Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Roll the "Oats"

Director Neill Blomkamp has made quite a splash this summer with his new series of web shorts, dubbed "Oats Studios: Vol. 1." These are interesting little experimental pieces, testing various ideas and concepts. I don't think any of them work very well as stand-alone shorts, because they're mostly left open-ended by design, but they do offer some interesting bits and pieces to chew on. Blomkamp is hopeful that they could lead to bigger things, the way that "Alive in Joburg" lead to "District 9." But do any of them have what it takes? And is this a worthwhile use of Blomkamp's time?

Please note that more shorts from Oats Studios are likely forthcoming in the weeks ahead, and I'm not exactly sure what the cutoff between "Vol. 1" and any further volumes is. However, Blomkamp has said in interviews that July 14th was the endpoint for the first round of releases, so I'm taking him at his word and doing this write-up now. Oh, and spoilers ahead.

"Rakka" - Notable for featuring Sigourney Weaver, this is an alien invasion story that does a good job of creating a tactile future dystopia and showing off some icky special effects. I love the first segment that charts how the vaguely reptilian Klum have taken over and are trying to squash the remains of the human resistance. The image of the puppet politician being used as bait is especially nasty. However, the second and third segments setting up other characters are less coherent and less interesting. "Rakka" is probably the most likely contender for being turned into a full feature film, but it would need a lot more work to get there.

"Firebase" - I completely missed the VR simulation element the first time I watched this, which doesn't speak well of this short's effectiveness in getting across its narrative. This one is a clear step down from "Rakka," with less impressive CGI and noticeably more wooden actors. And it really hammers home how reliant the "Oats" shorts are on genre conventions, jarring shock imagery, and slick effects. Still, I like some of the depictions of carnage and horror here. The few seconds of floating military vehicles in the grainy film footage is extremely effective. I'm less impressed with the execution of the "River God," however, though I do think that the idea has some promise.

"Cooking With Bill" - Now this set of shorts just feels like throwaway filler. We've seen plenty of spoofs of crummy infomercials from other sources done much better. Adult Swim's "Broomshakalaka" immediately comes to mind. "Cooking With Bill" leans heavily on shock value, and the multiple installments just get repetitive by the end. All the shorts share the same formula, and the sushi and smoothie installments essentially have the same gross-out ending, even. I'm not sure why this series is even included on the channel, considering how unpolished it is, and it's telling that pretty much all the coverage of "Oats" has been soundly ignoring it.

"God: Serengeti" - So far, this is my favorite of the shorts, mostly because it's such a departure in tone and style from the others. Sharlto Copely, as God, is also allowed to give a full-fledged comedic performance as he messes with mankind and a dutiful butler. The concept is well-executed, even if it doesn't add up to much and lacks a good punchline. However, this appears to be the first installment of another series, so I'm hopeful that it can build up to something bigger in the future.

"Zygote" - Well, it's nice to see Dakota Fanning again. This is the strongest piece from Oats so far, largely because it is a complete narrative that follows one continuous, well-executed story for a full twenty minutes, even if that narrative ends on a cliffhanger. Arguably it's one of the least ambitious concepts, with a very familiar monster scenario with plus some slapdash worldbuilding mainly conveyed through exposition dump. The monster, however, is a winner. I love the way this thing looks and moves, even if all the mumbo-jumbo around its creation didn't play so well. If any of the Oats shorts were to be expanded, this would be my choice. In this case, simple works best.


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