Five brief thoughts on a
recent * film. I’m specifically going to spoil the ending too so yah, boo, sucks to be you!
1) Let’s quickly get down to brass tacks. This is a film driven by a visual idea. The idea is big Nazi flying saucers coming down from the moon to invade earth. A 1950s sci-fi plot with our favourite 1940s universal bad guys. Inside the space craft are pilots and soldiers, a mix of a monstrous technocratic military machine and ridiculous camp flair. Mean with granite brows and jawlines wearing horrendous gas masks and officers wearing silk-epauletted, leather coated, silver-skulled uniforms. The Nazis truly are our “enemy of choice” (the President in the film says so herself) because we’ve decided that nobody could possibly defend them and nobody could be offended by deriding them. Their style is the style we use for comic book villains for decades to to actually use the Nazis is like getting real Coke instead of imitation soda.
Now of course, for an entire film to be based around a single visual idea is unforgivable. Film is a visual medium but it is not only a visual medium. We forgive this idea only because it’s an independent film and anything even half interesting that manages to avoid hollywood’s slow strangulation process (like the body snatchers Hollywood clearly has a tendency to take your original idea, kill it and replace it with a clone).
The point is that it’s a fun and daring image for light entertainment. It’s the Producers, but it’s an action movie. Wouldn’t that be fun? So do they achieve the visuals?
Yes, yes and yes. In terms of fulfilling it’s visual remit it hits all the marks and very much in a way that should have got the props, visual design and wardrobe department working on Captain America: The First Avenger sacked and sent home. So much so in fact, that it’s a shame…..
2) ……that this is a pretty tedious movie. Turns out when the main point behind your movie is a striking visual image, you can underestimate how important the plot is. Now it’s obvious what this movie was trying to do. This movie was trying very very hard to be a movie I have already written about at length, the modern classic: Dr Strangelove. The film even whilst struggling for a way to end the story, simply rips off the key elements of the ending of Strangelove with “fighting in the war room” and the beginning of a thermonuclear war. The main character Washington goes through brain washing and afterwards is rolled out in a wheelchair, and has to hold his right arm down with his left to stop himself giving the Nazi salute which is as unsubtle as just punching the audience and flashing the IMDB page up on the screen. I’m sure at one point they even considered ending with We’ll meet again, although they probably felt that undermined their idea of starting work on a sequel essentially straight after wrapping up.
The thing is that this film is nothing like Strangelove. For one thing it’s nowhere near as clever or funny. The way jokes are constructed makes you feel that you are in the presence of someone who fundamentally has no understanding of comedy. How an idea like the Nazis being so mindless that when they hear their anthem they cannot help but stand up to attention and salute is used as a joke and a plot point is beyond me. How the heroine then tricks the villain into electrocuting himself by saluting him so he salutes back and touches a live wire is just ridiculous. That’s the same joke twice in a row, once in the scene that is essentially the culmination of the plot and the joke isn’t even funny. It’s on a level with jokes about how the guards outside Buckingham Palace can’t move or about how all Australians have corks dangling from their hats.
It’s not Strangelove. In fact, the multiple homage sequences without additional jokes (the direct copycat scene from Downfall, you know the internet meme one) make it seem much more in the Scary Movie vein.
So whilst the visuals are fun, it’s like a kid who has an amazing toy. He will share it with you but you have to play the game he tells you to play and boy, that game is tedious.
3) I never thought this would be something I would need to say but for a movie about Nazis, the racial politics of the film are awful. The film is supposedly critical of the Nazi’s racism with the denouement of an interracial kiss being a kind of antidote. However, there are certain scenes which are just plainly offensive to anyone’s eyes. Particularly, I am thinking of a scene where the characters seek to borrow a VW camper van. The dual implications of this scene are that (1) the black main character will be able to convince them to give him their van merely because he is black and (2) because he has been surgically turned white this is somehow impossible. The scene failed, the group of young black males, without any kind of provocation attack the white face and then open fire with the guns they have under their hoodies. Considering that these are some of the only black faces in the entire film, it would have taken Goebbels himself to paint a more racist image.
When somebody takes on a provocative and risky subject matter, what you hope it implies is that they are able to be daring because they intelligently engage with the subject matter. For examples of this, I’m thinking of The Book of Mormon or The Life of Brian. Instead, a film about racism shows an incredible lack of awareness about the kind of images it is showing. Part of the film’s commentary about US racial issues hit home – the Republican regime is willing to send a black model into space out of tokenism but not to accept any black people into their leadership position (during the second Obama term, this kind of approach on the right has become painfully obvious) but it makes sense that if you want to mock racists, you have to show positive non-white role models (for example, we have Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks and Guy Torry as counterpoints to the racism in American History X). In giving us James Washington (a dumb model who is mostly comic relief) and a bunch of cardboard cut out street thugs straight from Grand Theft Auto, it’s temping to think that the film-makers do not have the maturity to deal with the issue. In making what is broadly a comedy, they didn’t really have to deal with race at all but they chose to do so without really taking it very seriously.
4) That goes for gender too. Renate is an enjoyable figure but surely the character of Vivian Wagner has to be one of the worst individual characters in any film. Her role up to the middle of the film makes sense as she is the evil mastermind PR politico (let’s ignore for a second the repetitive idea that driven women in media are intrinsically worse than men that we find in essentially every film). Half way through the film, she looks to seduce the main villain who ultimately ditches her to carry out his evil plan. She then somehow becomes some kind of stupid space admiral, heartlessly opening fire on women and children to gain revenge on him for……..for what? The film doesn’t seem to want to say? For refusing to have sex with her? For kissing her and leaving? For not offering to make her his Nazi queen? She drives a knife into his picture to drum home this sort of medieval Medea-ish (the play, not the terrible movies) woman scorned idea, which just left me baffled about what this was trying to say about this character or well, anything really. It’s not funny or entertaining or meaningful and it seems like underneath there is some kind of sexist commentary about dangerous scorned women.
5) Let’s ignore all the points above and come down to why this movie truly disappoints. It doesn’t have the balls to follow through on the convictions of the idea behind the film. The main antagonists are these comic-booky Mars-Attacks style space Nazis but in reality the film-makers aren’t really interested too much in that. The Nazi attack on earth takes a few seconds and seems easily turned back by the USAF. The Nazis then bring in their fleet of Zepplin-style steampunk ships but it turns out that Earth has a whole load of much better space ships anyway. Then they launch their super-weapon, which is subsequently destroyed from the inside without any kind of battle. Basically, these Nazi’s aren’t really a threat and every time you feel that the film should be focusing on them, it bafflingly focuses on something else – that godawful Vivian character, racist caricatures, Sarah Palin, sub-Star Trek captain-on-the-bridge shitty shitty space opera scenes. The film makers just don’t really have any faith in their original idea and had this second idea of remaking Strangelove. The film goes far out of its way to make America the great evil in the film, which in a battle between the Evil Empire and the Nazis really leaves you with nothing to root for and very little point to proceedings. The film tries to end with Nazi survivors including women and children deciding to try to rebuild their lives after the attack with sentimental music, an attempt at pathos completely unearned after the preceding hour of silliness and much more silly because the film spent no time at all telling us how the ordinary moon Nazis live until they are needed in the final scene. These characters literally come out of nowhere.
The prototype for this film is obvious. It’s a humorous Red Dawn. You don’t bring the Nazi’s back to fight against a modern technologically advanced army, you bring them back to small rural towns in secret, a la Went the Day Well?. There is always space in an idea such as that to criticise America, to criticise Sarah Palin and the US right wing if you want. But the key is to come up with an engaging enough plot to make you actually care about the peril of a Nazi invasion. The way to fuck that idea up is to do what these film-makers did and lose sight of that chasing side plots down rabbit holes. If your film isn’t a full on Airplane kind of comedy, you need people to actually care about what is happening and that’s the last thing I cared about here.
So, this is just a kind of fun film, right? No, it’s not. It’s never fun to watch someone lose their nerve. It’ll be a shlock footnote and I doubt you’ll even hear that the sequel came out.
* [year old, sorry, I am late to the party on this one]