Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Cinema File #1: "Branded" Review

See, it's a pun, 'cause I'm a fan of movies, and also developing a file on movies. See what I did there? Yeah, moving on...



So I just saw Branded, the strange hybrid American Russian sci-fi fantasy movie about corporate advertising. It was weird.

I'm actually kind of at a loss on how to start this, and not just because it's my first official written movie review. Ordinarily I suppose I would try to come up with a one to two sentence synopsis while trying to avoid spoilers, and then build from there. The problem is, I don't know if I can even accurately describe the plot of this movie and do it justice. See, if I had to come up with something, I'd say it was about a master advertising agent who begins to hallucinate corporate logos as giant invisible monsters feeding on humanity, and then goes about using his unique skill set to take down all corporations after unraveling a conspiracy perpetrated by them to convince everyone in the world to find fat people sexy. And that one sentence doesn't even begin to go into the magic cow god in the sky made of stars who guides destiny via lightning strikes. Of course, I don't know if the magic cow god and the lightning are related, I only assume this because both seem to bookend the narrative of the movie and are equally both tangential and seemingly very relevant to it. I think you can see my problem here.


Going forward, I don't think I'll talk a lot about the trailers of the movies I review, because for the most part I don't pay attention to movie trailers and try not to let them influence me, but this one is a special case. The only reason I even heard about this movie is because of the trailer on Hulu, which I only clicked on because the poster looked really cool. The marketing for this movie, at least that I saw, painted it as a fairly straight forward sci-fi/horror movie with undertones of social satire, sort of a reversal of John Carpenter's They Live from the perspective of a collaborator rather than an agitator. The monsters latched onto consumers like parasites evoked a playful sense of early Cronenberg, before he decided to be really boring and put Vigo Mortenson in everything. Basically, this seemed like the kind of movie that I always say they don't make enough of.

The movie did not live up to this expectation. This isn't a comment on the quality of the film, just on the deceptive nature of the ads. Of course this is nothing new in the movie industry, and you can't exactly blame the filmmakers for it. Typically the job of selling a film is handled by a completely different group of people than the ones making it, and I can't imagine what a more honest attempt at distilling the true nature of this movie would actually be like, except that it would almost certainly not appeal to a mainstream audience. Still, I think it bares mentioning considering that the main theme of this film deals with the way in which advertising manipulates us into wanting what we don't actually want. In short, this movie did what this movie tells me is evil, which I think is kinda funny now that I've been through it.


If I had to pin Branded down into a genre, the closest I can come to is Dark Fantasy. I used the term sci-fi in my introduction because that's the way the movie is being sold, but other than the near-future setting, there aren't really any other elements of the film that scream science fiction. Many visuals are disturbing, but none of it reaches the point where I can call it a horror movie. I don't even think I could accurately describe it as a thriller; any other movie with these themes would try to build a sense of dread and paranoia, but here, the same events are presented with, if anything, whimsey, which bring me to fantasy. So much of the way the story is told is just...off kilter.

Most of the fantastical elements are all in the protagonist's head, or can be easily dismissed as coincidence or delusion, but the actions of the characters and the way events play out are exaggerated to give the whole story an otherworldly feel even before the giant advertising monsters burst in. I enjoyed this tone, even if I didn't think it was executed nearly as well as it could have been, but at the same time, I can't help but think the movie would have been better served if it had been more like the kind of film I thought it would be going in. In the hands of a different director, maybe Carpenter or Cronenberg, or even someone like Paul Verhoven, this kind of movie with its inherent social commentary might have been something glorious. As it is, it's just a hodgepodge of ideas, most of them interesting individually, but never coming together into anything resembling a great movie.


At the risk of getting into a debate I have no interest in at the moment, the politics of the film, and more importantly the way in which they are presented, is an element that does need addressed. The movie is set in post-Communist Russia, where American style capitalism now holds sway, and one of the bigger questions this movie asks in this context is whether anything has really changed at all, let alone for the better. Lenin is referenced explicitly as the unsung father of advertising, with Leninism being the first example of mass marketing. It's a compelling theme, but like everything else in the movie, it is muddled by the poorly constructed narrative and the desire to do too many things at once.

The whimsical fantasy tone also serves to diminish the impact of the message; another reason why I think a hard edged sci-fi/horror take on the material would have been a better way to go. In terms of its indictment of the evils of marketing, I often felt like I was watching the hippie anti-capitalist version of Atlas Shrugged, wherein the polemic suffers because of the outrageous disconnect between the world of the story and any sense of reality. The idea that the fast food industry would come together and enact a plan to alter the world's standard of beauty in favor of the overweight so as to sell more unhealthy food is excellent satire, but its so crazy a concept that I can't bring myself to make the leap from this story and the real world similarities between corporate advertising methods and brainwashing propaganda. The resolution is an absurd wish fulfillment fantasy that anyone interested in this real-life problem would not be able to take seriously, which I say even as I basically agree with the stance the film takes on these issues.


Branded isn't a bad movie per se, just a poorly executed one, which almost makes it more frustrating. Every ten minutes or so as it plays out I think to myself, there's an awesome movie in here somewhere, it's just lost in this morass of insanity without any guiding focus to bring it together or make it meaningful. When the main draw of the movie finally comes, the advertising monsters going to war as their companies attack each other's markets, it is legitimately very fun to watch. Mutated creatures born of corporate logos fight through Moscow like in a Godzilla movie all while the city remains unaware of the invisible carnage. But it's over too quickly, and the fact that none of it is real, at least in the sense that it has no effect on the architecture of the city itself, makes it seem less important than it should be. In the back of my mind I couldn't help but think I would have much preferred a full-on live action adaptation of that Simpsons Halloween episode with all the signs coming to life, just played completely straight by the characters involved.

The only way I can bring myself to recommend this movie is to suggest that you surrender yourself to it and not ask any big questions. That's not the same thing as asking you to shut your brain off, as one might do for a mindless action movie. Be engaged, enjoy the visual style of the movie and have fun with the characters and the silly hamfisted critique of consumerism, but don't expect any of it to make any real sense. Don't watch the movie as though, except for this or that fantastic idea, it could happen in the real world. Reject any assumptions of verisimilitude. If you can accept the reality of the movie for what it is, you may enjoy it. If not, you'll probably just find it silly and trifling. Personally, I'm kind of on the fence.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...