Junkfood Cinema: Trancers

By  · Published on March 26th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; condiments upon request. If you are unfamiliar with JFC, you lucky bastard, this is the weekly column in which I serve up some of the cheesiest, gooiest schlock I can find. These films are about as far from auteur as one can get, but there is something that makes them so damned endearing as to prompt my revisiting. If there is one thing unifies all cinephiles it’s that each of us has at least one guilty pleasure film. Junkfood Cinema is a veritable celebratory feast of those guilty pleasures with total abandon of what they might do to our higher brain functions. I also pair each selection with a poignant, and delicious, snack food item to perfectly compliment the viewing experience.

As you might have noticed, last week this column was usurped by my evil twin Rob Hunter. Rest assured faithful readers that I have, for the time being, locked him back in the puzzlebox from whence he was spawned; though I thought he did a great job. This week’s meal proved equally rare in that I discovered the film just days ago on an instant watch whim via Netflix. The film is called Trancers, and it is all kinds of junkfood-ian. It is basically about a police officer sent back in time to stop an evil mastermind called Whistler from taking over the world. Oh yes! The title comes from the moniker given to Whistler’s telepathically-controlled slaves with whom our hero must do battle at every turn. I had expected this film to be a vapid distraction from the work I was doing, but I quickly found myself unable to turn away from it; much like beholding a car accident. So my hungry hungry cinema hippos, I offer you the unchained 80’s madness of Trancers.

What Makes It Bad?

This thing is dripping with 1980’s missteps. The special effects principally involve adding neon to preexisting technology to emphasize that it takes place in the future…of the past? The fuzzy, obviously bogus overlay of images to suggest a spaceship landing behind a coffee shop probably accounted for 75% of the visual effects budget. My favorite special effect fail is the shot of the L.A. skyline. The whole crux of the story is that, in the future, L.A. is underwater due to a second ice age. Huh? The concept is absurd mainly because it was only L.A. that was affected, but then comes this super crappy shot of our hero on a beach looking out at the tops of famous L.A. landmarks jutting out of the water. Let me just say that if you like enlarged cardboard cutouts photographed with abysmal forced perspective, than Trancers is sure to be your all-time favorite film.

The other incurable 80’s malady from which Trancers suffers is the self-dating moment. These are obligatory in almost every film made between 1980 and 1989; so much as to seem mandatory. Basically it’s a demonstration of the foresight of filmmakers of this decade as to how much it would be mercilessly mocked by the decades to follow. Trancers communicates this in much the same way as many of its contemporaries: unbelievably awful dancing. It’s not a dance number per se, but our hero and his newly acquired girlfriend find themselves in a punk rock club and dance in a fashion disproportionately goofy to the music (a punk cover of Jingle Bells no less). The one thing to take away from this scene is that an unexpected casualty of our cataclysmic future is the loss any and all sense of rhythm.

Time travel is a sticky paradox. Both literary and cinematic depictions of time travel often birth gaps in logic or metaphysics the width of a Greyhound bus. Trancers ingeniously side-steps the conundrum…by never explaining the technology or logic but at all. We don’t need to explain whether we are using atomic energy to rift the space time continuum or blasting tachyons with nuclear power to shift their movement. Nope, we just need to go to Home Depot and rig a couple of lamp shades to a block of granite, string some lights to it, and we got ourselves a time machine! I think my favorite example of “just go with it” technology was the bullet-time watch our hero is given before traveling back in time. Again, there is no need to explain how it works when you can just tell him to push a button that makes one second to everyone else feel like ten seconds to him. I’m surprised Alec Guinness didn’t pop onto the screen in his Jedi robe, wave his hand in front of the camera and say, “you don’t need to know how it works.”

Why I Love It!

This movie is a glorious mish-mash of several different films both past and present. The opening is obviously a nod to film noir with the seedy diner, steamy streets, and a preponderance of voice-over. But the addition of the sci-fi element – and the fact that our trench coat-sporting hero is looking for baddies who resemble everyday people – smacked of a shameless Blade Runner rip-off. But as the film progressed, once my laughter at its attempt to be something it wasn’t subsided, I noticed thematic elements that are echoed in current cinema. See if this sounds familiar: guy has to fight hostiles but is physically incapable of doing so. He therefore inhabits the body of another being while his body is connected to a machine. There were even moments demonstrating the discomfort of being unplugged from the other being. I’m not saying Avatar ripped off Trancers, but it is one of several interesting flavors in this ratatouille of a film.

I love the concept and the entertaining nonsense it breeds. I like the idea of a villain that can turn any normal person into an assassin using his mind; sort of playing on a Body Snatchers theme. The most amazing offspring of this concept is the moment wherein a mall Santa tosses a child off his lap and tries to kill our hero. It’s a holly, jolly fist-fight that made my insides dance. I also liked the red herring of the opening shot in the diner that ended in a body exploding into ash. I also found it hilarious that he kept getting pulled out of the other guy’s consciousness right before he was about to bed the girl; the ultimate multidimensional cock block. As silly as it is, the execution of concept in this film is far better than the execution of Timecop.

Trancers features, in addition to a coal cart full of awesome, a very young Helen Hunt as the time journeying hero’s girlfriend. It’s always interesting to me to see an actor who, later in life, defined themselves by playing a very specific type of role playing something out of type in an earlier film. Hunt made a name for herself playing strong, confident, admirable women in not only films like Twister, What Women Want, and As Good As It Gets but also the television series Mad About You. But in Trancers, she is kind of a ditsy party girl. I’m not saying I like her better as such, but the hindsight perspective makes me chuckle. There is one other thing I learned about Helen Hunt from this film: she is smoking hot. Yup, turns out 1985 Helen Hunt and spandex go together like pudding and a pudding carton. Ka-nice!

Two words: hobo baseball. Whistler’s ultimate plan is to go back and kill the ancestors of the members of the all-powerful 23th century L.A. city council. Our hero must find these ancestors and protect them. He finds out one of them is a homeless man living on skid row. When he locates him, he’s engaged in a display of vagrant athleticism the likes of which have never been seen. You can take your vampire baseball scene from Twilight and stick it in your ears. All I need is one hobo to pitch an empty gin bottle to another hobo trying to hit it with a sword. America’s favorite pastime!

Junkfood Pairing: Beef Jerky

An abundance of things have gone haywire in the future depicted in Trancers. This is a time in which LA is under water, cops are called troopers, and coffee is more expensive than gold. But the really horrific portent offered by Trancers is that the future is devoid of beef! The very thought is enough to give me nightmares for weeks. So let us no longer take our beloved bovine byproduct for granted. Cram a shard or two into your mouth hole as you cheer on Jack Deth (oh yes, that’s the hero’s name).

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.