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Non-Review Review: Fanboys

Fanboys is a film that is borderline mediocre, but the tragedy is that it actually could have been really good. It’s quite strange, because the movie seems intent to straddle two audiences – aiming at once for both cult geek cred and mainstream appeal. Of course, the paradox of such an approach is that it frequently ends up alienating both core groups. The film is arguably too deeply entrenched in geek culture to ever find a large mainstream audience, but it’s also far too bland, safe and stereotypical for a geek audience. So it clearly hopes to please everyone, but winds up satisfying no one. Which is a shame, because it seems like it’s actually having a great deal of fun.

Indulge your Dark Side...

The movie is notorious for its somewhat… difficult production history. That is an understatement, by the way. The film underwent a whole host of cuts and reshoots and reworkings. Hell, the central driving plot of the movie – a bunch of friends attempting to sneak a peak at Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with oen of their mates who won’t live to see the release date – was first cut out and then (within hours of its official release) hastily put back into the movie. Some of the movie was handled by Kyle Newman, while Steven Brill stepped in to help bring the movie into line with Harvey Weinstein’s expectations.

I don’t know if any of this explains or justifies the fairly fundamental flaws with the movie, but it might go a long way towards explaining some of the tonal inconsistencies. The movie seems to revel in geek culture, being set in 1998, and makes a huge amount of jokes that only sci-fi nerds will truly appreciate. Ethan Suplee pops up as a kung-fu fightin’ Harry Knowles, for instance, a geek famous for being a geek (in a scene that would have been infinitely funnier had Knowles been self-aware enough to play himself). Ray Park plays an over-keen security guard who warns a fan he’s about “to get mauled” (the joke being he played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace). Hell, the movie even features a reference the great comic book crash (“the geeks aren’t biting like they used to”) – a huge event for geeks, but not even a blip on mainstream radar.

Keep on trekkin'...

At the same time, the movie panders ridiculously to the lowest common denominator comedy set. So we get jokes about male prostitute (with a Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith cameo), and a variety of stereotypical jokes about nerds with giant teeth and acne (as played by Seth Rogan). There’s even a really bizarre stature of James T. Kirk with an incredibly obvious erection, because a bunch of nerds must be sexually-frustrated and penis-focused, right? There’s also a painfully awkward gay bar joke, which really doesn’t belong in the film at all. This is sub-Atapow juvenile male comedy, and it really seems oddly placed in a film like this.

Which is a shame, because the movie seems to do quite a few things right, but just as many wrong. I absolutely love, for example, the portrayal of a bunch of dysfunctional geeks who get along despite their personal differences (and obvious differing levels of geekiness). The film actually acknowledges them as a bunch of people who share similar interests and, despite personal foibles, are interesting characters rather than the butt of cruel jokes. That’s a good thing, and it’s nice to see the movie resisted the urge to turn its leads into walking punchlines (though there are more than a few jokes at their expense, no more than any other bunch of comedy leads).

A moving movie...

However, I do take issue with the movie’s portrayal of Zoe, the team’s token girl. Of course, she ends up hooking up with one of the boys by the end of the film (because there’s no way that a girl and a bunch of boys can remain truly platonic), but also because she seems to be presented as the least geeky member of the team based solely on her gender. She’s the one who really doesn’t like Star Wars. She’s the one who is effectively dragged into this. Hell, even when she proves she can best the boys in a fight, it’s not because she’s stronger than most women, or is takes karate lessons or anything, it’s so that we can laugh at the loser getting beaten up by a girl. It’s a damn shame, because Kristen Bell is awesome, and really deserves a better role than this.

That said, I do like the way that the movie doesn’t try to pitch itself as “nerds against the world” or anything like that. It’s a stereotypical perception of geeks and nerds that they see themselves facing down a hostile world, populated with insensitive and dismissive jocks who are always looking down their noses at hobbies that are – in theory, at least – no better or worse than an interest in football or politics. There are some of those jocks present in the film, but what’s refreshingly remarkable about the film is just how incredibly tolerant the majority of non-geeks appear to be towards our leads, even when the group isn’t especially polite or nice themselves.

A glass act...

Along the way, they meet a doctor who passively condones their trip, even while it risks the health of their sick companion – seeming to realise how much it means to him, even if she doesn’t think it’s worth his life. The group do pass the occasional female driver who likes Wookies, despite meeting one or two who seem (quite rightly) offended by the sign asking them to flash – because, again, all geeks must be sex-crazed teenagers at heart. There are some nice sequences of the group passing the time playing with local kids who have lightsabers. Moments like these are nice, and help illustrate that – although the group are a tad socially inept – they’re still decent people trying to right by one another.

Unfortunately, though, we come to how the film deals with the other fan groups. It’s interesting that a movie going to such a large amount of effort to portray its central geeks as nice people with a sometimes excess interest in a particular niche past time, the movie then insists on returning to the most clichéd portrayal of geeks when it comes to Star Trek fans. While our leads have idiosyncrasies, they are constantly pitted against Star Trek fans who are small-minded obsessives who seem to just hang around in their geeky little uniform living in their own little fantasies. In short, they are pretty much every individual that William Shatner’s “get a life!” rant so cruelly mocked.

The geek-team...

It seems a little odd that the film seems to portray most of its Star Wars fans as relatively reasonable and well-rounded individuals, while ever Star Trek fan is a pathetic loser. Star Wars geekdom stretches from a Los Vegas pimp to kids with lightsabers, while ever Star Trek fan in the movie is a geeky obsessive borderline psychotic. It’s also fascinating that the movie portrays the mainstream as far more tolerant of geeky sub-cultures than the geeky sub-cultures are of one another. However, browsing the web, perhaps that’s a fair reflection. Just look at, for example, the reaction that geeks had to Twilight fans at Comic Con a few years back, despite the fact that one fandom is no more or less valid than any other. But I digress.

On the upside, the Star Trek angle does allow for an absolutely brilliant William Shatner cameo, as an insider source who appears to be extracting his own revenge on Lucas, giving the crew information they need, and a copy of his autobiographical “Trekkin’ with TJ” as “just something for the ride.” I actually have to admit, there’s something awesome about hearing Shatner proclaim, “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything.” From a film literally packed with cameos, it’s easily one of the best geeky moments.

Carrie on...

There is one large problem I had with the ending, so consider this a spoiler warning. No, I really mean it. Look away if you don’t want to be spoiled about how the quest turns out. Okay, I consider that a fair warning.

I’m not sure what to make of the finale. The dying fan is allowed to watch the film by a seemingly benign George Lucas, but he’s only allowed watch it alone. None of the other people who helped him on the journey get to attend. It seems like a rather strange ending to the movie. Not because it strikes me as unbelievable, but because it actually paints Lucas (who gave permission to this film to use special effects sound effects from the original film) as a horrible individual. I understand why – if this were real – Lucas wouldn’t allow four other strangers to see the film. It makes sense that he’d be worried about them talking, or posting on-line, or spoiling it. However, it strikes me that the same concerns apply to letting even person see the film, especially somebody who is dying. It’s very hard to threaten an individual with a lawsuit over breach of a non-disclosure agreement if they are dying and have no dependents. If it makes sense not to show it to all of them, it makes sense not to show it to the one who is dying.

However, my problem is more to do with the movie itself. The entire point of the film is that it’s about these guys coming together as a group to do something they love. It’s about sharing in the experiences, and having an adventure together, like true friends. The film repeatedly reinforces the message that it isn’t the obsession itself that has meaning, but the companionship built around it. “This was never about the movie,” one character explains, “this was about all of us.” Surely it would have made sense for the movie to be a final shared, collective experience.

It's not garbage...

On the other hand, it does set up a fantastic final line, as the guys prepare to watch the movie on opening night. “What if it sucks?” Though, arguably, you could have worked that little gem in any way.

Fanboys is a bit of a wasted opportunity. It can’t decide if it’s a conventional comedy about geeks (with typical crass grossout humour) or a niche comedy for geeks (with tonnes of in-jokes). The problem is that the result is a false compromise. The two different tones don’t sit well, and it can be quite jarring. Which is a shame, because some moments work really well, like a pimp with a pre-emptive Jar-Jar Binks tattoo confidently declaring, “Jar-Jar is going to be the sh!t.” Or one nerd’s confident assertion that Harrison Ford has never made a bad movie, as they pass a poster for Six Days, Seven Nights. Ah well, I guess it’s oddly appropriate that a movie about a disappointing film ends up ultimately disappointing.

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