For the Western to rise again it might be time to retire making it the failsafe mash-up for dystopia.
The next time someone tells you the Western is dead you can hit him with a big old bag of dystopian science fiction movies. The Western aesthetic has been so thoroughly absorbed by science fiction that the quality ranges from Oscar worthy features like Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road to the SyFy channel’s short-lived series “Defiance.” The latest movie to employ this mash-up is the low budget and very pedestrian Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt and written by Kevin Leeson and Bobby Mort, the visual direction and screenplay compete for the designation of dullest aspect of the film. Howitt’s camerawork is uninspired, draining the action sequences of any vitality while Leeson and Mort try to shoehorn some silly scientific exposition into a story of frontier justice.
In a montage of stock footage and a voiceover a la the opening of The Road Warrior it is explained that the environment has finally collapsed. If you breathe without a respirator, you get black lung. If you drink water without a purifying tablet you get poisoned. Given these conditions there are two items of value in this world: the water purifying tablets and powdered silver, the main component of the respirators. Society has devolved to a pre-industrial age. It is the Wild West, but the deserts are wastelands and the bad guys burn fossil fuels.
The hero of the story is a bounty hunter called Gage (Gina Carano). She is the best she is at what she does, capturing bad guys and getting paid in powdered silver and purifying tablets. If she does some incidental good like rescuing a group of pilgrims from getting captured by those who would enslave them, so be it. But Gage’s main concern is Gage. She cracks wise to everyone, but saves her best lines for her one friend, Doc (John Hannah). That there is no lack of leather, cowboy hats, guns and bullets is the most believable aspect of this future America.
Gage is getting by, chasing her targets down on horseback, when news reaches her of a mother lode of a bounty. A villain named Thomas Jackson (Ryan Robbins) has started a settlement called Defiance. In his town, bounty hunters get strung up at the border as a warning, and everybody works for him. Jackson raids other settlements, works a slave trade and brokers in the usual nefariousness. He is also the one personal score Gage has left. When society collapsed, Jackson was responsible for the death of Gage’s sister. She intends on vengeance made all the sweeter by the bounty she’ll collect. Of course, things do not go as planned, but that’s to be expected.
While Scorched Earth unfolds in obvious ways and takes turns that are below expectations, its one saving grace is its headliner. There haven’t been enough leading roles since Carano made her debut in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which is a pity. She has the presence of a star and the martial arts expertise that should make her the face of bigger superhero franchises, her stint in Deadpool notwithstanding. Big budget moviemaking’s loss is Howitt’s gain. Like any movie star worthy of the designation, Carano keeps you watching despite the material, especially when engaged in some verbal sparring with John Hannah. Every hero needs a good villain and Ryan Robbins comports himself well as the mustache twirling Thomas Jackson. The rest of the cast does what they can with the little they have to work with.
When viewing a movie of this budget, watchability is the minimum expectation while a pleasant surprise or two is the hope. Scorched Earth strives to reach the former with the hard work of its cast. The dullness of the effort stems from its insistence on being a hybrid Western. When mash-ups are executed well, the genres being blended invigorate each other. When done poorly, it becomes an exhausting exercise in dueling clichés. No genre ever really dies. They just lie dormant until some makers come along to revitalize them. For the Western to rise again it might be time to retire making it the failsafe mash-up for dystopia.