Water is life.
Sometimes the only way to get a story off the ground is shooting it whether the finances are there or not. And if that project is a science-fiction film—a genre with historical precedent in low budget effects and shoddy production value—you can even spin your lack of money as an intentional aesthetic choice. This is the position in which Christian Nicolson found himself, one he willingly embraced rather than rejected with a fight that could have prevented his vision from ever coming to fruition. He and Andrew Beszant decided to write their adventure inside a world that mimicked those old school classics “Mystery Science Theater 3000” has been mocking for decades. They allow their characters full cognizance of the gimmick currently manufactured to control their lives.
The main trio of This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder is Actually Really Heavy consists of lecherous “nice guy” Tom (Nicolson), his forever putout buzzkill of a best friend Gavin (Lewis Roscoe), and the shameless über dork they let hang around (Daniel Pujol‘s Jeffrey). We meet them in the New Zealand sun during an absentminded game of lawn jarts in order to clearly acknowledge these reductive character traits before Tom gazes at his phone to read a notification about an ex-girlfriend’s birthday. Desperate to take his mind off that heartache, he sets up a conversation wherein he and Gavin agree to attend the comic convention Jeffrey is insanely excited about. It’s there that stereotypes run wild and a need to escape finds comfort in the darkened room of a cinema.
Before they can settle in for the film, however, the three find themselves waking up on the bridge of the Blue Moon in black and white. Somehow they’ve become transported into the movie with all its piecemeal construction from worthless junk re-purposed as technological advancement. But just like in Galaxy Quest, this isn’t a set. No matter how stupid everything looks (the laser guns have light bulbs and hand mixer blades as barrels), it’s real. They are floating through space with no clue about anything that’s going on and eventually come across a battle between Lord Froth (Joseph Wycoff) and unsuspecting prey. Suddenly they’re placed in the crosshairs of an epic firefight as this villain puts his sights on destroying them to satisfy his insatiable villainy.
Now they must find a way back to Earth and a means to defeat this newfound enemy. Luckily they aren’t alone in the latter’s pursuit for long as political diplomat Emmanor (Sez Nieferer) and an Admiral Akbar-looking professor named Gottlieb (also Wycoff) join their party to seek an end to Froth’s reign. The search takes them to new planets with eccentric inhabitants and constant self-reflexive jokes mocking the fakeness of everything without completely breaking the fourth wall (save a quick reaction shot by Gavin at the beginning). And in the meantime they also discover a weird phenomenon taking hold of Jeffrey. This fantasy begins to consume him until he becomes a space captain with no recollection of his human life. Could the same happen to Tom and Gavin?
There’s a lot to like as Nicolson creatively integrates his budget into the conceit. The observational gags born from this decision are plentiful but never grow tired thanks to our realizing this world is converting its prisoners into its “game.” Tom and Gavin therefore serve as our stand-ins: skeptical and sarcastic while everyone else turns severe in their fear of annihilation. The pair experiences the insanity as potential victims and snarky commentators with each vantage generally drawn to make matters worse before they can ever hope to get better. This leads to over-the-top fights, overt sexploitation, and the surprisingly effective ability to render “real” as fake simultaneously. Rather than request suspension of disbelief towards monsters wearing costumes, Nicolson dares to expose the artifice to those donning the masks.
Just as this desire to homage and parody at the same time provides the film’s best moments, however, it also generates many of the worst. This happens in performances with Tansy Hayden making her Fralligay into a one-note caricature of Missi Pyle‘s Laliari from Galaxy Quest and Jarred Tito dialing his Bruce up to eleven on the flamboyantly gay scale for no logical reason besides cheap exploitative laughs. But it happens with Nicolson’s desire for a romantic subplot between Tom and Emmanor too. While their pairing is obvious in context with the tropes being utilized, it unfolds with a tone-deaf chauvinism in a way that Emmanor calling out the sexism of busty “pleasure” Amazons renders her less likeable due the object of her love: Tom’s irredeemable opportunist.
Having Tom be the “hero” is problematic for a project seeking to normalize fan culture and geekdom—the film hinges salvation upon his not being a dork—but feeding his douchebag masculine “impulses” as endearing character flaws rather than extreme behavioral traits needing to be fixed is inexcusable. The script takes pains to set Emmanor up as a strong woman calling out patriarchal cliché and yet she’s continuously a victim to Tom’s “charms” almost immediately after rebuking him. This would be okay if he matured, but he doesn’t. On the contrary, Nicolson makes him incrementally worse as the film progresses. Tom is a toxic male stereotype positioned to save the world and get the girl. He’s exactly what this film should be admonishing, not what it should champion.
So it’s hard to praise the whole when Tom isn’t a science-fiction lover or good human being. He pities those who are, forces everybody to follow his lead, and relishes the un-PC nature of this anachronistic world. The film should be a love letter to a bygone art, but it undermines those who love it to bolster the guy who doesn’t instead. Tom is forever motivated by sex, uses the real “nerds” around him as disposable help, and has a single moment of restraint when it comes to his pants that ostensibly erases the countless other times he proved what a jerk he truly is. But he’s the hero. He’s the “catch.” Rather than empower geeks, Nicolson trivializes them in lieu of normalizing a “real” man by comparison.