So this is what Neil Blomkamp has been up to! A Spectacular vision of what is to come for the horror short film medium.
If you pay attention to Hollywood scuttlebutt, you may be aware that South African director Neil Blomkamp had been in discussions with Fox to direct a sequel to Alien. This sequel was to have ret-conned the Alien franchise and stepped in after Aliens, by featuring Ripley, Hicks, and Newt and bringing back Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn. This would have been very much like the recent Halloween refresh, in which the franchise goes back to its core strongest elements and ignores or buries the rest of the weaker canon to follow. That was not to be, however, as Ridley Scott lay claim to the franchise he launched, and created Alien Covenant, with squatters rights for the foreseeable future.
So, what’s an ambitious science fiction director to do? It isn’t like Blomkamp needs to prove anything. He directed the brilliant Oscar-nominated Session 9, as well as the visually compelling Elysium, and… um… Chappie. OK, maybe his star has fallen a little. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em!
Rather than giving up on doing that science fiction showcase for Fox, in 2017, Blomkamp created Oats Studios, where he directs and produces one-act films that feature studio level effects, and production values and uses known Hollywood actors. This is in stark contrast to how many horror-short filmmakers do things. Most frequently, the horror short is a shoestring effort, with a bare minimum of special effects, if any at all. And Oats Studios has really flipped that script, with powerfully imagined set pieces that you can watch for free on YouTube. He has inverted the model, going from big production features to small indie short films. But, he’s taken his experience and production skills with him.
Zygote is the fourth production from Oats, and it has strong echoes of Aliens and The Thing. Dakota Fanning is a synthetic human who, along with the last human survivor at a polar research facility battles against a horrible monstrosity that has assimilated the entirety of the crew. The monster is a cosmic, Lovecraftian abomination, all writhing limbs, eyeballs, and torsos. The film brazenly shows its monster, allowing the mere image of it to horrify, rather than withholding the monster in the shadows. It is as if Oats Studios is showing off… look what we can do!
It has a bit of video-gaminess feel to it, as if it were excised from a Half-Life set piece, and the exposition strongly resembles a high-end video game production. But it is visceral, and full of all the requisite timing beats and pacing that you’d want from a sci-fi thriller. I saw this first at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, and I was startled at how professional this endeavor was. When you go to see a horror short film you expect maybe some cool practical gore effects, some psychological thrills, and some artistic cinematography, but you don’t expect this level of polish. This was a jaw dropper.
All of the Oats Studios films hew close to the marrow of traditional sci-fi horror staples. The first Oats Studio outing, Rakka (featuring Sigourney Weaver) is an alien invasion film like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. The second, Firebase, borrows much from Predator. All of these films, despite their familiarity, or perhaps because of their familiarity, are immediate attention grabbers. They look and sound fantastic. They have the auteurs eye behind them, and there is the hint of the epic in each one.
That’s another one of the key elements to their films so far. They are pieces of something bigger. Each of these films has the name extension “Volume 1”, and each vignette leaves you hanging in anticipation of something else to come, leaving you short of a conclusion.I am unsure if what they are doing are proofs of concepts, using these as trailers for studios to see if they can get perhaps a bigger studio to greenlight a full-length feature, or whether they are using the films as a test kitchen to stretch their legs with the effects as they work towards a full-length feature. The quality of these films suggests that we may have another modest budget studio, like Blumhouse or A24, but in this case specializes in science fiction-horror hybrids.
It makes me wonder how they can afford to do this as essentially a YouTube experimental film studio. I can’t believe that they can continue to produce three “big” budget short films per year. I would have to think that each one of these is about a million dollars to make. I would assume that this is just the beginning of what will become a commercially viable studio, and if that’s the case, count me as excited!