Rarely has a picture been so self-consciously designed to be a culturally meaningful touchstone, and fallen so woefully short, as "Southland Tales." A pretentious, overreaching, fatally unfocused fantasy about American fascism, radical rebellion, nuclear terrorism and apocalypse set two years hence, sprawling pic boasts 10 producers, clearly none of them strong enough to rein in the overweening indulgences of second-time director Richard Kelly, coming off the promising indie fave "Donnie Darko." Without a firm U.S. distrib -- despite having been co-financed by Universal, which is handling it in numerous foreign territories -- this wannabe visionary epic may find cult believers among gullible undergrads ready to embrace anything that projects the worst paranoid notions about America. But the fiasco at hand will be evident to everyone else, making commercial prospects exceedingly dicey.
Divided into "chapters" IV, V and VI, just like "Star Wars," to follow up the current publication of books I, II and III as graphic novels, the film trades on post-9/11 anxieties by conjuring up a near-future when, to spin T.S. Eliot, the world ends not with a whimper but with a bang.
Dirty bombs, a federalized police force, energy scarcity, the Iraq war, occupation of Syria and a global warming-spurred heat wave are among the issues in the 2008 election in which the ruling party faces opposition not so much from any unnamed party but from a "neo-Marxist" underground with California h.q. in the beach communities south of Santa Monica.
A July 4, 2005-set prologue conjures up a nuclear attack in Texas. Three years later, the heavy hand of government is everywhere, with the adjunct of some Germans who have come up with a "tidal generator" that uses waves as an alternate energy source to scarce gasoline.
But when it begins introducing what eventually becomes a telephone book-sized cast of characters, several of whom have multiple identities or aliases, Kelly's script begins fracturing irreparably, losing coherence before it has ever achieved any. Sooner rather than later, you give up trying to try to make sense of anything, which brands the picture as a lost cause.
Among the individuals one is forced to scrutinize for long periods are Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), an actor trying to pitch a script called "The Power" who assumes the fictional identity of his scenario's character Jericho Cane and has sporadic amnesia that makes him nervously tap his fingers; Krysta (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star who's launching a new career as a TV pundit devoted to such topics as teen horniness, and Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), a beach cop with a missing twin.
Meaningless scene after meaningless scene spins off as if from a fly-wheel. The ruling class occupies a high-tech domain dominated by security and spotless environs and populated by creatures that look either primly evil, such as Miranda Richardson's all-seeing chieftess, or clown-like (Wallace Shawn, Zelda Rubinstein) -- like figures out of "Fellini Satyricon."
The guerrillas and assorted low-life, too many of whom resemble porn world denizens or grade-B actors, live in a graffiti-and-clutter-strewn environment well on its way to a "Mad Max" sort of primitive chic, but one that is truly ugly to behold.
Kelly tries for arch comedy along with grandiose stylistic flourishes, but strikes out entirely on the first count and merely exposes his shortcomings on the second. Director acknowledges such detectable influences as "Blade Runner," "Brazil," Phillip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, and a clip of Robert Aldrich's L.A. noir "Kiss Me Deadly" makes explicit the apocalyptic inspiration it provided more than 50 years ago.
But the short-term speculative fiction work "Southland Tales" most resembles is Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days," especially with their holiday-set downtown Los Angeles finales.
With the surfeit of characters on hand, there is not one the viewer can latch onto as a guide through the impenetrable thicket of undeveloped story strands, nor one who supplies even an ounce of recognizable humanity; dialogue is all platitudes, pronouncements and one-upsmanship, without any natural conversional element. Far too many ideas and potential plot seeds are planted than can ever be properly cultivated, and the whole thing feels like something that could only be thought up, or considered profound, in an altered state accompanied by a fever dream.
What's a shame is that there was no one involved on the project who could give Kelly brutally honest advice about the mess in the kitchen before the dish was served -- who could save him from himself. It's the sophomore jinx with a vengeance.
Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Steven Poster; editor, Sam Bauer; music, Moby; production designer, Alexander Hammond; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Peter J. Devlin; supervising sound editor, David Esparza; special effects supervisor, Thomas Tannenberger; assistant director, Mark Cotone; second unit director, Tim Trella; casting, Venus Kanani, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 21, 2006. Running time: 161 MIN.