Try to imagine a world without advertising. You think it would be a much better place? Well, try to think it through. Don't just think about the untold billions of dollars that are spent on advertising, but think about where that money goes. A world without advertising would basically mean a world without movie theaters, radio stations, television programs, or news media. That isn't even getting started on the internet, which would be a mere shell of what it is now. Can you imagine surfing the web without Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, or any of the other online mainstays that built their empires on marketing? Like it or not, advertisements have become an integral part of today's economy. They're not going away. That said, as with all things, advertising leads to an equal and opposite reaction. Consumers eventually learn to ignore advertisements, either because the ads themselves have grown stale or because consumers feel resentful at being manipulated. Furthermore, brands become increasingly desperate to outperform each other, and businesses grow increasingly willing to get a share of some advertising dollars. This leads to an escalation effect, in which corporations race to find newer, louder, more intrusive, more subtle, and more persuasive means of getting their message out.
The point being that the current omnipresence of advertising is one of the strongest arguments for the belief that we live in a corporate-run world. Not that paranoia over advertising is anything new, of course: John Carpenter made the anti-consumerist They Live! back in 1988 (Full disclosure: I still haven't seen that film yet). Still, given that marketing has escalated to such a huge degree in the internet age, the time has undoubtedly come for another cinematic statement on the matter. Enter Branded.
This is the story of Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard), the son of a British Communist who defected to Soviet Russia back in the '70s or so. We learn a great deal about Misha's upbringing in the first act of this film: He's equally fluent in English and Russian, he saw the collapse of the USSR at a very young age, he was struck by lightning as a child, and so on. To make a very long story short, Misha found that he had a natural gift for marketing and went on to be a star exec at the international ad firm of Best Solutions (note the initials).
Best Solutions is run by Misha's mentor, an American citizen named Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor). There's also Bob's niece (Abby Gibbons, played by Leelee Sobieski), who wants to make a reality show in which an overweight woman goes through cosmetic surgery to become thin. Freshly in love with Abby (despite Bob's vocal objections), Misha agrees to help Abby make the show a reality.
Meanwhile, on some remote tropical island, the heads of the world's largest fast food chains are meeting with a reclusive and world-famous marketing guru (this unnamed character is played by Max von Sydow). The fast food chains are in trouble, you see, because their unhealthy offerings have fallen out of favor. The Guru's proposed solution is as simple as it is crazy: Manipulate people into changing their standards of beauty. The Guru thus begins a massive underground conspiracy, manipulating world events and news coverage to "make fat the new fabulous."
As it turns out, the linchpin of his plan is Abby's would-be reality TV star. The poor young woman goes into a coma during cosmetic surgery, effectively turning her into a martyr while Misha and Abby become pariahs. Abby flees the country, and Misha goes into hiding.
Six years later, Misha gets a dream from the same unknown Higher Power that hit him with lightning all those years ago. By and by, Misha discovers that he can now see things that other people can't. More specifically, he has the ability to see product brands and our desires for them, as personified by strange and peculiar creatures. This prompts Misha to defeat these monsters, fighting fire with fire to eliminate brands and advertising altogether.
How many times have we heard that story, right?
This film is the product of two writer/directors. One of them is Aleksandr Dulerayn, who's only collected a handful of credits in his native Russia. The other one is Jamie Bradshaw, here making his debut. Given the relative inexperience of those behind the camera, it makes total sense that this film was so extremely ambitious and creative, yet constructed in such a slipshod manner.
To be clear, this movie does have its merits. Ed Stoppard is probably chief among them, considering that he gives a very powerful lead performance. I don't know who this guy is, but he absolutely needs to get more work. Leelee Sobieski also delivers a surprisingly likeable character, and it certainly helps that she acts very nicely off of Stoppard. Tambor and von Sydow are both underused, I'm sorry to say, but they turn in good enough work for what they're given.
More importantly, there's a lot of rich thematic material in this film, and it's tapped in some very clever ways. I was particularly impressed with the film's recurring bull motif, utilizing the horned bovine as a religious symbol (the golden calf), a symbol of economic prosperity (a bull market), and as a synonym for lies (bullshit). Elsewhere, the film presents an argument that Lenin pioneered the concept of marketing as we know it, breaking down early Communist propaganda in a very intriguing way. The film also offers a lot of very interesting statements about happiness, insanity, the omnipresence of brand logos, and our overwhelming dependence on advertisements.
In fact, one of the most subtly chilling moments in the entire film comes when Abby puts on her seatbelt, saying that seatbelt use is widely advertised in America. In that moment, I was reminded of the American government's current hard marketing push against drunk driving and texting while driving. God help us, we're so dependent on commercials that we can't learn how to act responsibly without them. Of course, no mention is ever made about laws that dictate behavior (seatbelt laws, for example), but it's still an interesting statement all the same.
That said, the film's meditation on advertising still feels incomplete. For example, remember all of that stuff I said in the intro about how so many industries have come to depend on advertising? Admittedly, I went off on that huge tangent mostly because the film didn't. None of that stuff is ever mentioned in the film. The main character spends so much of the running time trying to build a world without brands, and yet the movie never stops to think about what such a world might look like. No mention is made of the economic fallout that would happen if advertisements were banned, nor is there any discussion about how such a ban would infringe on freedom of speech or even what constitutes advertisement.
Then there's the film's paranormal aspect, which is a true double-edged sword. The idea of brands personified as creatures is a very creative one, and watching them fight each other to the death made for some of the film's more entertaining sequences. It's a great idea, just a terribly mishandled one.
It's never made entirely clear what these monsters are, where they came from, or what they want. We have no way of knowing if these monsters are manipulating us, or if it's the other way around. Are the creatures a manifestation of human greed, or are they manipulating people into being greedy for their own benefit?
Misha's powers present a similar problem. We're explicitly told that his unusual vision was a gift from a Higher Power, but we're never told exactly what the Higher Power is or what it's trying to accomplish. The matter gets even more confused with the heavy implication that the Misha and the Guru are using similar powers. Did the Guru get his gift of marketing from the same source? If not, then where? If so, then why would the Higher Power create two advertising geniuses only to pit them against each other?
In both cases -- with the monsters and with the Higher Power -- it's never made clear who's in charge or what the agenda is. I don't know if the creatures are supposed to be a metaphor for greed or if they're supposed to be the cause of it, but I do know the film can't have it both ways. If, according to the film's premise, all of worldwide marketing is some kind of conspiracy by otherworldly forces, then any statements this film has about marketing in the real world would be effectively rendered moot.
Still, all of this is beside the movie's most crippling problem: The filmmakers had no idea what story they wanted to tell. It bears repeating that the brand creatures don't even show up until 60 minutes into this 106-minute movie. Until that point, the film spends its sweet time establishing the characters and getting Misha to the point where he's ready to come back and be the new messiah, ushering in a new era without marketing.
Don't get me wrong, it's important to establish the characters and set up motivation, but taking an hour to do all of that is too much for any movie. Even worse, that hour is loaded with excessive backstory and plotlines that ultimately don't affect anything. Worst of all, the film spends so much excessive time on Misha and Abby that the Guru's fast food conspiracy is pushed completely to the background, almost completely invisible and without explanation.
This horrible structure damages the movie even further when Misha gets his supernatural vision, since we only get 40 minutes of screen time to see his war on marketing. That's not nearly enough time to show such an epic conflict, much less to adequately explain what's going on.
Put simply, this film suffers in large part because it's two movies in one, and both suffer for want of more screentime. Either the second story should've been cut entirely to make more room for the first, or the first hour should have been cut in half so the second film could have more room. Either option would have been easily doable.
I really wish I could recommend Branded. This movie has some solid performances and a lot of very intriguing ideas, but it doesn't have a plot to hang them on. The story is terribly constructed from start to finish, and the supernatural element is mishandled so terribly that it obscures the film's thematic content.
In the end, I respect this film far more than I like it. This film is a total failure, but at least it failed while taking risks and trying something new. It's obvious that Dulerayn and Bradshaw have a great degree of creativity and ambition, and I wish them both well on their careers going forward.