Film Review: Scorched Earth

Post-apocalyptic westerns don’t come much more lethargic and unoriginal than this B-movie.
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With Scorched Earth, director Peter Howitt and writers Kevin Leeson and Bobby Mort imagine what a western might look like… in post-apocalyptic America! The answer, as it turns out, is every bit as dull and derivative as one might suppose, full of gunslingers wielding high-tech weapons and wearing dusters, wide-brimmed hats and assorted Mad Max: Fury Road-like gear. Everyone rides horses and covers their mouths (with air-filter devices that help them breathe the planet’s polluted air), and reside in grungy settlements run—or threatened—by outlaws. It’s a vision of the future that harkens back to the past, and one that—no matter which way you look at it—boasts not a single unique element to call its own.

As a narrated prologue spells out, humanity has been decimated by a global event known as Cloudfall that left the atmosphere rotten, the water toxic and natural resources scarce. In this wretched wasteland, Gage (Gina Carano) operates as an amoral bounty hunter who kills for money—which in this case comes in the form of silver, used to create air filters. After offing a target named Chavo (Luvia Petersen), Gage decides to go after an even bigger prize: Jackson (Ryan Robbins), the merciless ruler of the nearby town of Defiance. Posing as Chavo, Gage infiltrates the community, befriends Jackson, and sets her plans in motion, all with the aid of her trusty friend Doc (John Hannah), and despite the mounting suspicions of Jackson’s right-hand man Lear (Dean S. Jagger).

What follows is a series of second-rate clichés, as every narrative twist turns out to have been recycled from superior genre predecessors. Scorched Earth’s lack of originality, however, is only one of its problems. Even for a wannabe-cheesy B-movie, there’s a shocking chintizness to everything on display here, from the perfunctory set and costume design to the functional-at-best cinematography, which stumbles every time it attempts something like a visual flourish (most notably, two “dramatic” zooms into close-up). Holding director Howitt to the standards of, say, George Miller isn’t fair, no matter how much he’s aping the style of the latter’s most recent masterwork. Nonetheless, his film’s staging is only borderline-competent, and devoid of the very excess—with regards to aesthetics, set-pieces or performances—that might lend the action some entertainingly over-the-top energy.

When it comes to listlessness, attention must invariably turn to Scorched Earth’s lead. In the years since her debut in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, Carano has vainly sought to establish herself as a viable beat-’em-up star; even in her most prominent role, as the henchwoman to Ed Skrein’s baddie in Deadpool, the former MMA fighter-turned-actress has proven to be a wooden big-screen presence, all stilted mannerisms and flat line readings. As Gage, her menacing glares and cocky smirks come across as rehearsed rather than natural gestures, and further render the proceedings clunky and unconvincing. Even in an America decimated by disaster and degradation, mankind deserves a far more compelling hero.

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