The Blueprint – Absolution: The Journey (1997)

Matty contemplates this robust sci-fi flick’s place within David DeCoteau’s canon.

If the powerful double-whammy of Skeletons (1997) and Leather Jacket Love Story (1997) were his loud n’ proud coming out flicks in terms of theme, ABSOLUTION: THE JOURNEY — or ‘The Journey: Absolution’ as it’s presented on screen — is David DeCoteau’s structural and tonal blueprint. Ostensibly a mercenary job for fellow B-movie maestro John Eyres’ EGM Films, DeCoteau signed up to Absolution as Leather Jacket Love Story was making the rounds on the festival circuit. However, while happy to embrace his pulpy, genre roots again after getting a B&W art flick out of his system, DeCoteau was less than enthused with Absolution’s screenplay. As he told Paul Freitag in 1999

I was approached to direct a film called The Journey: Absolution, which was about space pirates, and they had a start date and everything, and they had a script, and I read the script, and I really hated it. Hated it. It was an awful script. So I went to the producer, and I told him, “This script really sucks, there’s absolutely nothing about this film that’s going to be interesting to anyone, so is there any way we can just do another story?” He said, “Well, I pre-sold the title so I have to deliver a film called The Journey: Absolution. Maybe if you feel so negatively about the material, you should just develop another script, but we have to get it done very quickly, because we start shooting in about four weeks”.”

From the shelf, DeCoteau plucked Zero Academy: a military school thriller that he’d been developing, which the helmer promptly redressed with sci-fi trappings and tacked a regret-laden coda onto in order to fit the Absolution concept that was sold to the film’s backers. And just like that, Absolution transformed from a gun-for-hire gig into a prototypical masterwork. Those au fait with the cult auteur’s better known queer-themed programmers like Voodoo Academy (1999) and The Brotherhood (2001) will see it straight away: the isolated location plagued by strange goings on; a simplistic, play-along mystery involving ritual and assorted malevolence; a studly lone hero against a gaggle of dangerous but desirable bad boys… Absolution is a collage of all the images and ideas that DeCoteau had noodled with up until that point, condensed into a template that, ultimately, would become his now patented Rapid Heart formula. 

Mining the inherent homoeroticism of its military school setting, DeCoteau ratchets up the simmering gay tensions between Absolution’s characters through provocative visuals and double entendres. Full of robustly composed shots that celebrate the male form, Absolution’s aesthetic centrepiece is an extended training montage that channels the muscle worshiping fetishism of Nazi propaganda films — a fitting allusion considering the notions of fascism and state control that are suggested via Absolution’s dialogue. Though we never actually move beyond the confines of the futuristic school (a budgetary decision without doubt, but a limitation DeCoteau uses to add an authentic sense of claustrophobia to proceedings), talk reveals that life outside is governed by a tyrannical federation that’s left earth in as much disarray as the meteorite that’s reduced the planet to a state of permanent winter. It’s a darker riff on DeCoteau’s own Test Tube Teens From the Year 2000 (1994).

Further chatter sees DeCoteau poking fun at assorted macho tropes, twisting his squaddies from posturing tough guys into preening bitches who seemingly can’t decide whether they want to fight or fuck one another. Upsetting the apple cart and triggering a wave of playground jealousy is Ryan Murphy (Saved by the Bell’s Mario Lopez): a talented new arrival who’s been sent undercover to the prestigious Fullerton Academy, located in the outer reaches of the North Pole, to investigate the disappearance of an old friend. Handed his uniform, the Queens-born New Yorker is made aware of the high expectations that the school’s elite but sinister Z-Team platoon have of him, their gruff sergeant, Bradley (Richard Grieco), in particular.

“Sgt. Bradley hates Yankees and he hates Queens,” the cocksure Murphy is told by a poker-faced superior, amidst a flurry of other innuendos about Bradley’s legendary “hard ass”. As with the rest of the movie, it’s blokey and testosterone fuelled but unashamedly camp at the same time — a spirited juxtaposition that frequent DeCoteau collaborator Howard Wexler echoes in his stylish cinematography, which flits between blue-hued atmospherics that emphasise Absolution’s chilly Arctic backdrop, and sauna-esque humidity in the copious scenes of soldiers sashaying about in tight white boxer shorts (a DeCoteauian standard, of course).

Despite a relative lack of biff-‘em-up action until the last couple of reels, and a slight dip in pace caused by the inclusion of Holli L. Hummel and Jamie Pressly (who exist almost solely to get their baps out and stop more violently hetero male viewers from questioning their sexuality too much), Absolution is consistently entertaining. Ron Mason’s frugal but effective production design has a nice chunkiness to it, and DeCoteau does his Prey of the Jaguar (1996) trick of eliciting a big feel from minimal resources (but it should be noted that, at $1.7million, Absolution is the second biggest budgeted film in DeCoteau’s oeuvre after Skeletons). 

Cast-wise, Lopez is engaging if a mite two dimensional, and Even Stevens star Nick Spano convinces as an aspirational grunt with conflicting loyalties. Absolution, though, is Grieco’s show. A glorious ham unafraid to chew the scenery at the best of times, in Absolution, DeCoteau lets the teen heartthrob-cum-B-movie mainstay off the chain completely. Chomping a cigar, dripping with sweat, and screaming abuse at his young troops — Grieco’s realisation of the nasty Sgt. Bradley is mesmeric. It’s outrageous villainy par excellence, performed with real authority and given a surprising amount of subtext: Grieco’s use of homophobic rhetoric and his character’s desire to keep his charges in as little clothing as possible suggest that Bradley is as much a self-loathing closet case as he is an evil, interdimensional alien masquerading as a human.

Absolution (1997) Poster


 

Portions of this essay appear in Matty Budrewicz & Dave Wain’s forthcoming book, “Schlock & Awe: 2,001 Forgotten Films of the ’90s Rental Realm”.

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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