Nothing is ever as it seems when it comes to James Franco. The man makes a lot of baffling “artistic” choices, any of which could conceivably be explained away as one of the performance-art pranks he so enjoys pulling on the public, and in a greater sense, on himself. Is he penning a column of film criticism, or engaging in an Adaptation-style interrogation of a self divorced from the self? Is he challenging the pillars of historical thought, or just putting goo on stuff? Does he really think Shia LaBeouf is the next big thing, or is he interested in whether we’ll believe that he believes that? To quote his Tommy Wiseau brushing off an inquiry in The Disaster Artist, who’s to say?
Clowning on Franco for his dilettante streak was a harmless pastime among pop-culture obsessives until rather recently, when multiple women accused him of sexual harassment and misconduct. As he went on a sorta-kinda apology tour in which he categorically denied it all while simultaneously trying to maintain the moral high ground, suddenly his tendency to put quotation marks around seemingly everything in his life took on a troubling hue. When you write off so much as self-aware ironic performance, you can deny that you ever really meant, well, anything. The image of Franco as a living put-on has turned from a running gag into the point of entry through which one can start to comprehend his behavior and his work.
That weighed on this critic as I sat down in a theater completely empty save for myself and the New York Times’ critic on assignment for New York’s first showing of Future World, Franco’s latest silver-screen effort. Franco shares a directorial credit with his regular cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung, and appears on camera as “The Warlord,” a feral biker terrorizing our hero Prince (Jeffrey Wahlberg, yes, that Wahlberg) on the boy’s journey to procure medicine for his Queen (Lucy Liu). Everyone addresses Prince as Prince, which eventually starts to feel equivalent to the character being named David Bowie. It is distracting, and the least of the film’s problems.
This motion picture is, to employ a critical parlance, a lot. It is not at all good, but the crucial distinction to make is that its aggressive un-goodness strikes a different timbre than the comparable un-goodness of Franco’s highfalutin literary adaptations or experimental fripperies. Rather than suffering from a catastrophic misplacement of ambition, that baseline effort has vanished completely. Future World is the sort of mess that could have slithered out of the Asylum, incompetent under every imaginable vector of analysis. (Unless, of course, this utter creative failure is merely part of another high-concept stunt.)
As the promotional poster makes abundantly clear, Future World has taken most of its cues from Mad Max: Fury Road, supplemented with recycled inspiration from star Suki Waterhouse’s 2016 vehicle The Bad Batch. Franco and co-director/screenwriter Cheung have jacked so much motorized flair from George Miller that this movie may qualify as grand theft auto, from the blown-out oversaturated colors to the placement of a transparently intended Furiosa doppelgänger (there’s more to be said about her below).
Any motion to alter the material and achieve some semblance of originality is such an afterthought that by the time the film apes the already-famous profile shot of Furiosa howling with desperation, a viewer gets the impression that the film is challenging its audience to take it seriously. Maybe this is Franco’s game: a bottoming-out of the quality floor on the listless product churned out year after year by studios big and small. In selecting Fury Road as its obvious basis, a film that conjured novelty from the studio mandate to extend a long-dormant franchise, Franco demonstrates just how easy this lark of moviemaking can be when you’re not trying. Once you’ve got the money, all you really need to do is change some proper nouns from an extant script and you’re in business. Franco narrows the line between art and its bastard imitators until it’s so razor-thin as to be invisible, perhaps positing that it may disappear completely someday soon.
The line between what’s self-consciously bad — let’s not bring the word “camp” into the conversation — and what’s merely trash is blurry, and impossible to divine from afar. But the film cannot help but be freighted with the subtext of Franco’s involvement, meaning projected onto it by a viewing public that can only see the man beneath the ratty biker jacket. The women’s revelations permanently reoriented how his work would be read, irrespective of whatever theoretical Whac-A-Mole in which Franco may try to entrap any amenable parties.
What’s for certain is that Future World will not be the film to cleanse Franco’s image regarding his relationship with women (not that any film should). The female lead, played by Suki Waterhouse, is an automaton that Franco’s grubby biker dubs Ash after finding her lying deactivated in a warehouse. To a guy who finds free will a turnoff, she’s the ideal woman: obedient, vacant, so devoid of any personality that she must rely on Prince (the character, not the celebrated rock icon, though it’s easy to get confused) to find her a soul after teaching her what a soul is. Franco’s Warlord outfits her with the first heap of tatters he finds, a threadbare getup with a suspicious number of strategically placed skintight thigh slits.
She can’t be far from the philosophical core of this film, which returns to the age-old question most recently explored by Ex Machina: “What if robots were smokin’ hot ladies who you could for-real have sex with?” As with Garland’s picture, Future World spends a lot of time deciding whether that would be totally rad (as when we’re treated to the sight of Franco ordering his robot sex-slave to service one of his underlings, only to then change setting to “kill” just for laughs) or more of a bummer (as when she stares blankly into space while left alone). The ending settles on the latter in dishing out a comeuppance to Franco’s villain, and yet refuses to let go of the nagging thought that model-looking fuckbots who runway-walk through desolated arid hellscapes could still rule.
In a suggestion that sex with robots would still be permissible under the correct parameters, the script eventually pairs her with a tough-lady mechanic in a dynamic that would be more fairly characterized as “girl-on-girl action” than a romance between women. The implications of Ash’s plot thread and how it relates to the ongoing real-life situation involving Franco’s treatment of women — of allegedly turning simulated sex scenes into un-simulated ones without his co-stars’ consent, of capitalizing on the inherently imbalanced power dynamic of celebrity — range from stomach-churning to damning.
At the heart of all of James Franco’s most perverse art could only be James Franco. If nothing else, this film continues the subtextual navel-gazing that runs through each one of his projects, resubmitting this strange specimen for dissection and analysis. Of particular note is self-fashioned auteur Franco sharing directorial credit with Cheung. While past projects have been covered in Franco’s authorial fingerprints, this one sticks out from the rest of the pack due both to a lack of literary ponderousness and Franco’s sedate use of the camera. The smart money says that Cheung probably did most of the heavy lifting, and executives slapped Franco’s name up top so that this could be billed as “the latest film directed by James Franco” and more easily sold.
Franco’s choice to split his authority with Cheung arrives at a time when having someone else to point to as culpable must be a rather appealing prospect. Shedding responsibility for his choices means shedding the self, and so for the first time since he teamed with Pamela Romanowsky for the little-seen horror picture The Institute, the first time since public perception of Franco was reoriented in toto, we’re confronted with a film de Franco that shies away from his persona instead of foregrounding it. Here, Franco makes a flight at escape from Franco, using a derelict no-budget somehow-not-straight-to-video abomination as his hideout. He allows himself to be subsumed by the style of a separate, less aesthetically conspicuous artist, while his ideas remain intact beneath the surface.
This leaves viewers — mostly, those bound by professional obligation to consider his work — in an awkward, confusing position. Out in the real world, we’ve concurred that men like Franco need to be taken at face value — that they mean the things they do and say in the most literal and nonabstract sense, that intellectual bend-overs to warp intentionality serve only the harassers and not the harassed. Yet his work tacitly insists on this precise tack, of intuiting aims and ginning up theories. Future World is the Franco film that denies itself, and yet cannot be anything but itself. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Franco to Franco.