When a film’s title appears on screen in the style of an old Commodore 64 loading screen, you know it’s aimed at a very specific audience. For those of us who make up that audience, this is just the first of many baffling delights in Miguel Llansó’s lo-fi phantasmagoria. If you can imagine the tech dystopia of The Matrix and the layered realities of Inception with all the budget squeezed out but all the wit and invention remaining like tasty sediment made of uncut, crazed inspiration, you may be getting somewhere close to Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway. It’s a messy punk riot of outdated tech, painstaking stop motion, 8-bit chiptune, and old stock footage. Or to put it more simply, it’s been billed as a ‘WTF thriller’, and that will do nicely.
As practically pointless as it is trying to summarise this insane enterprise, JSYTWTTH sees near-future Tallinn under the command of a computer program called Psychobook. This not-entirely benevolent system itself comes under attack from a virus known as the Soviet Union. CIA agents Palmer Eldritch (Augustín Mateo) and D.T Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) are sent into Psychobook to hunt the virus, personified by an avatar in a Stalin mask. Eldritch double-crosses Gagano, leaving him trapped in virtual reality. While he lies in a coma in Estonia, his pixelated self is transported to an alternate reality called Beta Ethiopia, where he must do battle with Batfro (Solomon Tashe), a villain in a knock-off Adam West-era Batman costume, and his ninja bodyguards if he is to make it back to the real world and his Amazonian wife (Gerda-Annette Allikas).
If that sounds demented on the page, that’s nothing compared to the film itself. You don’t watch JSYTWTTH, you experience it. It’s as if Llansó couldn’t decide on which of his apparently limitless obsessions to focus, so has included them all. 70s kung-fu films with awful dubbing, afro-futurist sci-fi, Cold War spy dramas, exploitation cinema; all are thrown into the mix with a magpie abandon and endless affection. It’s curious trash alchemy that shouldn’t work and, for many, it undoubtedly won’t. It could even be considered an attempt to create something self-consciously ‘cult’ when such accolades tend to be awarded organically and retrospectively. However, there is one aspect of the film that makes any accusation of studied ironic hipsterism invalid; its sincerity.
For all its ephemeral pop-cultural sprawl, there is a genuine soul as big as a planet on display. If nothing else, that it exists at all is a heart-warming testament to the power of cooperation; a commodity that seems to be in decline. It’s a production that spans continents and was pieced together through crowd-funding. It also has a surprising coherence and an internal logic to which it adheres, which makes it a surprisingly satisfying watch beyond its immediate charms. At times, it’s so demented that even at a mere 83 minutes it comes a little close to wearisome, but it’s undoubtedly worth the ride. Don’t be surprised to see Jesus gain disciples everywhere it’s screened.
As part of Glasgow Film Festival 2020