full feature (and it really feels like a perfect mid-budget horror feature), then one would hope she would return, because the role simply feels right.
It’s the little touches of Zygote that are so effectively haunting. The abandoned science/mining outpost strewn with gore feels like a mixture of the Nostromo from Alien and the facility from the classic sci-fi shooter System Shock. The creature, having absorbed the consciousness, memories and knowledge of the entire facility’s crew, is ungainly but intelligent at the same time. There’s a moment when it needs to access a building with fingerprint ID’s, and not knowing which of its many limbs has the correct set of prints, it simply starts trying them one at a time until it works. It’s a more skin-crawling sequence than any of them featuring the film’s bombastic gore effects, precisely for the fact that it’s the kind of coldly logical behavior you just never see a monster engage in during a horror film. You expect a hideous monster to smash a door down … not slowly cycle through a few dozen fingers, looking for the one that opens it without resistance.
Of all the projects, Zygote is the tightest and most easy to imagine adapting into a single feature film, and on a more modest budget than Rakka. The segment we see feels like it was simply cut straight out of the third act, although it ends in an interesting place that is not quite a conclusion—it feels like there’s still one or two more big scenes to come. I’m sincerely hoping that I’ll get to see more of Zygote some day.
There are a handful of other short films on the Oats Studios YouTube page, most notably the darkly hilarious “Cooking with Bill” series, which channels some of the spirit of one of Tim & Eric’s bloodier sketches, but most of the attention has obviously fallen on the three longer, “A list” projects we’ve been discussing above. As previously mentioned, there’s still one more to come, although we don’t know when Lima will arrive. If the previous three are any indication, though, it will be coming with considerable fanfare and expectations that have now risen exponentially.
As a genre geek myself, I could scarcely be more excited about future Oats Studios projects in “Volume 2,” whenever that takes shape. Could that second phase include a full-on independent feature film, perhaps? Either way, it’s a welcome return to form for Neill Blomkamp, who impressed a whole lot of people with District 9 before turning more in the direction of commercial viability in Elysium and the poorly received, tonally inconsistent Chappie, along with the aborted Alien film we’ll never get a chance to see. If these Oats Studios films are an indication of how the South African director’s mind works when unfettered, then I’m all in favor of giving Neill Blomkamp as much creative freedom as possible. The areas he’s now exploring are on the bleeding edge of modern genre filmmaking—keep your fingers crossed for a major breakthrough in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and he wants a Zygote monster action figure, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. You can follow him on Twitter.