No, this is not Enemy Mine as promised last week. A Netflix mishap saw to that. However, the show must go on, so this week I'll be talking about--
A Boy and His Dog (1975), Dir. L.Q. Jones
Don Johnson, Susanne Benton and Jason Robards.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
There used to be a VHS copy of this lingering around my local Blockbuster. By the time I was old enough to be intrigued by "an R-rated, rather kinky tale of survival," DVD had made its grand arrival and every VHS tape in the store was gone. Like tears in rain.
A Boy and His Dog is one part post-apocalyptic science fiction epic, one part road movie and one part zany sex comedy, with every element, against all odds, managing to work together. If this movie were made today, part of me thinks it would be derided as a filmmaker's desperate attempt to make a movie that instantly achieves cult status without having to work for that honor. However, the 1975 release date leads me to believe that director L.Q. Jones was just making the movie he wanted to make, everyone else be damned. True awareness of the power of the cult film was still about a decade or so away.
The story is simple enough and would be explored with greater depth thirty years later with Brian K. Vaughn's comic series, Y the Last Man. Our hero (the boy) is possibly the only living male on the planet earth after nuclear war wipes out most of the human race. Along with his only friend (the dog), he treks through the ruined wasteland of America, fighting to survive against insurmountable odds. Things get crazy when he meets a colony of women who decide that he is the key to saving the human race. And by "key to the saving the human race," I mean he's about to get the sex on. A lot.
Most people associate Harlan Ellison with his more serious, thought-provoking science fiction fare, but plenty of his stories deal with whimsy and many of them deal pretty explicitly with sex and its effect on the human psyche. To my knowledge, A Boy and His Dog is one of the few Ellison adaptations to capture this side of the famously cantankerous writer and for that reason alone, it's a must-see.
Quite frankly, the film is too weird to ignore and too entertaining to vanish.
A Boy and His Dog is an interesting film. It's filled with wild ideas and crazy concepts. It's lead character is a morally blank monster. The other lead character is a telepathic dog. There's shoot--outs, sex, satire and even a hillbilly robot. Yes, this is an interesting movie.
The only problem is that it's not a particularly good movie. In fact, I found the whole experience a bit of a chore, my mind wandering of and my body growing restless and my eyes flicking to my watch every few minutes and so on and so forth. This column is even late by one day because I couldn't work up the nerve to finish it yesterday. Yep, I am certainly not a member of the A Boy and His Dog fan club.
I'll set the plot straight after my initial misconceptions: There is a boy and there is a dog, but there are plenty of males left after World War IV wipes out most of humanity. In fact, the boy uses his genetically modified psychic dog to track down the few remaining women so he can get "laid." And by laid, I mean rape. Our main character is a serial rapist, which does little to endear him to us. Thankfully, the dog himself is a lot of fun. Snarky, bitter and possibly the smartest being left alive on the planet, I wouldn't be surprised if Ellison originally wrote this character to be an approximation of himself (at least as he sees things).
And remember how I thought this was one part sex comedy? Wrong. Not a single laugh in 90 minutes.
The well-known aspects of the plot, the parts involving our hero being recruited into a colony to "expand the population," don't kick in until late in the film. We spend the first hour or so of the film watching our hero and his dog wander the post-apocalyptic desert, look for sex, steal food, look for sex, watch porn and look for sex. This directionless plot combined with the unsavory characters pretty much spells doom for the movie. We have no reason to be invested in this guy's barbaric plight and the barbaric plight itself is just not that interesting.
Look, I'm not opposed to movies where the lead character is a horrible person. I am opposed to movies that give us nothing to be invested in, story-wise. It doesn't help that director L.Q. Jones brings absolutely nothing to the table visually. Bland lighting, awkward editing and sloppy camera composition all ensure that A Boy and His Dog is not a fun movie to look at. Movies like The Road Warrior and video games like Fallout 3 prove that a post-apocalyptic world can be one of the most terrifying and stunning landscapes you can possibly imagine. There are no excuses for your futuristic world of death and destruction to look this boring, to be this poorly shot.
And you know what? Don't tell me that you're in an underground bunker under siege by mutants unless you're prepared to show me some mutants. There's a difference between being mysterious and not having the budget to make a creature.
There are things I liked. I liked that the movie had the nerve to make it's lead character a dark, sociopathic nutjob even if it can't find a way to make him compelling. I like the audacity of making the second lead a talking dog. I like that this is a world filled with mutants and robots, even if we rarely get to see any of them. I like the idea of a pseudo-Fascist underground society, where the evil government operates out a church and all marriages, jobs and deaths are assigned by committee, even if the execution is silly rather than scary (or even darkly funny). I like that this story, for all of its technical flaws, is something original and unique and has a tone all its own.
Which brings me back to Harlan Ellison, because i have a gut feeling that everything I like about A Boy and His Dog originated from his novella and everything I didn't like was the fault of the filmmakers. A little bit of research leads me to assume that I'm correct. The universe created in Ellison's story sounds deep and complex, an alternate timeline where Kennedy was never assassinated, technology flourished and America and the Soviets fought a thirty-year World War III from the 1960s until 1983. What I read sounded like solid, imaginative science fiction, a combination of philosophical ideas and wild adventure. Even after not enjoying the film, the novella sounds like a must-read.
Is it unfair to favor a story I never read over its film adaptation? Yeah, it really is, but this just showcases what a missed opportunity the entire movie really is.. You can see the thin outline of a larger, more interesting universe in A Boy and His Dog, but the film's world-building is simply not up to snuff and Jones' problems behind the camera are too many. Although many of my all-time favorite movies are strange, oddball concoctions, you simply can't coast on being weird and adventurous alone. A great artist not only has the nerve to try something new, they have the ability to transform that nerve into a palatable story. Unfortunately, A Boy and His Dog does not match my palette.
(Next week will have to be Enemy Mine. Until then, stay in school and don't do drugs and make sure you kiss your mother goodnight.)
The Thing From Another World