In the end, it's just one more apocalypse fantasy. But Richard Kelly's sprawling, satirical pop sci-fi epic Southland Tales cuts such a wide swath through our political-cultural landscape, fills the screen with such an unassimilable mass of information and is so insistent on playing the whole thing for laughs that, even though it offers little more than a superficial treatment of its vast catalogue of topical concerns, the overall effect is of an overloaded, wonderfully skewed, but decidedly pointed projection of the fears and fantasies of contemporary America.
After opening with footage of a family barbecue (shot as a mock home-movie) that gives way to an unexpected nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas and the onset of World War III, the film shifts gears to bring us up to date on the state of global affairs in a sequence that quickly establishes Kelly's information-saturated attack. Taking its cue from Godard films like La Chinoise, Southland Tales assaults us with more data than we can reasonably assimilate. But Kelly's film ties this sense of information overload specifically to the mass media whose dulling assault on our sensibilities Kelly simultaneously approximates and critiques. A mock news broadcast, the screen littered with text, fills us in on the ensuing events, the ongoing war with Iraq, Iran and other Middle-Eastern powers and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. A key recurring image in the film's iconography of media-saturation finds Nanna Mae-Frost (Miranda Richardson), director of the newly appointed government agency (USIDent) responsible for controlling all the country's information portals, seated in front of a dozen television screens each tuned to a different image. Mirroring the device popularized by CNN, many of the screens offer simultaneously three distinct pieces of information, an image, a caption and an update from an unrelated story at the screen's bottom. The concurrent barrage of information, which the viewer cannot be expected to fully process and the tight control under which it's placed create a unique situation in which we are simultaneously given too much and too little information. The result is a confused state of affairs in which informed analysis is all but eliminated as a possibility for a nation's citizenry.
Of its varied concerns, the film spends the most time negotiating the trade-off between personal liberty and government control in the face of the constant threat of annihilation. The discussion is crystallized around the upcoming vote on Proposition 69 (the bill's title played for sophomoric humor) which aims to reduce the nearly limitless powers granted USIDent following the nuclear attacks. The debate plays out largely through a series of television commercials, political discourse pointedly given its principal expression through the detritus of mass media. In one ad, a redneck with a shotgun asks the camera "do you think your personal privacy is worth more than my family's safety from terrorist attack?" and then proceeds to threaten anyone who would challenge his priorities. But the film's concerns take in far more than the civil liberties debate; among the myriad of topics covered are the Iraq war, alternative energy sources, drug addiction, television punditry, police aggression, the space-time continuum and the ensuing apocalypse, the last prefigured in a series of quotations from the Book of Revelations that a monotonal Justin Timberlake invokes at various intervals throughout the film. With such a comprehensive catalogue of concerns, Kelly is understandably prevented from treating any at length. Rather, by mashing such an overwhelming range of discourse into one undigested mixture and not worrying about such lesser concerns as coherence, he builds a confusing, disjointed but powerfully resonant picture of our society, a society that combines stultifying government control with a barely-checked self-destructive impulse.
Kelly fills out his cast with such pop figures as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Timberlake, Bai Ling and Mandy Moore, but rather than subject his unlikely actors to a judgemental irony, he mines their personae for their iconic cultural significance. The Rock trades his signature eye-wink for a less certain gesture, a nervous rubbing together of his fingertips that becomes a running gag, but it is his status as a media icon that counts, his presence expanding the film's inclusive cultural landscape. Beyond these figures, the work is overloaded with characters and plotlines. The various strands may be defiantly incoherent, but, after enduring their separate adventures, the characters are all herded together for the film's impressive conclusion, the onset of apocalypse in downtown Los Angeles. As rioters surround the Staples Center and the city starts to burn, the governmental figures float above the fray in a sleek zeppelin, its safety undermined by an upended ice cream truck magically floating nearby. Kelly alternates footage detailing the action from ground level, aboard the zeppelin and from an unspecified aerial point of view, the latter shots bringing the fantasy of annihilation, the destruction of Los Angeles so frequently imagined in film, into full view. As the rioters swarm the streets, they register on the screen as barely discernible, slow-moving splotches eating away at the city, while the glory of the fully lit metropolis turns to an even more glorious fire as the high-rise buildings begin to burn and the zeppelin is consumed in flames. This vision of apocalypse, effected from within, even as the city faces the external threats of nuclear warfare and environmental instability, registers as the final expression of the collective deathwish of American society and the culmination of the picture's endless catalogue of contemporary ills. In the end, if we find Kelly's imposingly inclusive vision too much for us to fully assimilate, we can't fail to recognize ourselves in his splintered, disturbing and very comical portrait of a world inexorably committed to its own destruction.