Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SIFLW: The Asylum & Mockbusters



On this week's episode of Something Interesting From Last Week: The Asylum & Mockbusters!

The Asylum is a movie production studio which specializes in low budget, direct-to-video (non-theatrical) releases. They make two different types of movies. The first is silly monster movies like the recent Sharknado and (my personal favorite title) Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus which make their profit from audiences looking for the "so bad that it's good" vibe.

The second are commonly referred to as mockbusters, or movies which are given a title very similar to a popular larger production release. Some of my favorite examples of this are Transmorphers, released in 2007 with Michael Bay's Transformers, and Atlantic Rim, released alongside Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim last year. These movies are incredibly low budget (rarely over $1 million, or about 1% the average Hollywood blockbuster) and are rushed through the stages of production so that they often make it to video before or at the same time as the original movie is in theaters. It's unclear whether they profit from people mistakenly buying them in place of the original or from people who know the difference and want to see them anyway (likely it's some of both), but the scary thing is that every single one of The Asylum's hundreds of feature films has turned a profit.

And there really is something real in their appeal, because somehow I can't stop watching them.

So why would I bother watching low budget garbage like this? What started as morbid curiosity has become a study in low budget filmmaking. One of the first things you notice when you start reviewing movies (or at least keeping track of your thoughts on them) is that there are reasons you won't return to certain films that you often can't quite put your finger on what it is. What I've found is that if a movie has engaging performances, a well composed soundtrack, and fast paced narrative, it can be easy to make it through an entire movie without realizing how profoundly uninterested I was. 

With low budget movies this will never happen because the low budget-ness of it stands out so distinctly that if you're ever uninterested it becomes impossible to have a good time. Dialogue will be stilted, or scores won't be mixed properly, or the stories might have large sections where they slow down too much (or all three) which makes it easier to dismiss a movie where you can't find redeeming qualities. But they can still be interesting. 

[Spoilers for Android Cop after the break. I doubt anyone cares, but just in case. I mean, if you are interested in this movie definitely go check it out, it's the best looking Asylum feature I've seen.]

It's just a suit of armor, underneath he looks human.

This first happened to me while I was watching Android Cop, The Asylum's mockbuster scheduled to accompany Jose Padilha's RoboCop remake. The first interesting thing about it happens pretty early on: the eponymous robotic police officer is the sidekick rather than the central attraction. Strange. As a result the movie becomes more about the conflict of a cop forced to work with a partner he doesn't get along with.

But it doesn't drop the question of what makes us human inherent to any good discussion of androids, it's merely deferred slightly. You see, the real interesting thing about this movie is that the androids look exactly like humans, and the protagonist, who you all along thought was human, turns out to also be an android as well. That's right, this low budget copycat film pulls a Blade Runner on the audience. There are even direct references to the original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the dialogue, so it feels slightly justified and doesn't come completely out of nowhere.

Android Cop surprised me by directly imitating not only the movie referenced by its title, but also other classic science fiction. It might be trashy, but it's also creative in its own way. It doesn't just redo the original RoboCop and call it a day. In fact, it's an even sharper deviation from the original concept than the official remake. It might steal its new ideas from yet another source, but so do most movies. And it's not the only mockbuster to do this. AE Apocalypse Earth, their version of After Earth, has distinct elements of Planet of the Apes. Battle of Los Angeles, their version of Battle: Los Angeles, has distinct elements of Independence Day. The Asylum might profit by association with larger productions, but they still show a strong affection for the traditions to which they belong. 

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