Zygote and Neil Blomkamp’s Weakness as a Filmmaker

Zygote has a lot of both the strengths and weaknesses that define Neil Blomkamp’s work as a storyteller. It’s the latest in a series of short films Blomkamp has been making under his new production studio, and has an intriguing premise and all the building blocks of a good story, but suffers from weak characters and plot, and a central truth:

Neil Blomkamp is a storyteller that’s uninterested in story.

This isn’t to say he isn’t a good filmmaker: Blomkamp’s an incredibly talented director with a great eye for world building, visual design, and interesting sci-fi ideas. You’ve probably either seen, or at least heard of, one of the three big movies he’s made: District 9, Elysium, or Chappie.

But while he’s a talented filmmaker, he is uninterested in telling stories. While District 9 is a solid film, Elysium and Chappie both suffer from lackluster plot and weak characters. And this isn’t just my opinion: Blomkamp is aware of his weaknesses. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine after the release of Elysium, Blomkamp said about his own work:

I love concepts more than stories. The idea of this jewel floating in the sky, filled with rich people who’ve left Earth as a shithole for poor people – to me, that satirical idea is pure gold. Then when it came to the story, I found myself kind of going, “Eh.” That’s not a good place to be.

Rolling Stone Magazine

Acknowledging your own weaknesses as a storyteller is difficult for any kind of artist, and it’s a credit to Blomkamp that he’s able to do it so accurately. An interest in idea over story isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it’s one that regularly trips Blomkamp up in his longer works.

The Promise of Oats Studio and Zygote

All of this brings us back to Zygote. When Blomkamp revealed that he was releasing a series of short sci-fi anthology films from his new production studio, Oats Studio, I was ecstatic. It seemed like the perfect fit; because of their length, short films can be primarily about an idea in a way a full length film can’t. And of the three main short films that were released, the first two, Rakka and Firebase, are really strong: they’re a little exposition heavy, but they have gorgeous visuals and don’t overstay their welcome.

Zygote is the third, and is the most interesting of the three, but largely because it’s the weakest and throws into sharp relief Blomkamp’s flaws as a storyteller. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the plot. Somewhere in antarctica there’s a mining operation where the miners are divided into humans, and below them synthetic androids. At some point a monster got released that absorbs the bodies of the miners into a shambling mass of limbs. Only two of the miners are left: a human who’s been blinded, and a synthetic played by Dakota Fanning. They’re safe in the cafeteria for the moment, but will run out of food soon. Farther in the facility there’s a vault where they’ll also be safe and there’s food. It’s locked by a fingerprint reader, but more importantly, to reach it the two remaining miners are going to have to venture out into the cold where the monster can get them.

They decide to leave the cafeteria and encounter the monster, but are able to escape it for the moment. Soon after they’re forced to stop though because the human miner can’t go on. He then reveals the big twist: that the Dakota Fanning character isn’t actually a synthetic, but instead a human orphan. Synthetics androids are expensive, so orphans are brainwashed into thinking they’re synthetics and used instead. He realizes he’s been infected by the monster and cuts off his finger. He gives it to her so she can get into the vault, and is then consumed by the monster. Dakota Fanning spends about five minutes of hide and seek with the monster, gets to the vault, and finds out the guy’s finger doesn’t work. She shoots the monster, cuts off its finger, uses that instead, and gets into the vault and is safe.

The Problem With Zygote’s Climax

If you haven’t watched it, it’s definitely worth checking out, even with its flaws. The primary one being a lack of real climax to the story. All stories are built on a really simple structure of rising action, climax, then brief falling action. For example, in Zygote we start with the two leads in the cafeteria, the situation escalates as they run from the monster and the twist of Dakota Fanning’s origin is revealed, reaches a climax when she shoots the monster, then falls once she’s safe in the vault.

So what’s wrong with shooting the monster as a climax? On the outside it seems like a perfectly serviceable way of resolving the tension and conflict of the story: a lot of horror movies climax with the protagonist defeating killing or wounding the monster, but the best ones do something that Zygote doesn’t: they tie the climax to character growth and theme. Zygote’s monster doesn’t have any personal connection or meaning to the Dakota Fanning character, so while shooting it is an action climax, it isn’t a character or thematic one besides maybe a generic overcoming fear of facing danger.

Here’s the Thing

The frustrating thing is that the story doesn’t need to be completely rewritten to fix the climax. There’s already a really clear theme in Zygote, it just doesn’t connect with the plot or characters. The theme is objectification. Not in the sexual or gendered way the term is usually used, but in its purest form: the rendering and reducing of someone or something into an object to be acted upon without agency of its own. In Zygote people are reduced to their body parts. That’s what the monster is: body parts stripped of their minds and personalities.

This is really horror 101 stuff. There’s a long and proud tradition of monsters being embodiments of societal fears and anxieties: the xenomorph in Alien is a giant phallus stalking a woman through the innards of a ship, leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series is a stand in for rural America, Godzilla is about Japan’s trauma at the hands of atomic power, and zombies can be used for everything from racism to consumerism to terrorism.

But having the monster in Zygote embody the theme of objectification is just a starting point. The theme should also connect with the characters and plot. How could that have been done? Like I said, I think the story just needs a few adjustments, and what I’m going to lay out is just one way to do it.

(Why yes, that does mean we’re doing yet another speculative rewrite)

Rewriting Zygote’s Climax

First, you change the dynamic between Dakota Fanning and the other human character. You start with the same premise, but add a selfish dimension to the man’s character. He wants to get into the vault, but primarily because he wants to save himself, and Dakota Fanning is just a tool to achieve that.

You keep it more or less the same until about halfway through the story until the reveal that she’s a real human instead of a synthetic robot. Maybe he tells her out of spite, or she just stumbles on some documents. The how isn’t important. The important part is by this point Dakota Fanning realizes that she’s not going to be able to get to the vault with him, that only one of them is going to survive.

In the original version he willingly cuts off his finger and gives it to her to get into the vault as it’s the only way in. But because he’s a more selfish character and the dynamic between the two of them is different, you instead have Dakota Fanning overcome her slave class mentality by cutting off his finger so she can get into the vault. It’s gruesome and bloody, and he’s screaming and crying out for her not to leave him, but she does, leaves him as a distraction for the monster so she can escape into the vault.

This then becomes the climax of the film instead of another five minutes of cat and mouse ending with her shooting the monster. Instead of just the action climax of her shooting the monster to get into the vault, cutting off the man’s finger and leaving him to die as a distraction reduces him to an object just as she was reduced to one by society and by him. This way the theme of objectification is thus respected and evolved from start to finish through the growth of the main character: society only cares about her as a body, the monster only cares about his victims as bodies, and now she cares about the man only as a body.

And if as a director you wanted to get really artsy about it, you could imply that she has now objectified herself by leaving the man to die: that by prioritizing the physical safety of her body above all else she has stripped away her morality and beliefs and reduced her sense of identity to solely the physical.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think Blomkamp is by any means a bad filmmaker. He’s an incredibly frustrating one, fantastically talented in certain respects, but consistently stumbling in others. He’s good at coming up with concepts, but bad at extrapolating and exploring and executing them. And none of his work shows that better than Zygote.

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