Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finding the Good-Bad: RedLetterMedia’s Space Cop

Rich Evans in Space Cop, by RedLetterMedia.

I don’t even know how to approach a review of Space Cop. I’ve covered quirky genre indie films and low-budget retro nostalgia-fests, but these categories fail to convey the mad conflux of genre and influence that is Space Cop. It’s part of both categories, and neither of them. I think that to understand it, you have to understand the people at RedLetterMedia who made it – which admittedly doesn’t speak well of the film on its own terms. For an RLM fan, though, it’s exactly as wonderful, idiotic, hilarious, gross, and terrible as you could want.

I hear you asking, “Terrible? Why would someone want a film to be terrible?” And that’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, I don’t think I know the answer. One could devote one’s life (and indeed, many have) to exploring the nuances of so-called “low art," and what strange sadomasochistic impulse draws us to the schadenfreude of creative failure. Sussing out that fine line between “good-bad” and “bad-bad” has been a fascination for niche moviegoers since Plan 9 From Outer Space. Look at a filmmaker like Tommy Wiseau: people adore watching the cinematic abortion that is The Room, to the point that Rocky Horror-esque midnight screenings where audience members dress up in costumes, shout famous lines and throw things at the screen are still popular. But I haven’t spoken to a single person who could bear more than a few minutes of Wiseau’s latest project, the apartment sitcom called The Neighbors. They’re both terrible, both horribly inept productions, both fueled by Wiseau’s baffling sense of creativity and ever-expanding ego. So what’s the difference? Why is one endlessly entertaining, and the other unbearable?

Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman, along with the rest of their collaborators at RedLetterMedia, could be considered experts on the subject. They’re amateur filmmakers themselves, with decades of self-funded moviemaking experience under their belts (mostly in the service of cheap splatter fare like their 2010 horror spoof, Feeding Frenzy). They were launched to internet stardom when Stoklasa’s review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, delivered by his alcoholic alter-ego, Harry S. Plinkett, became so widely-seen that nerdcore celebrities like Patton Oswalt, Simon Pegg, and Damon Lindelof publicly endorsed its scathing deconstruction of George Lucas’ prequel film. This success allowed Stoklasa and Bauman, his editor and cameraman, to parlay their efforts into broader content aimed at film appreciation, like their warped Siskel & Ebert-style review show, Half In The Bag, and their roundtable laugh-in Best Of The Worst, on which they watch obscure VHS tapes in order to discuss (and judge) them afterward. With both of these ongoing projects, they’ve refined their critical apparatus – especially when it comes to horrible cinematic shlock – to razor sharpness.

Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman in Half in the Bag.

Part of why Stoklasa and Bauman are so adept in this regard is that they themselves have one foot in that same schlock quagmire, and are acutely aware of the limitations and frustrations of low budget independent filmmaking. What makes their work so fascinating, however, is their unique brand of self-awareness that both celebrates this low-rent heritage and participates fully in it at the same time. On Half In The Bag, for example (don’t worry, I’m getting to Space Cop, bear with me), Stoklasa and Bauman frame each episode in an episodic narrative that is intentionally lazy and poorly constructed. They play barely-fictionalized versions of themselves who make a living as VCR repairmen, content to drink beer and discuss the films of the day while they squeeze their hapless client – the aforementioned Mr. Plinkett, here played by their friend and frequent RLM contributor Rich Evans – out of all his money by pretending to fix his VCR. Plinkett’s living room is the main set for the show, and its flimsy particle board walls, cheap furniture, and peeling wallpaper are blatantly fake – just like the conceit of the show itself. The creators mine seemingly endless comedy from their shiftless attitude – they can’t be arsed to build a convincing-looking set, let alone write a compelling show narrative, or attempt to act as real characters – which is a reflection of their own humble filmmaking ambitions. They know they’re not real actors or writers, and so they turn their own ineptitude into a purposeful, self-deprecating vehicle for their sarcastic sense of humour. Stoklasa and Bauman have engaging and insightful discussions about film craft on Half In The Bag, but their characters Mike and Jay are just two beer-swilling idiots. This is the disarming sensibility that informed their latest film, Space Cop, and is the reason it’s such a fascinating anomaly that rides the line of good-bad and bad-bad in a way I’ve never seen before.

On its face, Space Cop is an idiotic film. It stars the portly Rich Evans as the titular law enforcer, a cop who is – as he frequently mentions – “from the future… the future of space.” His loose-cannon antics, which usually involve killing perps on sight, blowing up buildings, and spouting one-liners, are brought back through a time portal to the modern era, where he’s teamed up with Detective Cooper (Stoklasa), a cop from the past who’s unfrozen in the present. Like other low budget genre spoofs, Space Cop is really just an excuse for the filmmakers to dress their friends up in weird alien costumes and blow shit up, with plenty of goofy jokes and niche references to satiate their fanbase (which is smart, considering this type of movie rarely ventures outside the awareness of that limited demographic). There – I’ve said all I can really say about the film. It’s that lightweight, and that disposable. But it’s the way in which Stoklasa, Bauman, and Evans approached the details of the production that makes it worthy of further consideration. Did they set out to intentionally make Space Cop a stupid film that nobody but their fans would watch? Or did they aspire to something greater, and fall short?

Rich Evans and Mike Stoklasa in Space Cop.

Well, neither – from what I can tell. This is what I mean when I describe the strange negative space that Space Cop, and all of RLM’s work, occupies: it’s at once purposely lazy, and genuinely heartfelt. Watch the behind the scenes material and you’ll see a crew of dedicated film geeks lovingly crafting the most fake-looking alien masks you’ll ever see in a movie. Space Cop is indeed a stupid film, and it’s stylistically designed to be that way, but it’s clear in every setpiece and costume that they made it with passion. It’s not quite parody, because while they’re lampooning the likes of Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma oeuvre, they’re actively contributing to the same genre. Nor is it anything like The Room, which aimed to realize some lofty dramatic ambitions and failed in every way possible. It’s both… and neither. If you’ll allow a belaboured analogy: it’s like a team of ramen noodle aficionados, who have spent years tasting every kind of ramen on the market, have put their best efforts into creating the ultimate in cheap instant noodle perfection. They’re not interested in haute cuisine, just in creating the best shitty food their limited kitchen budget will allow.

I think everyone at RedLetterMedia would agree with me that the true difference is with intent (and that ramen is delicious). Watching the result of a filmmaker setting out to make his or her Citizen Kane, only to fall flat on their face, is funny and gratifying (albeit in a slightly twisted way). Conversely, watching something purposefully made to be terrible, like The Neighbors (which attempts to capitalize on the attention, negative or positive, garnered from the sheer incompetence of The Room) is simply terrible – embarrassing for the creators, and tedious for the audience. Watching something made with the genuine heart of a low-budget classic, but also a self-aware eye turned towards its own limitations, is something else entirely. I’ve never seen any production walk that fine line as expertly as Space Cop. And the folks at RLM probably couldn’t tell you how they did it – they’re operating on the same level of creative alchemy, that special kind of cinematic mad science, that informs both the best and the worst that the movies have to offer.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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