You can almost feel the blazing sun and dusty air in Bad Land: Road To Fury, the sci-fi western from writer-director Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth). Set in a near future where people are willing to kill for the last remaining drops of water, Bad Land offers up a moody, minimal story split into three chapters.
The first introduces Ernest (Michael Shannon, on glowering form) a landowner clinging to his scorched field long after other farmers have fled the area. A prolonged drought has left the plains of America an almost uninhabitable desert, but Ernest has faith that the rains will return and his land will once again grow corn. Until then, Ernest lives in his ramshackle house with his loving son Jerome (Kodi Smit McPhee) and his less-than-loving daughter, Mary (Elle Fanning). Ernest makes a living by delivering booze to a group of unscrupulous men who control the area’s water supply, while occasionally shooting trespassers who sneak onto his land in search of refreshment.
It’s a gloomy existence, made worse by a character explored in Bad Land’s second chapter: the blue-eyed, spooky tear-away teen, Flem (Nicholas Hoult). Flem carries a longstanding resentment towards Ernest, which seems likely to bubble over into violence at any moment – and to make matters worse, he’s in love with Mary, who keeps creeping out of the house in the middle of the night to ride around on the back of Flem’s motorbike.
Quietly observing all the brooding tension is Jerome, the subject of chapter three. A delicate young man more suited to his art than scratching at the earth in search of water, Jerome’s soon drawn into his own conflict when he finds out just how duplicitous Flem really is.
Also called Young Ones in some territories, Bad Land’s premise might sound like a riff on Mad Max (its “Road To Fury” subtitle even sounds like a cheeky allusion to Fury Road, also starring Nicholas Hoult), but it’s closer in terms of its story and execution to a film by John Ford or Sergio Leone. Take some of the future tech out of the equation (including a thoroughly adorable four-legged robot called Sim) and Bad Land could easily be a period piece about settlers in the Old West. There’s family drama, as the protective Ernest argues with his wayward daughter over her dubious taste in men, cattle auctions, wide open spaces and extreme close-ups of determined eyes.
Paltrow and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shoot Bad Land with a distinctive style that occasionally tips over into distracting showiness; they frame the parched landscape beautifully, but the repeated use of dolly shots feels more like a stylistic tic than a means of using the camera to evoke a mood or tell a story.
The lensing and effective music (courtesy of Looper composer Nathan Johnson) can’t mask the flimsy nature of the plot itself, which seems to be striving for a pared-back, Cormac McCarthy-like elegance, but winds up as transparent and parched as the film’s Landcapes. Every member of the sterling cast is left short-changed by Bad Land’s almost non-existent characterisation; we learn little of Ernie, Jerome or Flem other than the basics: Ernie’s a boozy, macho father, Jerome’s a gawky son who likes drawing, and Mary – well, we don’t learn anything much about Mary. She does the washing up, hangs some clothes out to dry, and generally shuffles around the picture like a ghost. Mary’s possibly one of the most unsympathetic, flat female characters I’ve seen in a science fiction film for years; Elle Fanning, who was excellent in JJ Abrams’ Super 8, surely deserves better than this.
What should be an intense quadrangle of conflict instead unfolds as a rote revenge tale; among the scheming and retribution, the only character that really registers is Sim, the robotic beast of burden who recalls one of those wonderful robots out of Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running. In fact, some of Bad Land’s best moments are brief and casually introduced; the eerie, superbly-designed life support harness worn by Ernie’s quadruplegic wife, Katherine (Aimee Mullins), or the mobile phones, which fold outwards like an oriental fan.
From the dazzling vistas to the superb cast to the subtly effective VFX used to bring its robots to life, there are hints of a better film hidden away in Bad Land. Paltrow directs with confidence, but what could have been a gripping sci-fi western instead emerges as a disappointingly dry horse opera.
Bad Land: Road To Fury is out in UK cinemas on the 1st May, with its Blu-ray and DVD release following on the 4th May.
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