Is there anything quite so annoying as a smug, pretentious high school or college student who thinks they’ve got it all figured out? I mean the sort of person who uses the word “sheeple” unironically. In fact, having seen firsthand how much learning most college students actually do I’m rather fond of the theory that the entire purpose of universities is to quarantine kids from the ages of eighteen to twenty-two so the rest of us don’t beat them to death before the species has a chance to propagate. Unfortunately it seems that a few of them got out, and have made Branded.
The movie is — or purports to be; more on that later — a polemic against the rise of and destructive capacity of branding and marketing, couched in a “sci-fi” setting. In fact there’s almost no science or technology in it, other than some massive CGI sequences, so it’s really more of a fantasy. Be that as it may, the prologue starts by more or less explicitly telling us that the protagonist is of a kind with everyone from Albert Einstein to Mohandas Gandhi to Emanuel Swedenborg. It goes downhill from there.
Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) is something of a marketing savant. He works as an advertising executive in Moscow with the backing of Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor), for whom he also works as a corporate spy. He meets Bob’s niece, Abby (Leelee Sobieski), and goes in with her on the production of a Russian version of Extreme Cosmetics: a reality show that will follow an overweight — but charming — woman through radical plastic surgery to become thin and beautiful.
What they don’t know is that the show is itself part of a marketing gimmick organized by an even greater savant (Max von Sydow). The plan is for everything to go wrong — leaving Misha and Abby to take the fall — leading to a new vision of obesity as attractive, thus enhancing the performance of fast food chains. And, indeed, that’s exactly what has happened after Misha returns from six years of self-imposed exile to the Russian hinterlands where no marketing exists. The Aerosmith tee-shirt he wears doesn’t count, I guess.
Further, Misha returns with the ability to see brands; not logos, but living, amorphous beings attached parasitically to people. Pass the movie’s McDonald’s analogue — “The Burger” — and your The Burger parasite grows and whines; stop and purchase a meal and part of your parasite breaks off, temporarily sating your desire, and joins the massive brand-creature on the restaurant’s roof. Misha’s obvious quest is to destroy these things, using his own super-marketing powers.
Oh, and in case it isn’t already incredibly clear there’s a persistent and overbearing narrator. That right there is enough to prove that this is not only badly-produced, but badly-conceived from the get-go. The writing and directing team of Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain seem to have taken a 100-level course on issues in late-stage capitalism and snoozed through most of the discussion sections. What we’re left with is the sort of irritatingly pretentious rantings of a slogan-spouting teenaged true believer.
Before the term became identified with internet culture, “memes” were relatively little-known. The first example of a meme behaving as an “infectious” agent was always organized religion, and almost all readers went off on a knee-jerk “memes are evil” kick. Whenever you ran into someone who hadn’t thought through even far enough to realize that that, itself, was a meme, you knew that you were in for a long night if you let them get going. Bradshaw and Doulerain show that very same lack of even the most basic introspection.
There is, though, one possibility that Branded itself suggests: it seems inconceivable that someone could possibly make a film this bad. The conclusion we are led to is that this is in fact the point, and the movie is intended to undermine those who would find fault with laissez-faire capitalism by hanging such a wretched albatross as this around their necks. To attempt an end run, then: there really are worthy discussions to be had here, and just because the people making this movie seem to be complete idiots doesn’t mean that all critics of capitalism are.
But how are we to tell if they’re being disingenuous or just dumb? I will point out that the closing credits do not finish crawling off the screen, but stop hard at the end. What is left centered on the screen? the familiar logos of Kodak™, Dolby™, and the movie’s production company: the Gazprom-owned television network TNT™.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.