Don’t you just love terrible, terrible movies?
I’m slightly addicted to them, preferring the Zombie genre but when the streets are dry I’ll shoot up any old backyard lab garbage. Lenny Rudeberg put me onto an 80’s “scifi” (barely) action flick called Dark Angel – not to be mixed up with James Cameron’s monolithic turd of a TV series which shares the same name. No, Dark Angel (which goes by other names in other countries, I think) follows the adventures of a tough, depressive cop (Dolph Lundgren) and the FBI agent that has been foisted upon him as they try to solve the baffling murders of a number of drug dealers, prostitutes and convenience store workers. I don’t want to spoil it for you because, trust me, it is a masterwork of tense film-making (cough), but it turns out that some alien drug dealer is overdosing them with heroin so he can extract endorphins from their brain to sell on the intergalactic black market. Other times he’s just shooting them with a deadly compact disc… seriously.
Well worth watching if, like me, your brain needs largely nonsensical stimulation.
Of course, there is a difference between a bad film, an enjoyably bad film and an enjoyable bad film. The distinction is as follows:
A bad film is one that bores you to tears not because it is “not your cup of tea” but because it simply lacks any discernible creative energy. In this category of film, budget has no bearing upon the status of the film. The most expensive films in the world can be mind-numbingly bad. Take AI: Artificial Intelligence for example. I had never seen that until a few nights ago simply because the promotion for it at the time really didn’t intrigue me but I’d scraped the bottom of the video store barrel so I rented it in the hopes of some mindless Spielbergian fun (a la Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). Now, the film has some good actors – Haley Joel Osment was one of the less offensive child actors of the time and Jude Law (who I just don’t like) is a good actor. The budget was huge and the most talent folks in Hollywood handled Photography and Sound but, ultimately, it was a bad film. About 45 minutes into it I was looking at my watch and wondering when something interesting was going to happen. Little did I know that I still had an hour and a half to go.
So, what makes AI a bad film? A few things. Firstly, the pacing was terrible – rather than take us to the narrative or character development point and then move on, the film lumbered up to the point, circled it three times, took a university course entitled “Points: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry from the Latter Hun Period”, wrote a thesis on Pointism and then spent the next twenty minutes languishing in its pointy-ness.
Secondly, their were bad directorial choices. The basic philosophical questions of the film were stated early: Can a human love a robot? And if a robot can love a human, what responsibility do we have towards it? Given the ethical nature of the question we can use it to parallel all sorts of relationships between people/animals/machines/environment etc. But a philosophical question doesn’t inherently mean a film is good. It’s all to do with how this question is explored. And, in this case, the direction undermined the very question itself. The robots (in particular the kid) are meant to be interchangeable with human beings (in a physical and intellectual sense and, in the case of the kid, in an emotional sense). If that’s the case, then it’s merely our “species being”, as Marx would say, that allows us to apply different values on our relationships with them. But, due to poorly conceived direction (in terms of concept design and character construction on film), it is apparent throughout the film that these robots are very different to human beings – that the distinction, even with the kid, is in fact qualitative and, hence, the philosophical question can never be engaged with seriously.
Lastly, there were no real character arcs. In fact, the only person who changed in the whole film was the mother – and she never went “on a journey”. The two people who did go on a journey didn’t change at all. The kid starts out wanting to be loved, goes on a journey wanting to be loved, gets trapped in an iceshelf for 2000 years while wanting to be loved and then gets resurrected by aliens so that he can continue wanting to be loved. The whole idea that he ‘wants to be a real boy’ is a lesser ideal since he wants to be a real boy so that HE CAN BE LOVED! The mother on the other hand, didn’t love him and then she did love him. There was no development – it was a binary switch. And it happened to the antagonist of the film, not the protagonist!
Now, these three things are features of many films (not just bad ones) but they make AI a bad film because they completely undermine the internal logic and the value of the film which, in turn, makes it feel like a waste of time.
ENJOYABLY BAD FILMS
Now, some people find all bad films to just be “bad films” and to fit into the first category only. This, in my view, is a reflection of their lack of imagination (no offence… well… some offence).
In my view, an enjoyably bad film is one which has all the characteristic flaws of a bad film but possesses a single saving grace. Now, this saving grace does not move it closer to being a “good film” – it’s important to make note of that (since you are sure to be making notes). Rather, the saving grace is something about the film that engages and piques your interest. It could be something to do with the photography, the set design, the acting, the scripting – whatever. In fact, it could be enjoyably bad because all of the above elements are such an absolute and abysmal failure. It’s like a dead animal on the side of the road – it smells terrible, looks worse and makes you throw up in your mouth a little but you can’t help looking at it (or is that just me?)
The cinematic masterpiece that is Plan 9 From Outer Space – a recognised classic – is the archetype of the EBF (Enjoyably Bad Film). Scene alternate from day to night, tombstones wobble as actors walk past them on set, the “grass” has visible wrinkles in it, actors speak incomprehensible dialogue incomprehensibly, and the editor appears to have cut all narrative elements out of the film by mistake. Yet, it’s still an enjoyable film to watch BECAUSE it’s bad – it is the badness that intrigues you. Hence, it is an enjoyably bad film.
THE ENJOYABLE BAD FILM
Then there is the enjoyable bad film. This is a film that you know is bad. It might be well made and it might have some sound acting and it might even have a worthwhile point to make. But, despite all these things, you know that it is ultimately a bad film. Now, I feel a little sacrilegious saying this because I love this film to death but – the original Dawn of the Dead by George A. Romero is an enjoyable bad film.
Stick with me people, I shall explain. Watch the opening scenes. Apart from posturing in an overtly seventies tough guy way – is there anything in there that resembles convincing acting? No. Watch the edits between scenes. Is there anything particularly engaging stylistically about the way the scenes move together? I mean, granted it’s not as bad a the classic Star Wars clock-swipe transition, but really, it’s nothing to send heartfelt letters home about either. And this is a Zombie flick, that means there will be inevitable gore (which is not to say that good Zombie films are simply splatterhouse, gorefests). But lets look at the special effects – do they actually convince you or is it more cartoon horror that real horror? In the context of the budget that they had, the special effects are outstanding. There’s no doubt of that. But, objectively, are they really good? Well, no. So, on most fronts, this is a bad film.
And yet – it is an incredibly enjoyable film. Why? Interestingly, because it manages to do what AI failed to do. It doesn’t let its flaws undermine its value and purpose. It is true to its social commentary from start to finish – the terrible acting in the first scenes don’t prevent a viewer from recognising the dehumanising nature of economic poverty and authoritarian social control. The meandering plot development in the middle of the film does not distract us from the poignant phenomenon of the living dead struggling to get into the shopping mall because it was habitually ingrained in them when they were alive. The gravitas of the main characters sitting in their perfect home within the mall simply waiting to die is not lost on us either, despite relatively wooden performances.
So, yes, technically Dawn of the Dead is a bad film but it is an enjoyable film nonetheless. And, though far lesser in status, Dark Angel was an enjoyable film too.