Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Boy and his Dog

Before the blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland (or, at least its R-rated manifestation) became a widespread cinematic trope, there was this curious 1975 adaptation of Harlan Ellison's short story of the same name. Practically tailor-made for cult status, it follows a scraggly Don Johnson looking for sex and food (in that order) in an irradiated Southwestern USA with only his telepathically communicating dog who performs dual functions of company and walking detector of food/women.

It's a decent film when not being severely dated (see 'misogyny') or adversely affected by the fact that it was a cobbled-together production (and I'm not talking Miramax/Paramount Vantage-style indie here) being handled by first-time director L.Q. Jones on a shoestring budget. I haven't read the original story but it's clearly a compelling example of post-apocalyptic hellishness, complete with hideously mutated 'Screamers', animals that are smarter than humans, warlords, cannibals and out of control androids. It's played as black comedy more than anything else (the opening title card reads 'The politicians have finally found a way to solve urban blight!') and wisely avoids an FX-heavy epic scale. The final result, however, is frustrating. Parts of it are exciting and funny, even insightful. Others are clumsy, misguided or outright offensive. Whether or not you want to watch it will depend on your mileage for this kind of subject matter.

Our protagonist is put through an interesting mix of experiences. He starts off in the nuclear desert, tangling with raider gangs for food and taking time out to relax in outdoor b/w porn theaters to provide relief to his raging libido (women are scarce in this society and his dog's primary purpose is to locate them). He does eventually find a woman though not without having to face competition. Eventually, he ends up being kidnapped by an underground utopian-but-not-really society as a sperm producing machine so that he can be used to beef up their population (life in the darkness apparently not being too good for the utopians' sperm count). He bumbles through all this like some kind of rapist, amoral Candide (albeit with a reversed character arc) inducing in this viewer equal doses of amusement and horror. The dog is, of course, a lot smarter than he is but also happens to be a total bastard, something that cute dogs in films should never be.

The underground community sequence is the part of the film that takes a stab at social commentary what with the sci-fi movies of the time aspiring to a status as intellectually relevant as the literary equivalents, leaving behind the 50s glut of space invaders and giant mutant animals. There is the seed of a good idea there (possibly better enunciated in the original short story) about how it may be better to rove around in a cannibal-infested wasteland with just a talking dog for company than to live in comparative luxury under the thumb of a thinly veiled totalitarian government. It's a fascinatingly bizarre depiction too - the society in question embraces a pre-WWIII 50s look as filtered through some kind of funhouse mirror. The fashions are exaggerated versions of clothes from that era and everyone is in whiteface makeup as they sit around eating desserts while watching skewed versions of high school marching bands. The community leader (played by Jason Robards) looks like an aged version of Alex DeLarge, complete with makeup, white clothing, suspenders and stick as he queues up the young women who are to be impregnated (via a sperm-harvesting machine!) by the hapless Vic.

If all this sounds wonderfully clever and strange, don't get too excited. There is plenty to dislike - primarily a brutally misogynistic streak that runs through the entire movie. The women in this world are sexual/reproductive objects and absolutely nothing more. Our protagonist basically wanders around looking for people to rape. This could be explained away as being an organic societal development, given the circumstances. But that doesn't really cover the fact that the main female character is a devious sociopath who pretends to enjoy being raped in order to trick Vic and, later, goes on to do many terrible things. Yes, pretty much everyone in the film is an appalling excuse for a human being but all this does go against the grain.

L.Q. Jones has a talent for widescreen compositions and the grungy post-apocalyptic look of the film is quite authentic, undoubtedly providing a template for many future films (not to mention video-games - I couldn't stop thinking of the Fallout games while watching this). He is not, however, as good with the action sequences. A major shootout is all but incoherent - terribly shot, lit and edited. It's impossible to tell who is shooting at who and there is no sense of spatial relations. Editing also fails in terms of pacing, especially in the underground sequences.

The film, then, is a mixed bag. It runs with an always reliable set of sci-fi tropes and ideas at a time when not many movies had sunk their teeth into them but does drop the ball quite a few times. Taken in context, it is clearly an important piece of work that is worth the time a viewer would put into it. That said, the same ideas and atmosphere can be engaged with (complete with superior execution and polish) by playing Fallout 3 and Bioshock one after another. This is not to mention the scores of films that do better at one aspect or another of this one's premise. They number in the hundreds, ranging from The Road Warrior to A Clockwork Orange.

Ultimately, my opinion of a film suffers when one of the main characters is an adorable looking dog who still fails to entice any sympathy/tears/lumps in throat from me when he gets hurt.

My IMDB rating of the movie - 6/10

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