The year is 2008 and America is now at war: the Third World War, sparked when Texas was hit by foreign nuclear weapons and the nation retaliated with combat in the Middle East. As a result, the United States has clamped down internally as well, so that movement across borders is heavily restricted. In the middle of all this is movie star - and son-in-law to a Republican Presidential candidate - Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock) awakening in the desert having lost part of his memory: he doesn't know how he got where he is an any rate. So when he is linked to a radical Marxist group in Los Angeles, he's more surprised than anyone to be put in the position of saviour...
After writer and director Richard Kelly's cult sensation Donnie Darko was released, a sparkling new talent was heralded in the movie world. But then he did a strange thing and went back to iron out all the mysteries that made his first effort so intriguing in a director's cut, and then people weren't quite so sure what to make of him. For his follow up, the science fictional Southland Tales, there was some relief that the mysteries were back, but at what cost? A two hour forty minutes verison bombed at Cannes, and a lot of re-editing ensued to get the project down to just over two hours, but by that time interest had disastrously waned.
The cult audience still had faith, however, and some of them enthusiastically bought the graphic novels for the first three "chapters" of the story, but in most quarters the film was written off as a lame duck. It's easy to see why: the lumbering final result wasn't half as clever as it thought it was, with half-digested ideas from pulp science fiction jostling with swipes at the American rightwingers, with cartoonish leftwingers under fire as an idea of balance. This meant the right were shown as sinister powermongers and the left infighting rebels, specifically Nora Dunn's team of neo-Marxists, "neo" so Kelly wouldn't have to tackle anything resembling a real issue from the thinker.
Along with Johnson's movie star, a hulking but meek figure who drums his fingers together at moments of tension, i.e. most of the time, the other two main characters are Sarah Michelle Gellar's airhead porn star cum talk show host Krista Now and Seann William Scott's little boy lost armed response policeman Roland Taverner, who is a twin to Ronald and has to take his place in the neo-Marxists' plans. In addition, there are various peripheral characters such as Justin Timberlake's soldier who sits on a gun turret at the beach and gets his own (slightly embarrassing) musical number miming to The Killers' "All These Things That I Have Done". Oh, and he is our narrator too.
That cast is certainly one of the most interesting assembled for the time, a mixture of reliable character actors (John Larroquette, Beth Grant), ageing cult stars (Curtis Armstrong, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubinstein) and out of left field choices (John Lovitz as a hard man? Kevin Smith looking like Moses?). Yet they don't allow a way into Kelly's plotting, and with its fantastical elements looking silly, such as primped billionaire Wallace Shawn's perpetual motion machine to solve America's oil problems (topical!), the viewer is left tolerating ideas that have not been thought through and political statements and satire out of a high school newsletter. That said, Southland Tales does have a fascination borne of watching a ship sinking with all hands, and every so often you will be surprised, but usually that will be down to not quite believing they could get away with what they are attempting. Although, if you're going to fail, fail heroically, I say. Music by Moby.
[Universal's Region 2 DVD has a making of featurette as an extra, and that's your lot.]
American writer/director whose first film, skewed end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko, was a big cult hit. He followed it up with the script for Domino, then a disastrous science fiction epic Southland Tales which chased away his blossoming acclaim. The Box saw him continue to be enigmatic, but without much of the approval Donnie Darko had won him.