Sometimes it’s easy to enjoy something and hard to explain why that is. I feel like nothing I’ve seen recently encompasses that idea quite like this sci-fi-horror almost-epic and I feel like that’ll ring true for a lot of you, as well. Shit’s weird, convoluted, all around dumb and yet completely fucking awesome.
USA, 2003, Philip Cook
The story is ambitious, to say the least. It opens with a group of freedom fighters from all across time in what appears to be purgatory fighting off Resident Evil 4 enemies in a super edgy church after finding one of their members hanging from an inverted cross. The group’s leader, Nimbus, loads his gun with a bullet made of lens flares and takes out a big bad guy called a Shadow Man — one of two remaining — while quoting scripture because that’s what cool people do. Nimbus is a bad ass, easily one of the highlights of the movie, but the rest of crew is… well, they range from obnoxious and forgettable to vaguely offensive and boring, so you’ve got some variety at least. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t about Nimbus’s adventures in the netherworld hunting down supernatural bugaboos with magic bullets and Sunday school lessons, so we switch to our real lead’s perspective.
Gordon is a failing graphic designer and artist with a weirdly specific knowledge of nuclear warheads who’s making a living creating ads for a power tool company until his boss accidentally erases his unsaved work. He proceeds to call said boss a buttplug, storms out, and goes home to find that he’s being kicked out of his house and his wife is leaving him, or at least pretending to so she can get him in gear and make him work harder. Little did she know this brilliant scheme would lead to Gordon’s death, rebirth, her own kidnapping by Hell spawn, second death, reign as hero of purgatory, and second resurrection. I mean, that’s fair, no one could have seen this bullshit coming, but that’s still a dick move. Basically, Gordon dies when he swerves to avoid two weird twins that are playing on a CGI freeway ramp for, presumably, reasons. He wakes up in purgatory and the movie finally starts when he joins Nimbus and his crew in killing the Despiser and escaping the realm.
Once the whole story’s in place, things manage to fall apart and then fix themselves several times in a really sporadic pattern. Cool concepts come up, like the Despiser itself being an alien being that died when its ship crash landed and killed it, leaving it stuck in limbo with nothing but endless supernatural powers and a dream to take over the dimension and find a way to claw its way back out of reality’s asshole. Then the stupidity of its plan sets in. It wants to destroy limbo by amassing nukes and hopes that the destruction of this plane of existence will catapult it back into the real world. But then they explain why there would be nukes in the first place and the story is cool again. Limbo is a twisted reflection of the real world that shifts constantly, meaning if those missiles exist in the world of the living they exist in Limbo, which also potentially explains the cars and guns everyone has access to. So there are ups and downs, both so stupid and so awesome that you’ll really enjoy them.
Cool story concepts aside, Despiser‘s claim to fame is its use of CGI sets. I had a hard time pinpointing down exactly when this movie was filmed, I’d seen one claim of a 1998 filming schedule with a release held off until ’03 and when I saw the effects, clothing, and massive cell phones… I got the idea that was true. So I contacted director Phil Cook to verify the claim and, yes, Despiser was shot in 1998 with a few years of post-production and distribution-hunting delaying its release until 2003. Considering that, the things achieved here are downright amazing. There really wasn’t anything like it released at the time. The actual CGI models used are genuinely terrible by today’s standards but actors are slapped onto these backgrounds with some degree of skill with no real chroma key bleed or anything to detract from the experience, and, considering the age, it’s easy to forgive these models. If you saw a scene from this movie and were told it was a test run for a scene in an unfinished movie, you’d think it was cool, simple as that. The IDEAS are really neat with lots of cool car chases, gun fights, and set pieces to keep you entertained. The crew had a great vision and no real way to get that vision on screen perfectly, so considering that, what they DID manage to make is really impressive.
Really, that’s the coolest aspect of Despiser, its greatest appeal and its biggest weakness. With flat characters and a weird story, the neat — and possibly revolutionary — effects are its saving grace. But man, let’s be honest, shit ain’t perfect. Pretty often, objects and sets that are actual props and locations will randomly switch to computer generated equivalents for seemingly no reason, sometimes images on monitors and screens will be overlayed on top of the existing footage… even though the images are already digital pieces of art. And, speaking of art, Gordon’s sketches seen throughout are presented in the most bizarre way possible, looking like the ‘Take On Me’ clip poorly keyframed onto a real sketchbook. Its weird quirks like that reveal some cracks in Despiser‘s already pawn shop level armor.
So, to sum things up: watch it. Hell, check out some Cook’s other work, I know I’m going to. His bizarre fetish for low quality CGI and green screens spreads through his entire work history and you gotta respect a guy for sticking to his guns. If you want low budget action that’s determined to be itself and be refuses to take itself anything less than seriously, you’ll love what the guy has to offer and Despiser is a great start.
Despiser is available on DVD in North America from Key East Entertainment and Eagle Films and while I can’t imagine a ton of copies got printed, I haven’t found it for more than ten bucks so far. Worth noting that the version I have has an absurd asking price new on Amazon, but used it literally costs a penny. So assess how important that shrink wrap is for you before you drop a hundy on it.