Every success story is followed by its imitators. Star Wars had its Space Raiders; the iPod was followed up by the Zune; heck, lonelygirl15 created a whole new genre of storytelling via webcam — all because someone saw someone else’s success, and tried to piggyback upon it.
So here’s a more recent success story for you: Unknown director from small country shoots an effects-heavy short independently, which acquires a great deal of attention online. This includes the attention of a much more famous director responsible for a blockbuster trilogy of films, who presumably understands how hard it is to break into Hollywood because he too came from humble independent roots. This results in the unknown director being scooped up for a deal with the famous director, who will go onto produce the feature-length adaptation of that original short film, helmed by the not-so-longer unknown director and budgeted at approximately $30 million.
Sounds familiar, right? Yeah, that’s the story of Neill Blomkamp and Alive in Joberg/District 9, the feature adaptation of which was overseen by Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings films). But it is also now the story of Federico Alvarez, whose $500 short Ataque de Pánico!, after reaching over 800,000 views on YouTube within the last month, has earned Alvarez a similar deal with Spider-man director Sam Raimi and Mandate Pictures.
Ataque de Pánico! is a tense and action-packed five minutes of giant robots destroying Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo as bystanders stare in awe or scream in terror. It’s not hard to see what impressed Raimi and his team about it: The quality of the effects, especially the seamless integration of the robots into the Montevideo cityscape, is extraordinarily impressive given the budget. Also, Alvarez clearly has a strong visual eye and a talent for iconic imagery, including memorable shots like the smoke clouds enveloping a tall white cross and the swarms of smaller ships crisscrossing the skies.
But here’s where Ataque de Pánico! and Alive in Joburg differ: While Alvarez’s five minutes of film is an orgy of explosions and destruction that would make Michael Bay smile, there’s no real story to it — robots show up, they attack city, boom boom boom.
Whereas what made Alive in Joburg such a unique piece of work wasn’t just the quality of the effects; it was the fact that Blomkamp paired a sci-fi concept with real issues affecting his native land of South Africa, putting apartheid in a new context and providing a whole new perspective on the well-tred “aliens amongst us” narrative. It was that unique point-of-view which set District 9 apart from other sci-fi flicks this summer, and made it a critical success as well as a commercial one. Ataque de Pánico!, frankly, lacks that spark.
Ataque de Pánico! is an accomplished work, and it’s nifty that online video is once again proven as a means by which independent creators can be appropriately recognized for their talents. But I don’t have high hopes for Alvarez’s feature film debut, whatever form it might take, duplicating Blomkamp’s own success. After all, we already have one Michael Bay. Isn’t that enough?