In the mid-Eighties, music critic Dave Quantick wrote in the New Musical Express that "pop will eat itself." And then, to hammer home his point, along came a band and named themselves after this quote. It is hard not to think of this sort of rabid self-cannibalisation when watching any of these three science fiction films. All three are very different but they have been infected by the impulse of much contemporary culture to consume itself.
At first glance The Nines and Southland Tales share the most similarities: they are both by writer-directors (the Hollywood version of the auteur); they are both three-part dramas intent on telling us this fact; they are both set in Southern California and are intimate with the film and television industry (a relationship that is as incestuous as it is satirical); they have both ingested the spirit of Philip K. Dick; and they are both batshit insane.
The Nines is superficially the more normal, although as we shall see such values are very relative. A famous television actor on a law and order show has broken up with his girlfriend. So he sets fire to her stuff, buys a bottle of bourbon, and drives around town feeling sorry for himself. Then he buys some crack and, because he's never used the drug before, asks a prostitute to come and help him smoke it. Things are going swimmingly until, wacked out and apparently hallucinating, he crashes his car.
This is our point of divergence. Next we get a black and white interstitial screen introducing part one. The actor is under house arrest in the LA pad of an absent TV writer. He is bored. Reality seems to warp slowly around him. He appears to be a pawn in a game he doesn't understand, played out between his publicist and his next door neighbour. Determined to assert some sort of control over his life, he activates his parole tag. Another interstitial screen and we are in part two, where the actor seems to have become the TV writer. The rest of the pattern repeats itself, and then the film moves into part three, where the protagonist is now a computer games designer, apparently in a programme written by the previous character. Like Life on Mars—which also used a car crash as its catalyst—the main character heads off the viewer by voicing the options himself: is he dreaming, in a coma, dead? The film also milks the drugs angle because, as Arthur C. Clarke didn't quite say, sufficiently good drugs are indistinguishable from virtual reality. Or is it all just a computer simulation? In fact all this is misdirection and when the conclusion arrives it is refreshingly bonkers, albeit more than a little redolent of The Outer Limits.
If you can get over the slightly schlocky premise, though, there are still two major problems with the execution of The Nines. Firstly, there's the fact that all three leads are played by Ryan Reynolds. If you know Reynolds at all, it is probably as the aging jock in gross-out comedy Van Wilder, and although he is obviously trying to do different work there is still an inescapable glibness to him; all he can do is twitch to denote depth. Ironically, he is too similar to the pretty boy actor he plays in the first act to convincingly portray him. Things do not improve as he switches roles: playing the writer means putting on glasses and camping it up, playing the designer means growing a beard and using less moisturiser. It is not that Reynolds is eye-rollingly bad, but he just doesn't have the chops to carry a picture like this. Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis, likewise in tripartite roles, do fine work in buttressing him, but everything hangs on the central actor.
The second big problem is that this is John August's first film as director. Technically, he seems a little unsure of himself and the end result of this is a Hollywood film that looks like a TV movie. That Outer Limits feeling again. The use of music is a good example of how this causes problems—August clearly views the soundtrack as integral to the film, but it is both intrusive and facile. One of the first times the viewer is clued into the fact that all is not what it seems is the sudden intrusion of a little fantasy musical segment. It is meant to feel artificial and to put you off-kilter—and it does—but it also feels very clumsy.
A lesser but still significant problem is tone. August is a longtime screenwriter for Tim Burton, and it soon becomes apparent that what is lacking here is any of Burton's spice or vinegar. There is a strong undercurrent of sap to The Nines that bursts out into the open at the conclusion. As Philip French wonderfully puts it, the film is like "an encounter between Bishop Berkeley and Busby Berkeley on Sunset Strip." I am not sure whether most sane people would find this an enticing prospect.
If The Nines is a cheap puzzle picture, Southland Tales is an expensive folly of monumental proportions. Director Richard Kelly's previous film, Donnie Darko, made little impression at the US box office but went on to enjoy huge international success. It has now ascended to the level of a full-blown global cult. The result is that where August is diffident with the camera, Kelly is confident to the point of megalomania. As Francis Ford Coppola famously said of making Apocalypse Now: "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."
The film opens with some faux-found footage of a nuclear attack on America. This is the last normal moment of the film. We then shift immediately to a quite extraordinary montage of computer graphics, animation, and film where Justin Timberlake—in a voiceover pitched somewhere between a purr and a growl—explains at great length all the ludicrous events that have transpired since. And then the interstitial comes in to announce the beginning of, er, Act IV. That's right, half the film has already happened off stage. (These first three acts were released as graphic novels, though it is unlikely you will want to seek them out having seen the film.)
The plot of The Nines might be hard to condense, but the plot of Southland Tales simply defies reduction. The back of the DVD attempts synopsis simply by listing the attributes of a few of the sprawling cast. Here is a list of some of the things that appear prominently in the film: the Book of Revelation, race riots, a magic fuel called Fluid Karma, internet censorship, a neo-Marxist underground, and a rift in space-time caused by slowing down the rotation of the Earth. Kelly seems to believe he has made a black comedy, but if so it is it is one with the all the jokes replaced by unfathomable incongruity and the satire replaced by action sequences and set design.
It is worth pausing to emphasise just how fucking odd this film is.
Just when you think it can't get any weirder you are treated to an advert featuring two cars having sex in graphic detail. This is then topped not long afterwards by, yes, another Busby Berkeley-style musical interlude in which Timberlake lip-synchs to "All These Things That I've Done" by The Killers, in an amusement arcade, surrounded by a chorus of showgirls. The closest comparison I can come up with is Freddie Got Fingered, the Tom Green comedy debacle that notoriously left critics agog. Southland Tales engenders the exact same question: how on Earth did this get made?
After ninety minutes of this assault you are sure there can't be much more, but in fact there is almost an hour of running time to go. True enough, it settles down a bit in its third/sixth act, but this is not to imply that things start to make sense. Not when deadpan dialogue such as this is bandied about:
"And what did we do when we discovered a rift in the fourth dimension? We launched monkeys into it."
When monkeys fail they try a movie star. This endgame, which at times feels like an extended parody of the Architect sections of the sequels to The Matrix, is preamble to imparting the closing moral of the story: pimps don't commit suicide. No, this doesn't make any more sense in the context of the film. Southland Tales is an abomination. There is nothing to salvage in this film, although it is frequently compelling in its sheer demented audacity. The Nines looks insignificant when paired with it. If August has his tail in his mouth, Kelly has gorged himself on popular culture and then vomited it all up onto the screen.
These films are both recent DVD releases, and I watched them back to back because I was interested in the potential similarities between them. It was sheer chance that I happened to watch Doomsday, another film by a writer/director, not long afterwards. It is a film that makes no bones about the fact it is feasting on the flesh of its brothers and, like Southland Tales, it believes that nothing exceeds like excess.
Neil Marshall has a filmmaking sensibility that is a long way from the Los Angeles insider worldview of August and Kelly. His debut film was Dog Soldiers (2002), a well-received micro-budget werewolf comedy horror set in Scotland. He then played it entirely straight with his follow-up, The Descent (2005). A remorselessly bleak caving drama with an all-female cast, it is a film in which the intrusion of the explicitly horrific is only the final turn of the screw. Both films show a talent for intimate ensemble pieces and a flair for gore and suspense that made me look forward to his next film. Until, that is, I saw the trailer for it.
Everything about the trailer screams lowest common denominator semi-thrills. The bloke with a mohican shouting, "We're going to catch 'em, cook 'em and eat 'em!" The shiny Bentley flying through the side of an armoured bus which then promptly explodes. The gratuitous close-up arse shot of the female lead. What the trailer makes clear is that Marshall has deliberately produced an exploitation B movie: he has doubled the gore, halved the suspense, and thrown in some tits. Unlike Southland Tales the awfulness of this film can be condensed because to do so all you have to do is regress to a student house in the Eighties and cast an eye over their shelf of VHS classics: Mad Max (1979); Escape from New York (1981); Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981); Highlander (1986). That list is by no means exhaustive, but Doomsday is a bizarrely naked tribute to these films, and so jarringly disjointed and literal in its homage that it is often like watching someone yank a cassette out of the video player half way through only to immediately slam in another one. Watching in the cinema, you also can’t help feeling that you are lacking the requisite spliff and can of lager to properly appreciate this spectacle.
As always we need some preamble to navigate the nonsense that is to follow, and this time Malcolm McDowell is on hammy voiceover duties. The gist is that a highly contagious virus breaks out in Glasgow and the English reinstate Hadrian's Wall, barricading them inside their own country and leaving them to die. Thirty years later and, lo and behold, the virus crops up in London. The only way to save England is to enter the quarantine zone of Scotland and return with some survivors so that their blood can be used to synthesise a cure. So our plucky band of adventurers enter the ravaged country to discover, well, let’s just say that given the Hobbesian regression they have undergone you’d be forgiven for thinking Marshall had a pretty dim view of the Scots.
It goes without saying that this setup is very, very silly and so is everything that follows from it. There is no point in picking plot holes in a film like this, though, because if you started you wouldn't know where to end. In contrast to a film like 28 Weeks Later (a film that steals a lot of Doomsday's thunder), it lacks the pace or verve that allows a viewer to ignore these chasms of credulity. Instead you are left to drown in a fondue of cheesy stupidity. Thankfully Busby Berkeley does not put in an appearance, but again music plays an uncomfortable role in the film. To hammer home the fact that this is pure Eighties nostalgia, Marshall picks a bunch of knowingly obsolete songs to soundtrack his tribute. A pantomine set piece of typical preposterousness is augured in by—nudge nudge, wink wink—the Fine Young Cannibals. Later the opposing sides duke it out in a road race to "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. To further add to the preposterous this chase is transparently shot in South Africa which makes it look quite a lot like Mad Max but not one iota like rural Scotland.
You have to marvel at the astonishing amount of professionalism that went into making this tripe. At the end of each of these three films, the credits are crammed with the names of people working behind the scenes to produce amazing technical achievements, and even in front of the camera several people are trying their best. Southland Tales contains a couple of nice performances that are all the more noticeable for taking place in the middle of a total shambles. Dwayne Johnson, probably still better known as The Rock, has a very clear understanding of what his director wants from him and is rather good. Seann William Scott is still desperately searching for his breakout role and his performance here shows he deserves it. The female roles are more problematic: Sarah Michelle Gellar looks awkward in an underwritten role playing the antithesis of Buffy; Mandy Moore looks like she is enjoying playing against type but again has a nothing role; Miranda Richardson has a lot of presence but very few lines and Bai Ling just hangs around smoking and not wearing very much. Doomsday, in contrast, makes the most of its female protagonist but does very little with its male supporting actors. Rhona Mitra actually makes a good action heroine and I'm sure this isn't the last time we'll see her in such a role. (Mitra was Lara Croft made flesh before they could afford the more expensive flesh of Angelina Jolie.) Adrian Lester, on the other hand, must be crying on the inside playing pseudo-love interest Streetwise Sergeant #1. McDowell is past the stage in his career where he feels obliged to act, but Bob Hoskins looks decidedly embarrassed.
Southland Tales is wretched because of egotistical bravado, Doomsday is wretched because of egotistical nostalgia. At least Kelly's insanity is fresh. The Nines looks like a model of restraint next to either of them. However, all three films show an ouroborous industry consuming itself and it is not a pretty picture.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. He is sure he has seen some films at the cinema that weren't total shit, but he is having trouble remembering when. Oh yeah, the new Indiana Jones was okay. Apart from the Tarzan bit.