Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: FUTURE WORLD (2018)

(US/Italy/France/UK - 2018)

Directed by James Franco and Bruce Thierry Cheung. Written by Bruce Thierry Cheung, Jeremy Craig Cheung and Jay Davis. Cast: James Franco, Milla Jovovich, Lucy Liu, Suki Waterhouse, Jeffrey Wahlberg, Margareta Levieva, Snoop Dogg, George Lewis Jr, Cliff "Method Man" Smith, Carmen Argenziano, Scott Haze, Rumer Willis, Ben Youcef. (R, 88 mins)

Last year, THE DISASTER ARTIST showed that director James Franco was maturing as a filmmaker and was ready to move toward the commercially viable and finally leave his self-indulgent, home-movie vanity projects behind.

FUTURE WORLD: "Hold my beer."

His entire career is shaping up to be one long display of bizarre performance art, but as a filmmaker, Franco has historically been a poster boy for misbegotten ambition. Prior to THE DISASTER ARTIST, his efforts behind the camera have been typified by a series of classic American literature adaptations--the works of William Faulkner (AS I LAY DYING and THE SOUND AND THE FURY), Cormac McCarthy (CHILD OF GOD) and John Steinbeck (IN DUBIOUS BATTLE)--projects whose primary reason for being seemed to be their utter unfilmability to the point of being unwatchable by design. Franco's directed over 20 feature films, and has another four set for release this year, including the long-shelved ZEROVILLE, completed in 2014 and co-starring Franco, Seth Rogen, Megan Fox, and Will Ferrell. Right after finishing THE DISASTER ARTIST, which sat around for about a year and half before it was released, Franco dove into FUTURE WORLD, apparently after finding a couple of hours to watch MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and rounding up some of his buddies to quickly shit out their own DIY version of it. Franco co-directs with his longtime cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung and called in some favors from some pals, including his frequent star Scott Haze, whose biggest contribution to the Franco legacy thus far is taking an on-camera shit and wiping his ass with a stick at the beginning of CHILD OF GOD. It should tell you everything you need to know about CHILD OF GOD that it was all downhill from there.

A throwback to the kind of post-nuke actioners that came out of Italy and the Philippines and flooded video stores and cable in the wake of THE ROAD WARRIOR back in the early-to-mid '80s is a fun idea, but where most of Franco's work as a filmmaker can be charitably described as self-indulgent home movies made for an audience of one, FUTURE WORLD doesn't even seem to interest its own director. Say what you will about his endurance test literary adaptations, but at least Franco committed to them (and to be fair, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE was a step up in many ways and, at the very least, looks and feels like a real movie). FUTURE WORLD opens in a post-apocalyptic America, after the world's been destroyed following an era of prosperous technological advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence that proved too lethal in the hands of stupid, greedy, self-serving, and self-destructive humanity. "Synthetic" sex android Ash (Suki Waterhouse) is found in an abandoned factory and revived by Warlord (Franco), the despotic leader of a marauding desert biker gang called The Raiders. He keeps her as a slave for sex and murder, and eventually they cross paths with Prince (Jeffrey Wahlberg, Mark and Donnie's nephew), a teenager from the isolated utopian community "The Oasis." Prince is journeying through the "Neon Forest" to reach "The Temple" at "Paradise Beach" or some such nonsense, in the hopes of finding a miracle cure for his deathly ill mother Queen (Lucy Liu, spending almost all of her limited screen time bedridden). At a desert titty bar called Love Town, overseen by wisecracking host Love Lord (Snoop Dogg), Warlord programs Ash to kill Prince, but she starts displaying traces of a conscience and independent thought, defying Warlord and going on the run with Prince. They eventually end up in Drug Town, ruled by the ruthless Drug Lord (Milla Jovovich), with Warlord and his goons in hot pursuit.

You know the writers really put in the time and effort with the script when you've got "Love Town" run by a guy named "Love Lord" and "Drug Town" ruled by someone named "Drug Lord." One could argue that it's a cynical, Terry Gilliam-esque dystopian commentary on people being defined by their work, but that's probably giving FUTURE WORLD a little too much credit. Jovovich doesn't turn up until the midway point, and she provides FUTURE WORLD's only spark of life with what seems to be a largely improvised performance. Her character is completely despicable--and gets naive, innocent Prince hooked on drugs--but while a little of her manic, bug-eyed overacting and general smartassery goes a long way, it shows Jovovich is at least trying to make something out of nothing. Waterhouse, who tread similar ground in last year's dismal-but-suddenly-looking-better-now THE BAD BATCH, doesn't have much to do other than look like she's Pearl Prophet in a 2018 riff on the old Van Damme sci-fi favorite CYBORG. Top-billed Franco is absent for long stretches--probably the case behind the camera as well--and can't help but come off as a poseur Toecutter and Immortan Joe, turning in the kind of performance that makes one wonder whether he was perhaps spending too much time with Tommy Wiseau while prepping THE DISASTER ARTIST (how is a walking freakshow like Wiseau not in this?) Wahlberg doesn't quite have the presence of his uncle Mark or even his uncle Donnie, and it's gotta be an ominous sign that his acting coach gets an onscreen credit. Like most of his "hanging out and dicking off with his buddies" auteur endeavors, Franco corralled a potentially interesting and eclectic cast--there's also Method Man, Rumer Willis, and veteran character actor Carmen Argenziano, who gets killed by Warlord after about ten seconds of screen time--but, as usual, he abandons them, this time in a dull post-nuke flick that's not even up to the level of late-career Cirio H. Santiago.

James Franco in one of Warlord's more pensive moments.

There's an attempt at an intriguing subplot involving Ash discovering her emotions and falling for Lei (Margarita Levieva), Drug Lord's techie mechanic, but it leads to nothing but a tame sex scene, as Franco can't even be bothered to make something like that look exciting. Other than Jovovich's inexplicably spirited and wildly gesticulating performance, the only other positive is Franco managing to secure the services of acclaimed cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who's been Werner Herzog's go-to D.P. for the last 25 or so years (including the great documentaries GRIZZLY MAN, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS). He likely met Zeitlinger while starring in Herzog's globally-panned QUEEN OF THE DESERT, one of approximately 258 movies Franco's been in over the last five years. Zeitlinger does a nice job with some of the desert footage and some long Steadicam takes, but overall, the film has the same ugly, cheaply digital look you'll see in any random clunker on the straight-to-VOD scrap heap. Only Franco could follow the universally-acclaimed THE DISASTER ARTIST with a project that makes him look like he's chucking it all to become the next Albert Pyun.

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