Written and directed by Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn
Distributed by Lionsgate
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.
The Branded DVD / Blu-ray has a commentary track in which co-writer/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn no doubt explain their movie to what will most assuredly be a bewildered audience. I refuse to listen to that commentary track. I wish they never recorded it. I wish they would never speak of Branded ever again. Let it remain a puzzle for all eternity. Let it remain a mystery wrapped up in a riddle inside an enigma shaped like a Mylar balloon monster attached to the neck of a chubby little boy. I prefer to think that Branded was conceived in a manner similar to the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfuss builds a mountain out of mashed potatoes and declares with baffled confidence, “This means something.” I’m certain Branded meant something profound to Bradshaw and Dulerayn and, like Dreyfuss’ character, they were never quite sure what. That’s how I want to remember Branded.
What is Branded, you ask and will ask again even after watching it? Imagine if someone wrote a college thesis about the origins and dangers of modern consumerism and decided to make a dystopian sci-fi flick out of it using as their influences David Cronenberg, John Carpenter’s They Live, Pokemon, and that “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horrors” episode where all the famous advertising mascots came to life and began attacking Springfield. That’s about the best analogy I can come up with.
Still confused? Oh, you don’t know what confusion is. Let me just lay it all out there as best I can. Spoilers abound from here on out, not that revealing what I’m about to will do much to take away from the actual experience of seeing this wacko scenario unfold with your own eyes.
Branded is a US-Russian, wannabe Cronenberg-ian, anti-advertising polemic wrapped up in the guise of a surrealistic sci-fi thriller about a British Russian who as a kid gets zapped by a celestial constellation of stars in the shape of the Borden milk cow; he grows up to become one of the top advertising execs in a semi-futuristic Moscow overrun by ads for products with loosely fake names based on real-life brand names (Yepple = Apple). So good is he at his job that the film’s narrator describes his marketing prowess as if it were some sort of X-Men superpower. A reality TV makeover show he’s co-producer of ends in near tragedy thanks to sabotage on the part of an evil advertising rival scheming to save the fast food industry by using the power of advertising to convince humanity that fat is the new standard of beauty. His guilty conscience and newfound contempt for modern consumerism, with an assist by an angry mob practically brandishing torches and pitchforks who want to run him and his TV producer girlfriend out of the country for their role in the reality TV tragedy, forces the marketing wizard to abandon both his profession and civilization as a whole in favor of a quiet, simple hermit’s life in the Russian countryside herding cows. Many years pass until one day he experiences a fever dream that spurs him on to commit a bizarre ritual sort of like a bovine version of The Wicker Man that grants him the power to return to Moscow, where he can now see advertising in its true form: parasitic, Mylar balloon monsters that latch onto people in order to feed off of their wants and desires and coerce them into buying products they don’t really want or need. Reunited with his lover and the fat little son he never knew, he sets out to save the world from being consumed by consumer branding by starting his own advertising agency and creating counter marketing that in turn unleashes what can best be described as a monstrous Pokemon-style clash of advertising titans amid the Russian skyline. And then the angry mob returns and begins going on murderous rampages in the offices of all advertising agencies in the city. But don’t worry because everyone lives happily ever after in a world free of advertising. Oh, and the narrator of the movie is revealed to be the voice of the cow constellation.
No doubt some of you have just read that gigantic synopsis and put Branded on your must-see list. It sure sounds like a must-see movie, doesn’t it? I could probably edit this film down to a 10- to 15-minute highlight reel, post it on YouTube, and convince nearly every single person that watches it the whole movie must be some surreal cinematic masterpiece they absolutely must rush out and see ASAP. Problem is surrounding those astounding 10-15 minutes of insanity, most of which do not occur until well into the second half, are 90 more tediously uninteresting minutes you have to slog through. Not just tedious because it’s nearly impossible to make heads or tail of what’s going on half the time; the performers so barely life-like, the dialogue so inhuman sounding much of the time, the only thing that kept me going was waiting and wondering when the next WTF moment would occur. When my mind wasn’t being blown, it was being anesthetized.
So many things are wrong with this movie it nearly achieves an Alone in the Dark level of incomprehensibility. But whereas Uwe Boll had the good sense to not aspire to make Alone in the Dark anything more than a b-monster movie, it’s quite apparent the minds behind Branded had loftier intentions and a message they wanted to pound home. Dear Lord, do they try to pound it into our heads. Branded could be the most mystifying PSA ever conceived of by mankind.
Rather than having method to its madness, Branded feels more like it has methadone to its madness; it’s as if someone partook in some powerful narcotics and suffered a bad trip while staring at all the lights and billboards in Times Square. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Branded goes on to become quite popular with stoners and psychedelic drug users. Watch it sober if you dare.
Ed Stoppard brings plywood-ian pizzazz to his role as Misha, the unheralded god of Moscow’s Madison Avenue who soon becomes the all-seeing savior of mankind. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear Jeffrey Tambor (his boss in the film) and Leelee Sobieski (his baby mamma) only took their roles to get a free trip to Russia.
Max Von Sydow is ever the pro even though you know deep down he couldn’t have had a clue what anything his sinister advertising exec said or did ultimately meant. He could have gone into business for himself like Bela Lugosi in Glen or Glenda and begun shouting, “Pull the string! Pull the string!” and it wouldn’t have made any less sense than anything else he does in the film.
The great irony of Branded lies in its own deceptive marketing campaign. How ironic that a movie that primarily exists as an unfocused screed against the scourge of overwhelming corporate advertising has itself been marketed by its distributors that want you to believe the film is primarily about (poorly) computer animated monsters and a hero who must uncover a grand conspiracy in order to save us all from them. I suspect quite a few unsuspecting movie renters are in for a rude awakening.
2 out of 5
1 out of 5