Movie of the Month: I Declare War (2012)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Hanna, Brandon, and Britnee watch I Declare War (2012).

Boomer: Some things are quite different now than they were just over a year ago when I first saw I Declare War, and many things are still the same. Our president is no longer a racist orange man; he’s a racist white man. Our government is in continuous perpetual danger, and the country is being ravaged by COVID-19, either again or still, depending on your point of view. And, despite promises that delivered an election to the Democrats (in spite of endless attempts to stop people from voting, attempts to stop votes from being counted, and stop the results from being ratified), we’ve all still got the same student loans that we did the first time I popped this DVD into a player. We’re living in a dying empire on a dying planet, so why not live a little? Sometimes we just have to get away using the “utility of one’s imagination,” as the creators of this film call it. 

I wrote up a more detailed plot synopsis when I watched Declare the first time, but in brief, this is a film about a dozen or so (mostly) boys playing a war game. Sticks and logs are guns and bazookas, if you’re hit you’re down for a short count that ends with either a “grenade” “kill” or with the countdown concluding and the “injured” “soldier” getting the opportunity to escape. The game ends when one team captures the other’s base. The film deliberately plays with the intermix of children and the violence of death-dealing machinery; in fact, in the commentary, writer Jason Lapeyre was specifically interested in “the violence of what they’re doing versus how innocent they look in their childhood clothes,” counterposing presumed integrity of a guileless, wholesome childhood with the bloodiness of how kids actually imagine their world and the casual cruelty that comes from the as-yet-undomesticated id and developing frontal cortex. 

Lapeyre used to play this game, essentially, during his own youth; we’re even given a specific reference to 1986, which I think tells us more about the film and its creators that it first appears to. LaPeyre cited in one of the two commentaries that he’s frequently asked where the idea for the film came from, and he confirmed that these rules are derived from his own neighborhood play. “I did this a lot as a kid,” he says, before elaborating that he grew up as an army kid who had a decommissioned bazooka in the basement. He also says that he was sick and tired of inaccurately portrayed children, and that he wanted to make a film in which kids would be seen as they really are. But I don’t know if that’s quite correct. 

Lapeyre is writing from the point of view of someone who never experienced school shootings on a massive scale the way that the kids in this movie would have (presuming they live in the U.S.; there’s a scene with an American $50 bill that actors laugh about in their commentary, since this was filmed in Toronto). I was 11 years old when Columbine happened, and that was just a few years before the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, which, hey, that ended since I first wrote about this movie 14 months ago! It only lasted 20 years of mine and everybody’s life, with production of this movie in 2011 taking place right smack in the middle of it, and the film releasing in 2012, the same year that America really and truly (if unofficially) gave up on even symbolically attempting to end that kind of mass murder. Would kids in 2012 actually see themselves in the characters of I Declare War in a way that transcended the age gap between themselves and the writer? 

For what it’s worth, kids responded well to an early cut that was shown at a local school, according to both commentaries, and the kids who participated in the actors’ commentary (which is 8 of them) share feedback that they got from classmates after the film came out. Among the students who were surveyed, they were told that male students were unhappy with the “unrealistic” nature of the dynamic between boys and girl in the movie, while the female students disagreed and advised it was “very true to life.” So we have some secondhand information about how kids in 2012 reacted. But still I wonder, what about kids in 2022? Do we even think that the response to the film from the kids in 2012 is representative? Brandon, what do you think? 

Brandon: I suspect this film’s best chance at finding a long-term audience is if it gets passed down through generations of schoolyard recommendations amongst kids.  I’ll be up-front in saying that, as an adult, it did not work for me at all, but that’s mostly because I found the humor disgustingly juvenile.  In Movie of the Month terms, I did not hate it quite as passionately as I hated Live Freaky, Die Freaky!, but its weakness for #edgelord one-liners did remind me a lot of what made that film such a miserable watch.  You’d think that I Declare War’s main focus would be the stark contrast of watching young cherubic faces launching bullets & grenades at each other.  Instead, it seems fixated on the contrast of feeding those younglings offensive quips about blowjobs, “retards,” rape, race, and God’s sexual orientation.  I believe that juxtaposition between sub-Disney Channel actors and offensive-for-its-own-sake humor was intended to be genuinely funny, and so I believe its best chance of actually landing a few chuckles would be among 12-year-olds who still think cussing is excitingly naughty.  Somebody‘s out there keeping South Park on the air in its 120th season, anyway, and I hope it’s not actual adults.

To be fair, most children do have a grotesque, offensive sense of humor, especially in this middle school age range when they’re testing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable.  That’s at least realistic to children “as they really are”.  I just don’t think the movie has much to say about that pimply Reddit edgelord sensibility, or it at least doesn’t say enough to justify the cruelty of its one-liners.  Part of the problem might be that its central conceit of depicting a few unremarkable middle schoolers’ game of Capture the Flag as a brutal war epic is a pretty thin premise, one the movie is unsure how to escalate after the initial novelty settles.  The imagery of children operating deadly weaponry is upsetting (although, I suspect the same kids who would find its edgy humor funny would superficially find that imagery “badass”), but it doesn’t really evolve in any significant way between the first & last time it’s depicted.  All of the dead-air between the budget-torching effects shots of the actual warfare has to be filled with something, and I just don’t think the dialogue they filled it with added all that much to the larger metaphor.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh on this movie because of my larger biases against the war film as a genre, including the movie Patton that the kids idolize as the pinnacle of the artform.  I Declare War at least feels like a genuine war film in that I alternated between being bored & annoyed by it for most of its runtime, and I likely would not have finished watching it if it weren’t for the obligations of this discussion.  Hanna, I’m not sure what your relationship with war films are at large, but how well do you think this film succeeds as an example of the genre?  Since its main novelty is in playing childhood war games “straight”, how did it do?

Hanna: There are some exceptions, but I’ve subconsciously avoided the majority of movies in the canon of great war films. I hung out with a lot of guys in high school who were orgasmically obsessed with WWII and its various implements; they were (almost) exclusively the only people I knew who watched war movies, and they were also the types of guys who laughed at the “Get some!” scene from Full Metal Jacket on repeat. Their attitude instilled in me a kind of mental revulsion that surfaces every I consider watching, for instance, Saving Private Ryan (which I understand is a great film that I should have seen by now). Most of the war movies I like make me feel desperately horrified by the existence of war (Come and See) or the absurdity of geopolitical power struggles (DrStrangelove). I Declare War didn’t really do either of these things for me, but I thought it was fine. Unfortunately, I don’t think it could really speak to the modern attitude towards violence or the current state of warfare. Also, like Brandon, I was totally turned off by the shithead kid dialogue.

I did think there was something kind of interesting about the risk of harm increasing as the sophistication of the weapons de-escalated. I actually wasn’t affected much by the images of kids walking around with cannons and guns (maybe this reflects poorly on me and my generation); the carbine rounds and the bloody grenade splatters play more like video game effects, and they don’t mean much to the kids beyond the passing annoyance of being stunned or forced to trudge home. In comparison, the rocks that Skinner throws at P.K.’s spy and the stones he slowly piles on Paul’s stomach are weird, intimate weapons of torture that buck up against the pre-established order of the War rules; the other kids never retaliate in kind with the sticks they’ve bundled up into guns. I can appreciate a reckoning between splashy, cinematic war gore and the ugly impulse to injure another human out of anger or a bid for power. The issue is that young people have greater access to the types of weapons in I Declare War than they’ve ever had in concurrence with rising social isolation and violent ideologies. It’s become a non-event for modern Skippers to take out their misdirected aggression with guns instead of rocks. At the same time, modern warfare is becoming increasingly automated, which is terrifying in a completely different direction.

Like I said, I do think this film had potential, but it didn’t push in the directions I was hoping it would go, and it was really hard for me to get past the dialogue and acting. I also thought some of the character choices were really strange, especially Caleb, a “Native Guide” caricature with a beautiful husky and virtually no lines. Britnee, did these kids’ performances work better for you than they did for me? If not, did you find anything more substantial beyond these characters?

Britnee: These kids are so annoying. Some of them, specifically Quinn and Jessica, we’re way too old to be “playing pretend” at this level. It gave me so much second-hand embarrassment, especially when Jessica would talk about France. The dialogue between the cast was pretty dull, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because they suck at acting or if they suck at playing war. The only character that I thought was likeable was Kwon, but it was super hard to watch the only Asian friend get treated so terribly, both in the game and by the other kids in general. He was actually pretty funny and made me chuckle a few times with the way he delivered his over-dramatic lines. 

My lack of enthusiasm for war movies and war games (real-life, board games, video games) is most likely why I didn’t dig I Declare War all that much. I kind of wished that the boundaries of the film were pushed further. For instance, what if some of the kids would have gotten seriously injured (burned up, broken leg, etc.), but they had to finish the game before getting help? It was a little too PG and reminded me of one of those videos about the value of friendship that I used to watch in religion class (those horrible after-school classes you take when you’re raised Catholic but go to public school). I can just hear the teacher saying, “You see, P.K. wasn’t really a good friend to Kwon, now was he?”

Lagniappe

Boomer: A few notes from the commentaries that I thought were interesting: the director mentioned that the light level in the forest caused all of the kids’ eyes to dilate, making them wider and more innocent, which was purely unintentional but made for an interesting effect. If you want to recreate the blood balloons from the film, the balloon has to be filled with paint and then shellacked for that perfect burst. In the adult commentary, the directors and producers note that Eric Hanson, who played Kenny (the kid at the beginning with the paint-blackened eyes), “had a really sincere insanity about him” and that he was “clearly unhinged.” In the commentary that the child actors did, Hanson noted “Shooting that gun was the most manliest moment of my life.”

Brandon: It’s funny how ungenerous I can become as an audience once I sour on a film.  Usually, I’m charmed by the limitations of low-budget backyard movies with high-concept premises, but in this case, they only added to my annoyance.  Whenever I caught a glimpse of an adult crewmember in the blurry background or the visible lines of a child-actor’s microphone battery pack, I found myself getting angry at the filmmakers for being “lazy” instead of cutting them a break.  I can almost guarantee that those same minor mistakes in a goofy rubber-suit monster movie set in those same woods with this same budget would have made me smile instead of grimace.

Britnee: The x-ray effect that showed the lighter in Kwon’s pocket was so much more advanced than the laser eye special effects for Joker. That made me laugh a lot.

Hanna: I know this would totally defeat the purpose of the movie, but I feel like I would have actually loved it if the violence was more in line with Joker’s laser eye explosions (and if all the dialogue was rewritten). If the children were, for instance, acting out a fantasy war by hurling magical fireballs at each other rather than grenades, I would be delighted. This would be more akin to the war games I played as a child. It’s still violence, though! It’s just much more depressing to watch children acting out their violent impulses by pretending to use tools that actually exist for the purpose of killing.

Next Month: Britnee presents Tatie Danielle (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew