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Hipster Holy Grail: Total Reality (1997)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Fast-paced and surprisingly watchable, Total Reality has a fair share of clever ideas that almost make you forget its many ridiculous and laughable moments.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Novice Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Before I get into the plot recap, I'd like to take a moment to advise that you stop reading and go watch the movie.  If you have any trust in my taste or recommendations whatsoever, or if you just enjoy the "what?!" factor of watching a filmmaker's bold, unusual choices reveal themselves, then you'll be better off experiencing Total Reality firsthand.

The film opens with a motivational speaker, John Bridges (Michael Mendelson), giving a lecture to a crowded hall of attendees.  He's promoting / summarizing his new book, "The Universal Being," and the crowd seems to be gobbling it up.  Shortly after he wraps up, his ex-wife, Cathy Easton (Ely Pouget), barges up to his podium to harass him about "the accounts."

It seems John has screwed Cathy out of some cash during their recent, messy divorce, and she's out to collect.  John takes her aside to a quiet part of the building to have the conversation far away from prying ears, and after a brief argument, Cathy storms away in a huff.

Then this happens:

It's a thing of beauty.  Why don't all movies transition from scene to scene like this?

A narrator comes out of nowhere to read some on-screen text explaining that all of humanity is controlled by a military/political group called the "Bridgists."  We'll later learn that they're a pretty wretched group that's responsible for countless atrocities - nuclear war and genocide among them - but the only beef the narrator deems fit to tell us about right now is that they implant chips in everybody's necks to track their movements.

A unified military opposition force, which may have an actual name, but since I don't know it for sure I'm going to call them the "Federation," has been at war with the Bridgists for ages.  We then leave the narration to pick up with a space battle in progress.  A group of Federation soldiers, led by Anthony Rand (David Bradley) crashes their space ship into a Bridgist ship in order to capture a high profile leader named Tunis (Thomas Kretschmann).

Rand finds that there's a ton of civilians on board the ship and wants to evacuate them, but he's under strict orders to capture or kill Tunis at all costs.  Some gunfights ensue and Tunis flees to an escape pod with one of his top men.  Since Tunis got away, Rand is ordered to return to the Federation ship so they can regroup and figure out their plans later.  As soon as he and his men are back on board, however, his commanding officer gives an order to have the Bridgist ship blown up, civilians and all.  Rand is none too pleased, so he shoots his CO to death.

Cut to military prison.  Rand has been swiftly incarcerated and sent to a penal colony on some backwater asteroid where he and a ton of other colorful ex-soldiers wait for their turn to die. There's only three of them we need to care about, though.  There's Uriah (Melik Malkasian), the anonymously ethnic dude who's going to die in about ten minutes, there's Frankel (Brian Faker), a spastic weirdo who vaguely resembles Rob Corddry and spends most of the movie cursing and screaming at everyone, and then there's Wingate (Misa Koprova), an attractive woman who, in contrast to everyone else, is a woman.

Special talents?  Let's see... Uriah is sort of a tech wiz, Rob Corddry is a tough-as-nails weapons expert, and Wingate is a woman.  She also has a daughter.  My point is, she's kind of a missed opportunity and doesn't do a whole lot.

Although I do want to take the opportunity to point out that when she's introduced in her "rough and dirty prisoner" state, she looks like this:

And then later, when she's all showered up and in her "sexy and ready for action" state, she looks like this:

Oh, I'm sorry, did you think her hair looked goofy because she was a prisoner?  Oh, no, no.  You see, actually, it just turns out that Bram Stoker's Dracula was the most popular movie of 2197.

So, anyway, I jumped a little bit ahead.  The point is, the four of them - Rand, Uriah, Rob Corddry, and Wingate - are summoned into an administrative office one day and presented with a choice.  The Federation has learned that Tunis has opened up a time tunnel and escaped to two hundred years in the past.  They need volunteers to go on a dangerous mission through time and bring Tunis back, either dead or alive.  So they give the prisoners a deal: if they accept the challenge and succeed, all four will receive pardons.

Rand briefly mocks them, but since there wouldn't be a movie if he kept being stubborn, the next scene shows them gearing up in a space/time ship.  There's a brief throwaway joke here that I liked where Rob Corddry shows off a data disc full of stock market information and snickers that he'll be rich.  When Uriah asks if he can see it, Rob Corddry just scoffs and goes, "No."

But his plans are not to be - there's a catch.  Y'see, the Federation has inserted explosives into the prisoners' neck implants, and they are timed to go off in about 48 hours.  If they don't return to the present with Tunis or proof of his death, then they'll all die.  They get shot back in time and the adventure begins.

Now we can revisit Cathy.  Remember her?  I don't know why they didn't just introduce her here, but then again, I'm not a filmmaker.

Cathy has a dull desk job at an energy company and is still trying to wrap up loose ends following her divorce from John.  She gets her assistant to help her sneak away from work so they can break into the house where John is staying - she reminds everyone that it's actually her house, but John screwed her out of it in the divorce - in order to get some important documents.

But there's a surprise waiting for her: Tunis is there, and he demands to know where he can find John.  Cathy panics, but then Rand and the time soldiers show up and get into a shootout with Tunis. Both Cathy's assistant and Uriah are gunned down, her house is blown up, and everyone else runs away.

Here's where I have to say a few nice words about Cathy.  For about the next half hour, she mostly just serves as a tour guide for the time soldiers and escorts them around the city as they hunt for Tunis.  Despite being mostly inactive / reactive, she's a pretty good character.  She's obviously not pleased with her (ex's) house blowing up or with watching people get shot to death, but she never cracks or gets hysterical.  She's always focused on whatever task is on hand and helps the action move forward.  She's a great "I'm having a really shitty day" character and has some decent chemistry with Rand.  Whatever else you might say about this movie, Ely Pouget knew what she had to do and did it well - she stands out from the rest of the cast and seems like she wandered in from a movie with a much higher budget.

This next half hour is also where you get all the great "I'm a time traveler and don't understand your world" jokes that Time Barbarians was missing.  They don't overdo it.  There's just enough to remind you that yes, these are strangers in a strange land, and yes, this is a challenge for them.

Eventually we find out why Tunis came back in time in the first place.  The year 1997 is when John Bridges, whose book will eventually become the core doctrine of the Bridgist movement, met Congressman Jerry (Geof Prysirr).  Jerry is a cold, calculating, ruthless politician who seeks to win a Senate seat in the next election.  In the alternate history of this universe, Jerry blackmails Bridges to coerce him into giving support for Jerry's campaign, and in turn, all of Bridges' followers become Jerry's minions.  That ends up becoming the basis of the Bridgist political party, which will eventually sweep the country and enact nuclear war after an economic downturn.  Long story short, the Earth explodes and the Bridgists become space jerks.

It's a little weird that Tunis would come to this year when it's such a lynchpin for his entire career; you'd think that if there was a crucial point that leads to everything you hold near and dear, you'd do your best to stay away from it and avoid any meddling.  But, fine, okay, let's say that Tunis wants to protect this point in history and make sure it goes off without a hitch - I'll buy into that no matter how dumb it sounds.  Unfortunately, that's not his plan.

No, Tunis is here to clone Jerry and make backup copies of him so that he can be extra, extra sure that the Bridgist movement gets off the ground.


Why?  Why would you ever bother to do that?!  It's not like the rebels have sent assassins back in time to take Jerry out.  Hell, Rand and his fellow prisoners barely even put the pieces together in the first place - they don't even remember that 1997 is the year Jerry met Bridges until somebody mentions his book.  Tunis is enacting a contingency to a plan that nobody's even thought about.  It's like wearing a life vest when you drive on a bridge, just in case you crash, but then the life vest gets in the way and makes you swerve into the water.  Yeah, I guess your plan makes sense now, but wouldn't it have been better to just pay attention to the goddamn road?

Anyway.  Rob Corddry is killed shortly after they find out about Tunis's plan, and they're running out of time to wrap up.  Rand tells Wingate to go back to their ship and prep it, then take off by hour 47 no matter what else happens - if she doesn't do that now, then they have no way of getting back home.  In the meantime, Rand is going to take Tunis on single-handedly.

Cathy figures out where Tunis is by using her energy company's software to track a heavy load on the system.  They pin him down to a warehouse where Jerry is strapped into a cloning pod.  Tunis and Rand have a final shootout in which Tunis is killed and Jerry's pod is blown up.  Wounded and weary, Rand and Cathy limp away to find a place to rest until morning.

When day breaks, Rand tries to head back to the ship.  Unfortunately, he doesn't get there in time - Wingate holds true to her orders and takes off with precious few minutes to spare before the explosive in her neck goes off.  Knowing he's doomed, Rand finds a nice, quiet spot to meditate, and Cathy has to watch on in appalled silence when he erupts in space-fire.

Later, she's arrested and interrogated by a couple of FBI agents who we've seen here and there throughout the movie.  They know there's some weird shit going on, so they don't doubt her story.  But they also can't just let her go - it's implied that they might be aware of time travel shenanigans from some unrelated cases.  They come up with a cover story that exonerates her and explains away the evidence.  The last we see of Cathy, she is settling back into her mundane office job and pondering at the window.

Fast forward to the future.  Wingate's space/time ship reappears in the present, but the Federation has vanished.  She seems to be stranded in the middle of nowhere until a civilian ship passes by and brings her onboard.  The passengers are a friendly bunch of hippies who can't seem to understand anything Wingate is saying when she talks about "the war" or "Bridgists" or anything else.  They scan her implant and find out that there is no explosive material whatsoever - apparently, the entire timeline has been undone, but somehow that only affected Wingate's neck-bomb.  I guess going through the time bubble was what made all the difference for her.

Wingate is now stuck in a new reality where she alone remembers the atrocities of the past 200 years.  She ends the movie by looking out a space window and wondering if she still has a daughter in this reality.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

There is a lot more in the positive category this week.  I'll have to cut myself short so it doesn't sound like I'm raving too much - I liked this movie a lot, but I don't want to oversell it.  At the end of the day, it's still not a technically "good" movie.

But "good" isn't all it's cracked up to be.  This movie is better than that - it's just plain fun.

Let me start with one of my favorite topics / pet peeves: pacing.  It's a make-or-break quality for a film, and one that - like story structure - is way harder to get right than you'd expect.  It seems like it should be obvious, right?  Don't drag things out.  But low-budget movies so often do.

I think it's probably because releasing a movie as a "feature" and saving money on footage are contrary goals.  If you want to make something that's long, but still dirt cheap, then the easy fix is to add twenty minutes of your characters aimlessly wandering around a warehouse.

For me, the most shocking thing about Total Reality is that it has almost no down time and very little wasted content.  It moves.  And not only does it move, but the things that happen actually matter and have consequences. Rand is introduced, goes on his mission, gets incarcerated, is selected for his suicide mission, and goes back in time all within about 20 minutes and then the movie is off and running.  That's how you make a movie, guys.

It's also committed to the story it's telling.  The cast does their best to take everything seriously, except for the few times there are actual jokes.  There's no tongue-in-cheek mugging at the camera, not even when the special effects are at their most atrocious (and boy, are they ever).

This right here.  This is exactly why I always bitch so much about The Asylum.

The crew behind Total Reality had to have known that what they were making looked pretty crappy, but they gave it their all, anyway.  It's a win-win situation.  Best case scenario?  You occasionally end up with some genuinely good stuff.  Worst case scenario?  The movie's still terrible, but it's utterly charming and you want to keep watching it regardless.

The pendulum swings both ways in Total Reality.  I laughed my ass off at that first transition scene to the future, but I was also invested in Rand's fate and surprised when the movie went for the logical conclusion to his story.

My biggest complaint might actually be the title.  What the hell does "Total Reality" mean?  I get the implication that there is an alternate reality due to the tampering with the timeline, but there's only maybe five minutes of the movie where that really gets brought up.  "Total Reality" implies that there's going to be some trippy, mind-altering weirdness.  Hell, even something like "Unseen Reality" or "Dangerous Reality" would have been more accurate - and those are still shitty titles.  Or you could call it "Time Platoon" or "Quantum Squad."

Quantum Squad, guys.  There.  That took me all of five minutes of brainstorming.

(PS - If anyone can explain what's going on at, please post in the comments.)

In short, this is a wonderfully enjoyable bad movie.  I'd almost go so far as to put it in the Not Actually a Bad Movie category, but NABMs have more technical competence, so that's not quite right.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

The pros: It's directed by Philip Roth, director of cult favorite A.P.E.X. and previous Grail entry Digital Man, and it stars David Bradley, the other American Ninja.  Between the two of them, there's at least 40 cred.

But here's where I'm going to give Total Reality a bit of a boost.  Y'see, any asshole can shit out a movie that appeals to sarcastic dickbags on the Internet.  You'll probably end up with garbage that nobody wants to watch, but you'll get your share of hipster cred.  It's the kind of masturbatory hipsterism that you can't share.

But if you hire cult icons and appeal to the same audience, only you make something that's actually enjoyable?  That's impressive.  Now you've given us something that we can hide in our back pocket and whip out when everybody's talking about their favorite bad movies.  It won't usurp the top spot on anyone's list, but it'll be a welcome addition to your drunk movie night rotation.

That's why I'm giving Total Reality 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  The only ways it could score higher is if it was more ridiculous and/or more obscure.

Where You Can Watch

I watched Total Reality on Youtube,