An intentionally but also kind-of unintentionally low-fi approach to post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Turbo Kid is an ode to the schlocky acting, over-the-top gore, garish costumes, third-rate props and unconvincing special effects of old. And by old, I mean a few decades ago. Directors Francois Simard and Annouk & Yoann-Karl Whissell attempt to create a trashy throwback that taps into the imaginative yet flimsy feel-good vibes of another age of filmmaking. Their good intentions shine through from the production company logo declaring the filmmakers “#1 Leader in Laser Disc Sales” to the final frame. Unfortunately, the film fails to tap into that desired sense of ’80s vigor, poorly imitating a specific aesthetic while ignoring the subtleties in which classic B-movie adventures build rich worlds and interesting characters to inhabit them.
The movie, which has jumped straight to video-on-demand after a fairly successful festival tour, centers around ‘the kid’ (Munro Chambers, a name that belongs on a movie poster), who survives on his own in a rough-and-tumble wasteland where water is scarce and mercy is scarcer. The kid idolizes a comic-book but also real-world hero Turbo Rider, and dreams of a life of adventure mapping out the lands beyond the barren environment he calls home. He’s dragged into conflict after meeting a really, really annoying girl named Apple (Laurence Labeouf) who is promptly kidnapped by a generically evil kingpin Zeus (Michael Ironside). The kid doesn’t really like Apple at first, but decides to save her because that’s what Turbo Rider would do, and that’s also what the movie needs to have a plot. There’s also an Australian Indiana Jones-type dude who helps out. His name’s Frederic. He’s kind of just there.
It’s hard to communicate just how cheap Turbo Kid looks, though I’m sure the filmmakers would claim this to be intentional. The problem isn’t that it looks cheap, though. Many of the films it tries to emulate are similarly low-rent. The problem is that it feels just as cheap. The most memorable low-budget classics worked because the filmmakers and actors were so strongly committed that we were forced to believe in their world, no matter how unconvincing it all looked. There are moments where the directors clearly understand this, but the execution is generally inconsistent.
The movie’s bland backdrops are not just unconvincing, but uninspired stand-ins for bombed-out, post-nuclear badlands. Props are sometimes placed in the backgrounds to add a little bit of flair, but other times the world is just boring to look at. The costume designs often work in their absurd randomness and brash colors (especially the kid’s bright-red Turbo Rider suit), but some props — like the bicycles a group of thugs ride in on — look like regular old bicycles. There’s a worryingly uneven sense of spectacle for a movie that uses spectacle as its main selling point. It’s also disappointing how the awesome retro soundtrack does so much of the atmospheric heavy-lifting. If you took away the music, it would be hard to get the sense that the filmmakers were going for ‘old-school’ in the first place.
Where the film does push most of its creative energy and budget is into the gory moments, easily the film’s most memorable achievements. We see people die vividly in the most hilarious and unorthodox ways. These uber-bloody extravaganzas, simultaneously cartoonish and visceral, illustrate my point about a cheap-looking movie not necessarily feeling cheap if those involved in the filmmaking process are committed enough. While the bloody effects are so obviously fake, the framing of these moments and the actors’ overreactions makes them truly hilarious and even charming in their ridiculousness. But the care that goes into the gore, the film’s most superfluous and insubstantial element, only highlights how disheartening it is that the more important factors, the world and the people in them, were not treated with so much enthusiasm and inspiration.
Each of the actors in the film seem to have a different understanding of the tone of the movie, making it harder still to get the full vision the directors were going for. On one end, Laurence Labeouf hams it up with an obnoxiously manic performance that flies past the giddy earnestness of classic B-movies into being flat-out annoying. She’s the worst Manic Pixie Dream Girl i’ve ever experienced on screen. On the other side of the coin, we have Michael Ironside giving a weirdly restrained performance as the main villain. Usually the villains of these over-the-top movies are the ones who overreact to great effect, so its puzzling that Ironside plays it so safe and rather un-intimidating. But none of this really makes much difference one way or the other, because none of the characters (the protagonist is maybe the most boring nobody of them all) are given enough unique personality traits, empathetic qualities, dynamic relationships or transformations to resonate.
There’s a lot of genuine love and nostalgia in Turbo Kid, and it’s hard to dismiss a movie that tries to do so much with such modest resources. In the end, though, it’s a case of the filmmakers biting off more than they could chew. As unfair a comparison as this may be, Mad Max: Fury Road effortlessly accomplishes exactly what Turbo Kid struggles and ultimately fails to do. That’s not necessarily because of how exponentially larger Fury Road’s budget was, but because director George Miller knows how harness style to complement the emotional journey of his characters.
Conversely, Turbo Kid simply falls back on style in the absence of true creative world-building or character development. It’s unfortunate but I suppose appropriate that, for a movie designed to appeal to the kid-like imagination inside all of us, it left me imagining all the things it could have done, could have showed us, could have been. But even if the budget had been bigger, that wouldn’t guarantee the filmmakers would have thought any bigger.
Score: 2.5 out of 5