Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Southland Tales

directed by Richard Kelly

Southland Tales poster  
Southland Tales is a story told in a patchwork of different narrative styles, all of them just barely coherent. The story is set in 2008, but it's a 2008 that's gone horribly wrong for a variety of reasons. After a nuke hits Texas, America declares World War III against Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea. Oil becomes scarce and Neo-Marxist groups emerge to rebel against an overly authoritarian government.

Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) disappears and loses his memory, and a big part of the film is devoted to piecing together what happened to him. Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) narrates the introduction, which comes across a little like a comic strip. This tends to suggest that Abilene has a large part to play in the story, but one thing that can be said about Southland Tales is that it often confounds your expectations. Santaros himself has a severe case of amnesia, and it's not helped by the way Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is trying to take advantage of the situation for her own benefit.

Untangling the Gordian knot that makes up the plot of this film will take most people more than one sitting. There's a lot going on, and all of it seems to be leading up to nothing less than the end of the world.

US-IDent controls the internet, and the severe-looking Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson, playing very much to her usual type) controls US-IDent. It's the organisation that has taken over all flow of information in the USA, as well as assuming the role of an all-powerful government body. It's a dystopian nightmare of what might happen if the Patriot Act were taken to extremes.

Opposing US-IDent are the Neo-Marxists, who are planning to frame the police and blackmail the conservative factions associated with Boxer Santaros. Yet in the midst of this, something very odd is happening with energy. The world may be running low on oil, but one Baron von Westphalen, played as a camp, evil genius by Wallace Shawn, has discovered a seemingly unlimited source of power. His use of "Fluid Karma" takes energy from the ocean using quantum entanglement. The only trouble is, this infinite free energy may have opened up a rift in spacetime.

Southland Tales suffers badly from trying to be too many things to too many people. It's supposed to be a comedy, which at least explains the general air of craziness, even if it doesn't excuse it. There aren't enough jokes for this film to qualify as a comedy, although there is an over-the-top level of violence that's best explained as an attempt at slapstick. Unfortunately Richard Kelly doesn't get the tone quite right. The film lacks the kind of gung-ho, splattery black humour that made the violence in films such as Starship Troopers so acutely funny.

The Neo-Marxists have a tendency to get wasted and talk rubbish, to the point that sometimes you wonder whether or not Jay and Silent Bob will be making an appearance. At one point Pilot Abilene bursts into song, and the whole film is peppered with quotes from literature, from the poet Robert Frost, and references to the Book of Revelation. But ultimately it just doesn't work. Southland Tales is trying too hard to be several different kinds of movie, but it never succeeds in mastering any one genre. It's too flippant and confusing to make a hard-hitting political point, not witty enough to succeed as a comedy, and there aren't enough songs for it to work as a musical. The Rock plays against type with his nervous and paranoid Boxer Santaros, whilst Seann William Scott plays a police officer who's the victim of unusual circumstances without once unleashing his trademark goofiness.

It makes a pleasant change to watch something that's a long way from the typical hero story, however, and it's the unconventional aspects of this film that form its main redeeming features. I'd like to say that makes it refreshing, but it's too muddled to go that far.

Film Details

Year: 2007

Categories: Films

  Science fiction

Classification: 15

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Source Code cover    

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A man is forced to relive eight minutes on a train that will blow up again and again, until he can solve the crime.

3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson