Director: Neill Blomkamp
Running Time: 23 Minutes
*This review contains spoilers*
The wonderful thing about short movies is the elision, the things that are left for the imagination to discover that suggest a story wider than what we’re allowed to see on the screen; to extrapolate from excerpts of speech, or from signs on the wall, or to gauge from exchanged glances between individuals. There is a tremendous amount of detective work required for short films, and a great deal of guess work too.
Combining imagination with the clues we find on the screen, the viewer can imagine for Barklay and Quinn – the two survivors of a crew of ninety-eight – vastly different experiences. For Barklay (Fanning), the viewer can imagine a youth in servitude to the Cerebus Mining Group, living as a synthetic underclass of mine labourers somewhere in the Arctic. From her interactions with Quinn (Cantillo), the viewer learns that she has ‘insufficient status’ to open many of the doors and is forbidden from handling a gun. On the other hand, the viewer learns from Quinn that he is a superior class and is probably a guard or an enforcer of the miners judging by his uniform and his access to doors that Barklay does not. He even commands a respect that ensures Barklay refers to him as ‘Sir’ even when the mine is in peril. Later in the film, Barklay passes through an area with UV light and her class appears in writing on the back of her jacket as well as being revealed in a series of markings on her forehead, whilst Quinn passes through with nothing marking his identity of class.
There is no information provided about what brought the mine into its apocalyptic state and whilst the viewer ponders whether something was discovered in the mine; something alien, prehistoric, or viral, Blomkamp takes the opportunity to develop a rich dialogue between Quinn and Barklay. He tells her that he gouged out his eyes at the sight of a bright light surrounding the ‘creature’, and that it has the ability to absorb information from the minds of its victims and learn everything that they know. Barklay, due to her class, is willing to sacrifice her life in order to save Quinn, and even bypasses her ingrained protocol about weapons handling to shoot at the creature.
Often when inhuman creatures are revealed in horror films, the effect can be disappointing and reduces the impression of the film to the quality of the costume and special effects departments, which is why so many horror films never reveal what is hunting its protagonists down. However, when the ‘creature’ in Zygote is revealed, the results are startling. The creature appears to be a literal translation of the film’s title, a ‘Zygote’ – a joining together. The ‘Zygote’ has taken the bodies of its victims and meshed them together into a flesh-suit and as it chases Quinn and Barklay through the mining station, the viewer can see the ninety-eight legs waving in the Arctic winds and the ninety-eight hands attempting to access the biometric door locking systems.
When Barklay and Quinn are together in a room which appears to be the location of their last stand, he reveals to her that she is not a synthetic but a human. He explains that full-synthetics are expensive commodities and that the company has been purchasing human orphans to work as labourers and convincing them that they are synthetic; which is why so many of them become sick in the mines when synthetics would not. Once this information has been passed on, Quinn decides to give Barklay his handgun to arm herself whilst he buys her some time to escape. He cuts off his finger to allow her access to parts of the facility that might enable her survival and waits for the creature to get to him. Confident in her humanity and her new-found desire to survive, Barklay escapes into a tunnel and shoots down the creature, steals one of its hands, and enters a room into relative safety.
As Zygote draws to a close, it becomes apparent how suitable Earth might still be for the survival horror genre. Often narratives like this one might take place in space, in a post-apocalyptic Earth, or on an alien planet, but the reality of setting it in the Arctic reminds us how hostile our planet can be and how little we know about our Earth. There is no time period associated with the film, it could be in the distant past, present, or technologically advanced future. It is this timelessness and the darkness of the Arctic that makes it fully believable that this could be happening right now.
The one failing of this short film is that it doesn’t feel as self-contained as I would expect a short film to be, instead, it feels more like an excerpt of a film or even an extended trailer to a feature length film. It might be that this is the film’s success; convincing the viewer that there is more to the story than the twenty-three minutes Blomkamp gives us and leaves us wanting to see more – Does Barklay make it off the station? What does she do with her new-found identity as a human? Whilst we might never know the answers to these questions, Zygote is an experience worth talking about. The film demonstrates the potential of a small cast, effective creature design, and a level of horror that blockbuster directors have been aiming at and missing for the past few years.