August 4th 2020, I receive a Whatsapp message showing footage from an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. It is perhaps some of the most incredible footage I have ever seen. There is something not quite right though, it looks as if this is no normal explosion. The size and shockwave just seem too powerful and it has rattled my friend who sent the message. I go on to social media, the worried masses are saying a nuclear device has been detonated based on the footage. ‘Nuke’ is trending for about two hours before calmer, cooler headed experts tell us what actually happened. What puzzled me about it was my non-reaction to the detonation of a nuclear device, I kind of rolled my eyes, I expected it. That’s where we are in 2020, and the two hours of acceptance of doom that occurred on that August afternoon brought me back to Richard Kelly’s ill-fated second feature Southland Tales (2007).
At the start of Southland Tales, we are told “This is the way the world ends” by narrator Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) before we see footage of July 4th celebrations in an alternate 2005 in Abilene, Texas. Everything looks normal with children and families enjoying the celebrations until a nuclear mushroom cloud appears on the horizon. This opening is haunting stuff. Back in 2007, it was a kind of doomsday scenario based on the war on terror and the supposed axis of evil we should all be afraid of. Nowadays in 2020, it seems increasingly likely and expected.
Southland Tales had a rough go of it. Filmed in 2005, it was produced on a reasonable budget of under 20 million and had a hip as hell cast including Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amy Poehler, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Smith, Mandy Moore and Wallace Shawn. Kelly’s previous cult masterpiece Donnie Darko (2001) and the political satire of the script attracted some major talent and a mysterious website with samples of Moby’s score soon appeared online. The prequel graphic novels began to be released slowly and were full of portent for what was to come. Then the film premiered at the 2006 Cannes film festival…
To say the reception was not good is perhaps an understatement. There are of course legions of stories of films being booed at Cannes, but the fact that Southland Tales then took another year and a half to actually come out perhaps says it all. Overlong, tedious, shrill, all of these words were used by those who actually saw the movie. The film missed its planned September 2006 release date and was bought by Sony, who provided meagre funds with which to finish the effects and recut the movie to something shorter and more coherent than the two and a half-hour version that played disastrously at Cannes.
It finally came out in late 2007 with a muted release on a few screens and no real advertising to speak of. Baffling considering the film starred Dwayne Johnson who would a few years later become the megastar we always expected. The reviews of Kelly’s recut version were not any more favourable than the Cannes fallout, and the film began to fade into obscurity as a fascinating failure, but a failure nonetheless.
Southland Tales has always been a strange one for me. Like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) it is a film that I keep rewatching, just willing it to be better as I see the enormous potential in the movie despite it being deeply flawed. It probably helps that I have read the prequel books and watched the film countless times, but to be honest, Southland Tales has become a film I kind of love. Now let me explain…
In 2009 or so, through various net forums and the early forms of social media, I was alerted to the fact that a longer, different version of Southland Tales had screened on TV in the UK. Through various YouTube scamps, I was able to confirm that certain scenes in this version were not on my treasured DVD version of the film. It turned out that this alternate version was also the version available for purchase digitally on iTunes. Sometime later it came out that due to complex rights and version issues with the original distributor Universal, the original, longer version that screened at Cannes with unfinished effects was the version that was broadcast on TV and available to stream. Seeing this version was a revelation, this felt like the version that was intended to be seen just after putting down the prequel books.
The Cannes cut of the film is around twenty minutes longer than the theatrical version. The main differences between the two versions are at the beginning. After the Cannes audience was left scratching its head at what exactly was going on, Kelly went and made a substantial introduction for the theatrical release that explained much of what happened in the prequel books and set the stage for what was to come. Throughout the Cannes version of the film, several scenes present in the theatrical cut go on for longer, are paced differently and provide further character beats missing from the theatrical version. A whole character played by Janeane Garofalo was missing from the theatrical cut and is added back into the Cannes cut. This character’s interactions with Kevin Smith’s military character add further context to what exactly is going on and the machinations behind the main plot.
The start drops you into that fateful day in Abilene in 2005 in a lengthier and thus more shocking manner. We then head straight to California with a brief voiceover telling us how the allied war effort on four fronts has to lead to an energy crisis with our saviour being Fluid Karma, an ocean-bound energy/drug source initiated by scientist Baron Von Westphalen. Crucially then before the title card, we see just how ruthless the Baron actually is. In the theatrical cut, the scene of the Baron’s cruelty towards a competitor is late in the day. Its appearance earlier actually explains so much of what is to come and reduces the confusion around certain reveals in the final act. An early tagline for the film was “You are entering a domain of chaos” and the absence of the lengthy, partially animated introduction from the film in the Cannes version adds to the feeling of being dropped into a world spiralling towards the end.
Of course, your enjoyment of the longer version depends a great deal on you having read the prequel graphic novels. If you haven’t, and don’t want to, then the theatrical is the way to go. If you want the full experience, then it helps to know a bit more about what Richard Kelly is pulling from for his mash-up of Philip K.Dick and Andy Warhol, namely, the Book of Revelation. The ancient prophecy of doom is something that Pilot Abilene reads from at various points during the film. Despite the multiple plot threads, the character relationships and alternate fuels clogging up the narrative, how the world ends and its parallels with Revelations is the main thrust of all of this confusion.
Southland Tales revolves around three main characters. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is the meathead action star who has amnesia and is married to the daughter of a presidential hopeful. Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the porn star/entrepreneur who has her hooks into Boxer thanks to a prophetic screenplay she has written, and the two are engaged in an affair. Krysta and Boxer are both being used by insidious forces, as is Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) a police officer who has PTSD thanks to a friendly fire incident in Iraq. A game whose end goal appears to be political points in an election year is afoot, except that the actual goal by those pulling the strings is far more important.
If we are to equate certain events and characters with details from the Book of Revelation, then I believe it goes a little something like this. Krysta Now,, as a porn star and somewhat deceitful character is the Whore of Babylon. Krysta is something of an idolatress with her false prophecies that lead the false prophet Boxer Santaros down his path towards the end. Boxer is just as false as Krysta. He is tattooed with the symbols of all of the world’s religions and thus proclaimed by the underground as their saviour, except he is a mere puppet, a distraction wielded by the beast Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) who as the secret mastermind behind the Neo-Marxists, states repeatedly that their mission is to dethrone God.
The problem with all of this is that even the beast has been deceived by those around him. Roland Taverner is the actual prophet/messiah in this story, accidental maybe, but his role and that of his apparent ‘twin’ caused by time rift experiments is to prove God wrong and unmake existence itself. The white ice cream truck that ascends to the heavens as the finale plays out is the pale horse on which the apocalypse rides. The end comes as the ‘stars’ fall from the sky in a flaming zeppelin and the beast with seven heads symbolised by the Baron’s fluid karma machine rises from the sea, messing with the planets rotation and speeding the collapse.
Despite the fondness for ancient texts predicting the end, Southland Tales has some alarming similarities with our current world, its prophecy reflecting the world of ten years later rather than the period in which it was made. Baron Von Westphalen and his revolutionary new fuel embraced by politics are very similar to one Elon Musk, his Tesla machines, celebrity ties, and his ambitions for how we can transform as a species. Syria is mentioned in Southland Tales as one of the fronts of the war on terror, and it wasn’t at that point, but is now the flashpoint for an ongoing proxy war which seems never-ending. Krysta Now is very much in the same vein as our current Instagram celebrity, someone with popularity based on looks alone who has ambitions for pop stardom, energy drinks and reality shows. Or maybe that was predicting Kim Kardashian or the political scandal of Stormy Daniels all along.
Thanks to recent terrible events, we are seeing unrest in many of the worlds major cities. The situation with a supposed Antifa (Neo-Marxists?) in Seattle and Portland very much resembles the riots that erupt in Los Angeles in the climax of the movie, combined with the very blatant corruption and disregard for the truth that seems the norm for our current ruling class. We also have the restrictions on travel, record temperatures of 124 degrees and the plans for a more tightly controlled internet that appear in Southland Tales as fiction and have come to pass in one form or another in the last couple of years.
It is all of this that makes Southland Tales a film whose time has finally come. Watching this now, in this very period of time in which we live, is a very different experience to what it was back in 2007. It is perhaps the most layered and dense piece of prophetic sci-fi to come out this century. Despite its flaws, it feels somewhat more important now in the overall canon of pop culture and is a worthy follow up to Donnie Darko.
Richard Kelly has said recently that the true version of Southland Tales lies somewhere between the theatrical and Cannes versions of the films. Kelly has also said that he hopes to one day make a live-action/possibly animated prequel to the movie using the graphic novels as a basis. You can’t help thinking that much like what Zack Snyder is doing with Justice League (2017), some kind of six-part mini-series version of his maligned saga is what will finally do this vision justice.
Much of the great art produced in the world frequently reflects the troubled times in which it is made. Southland Tales was made to reflect an earlier, paranoid time in our history that seems like a golden age compared to now. It has proved to be eerily prophetic both in terms of politics and celebrity, as well as the general chaos we face every day. We can only hope that if this is the end, then it ends with something as peaceful as a handshake, a whimper rather than a bang.