The trailers for “Branded” promise a kind of the-world-is-not-what-it-seems science fiction head-turner in the vein of “The Matrix,” with an emphasis on the cultural fixation around name brands. They tantalizingly teased: What if, instead of giving you pleasure, those same brands were feeding off of you, in the most vile and sinister ways? Well, it turns out that the movie isn’t really about that. Instead, it’s about that and a whole bunch of other stuff, with filmmakers too undisciplined and untalented to either synthesize those ideas into a coherent plot nor the technical proficiency to pull it off with any kind of “well, at least it looks cool” finesse. The result isn’t just a muddled, unfocused, bloated mess - it’s a boring muddled, unfocused, bloated mess.
The movie begins with a screen full of the names of famous, influential thinkers, with accompanying text that says something about how they all heard voices that others could not hear, ending with a screen that says, “All of them changed the world.” Uh. Okay. But the trailers had monsters, right? We then watch a brief scene where a young boy in Russian named Misha looks to the starry night sky and sees some kind of cow god staring back at him. Then he’s struck by lightning. We then flash forward to him today – as a young man (Ed Stoppard, son of playwright Tom Stoppard) working as a marketing guru in Moscow. He is also, we realize, some kind of spy for the United States government, under his boss and handler Bob (Jeffrey Tambor). When he’s denied a promotion, he embarks on creating a new reality show with the help of Tambor’s foxy niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski). It’s an extreme makeover show where an overweight girl is transformed, surgically, into an ideal of western beauty. It can’t go wrong!
It should be noted, at this time, that “Branded” features some of the worst, most-ill-fitting third person narration in history. This is seriously like something out of an Ed Wood movie. Every once in a while a soothing woman’s voice will appear, out of nowhere, to explain what is happening in a scene or just generally disrupt things. The first time you hear it, which is over a sequence where Max von Sydow, slumming it as an evil worldwide marketing genius, presides over a cabal, you think that it might be some satirical stab at the way things are advertised since the narration could easily fit into a commercial for Windex, no problem. But then you realize that it really is trying to move things along, which makes it even more laughable. One of the best bits of narration, in relation to the reality show, is when the narrator coos, “Misha set out to cast the perfect fat girl.”
When the finale of the reality show garners blockbuster ratings but lands the contestant in a coma, Misha is arrested, Bob dies of a heart attack, and Abby is exiled back to America. Apparently this was all part of Max von Sydow’s grand plan to make being fat cool again. “We’re going to make fat fabulous,” the genuine screen legend sneers at one point, and you just feel embarrassed for him. Swearing off all corporate iconography, Misha goes to become a shepherd in the Russian countryside, which is where Abby retrieves him six years later. After the two reconnect, she leaves, unimpressed with his “rustic” lifestyle but still desperate to get him to return to Moscow.
After she leaves he has a vision and for the next fifteen minutes or so, the movie diverges into some really crazy psychedelic cult shit, with him constructing a funeral pyre, pinpointing a red cow (through some wacky mystical process and very questionable visual effects), killing that cow, and bathing in both its blood and the ashes from the post-pyre mess. He then promptly collapses, which gives Abby permission to drag his unconscious body back to Moscow. Because this is how it works in Russia!
Once he’s back he starts having visions of creatures growing out of the back of people’s necks – they’re gooey, floaty things, like if David Cronenberg ever got a crack at designing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats, and they seem to be feeding on people’s desires for products. (Particularly a McDonald’s-type fast food chain called Burger, that Tambor’s Bob was involved with before his untimely death.) Keep in mind that all this soul-sucking monster stuff doesn’t occur until at least an hour into the very slow movie, and that up until this point it’s been a flavorless, slightly elevated and more satirical version of “Mad Men.” One of the few highlights is a scene when Misha, trying to woo Abby, talks about how Lenin was the first marketer. It kind of underlines the obvious of having the movie set in Moscow, where iconic communist imagery was born, but it’s still a nice little history lesson, just the same.
When the crazy monsters start to show up, though, the movie falls apart altogether. If you can’t tell already, the movie borrows liberally, not only from “The Matrix” and “Mad Men” but from John Carpenter’s “They Live,” William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition,” that Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” where all the billboards come to life, and, when Misha starts pitting the different advertising monsters against one another, the old “Godzilla” movies. It’s just by this point, when you see a giant Coca-Cola-type bottle transformer into a hulking, robotic beast, you’re wondering what the point is, exactly. Is all of this stuff actually happening? Or is inside our hero’s mind? Is the conflict literal or existential? Either way, it’s poorly choreographed and staged and the creature design is pretty bargain basement (although we did like the carnivorous spore that looks just enough like the Microsoft logo). By this point, too, the movie has introduced a mob of anti-advertising zealots, a mysterious mad cow-type disease, and, oh yeah, Max von Sydow gets struck by lighting and disappears.
Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn wrote, directed, and produced the movie, and you have to think that they might have a better understanding of what’s going on than we, the audience, does. But it’s hard to muster up the energy to care. They seem to want to employ the same tactics of marketing to their movie – the screen is always lousy with extraneous text and title cards, and the frame of the movie sometimes contracts to a square 4:3 dimension, for no apparent reason. You’ve got to give them credit for ambition, but execution is just as important (by the end of the movie though, you find out who the narrator is – spoiler alert – it’s the starry cow god from the prologue! Of course!) And while, if this was a South Korean movie that someone slipped into our hands and said, “You’ve got to see it, the logos come to life!” we would probably be more forgiving, this isn’t some South Korean movie - it’s a fairly major international coproduction that also happens to be a sexless, humorless, suspense-free bore. Whatever “Branded” is selling, we aren’t buying. [D-]