As a generic rule of thumb, certain things just don't mix. One of the most obvious examples is science fiction and comedy. It just won't take. Make light of a light year or jest about a supernova, and audiences abandon ship for the safety and security of a genre that won't offend them. For a long time, media minds respected the volatile nature of basting outer space with slapstick and kept the futuristic funnies to Spock's cocked eyebrow. Big screen attempts have also been shoddy. Fan favorite Spaceballs may be someone's idea of manna from a meteor shower, but for most the spoof is nothing new in the Mel Brooks canon, more Borscht than asteroid belt. Luckily, Brian S. O'Malley never listened to this ridiculous motion picture maxim. If he had, we wouldn't be blessed with the wonderfully engaging, thoroughly hilarious end of the world nuttiness known as Bleak Future. Like George Miller mashed with Peter Jackson, this satirical shape of things to come is one of the oddest, most endearing entertainments to come out of the outsider arena in quite a while. It's a gangly geek fest just waiting for the right collection of nerf herders to embrace its cool cult craziness.
The world has been devastated by science gone squirrelly and a ragtag group of survivors have reimagined society as a series of tribes. On one side are the mutants, individuals horribly twisted by the effects of radiation. On the other are some half-witted humans who the fiends frequently use as slave labor. Among them walks Slangman, the smartest individual in the known world. Selling his word knowledge (read: a dictionary) for the only valuable monetary unit in this desolate wasteland – batteries – Slangman spends his days looking for "The Source". He believes that, upon finding it, he can restore the planet to its former glory. On his journey, he meets up with a tongue-less man who he names Atlatl. He acts as a bodyguard of sorts for Slangman. After visiting one of the desert's many poetry slam coffee shops, our hero falls for a stupid blonde bimbo named Femme. He buys her, and then soon regrets the decision. As the band travels North, deep into mutant territory, they meet up with Brother Alfonse, and a group of angry ogres lead by The Malathion Man. In the end, however, it is Dr. Oblivious who holds the key to Slangman's success. He knows the location of the desired "Source", but refuses to divulge the secret in fear of destroying the world all over again. But Slangman will not be sated. He will continue on his quest to save the planet from the Bleak Future that appears to be its doomed destiny.
Good golly Miss Molly just what kind of mind bending peyote based hallucinogens are Brian S. O'Malley and his filmmaking pals actually on? If the brain draining brilliance of Bleak Future is any indication of their opiate saturated state, these people are the indie equivalent of Timothy Leary. It is hard to describe this surreal sci-fi stunner, a piece of potent post-apocalyptic anarchy fashioned after the famous funny business of legendary laugh makers such as Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall, and Douglas Adams. Bleak Future is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, inspired and insipid, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It borrows liberally from such future shock spectacles as the Mad Max movies, A Boy and His Dog and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, starting out as a solid spoof of your standard speculative fiction before becoming a frighteningly inventive take on humanity, horror and the universal lack of Armageddon coping skills. Offering up a believable premise, set of sensationally realized characters, and a directing style that cribs from the likes of Kubrick and Lucas, Raimi and Tarantino, O'Malley and his mates have made a true kitsch classic – the kind of movie that 'Netwads will go nutzoid over for decades to come.
One of the most remarkable things about this potty production is how O'Malley manages to overcome the hopelessly homemade traits of both his art direction and his cinematic standards. This is no-budget wind-up camera creativity at its most mesmerizing. By actually embracing the less than professional elements that result from using lousy film stock, limited lens selections and amateurish actors, Bleak Future finds its own unique aesthetic – and then it just grinds that groove right down into the ground, beating it like a deranged dead horse over and over again. Any attempt at finding a hidden deeper meaning or a sensible social commentary is absolutely hopeless here. When you are dealing with mutants who have little slobbering heads hanging off of their faces, when boring beat poetry is the entertainment standard for a post-nuclear annihilation society, when a dictionary is worth more than a single human life, any inherent missive statement gets a little lost in the psychotic shuffle. By amplifying his heroes histrionics and vaulting his villains' idiosyncrasies, O'Malley - along with co-writer Steven Darancette - delights in playing with our post-modern motion picture expectations. How else would you defend a hero whose a hopeless wuss, or a bad guy who bargains about as badly as an American tourist in a foreign flea market.
But there's much more to this movie than lofty goals and grandiose ideals. Relying on some very realistic make-up effects, Bleak Future has some stellar moments of massive arterial spray. Yes, gorehounds will lap up the excess of grue put up on the screen, as mutant heads are cleaved in half and swords carve limbs cleanly from unsuspecting bodies. Even more impressive, O'Malley's men do a great job of giving the creatures a clever, distinctive look. Sure, sometimes we can see the "zipper" and more than a few faces look like well done Halloween masks, but all this does is make the movie that much more endearing. Special kudos must also be given to several members of the cast. Frank Kowal's Slangman is hilariously arrogant, given to fits of foolish pride even as a bazooka is trained on his behind. As his mute kilt-wearing survivalist pal Atlatl, Brad Rockhold gives a great silent comedic performance. Other standouts include Tom Johnson as Malathion Man, Rob Cunningham as Dr. Obvious and someone named Bones as Shithead the Nomad. Sure, some of the jokes land with a burned out wasteland thud and the finale takes a little long to wrap up its varying narrative threads, but these are minor quibbles for what is a thoroughly entertaining end of the world romp. While the future pictured here may be bleak, the outlook is bright for O'Malley and his merry band of peculiar pranksters.
Again, it must be said that the image provided for Bleak Future is a great big grainy mess. Thanks to the advances that digital remastering has made in the last few years, a lot can be done with a scrappy little Super 8 muddle like this movie. Luckily, the picture offered by Cinema Epoch (via Koch Vision) is a 1.33:1 full screen delight. Color corrected and enhanced to maximize contrasts, the gray-speckled visuals are charming in a real retro reject kind of way. The technical techniques employed by O'Malley and his mates really give the compositions a considered gloss of schlock. It definitely provides the movie its own funky, junky feel.
Equally impressive is the new Dolby Digital Stereo mix manufactured exclusively for this new DVD release. Bleak Futures history is one loaded with technological challenges, and many viewers felt the original Super 8 recording strip was tinny and atonal. By replacing almost all the audio, including sound effects and dialogue, we are blessed with a real sense of cinematic ambience. It also adds a goofy b-movie vibe to the entire presentation.
Cinema Epoch really outdoes themselves here, piling on the bonus features to the point where the DVD actually feels overloaded. We begin with a pair of audio commentaries, one featuring O'Malley and a couple of crewmembers, the other offering up several of the movie's many day players. Of the two, O'Malley's is the best. It offers the most information on the film's problematic production, and highlights the horrors that face many independent filmmakers. The actors are fun to listen to as well, though their discussion tends to be more a trip down memory lane than a daily diary of a movie shoot. Equally engaging are the numerous featurettes, many recorded during the making of Bleak Future. They act as our window into the troubled world of this otherwise excellent effort. We see a day completely ruined by rain, the extension work required to execute the special effects, and a collection of deleted scenes and outtakes. Add in an amazing set of galleries featuring over 500 stills, bios and filmographies, and an interactive map of the "known world" and you just begin to breach the surface of this title's contextual treasures. From a pure product consideration, this DVD is one terrifically tricked out treat.
Mindset is the most important element to consider when one comes to Bleak Future. If you are super serious in your love of science fiction, if you believe the genre allows for the ultimate discussion between man, nature and the mysteries of the cosmos, you should spend your time trying to channel the remnants of Carl Sagan and leave this deranged DVD alone. If, however, you can cotton to a buffoonish brave new world loaded with more funny stuff than forecasts of mankind's destiny, then by all means, give this arcane speculative slapstick a try. Highly Recommended for its nutty narrative, intriguing ideas and overall digital packaging, Bleak Future proves that incredibly inventive material can come in the most minor of moviemaking packages. Everyone thinks that all it takes to make a film is a camera, a crew, and a cast. But Brian S. O'Malley's madcap masterwork argues that talent trumps all potential technical expertise. You do actually need a little inspiration to get something as silly as this wicked weirdness to work. Without it, you're just another outsider looking in.