Sometime in the future, the world has been left barren and dry. The population is but a tiny fraction of its former size, and water is the most valuable commodity. Ernest Holm (Shannon) is a farmer and courier, transporting goods to the workers drilling for water for the government, and lives with his son Jerome (Smit-McPhee) and daughter Mary (Fanning), and occasionally visits his hospitalised wife. When the family donkey – the sole reason Ernest is able to maintain his job – has to be put down, Ernest is forced to buy a new mechanical quadrupedal carrier, outbidding his daughter’s boyfriend Flem (Hoult), which changes the family’s life forever.
There are some films that seem content to capitalise on the success of others. I don’t mean by following trends or similar themes, but by portraying the films as being very related to something coming out soon, right down to giving it a similar name, in the way that The Asylum does with films like Transmorphers. TakeBad Land: Road to Fury, for example. It was originally called Young Ones, but the name was changed to presumably draw similarities to the impending Mad Max: Fury Road, which is also set in a dusty, desolate wasteland, and also counts Nicholas Hoult amongst its principal cast. However, in selling Bad Land as something akin to Mad Max the marketing department have set themselves up for a big old fall, because aside from a surplus of soil and a lack of liquid, the two films couldn’t be any more different.
For starters, not a great deal actually happens in Bad Land. It’s not an action-packed summer tentpole movie, and that’s OK. This is a drama about a struggling family and the limits people will go to secure happiness for themselves and others, it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic drought-ridden world. Therein lies the problem. You see, when this kind of a world is set up, it should be utilised more than for the low key story on offer here. It’s heavy on the visuals and the minimalist futuristic choices, but severely lacking in characters and actual plot to drive it along. Sure the robotic donkey (or Mechass, as I took to calling it) was nice, and the fan-phone design was something I hadn’t seen before, and elements of the plot were interesting in terms of how you’d live in a world without water- blowing clothes clean, washing dishes with sand – but there was little to grab the attention and hold it.
My main draw to watching the film was Michael Shannon. He is easily one of my favourite actors working today, and I appreciate when he’s not lumbered with a standard villain role, as in Man of Steel or Premium Rush (regardless of how much fun his character actually was in Premium Rush). The trailers put him front and centre, so this was a film I definitely wanted to see, which makes it frustrating that the focus shifts away from him being the focal point with an hour of the film still to go. Instead we focus briefly on Nicholas Hoult’s Flem Lever, also known as the most made-up name since Johnny Utah, and then settle on Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Jerome for the rest of the film. Hoult is great, and I’m pleased for his recent surge in more films, and here he does wonders with a difficult character, having to be charming, but with a layer of cunning and menace just below the surface. Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, is not a captivating screen presence. He’s good at playing characters who are a little off, as in Let Me In or The Road, but here, where for a time he is the primary protagonist, he’s just not good, especially when stacked up against Shannon, Hoult and Fanning, the latter of whom does a great job in an underused role.
The second half of the film gets bogged down in revealing the outcome of a mystery that we, the audience, know the solution to, instead of further exploring this world that has been built. It would be far more interesting to see other aspects of existence in this land, but alas we instead sit witness to a story that can only really head in one direction, and does so at a dreary pace.
It’s worth seeing for the performances of three quarters of the primary cast and for the distinct, washed out visuals on offer, but there’s a real missed opportunity in terms of what this story could have been.
Choose Life 5/10