Turbo Kid (2015) is a love letter to bygone pop culture of the 1980s, and as such it would have been lost in my junk mail had SciFriday writer Sarah not recommended it. I enjoy the synth-pop aesthetic and neon-laden color palettes, but I never invested much of my life in Turbo Kid‘s antecedents. Further, when I think of other recent 80s throwbacks like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, I shrug. The winking and nudging of these media feel like desperate attempts to capture my affection by association rather than quality. Yet, despite the cultural gap between me and writer/directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell, & Yoann-Karl Whissell (henceforth referred to as SWW), I am charmed and amazed by the film they put together.
Admittedly, I favored the movie early into its run-time because it stars Degrassi alum Munro Chambers as the titular Kid. As the story progressed, though, I found only more to enjoy and appreciate. Tropes abound in the Kid’s attempts to survive a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland, but SWW find small subversions. They’re not going for a postmodern reinvention, but rather a loving reexamination. When the opening line tells us that our setting is “the future” of 1997, the writers are telegraphing to us that they know they’re looking back even as their film look “forward.” Whereas a postmodern reinvention would require a detonation of tropes and media past, the reimaginative impulse allows SWW to perfect the positive aspects of its referents while subverting where appropriate.
And when I say that SWW perfect the positive aspects, I do mean perfect. Even if Turbo Kid asked no deeper questions and failed to probe the media it emulated, I would still have to applaud it because the foundations of character-writing, storytelling, and structure are masterfully applied. Turbo Kid feels less like a directorial feature debut and more like a late-period flick by a masterful pop-genre director. The confidence of the script and cinematography lead to complete satisfaction for the viewer, never wasting a minute and rarely condescending to just throw references at the screen in an attempt to crowd-please. The relationships between the large cast are well-established. They’re reflected in the minutest dialogue and—most importantly, but most-overlooked for many action directors—the grandest of action sequences.
If that solid execution were all, I would applaud Turbo Kid, but still be disappointed. I love a good genre film, but I think the best ones add something to the conversation. While Turbo Kid never asks big questions about the genre, or the underlying assumptions and problems of its beloved predecessors, it does tweak tropes and archetypes to ask the right small questions. For example, the cowboy-hero archetype Frederic (Aaron Jeffery) is introduced to us as an arm-wrestling champion. When the Kid runs into him, Frederic establishes the power dynamic by grabbing the Kid’s throat and asking what the hell he thinks he’s doing. The follow-up is unexpected: “You can’t just walk into a man’s bubble.” The focus isn’t some machismo power display, it’s a reinforcement of personal space and boundaries. Later, when he asks if the Kid is scared, he assures the youngin’ that it’s okay because “fear is good.” These qualities together reflect a different kind of hero, a male role model that teaches a naive teenager how to respect people (including himself) and embrace his emotions. Further, Frederic has a climactic battle where he subverts the power dynamic that he previously reveled in. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s a clever statement that sometimes the best way to win a power struggle is to escape its confines.
I’m more conflicted about Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), a version of the much-maligned Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Overall, Apple earns this title because she serves as the bubbly counterpoint to the Kid, the forlorn male protagonist. There are minor subversions early on, such as Apple fulfilling some of the stalker tropes usually performed by men (see: the infamous stalking by Edward Cullen in the first Twilight). While there is an interesting question asked about the human construction and subsequent destruction of character types (SPOILERS metaphorically discussed in terms of robots and the primary antagonist END SPOILERS), it’s general and not specific to Apple. Her character is used to ask questions about archetypes, but it never questions the specific one that she embodies. Thus, it faces many of the same issues as other iterations of the MPDG. She’s there to be quirky and lift the Kid’s spirits, and doesn’t have enough character exploration of her own.
The biggest disappointment with Turbo Kid is how much potential it has in terms of asking some larger questions, and how that potential is never utilized. For instance, I’d hoped that the use of iconography (the Big Bad [Michael Ironside] wears a Greek mask; his sidekick wears a skull mask that—to me—resembles a Day of the Dead skull rather than a standard skull mask) would combine with the mythologies of superhero comics and 80s sci-fi/action flicks to say something about the concepts of myth in popular culture. The deification of the Kid’s beloved comic hero, Turbo Rider, leads to some interesting scenes that ask questions about power, but fails to make a cohesive, interesting statement about what all of the iconography might mean to its nostalgic audience.
Note that these criticisms aren’t meant to portray Turbo Kid as “bad.” Rather,the biggest complaint I can muster is that there are missed potential and some over-used tropes. As far as nostalgia-heavy throwbacks go, such minor criticisms are more of an appraisal than anything else. I started this movie with my eyes further along a rolling arc than I care to admit, but I became entranced and now sit here satisfied. Most importantly, I’m excited to see what this trio cooks up next. With their excellent eyes for writing and directing, they will add some color to whatever genre or style they examine in the future.
Actually, now that I mention it…hey François, Anouk, and Yoann-Karl, do any of you like Lovecraft?