shittymovies

Presenting Time Warrior, a new classic of so-bad-it’s-good cinema

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six tonight, Friday, May 15th.

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Often the appeal of a shitty movie is documentarian: here is a human being, you think, saying these words. Often that person is not particularly skilled at saying those words. In something like Troll 2—a movie, obviously, about goblins—we thrill at the sight of unpracticed and often untrained actors forced into scenes of outrageous duress: a kid, covered in goo, screaming out to his god; a father expressing outrage in what seems to be a loud talking voice; a teenage girl, in practiced, lilting cadence, kneeing her boyfriend in the nuts, then kissing him. “You trying to turn me into a homo?” he yelps from the floor. It is not a question that can be answered.

Even more often, though, the history we are witnessing writ in lightning is not just a bad performance—for that we have the oeuvre of Nicholas Cage—but the bad taste of some garbage auteur. Every flash of the lightning is suffused with shittiness; the shittiness is sweeping and comprehensive. Though this phenomenon dates back at least to Ed Wood, in the 1950s, it is Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, and star of The Room, who is perhaps the most public face for it. And this is precisely because he made that face so public, advertising what the writer Tom Bissell called a “sincere surreal” romantic drama on a billboard in Los Angeles for half a decade. In time, the film’s strange rhythms—sexual and comic and violent, often in shocking succession, but delivered as blithely as an informational video—turned into the stuff of late-night legends. Wiseau’s alien line deliveries (“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”) and the film’s whiplash tonal shifts (“Oh, hi Mark”) form an unlikely give and take, creating a sort of perfectly bad movie—inept, absurd, and utterly alive.

These movies and others, such as Birdemic, A Talking Cat!?!, and the early work of Uwe Boll, are not necessarily my favorite bad movies ever. I spent decades in the coal mines of shitty movie watching, foraging for gems of my own, and have soft spots for those I uncovered. (For the record: probably either Radio or Cool Dog.) But these oft-cited “so bad it’s good” movies do form a pretty inarguable canon of demonstrably bad movies, which is important. Here, you say to a friend, here is a shitty movie; let us partake in the intoxicant of our choice as we laugh at it.

Into this canon I submit Time Warrior.

You know those stock images we all chortle at of “gamers”? Two young white men leaning sideways on the couch, tongue-out, holding the controller upside-down while a bag of chips tumbles onto the floor? Time Warrior is that image stretched to 92 minutes, a “core gamer” wet dream. It’s a film of boys with feathered bangs yelling at each other, obsessed with and possessed by a videogame of such rote, cynical war fetishism that I honestly believe the Warfighter crowd might balk, were it presented onstage at E3. It’s a film of boys, screaming as they transform into a cybernetic manifestation of emo fury. It’s a film of boys yelling at and about girls; it is a documentary about what boys do when they have enough money to make a movie, a Michael Bay film with all the stultifying sheen washed away, such that all that’s left is privilege and pornography. If the pneumatic dolls of Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball were able to be impregnated by a shitty battlestation from Reddit, the offspring might be this movie.

Every flash of the lightning is suffused with shittiness 

It begins in Fallujah. Well, it begins with some Crysis cyborg slicing his way through people, because videogames are a fantasy, but then it cuts to Fallujah, because—and this will be important—war is real. Like many bad movies, there is not a single joke in Time Warrior. It is a serious movie, and it makes this very clear when, three minutes in, a weeping soldier douses himself in kerosene and self-immolates. The flames lick the side of the screen as a soldier reacts to the sight of his friend’s suicide. A mysterious man picks up an iPhone 4 from the ashes. Who is this man? Do not worry about that.

Cut to Las Vegas, and a car wash. A teenage boy whose name never seems to be clarified is there, and he is making this face:

This is the protagonist of the movie, and his face is stuck like that. The spidery guitar lines evoke Friday Night Lights, as does the boy’s stutter-core Matt Saracen delivery. Later, he remembers his father going off to war amidst swan-like, elegiac strings. We learn, in flashback, that the suicidal soldier was his father. We get treated to an image of him in happier times, when he looked like this:

His father is very strong. Time Warrior follows in the tradition of many shitty movies by lightly skirting the edge of softcore porn. Many of its male protagonists feature the shiny skin and rippling washboard abdomens of an American Gladiator; its female stars have the sort of taut, plasticene smiles of a Santa Monica strip mall. Hollywood movies frequently feature improbably good-looking human beings, too, but shitty movies find humans that dwell in the uncanny valley of attractiveness, too exorbitantly proportioned to be real but too blandly “attractive” to be attractive.

Anyway, his dad is fucking jacked. The kid—who I’ll just call TK from here on out—hops on his skateboard and shreds to school. The most popular girl at school stops him. “I’m Judy,” she tells him, but the kid flexes his acting chops and does not give a shit. “I have to get going,” he says. Judy, the most popular girl in school, tries to regain his attention. “Do you have Facebook?” she asks him. “No,” he replies flatly. Then adds, in case she hadn’t gotten the point, “Facebook is actually pretty lame.” She makes this face.

They part ways.

Later, TK and his bro—who (the bro) is the physical embodiment of a shithead, a sort of categorically annoyed boy whose features are set at a permanent sneer, who radiates casual disdain for his fellow man in a capacity that at times seems genocidal—are busy playing the worst videogame I’ve ever seen. It tasks these two Young Gamers™ with dropping a bomb on Korea, but they fail for reasons that are not made clear. “Fail!” TK says to his friend. “Dude, you’re lousy.” His friend replies, “Shut up, douchebag.” This is the sort of repartee these two will share for the rest of the film.

(In the living room, two women talk earnestly of breast cancer. This will never come up again.)

Judy comes up in casual conversation, and TK makes this face. “Bill”—Judy’s erstwhile beau—“wants to break my face,” TK says. “A broken nose for Judy Brown? That sounds fair to me,” Shithead says.

A soft fade occurs.

Later, at the same location, the angrier young man hops into a Ferrari. His scheming step-mom, taking advantage of his absence, throws his various gun magazines, empty pizza boxes, and videogames into a trashbag. “Time Warrior?” she muses to herself. “Time for the trash.”

Shithead finally comes home and, as is his wont, loses his shit. Looking to wound her, he unveils the truth: she is not his mom, but a stripper that has moved in with his dad. “That stripper threw away all my stuff,” he fumes to his dad, who is a businessman, sitting in his business office:

His dad then tears ass, literally just guns his whip like he’s god himself, down the highway to what is clearly a GameStop just after closing. “You looking for the game?” a shady man in a trenchcoat asks outside the establishment. “Four hundred bucks.” While business-dad balks at the price, he’s also clearly loaded, and when the mysterious man sweetens the deal by throwing in a special controller, the dad cops it. Then he patiently opens his suicide doors, closes them, and tears fucking ass outta there.

His spoiled boy-prince of a son is lolling, angrily, in the family poolhouse. He is unhappy with everything. But, what’s this! Business dad has bought him a new copy of his very favorite videogame. His dad promises him sushi for his birthday. “I’d rather stay inside,” he says, and his mighty father concurs, before leaving to presumably do business, tear ass or have sex with a stripper. He is the king of all men.

The next day the two boys sit in class, musing over the incredible new game Shithead got. They are a comments section come to furious life, slap-fighting and extolling, vainglorious and aloof. “What version?” TK asks. “Dark World,” Shithead spits back at him in immediate exasperation.

TK: “Dark World?”
Shithead: “Yeah, it’s awesome.”
TK: “You said Dark World?”
Shithead: “Are you retarded or something? Yes.”
TK: “Dude, I’ve never heard of that version.”
Shithead: “It’s a new limited edition. The new controller is sick, you’ve gotta come over and play it.”

Despite his absolute cold-hearted diss of her in the hallway, Judy and TK are now dating. She invites him to ballet class. At length, he decides to go, but saying first he has something to do. Shithead hates this. “What could possibly more important than making out with Judy while she’s in tights?” he asks. The scene changes, as if to answer:

HOW ABOUT PAYING RESPECTS TO MY DEAD FATHER, WHO WAS A FUCKING HERO

Again we are treated to a vision of TK’s father’s arms while baleful trumpets intone “Amazing Grace.” Then TK pops in to see Judy in ballet class. Here he is, just vibing out in the moment.

Meanwhile the bros are playing games. Shithead deigns that it is his turn to play. “It’s my turn, you douche!” he says. A terrifying and poorly framed fight ensues, but Shithead quickly gives up and retires back to his couch in a Wiseau-esque tonal whiplash. Shithead has discovered something on the internet: once you hit level 10 in this game, you can trade your soul for the ability to move to any war while preserving modern weapons. It is essentially a cheat code, but TK is too smart for that. “Man, I’m not enrolling my soul, are you crazy?” One of the distinguishing qualities of Time Warrior is the way its characters buy into its fantastical conceits immediately while still expressing incredulity about them. SURE, perhaps I have to enroll my soul to this game to beat this level—but doesn’t that seem somewhat risky?

Shithead eggs him on. They begin to discuss the nature of war. “War,” Shithead says, “is so stupid.” TK disagrees; he has seen that honorable men give themselves to war, and here we recall his father’s biceps. And so TK makes a daring move, which you can tell because the screen actually says “Dare to continue?” Alive with the memory of his father, he enrolls his soul.

Thus begins a fantastical journey, the particulars of which I won’t spoil, except to say that people get shot, people go to the future, an alcoholic stepfather gets his revenge, there is much postulation on the nature of violence and war, Shithead’s awesome dad pilots a helicopter for no reason other than because he is a boss, honor and manhood are invoked, and this walking goatee of a man shows up to preen about almost all of these larger themes at once:

He is awesome. It is all awesome, except when it’s boring, which, full disclosure, it occasionally is. But all bad movies are, right? They hit a sort of third-act pocket of sadness, when those documentary realities become a little too real to bear any more and your bemusement over the way the involved parties have wasted their lives turns into a startling consideration of how you are spending yours. Many games function on this plane, too, from the labored, barely intellectible dialogue of the original Resident Evil to the strong-dick man-songs of Gears of War and God of War and Call of Duty and Battlehard and Warman. Time Warrior’s ultimate triumph might be in fusing these two genres of low-brow bemusement. We chortle at their heavy-handed allusions, then settle in, and let them wash over us for a dozen or so hours.

But that moment of melancholy—that third-act lull—is a lie. There is no ledger for which we must account how or why we have enjoyed what we have enjoyed in our lives. Which is not to say that taste is irrelevant; indeed, quite the opposite. There is no better way to refine the palate than to acquire a taste for shit, and there is no worse movie for a studied fan of such works to engage with, at least streaming on Hulu right now, than Time Warrior. As the movie itself asks: Dare to continue?

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This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six tonight, Friday, May 15th.