Written by Neill Blomkamp and Thomas Sweterlitsch
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Produced by Mike Blomkamp and Steven St Arnaud
27 min, no rating, but would definitely be R
A lone soldier stalks the jungles of Vietnam in 1970. The CIA deploys an agent to bring him into the fold to fight a for a greater cause. Mysterious events surround an enigmatic entity that has quickly achieved mythical status. Together, the agent and soldier lay the framework to discover who or what it is and take it out. Sound familiar? Boy, it sure is. Though the setting is different and there are a lot less macho handshakes, Oats Studio’s second short film Firebase, directed by Neill Blomkamp, channels tried and true tropes to give a thriller that promises more when volume 2 comes around.
Firebase is from Oats Studios, a new film studio. It was founded by Neill Blomkamp and has taken bold steps in experimental film making. Oats Studios has also partnered up with game development studio Valve to release extra materials through its Steam platform. The studio seems to derive a majority of its funding through donations, steam purchases, and crowdsourcing. This allows Blomkamp and his team of film wizards to create projects based on passion and not by the whim of production companies. Whims that demand films check certain boxes and interfere in the creative process in exchange for a paycheck. Therefore, when the jaw dropping teasers for Firebase were released in June 2017, it was no surprise.
Leading the charge in the directorial seat is Blomkamp. For most, he is a director who made a splash with District 9 back in 2009. Then he had a couple less successful films in the following years. For science fiction fans and film buffs, this South African director is known for his original screenplays, unique visual style, and the subtle themes that permeate the otherwise action packed films. In an age where most science fiction is boiled down to aliens/robots/mutants yelling while shooting guns with explosions in the background, Blomkamp has always tried to put some meaning or moral lesson into his work, whether it be apartheid style segregation in District 9, the disparity between the elite and poor in Elysium, or the corruption of innocence for self gain in Chappie.
Our rugged solider, Sergeant Hines, is played by Steve Boyle. He is a man of few words, but fierce action. Hines seems to know more than he lets on. We find him on a mission before several quick transition leads us to our exposition mouthpiece, CIA agent Jacob Palmer, played by Nic Rhind. We are slowly given information on the events hinted at in the found footage style opener. Delivery is a bit heavy handed and Boyle’s portrayal of the gruff and stoic Hines can come off as groan worthy. If it wasn’t for the obvious channeling of cult classic Vietnam War films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and the corresponding action tropes of the 70’s and 80’s this would have missed its mark entirely. It sets up a compelling story, but tells us to take a double dose of suspension of disbelief.
The film utilizes jump cuts and exposition to an extent that it creates the idea of an unreliable narrator. At first we find Hines going into a Viet Cong tunnel, only to be assaulted by a zombie soldier. One grenade later and we are shown this isn’t just some “soldier vs zombies” film when the zombie gets back up. Its flesh sloughs off to reveal a hideous bug-like creature inside. Oats Studios called these guys Spider-men and no, there was no web slinging. This is just one example of how Blomkamp and Oats subvert our expectations and make us shake our heads to do a double take. Before long, Hines is picked up by Palmer and taken to a forward operating base while talking about the River God. Some say he was a simple farmer, but that would just be too simple. One thing is for certain, a creature of muscle and bone roams the jungle raising the dead and turning them into these spider-men. It also demonstrates feats of telekinesis and telepathy and our CIA man, Palmer, knows that Hines has a connection to him.
Once at the base, they interview a badly burned soldier named Corporal Bracken, who had a close encounter with the River God. Here we see even more top tier visual effects as the River God makes his presence known, encasing himself in the flesh and muscle of those fallen around him to create a visually arresting, if not gruesome, suit of armor. Bracken is given a vision or is seemingly transported to an alternate timeline where he is back in America, but it is beset by Soviet planes that are highly advanced. The planes set down like a rocket and set fire to everything around them as they transform into towering silver flamethrowers. Bracken, engulfed in a gout of flame, suddenly finds himself back in the jungle and on fire. Mysteries upon mysteries with fewer answers than the pages of questions we have are piling up.
The film ends in a montage where a battalion prepares to assault the River God while our hero dons a suit of advanced armor. Palmer blabbers some sci-fi mumbo jumbo that is laughable, but charming, given the cheesy tropes we’ve already witnessed. With a few sorrowful beats and a doleful tone, the film ends on a bleak note, leaving us excited. Revelations and actions await us in, hopefully not long off, Firebase Volume 2.
Set with action, tension, gore, and plenty of fantastic creatures, Firebase is a departure from Oats Studio’s first release, Rakka. Gritty realism and space snakes are replaced with stiff dialog and purposeful tropes. Though Firebase doesn’t have the big names like Sigourney Weaver or Carly Pope, you get drawn into the mystery of what could be going on in the jungle. It’s by no means perfect, but short films usually don’t try to be. They showcase a studio’s talents, effects, and writing while giving the audience a bite sized piece that, though satisfying, will leave you wanting a bigger helping.