There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.
Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.
I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.