Having just ploughed through all of the BAFTA-nominated films this year (and a great many that weren’t) I’m surprised that so many of them were merely good rather than excellent. ‘Argo’ and ‘Dark Zero Thirty’ both played havoc with the facts to produce decent enough entertainment; the former is leavened by its Hollywood old boys subplot and the latter is more problematic in its embrace of torture as a legitimate tool of warfare, but an awful lot of them left nothing to talk about afterwards.
So, I reasoned that if I have to see films with little substance, let’s go all the way and see films with no substance at all. SF is like Thai food and sex; even when it’s lousy it’s still okay. So I began with ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’. I hadn’t seen the other four (five?) but was assured this did not matter as they were all exactly the same. The first fifteen minutes consisted of recapping the other films, except there was nothing to recap. Basically it consisted of a once-decent actor, Mila Jovovich, slowly somersaulting in black leather while firing guns at zombies, again and again and again in a slight variety of locations. It wasn’t directed but assembled from lots of little shots that slightly mismatched, a Groundhog Day of repetition that would almost have become an art form in itself if it hadn’t been so astoundingly boring – I wanted to see how long they could keep going with no plot at all. The full running time, it turns out.
Then, ‘Grabbers’, a sweetly funny Irish SF movie in which aliens fell to earth and attacked a small island, whose inhabitants soon realised that their only weapon was to stay drunk, as the creatures were allergic to the alcohol content of blood. This resulted in a pub full of paralytically pissed people trying to fend off an alien invasion, the only sober man being the town’s resident alcoholic copper. Watched it eating Thai takeout – double whammy of pleasure.
Next, ‘John Carter’. Ah, right from the outset you could see the problem with this hundred year-old franchise hopeful from Edgar Rice Burroughs – there was no telling the difference between the Thargs, the Therns, the Bargs or the Wargs until, toward the end of the film, someone helpfully pointed out ‘The Thargs are the ones with red flags and their enemies are in blue’ (or the other way around). Where had he been when we needed him earlier?
A wraparound story involved Burroughs and his uncle leads to a flashback, then a story within-a-story about aliens and – there, see, I’ve already lost you. Old pulp fiction can never be groundbreaking now because everything else is built on it, so that ‘John Carter’ (JC – hmm) feels like a distant echo of recent films instead of their original version. Underneath all the seen-it-all-before effects was something that must have started out clever and funny. The princess apologises for the tackiness of her (sub-Xena) outfit and there are some sly jokes amid all the long expository scenes – but it’s not enough to save the enterprise.
Then, finally, the maddest of all – ‘Branded’. Even days after watched it, I still want to scour my brain with wire wool to wipe away its memory. I’m going to go out on a limb here and name this as the most ill-conceived film of all time. Description is futile, so I’ll quote Twitch magazine, who said, under the headline ‘WTF Did I Just Watch?’; ‘Written and directed by newcomers Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn, Branded is social commentary and a satire of advertising as written by a pair of first year sociology majors who haven’t taken any film classes yet. The frequent, painful, and endless dialogue sounds like nothing more than a pair of self-important college kids who have just now realized that advertising is an insidious threat.’
The plot; A Russian boy is struck by lightning and sees a cow made of stars. As an adult he becomes a commercials director (his ads are unbelievably bad but everyone thinks they’re brilliant) played by Ed Stoppard, who needs to find another career fast before the rest of his hair falls out, because every time he opens his mouth the film dies. He falls in love with the boss’s daughter and becomes a shepherd. After a dream he builds an altar and sacrifices a glowing red cow before returning to Moscow, where everyone is now fat thanks to a marketing campaign to teach people to consume. They also have giant balloon creatures attached to their necks – symbols of evil advertising. He sells Chinese vegetarian fast-food and his balloon animals fight their balloon animals. Max Von Sydow, no stranger to stinking films, is in there somewhere. I wish I was making this up.
The hilarious part is that the creators have failed to spot that they’ve negated their own storyline by having their guru-hero fight back using the same evil persuasive techniques as the villains. Somewhere inside the mess there was an idea, but even that was a bad one, like ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’. This film, together with ‘Where Is Parsival?’ and ‘The Favour, The Watch And The Very Big Fish’ constitute a triumvirate of dreck about consumerism, but ‘Branded’ tops them by adding SF, and so becomes an Ed Wood film with a massive budget.
After this, I won’t complain any more about films like ‘The Master’.