One of the most crucial stages in a person’s maturation is realizing that some of the stuff you dug as a kid was terrible. We’re seemingly biologically inclined to worship our childhood entertainment, the stuff we consumed uncritically in our youth when we didn’t have the intellectual faculties to properly judge it. And sure, in the grand scheme of things, being nostalgic for Pokémon, Hook or The Goonies isn’t the worst thing in the world. But the inability to reconcile with the mediocre, possibly god-awful crap from your formative years is a barrier to being able to appreciate anything in adulthood. When you have a friend who complains, “Man, music/TV/movies aren’t as good as they used to be,” you have my permission to never speak to that person again. None of us has time for people stuck in the past.
All of this is to say, my lord, Rim of the World is horrible — and it’s exactly the kind of horrible that feels like one shitty generation’s attempt to poison the next. Featuring teens and aimed at that age group, this sci-fi alien-invasion action movie is like the ghost of Stupid Hollywood Past come back to haunt us. There’s a type of innocuously inane, mindlessly pseudo-hip 1980s movie that I didn’t have much patience for back then and definitely don’t want in my orbit now. I’m not a parent, but I have nieces, nephews and godchildren, and I’m determined to keep Rim of the World away from them. We don’t need this plague spreading.
To understand this movie’s motives, I refer you to the press notes, where screenwriter Zack Stentz explains his inspiration: “I was thinking that kids today don’t have the unstructured time that kids from 30 years ago had. I love movies from that time — E.T., The Goonies, Stand by Me — where there were no cell phones and kids in those movies were left to their own devices.” Now, let’s establish right off the bat that E.T. is indeed a great movie. Then, let’s allow that Stand by Me is good. But if you come in here getting all moony about The Goonies, well, we’re going to have a problem. You don’t have to be the Problematic Police to find something like The Goonies objectionable: It’s just a clear-cut dumb movie. Something like Stranger Things can at least take the tenets of suburban 1980s movies and tweak them, knowingly riffing on the conventions to do something new. But Rim of the World is what happens when grownups decide to shove their horrible influences down their kids’ throats. Just because you had bad taste doesn’t mean your offspring need to.
Since Rim of the World rips off 1980s movies, that means we’re held hostage by the film’s noxious personality-plus characters. Borrowing the premise of SpaceCamp, the screenplay takes us to Rim of the World — which is an actual summer camp — where, apparently, teens with troubled backstories learn to bond with those diametrically opposed to themselves. There’s Alex (Jack Gore), a NASA nerd who lost his father in an unspecified tragedy. Zhenzhen (Miya Cech) is an orphan with a gruff exterior but a sweet center. The braggadocious Dariush (Benjamin Flores Jr.) comes from money and talks shit 24/7 — which, of course, is meant to hide deep insecurities. And then we have Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto), a handsome young man who, because he seems perfectly normal, is actually the darkest kid of the bunch. In real life, these four would probably have nothing to do with one another. But because this is a movie, they’re forced to team up for a common cause — and we’re stuck with them.
And what is that cause? Aliens! Yes, soon enough, terrifying interstellar beings attack Earth. And although the film feels like it might be a breezy kids’ adventure, it is not: Early on, an astronaut who crash-lands to warn humanity of the encroaching threat gets straight-up killed by one of the extra-terrestrials right on camera. It’s one of Rim of the World’s upsetting acknowledgements of its relatively sophisticated teen audience that this movie is filled with sorta-grisly death scenes and a ton of swearing. The characters say “shit” so much in this movie. Shit shit shit! Oh, look how edgy they are! Your parents didn’t get to hear this much cursing in their childhood movies, kids!
Others have charitably compared Rim of the World to Attack the Block, the terrific 2011 teen sci-fi horror/comedy that introduced the world to rising star John Boyega before he became part of the Star Wars franchise. But that film (which was rated R) had ideas, painting a portrait of working-class London and suggesting that, for these rough-and-tumble street kids, a bunch of gnarly aliens wasn’t that much more difficult than their everyday lives.
By comparison, there’s no sense of wit to Rim of the World, which in the tradition of bad live-action kids’ movies is mostly loud and obnoxious. The worst of the film’s offenders is Dariush, who — I guess because the filmmakers assume all black teens are like this — throws out crazy pop-culture-centric riffs at all times. Even more annoying, many of these jokes happen off-screen, which would suggest that additional wisecracks were dubbed in later in a desperate attempt to ensure that the proceedings were extra-hilarious. Dariush is a stereotype of what a “cool” kid sounds like, and while he’s the most offensive character in Rim of the World, he’s not alone in resembling no teenager I’ve met in real life.
You could make the argument that Rim of the World strikes a blow for inclusiveness. As part of Hollywood’s recent laudable effort to add more diversity to its stories, we’ve encountered films like this or the recent Power Rangers remake, which feature an ensemble that’s an assortment of races, genders, even sexualities. On the whole, that’s a good thing, but if the main development is that we now learn that all different types of individuals can star in horrible action movies, I’m not about to hand the studios any humanitarian medals. Zhenzhen is Deadpan Asian, while Alex is Dorky White. This doesn’t feel like progress — it feels like pandering to social pressure while doling out the same garbage content.
All of this is a far cry from the authentic young people director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison crafted for E.T — which, by the way, is streaming on Netflix right now. Sure, Elliott was a bit of a dork, Gertie was an adorable moppet and Michael a twit, but that film cared enough to make them seem vulnerable and inquisitive — open in the way that kids are to the big world around them. Rim of the World is four synthetic human-like figures running around the ruins of L.A. trying to keep aliens from taking over. They’re a guess on an adult’s part about what kids are into these days.
I can understand, over the long Memorial Day weekend, why parents would let their child watch this crap. You’ve gotta do something to fill the time with your kids — and it’s not like the movie is glorifying something truly objectionable, like genocide or the continued popularity of the Minions. But as these teenage nitwits kept spouting one-liners while staying one step ahead of scary space creatures, I just got more and more depressed. Lots of young people will see Rim of the World and think it’s really fun because they don’t know better. And then they’ll grow up and get nostalgic that the movies they see in adulthood aren’t as good. Mary Viola, one of the film’s producers, said in those same press notes, “These are the types of movies we all grew up on that don’t really get made anymore.”
You should have watched better stuff back then, Mary — why do the rest of us have to suffer now?
Here are three other takeaways from Rim of the World…
#1. What has happened to McG?
I have yet to mention Rim of the World’s director. It’s McG, who made his feature debut with 2000’s Charlie’s Angels. To this day, whenever I hear McG’s name, I think of the opening lines of The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane’s review of that movie: “Who is responsible for Charlie’s Angels? According to the credits, it was ‘directed by McG,’ thus raising the intriguing prospect of the world’s first motion picture to be made by a hamburger.”
The man born Joseph McGinty Nichol has always had to sorta live down his dopey professional name, and for a while, it seemed like he’d be able to make it work, directing hits like Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Then, he tried to get serious, making the real-life drama We Are Marshall, before taking the reins on Terminator Salvation, the one with Christian Bale and Sam Worthington that everybody hated. After that, though, he plunged straight into hackwork, like the Kevin Costner action movie 3 Days to Kill. The man managed to make Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy — three very magnetic stars — utterly charmless in 2012’s strained action-comedy-romance This Means War. That takes a special kind of talent.
In recent years, though, alongside his television credits (Chuck, Lethal Weapon), he’s started making Netflix films. First there was The Babysitter and now we’ve got Rim of the World, which, depressingly, is advertised in the trailer as “From the director of The Babysitter.” This seems like a major drop-off from the never-exactly-halcyon days of Charlie’s Angels.
There is, however, a sad footnote to the McG story. Years ago, he was tapped to revitalize Superman pre-Superman Returns. J.J. Abrams wanted him to direct Superman: Flyby, but he would have had to shoot the film in Australia, which proved impossible for him because of what he’s described as anxiety disorder and a fear of flying. “[I]t was really embarrassing and emasculating and not fun,” he told The Hollywood Reporter two years ago about his disorder. For Flyby, he physically couldn’t get on a plane, ending any chance he had to make the film. Eventually, though, he got help. “It just sort of resulted in my going to see two ladies who specialize in this sort of thing at UCLA and I slowly put one foot in front of the other and I’ve now been around the world many, many times and fly all over the place and try to never go two weeks without getting on a plane.”
A story like that makes it hard to be too snarky about McG’s career backslide. I’m glad he’s been able to manage his anxiety. Still, I wish he wasn’t spending his time inflicting Rim of the World on the rest of us.
#2. What’s a Lithuanian smoothie?
At one point in the film, our four main characters have to stay the night in a house that, conveniently, only has two beds. So, which of the guys is gonna sleep with Zhenzhen? The three boys nervously talk about this amongst themselves, prompting Dariush at one point to volunteer, saying he has the most experience with girls. He doesn’t, but that’s not the point. When Gabriel challenges him about being a virgin, Dariush responds, “Hey, it’s better than eating Lithuanian smoothies from your bunkmate in juvie.”
The sheltered Alex asks what a Lithuanian smoothie is. Dariush replies, “You don’t need to know.”
Sigh. Okay, Rim of the World, I’ll call your bluff: I decided to look up “Lithuanian smoothie” to see if, in fact, that was a thing.
Short answer: No, it’s not. They made it up — though they may have inspired this disgusting, NSFW Urban Dictionary definition a day before this review went live: “When a man with heavy smegma demands…” yeah, you know what, you don’t want to know.
There is also something called a Hungarian smoothie. Don’t click that Urban Dictionary link unless you’re cool with a page that contains the hashtags “#hungarian stew,” “#sex acts, “#menstrual sex,” #perversion” and “#pornography.” And remember: I discovered this thanks to a kids’ movie.
#3. Okay, so what should your kids watch instead?
Since I spent several paragraphs up top lambasting anyone who would even think of letting their kids watch Rim of the World, it’s only fair that I offer a Netflix streaming alternative. As I mentioned, E.T. is on there, as are plenty of decent options like the Harry Potter films. But I’m going to assume that your children have seen those films already. Instead, I’m going to suggest something a little more obscure that’s also indebted to 1980s movies — albeit in a different way.
2016’s Midnight Special barely made a dent at the box office. It was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who’s better known for the indie films Loving and Take Shelter. But Midnight Special, a low-key sci-fi drama, takes its inspiration from Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. One of its main characters is a kid, but it’s far more thoughtful and mature than Rim of the World.
The premise: A father (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and his best friend (Loving star Joel Edgerton) kidnap the man’s son (Jaeden Martell, from It) for unknown reasons. Soon, though, we get a better sense of what’s going on. The boy has special powers — and he’s being hunted down by a religious cult and the U.S government.
Midnight Special could have been a dopey, high-concept action-adventure, but in Nichols’ hands, it’s a moving and suspenseful story about family, parenthood and destiny. It’s filled with awe about the mysteries of the universe in the ways that the best science fiction is. Nobody saw it in theaters, but give it a chance on Netflix. Who says you have to fill your kid’s (or your) head with cinematic junk food?