I’d like to begin this review with a paraphrase of a conversation I had with a friend shortly before watching this movie.
Me: Man, I’m so tired of all of these sci fi shows and movies where there are characters you really like and then terrible things happen to them and then things get a little better and then more terrible things happen to them and then they die. Which pretty much rules out everything I usually watch.
Friend: God, come to think of it, all the books I’ve read in the past few weeks have ended with the characters either dead or suffering from extreme PTSD.
Me: Exactly! Okay, new mission: I will find something that is good and doesn’t make me depressed.
Friend: Good luck.
Me: Okay, I think I’m going to watch this movie called Wristcutters.
Me: It’s about a guy who has a devastating break-up, slits his wrists, and ends up in a section of the afterlife reserved for suicides.
Me: Well, it has a very happy title font.
All right, some context: As part of my ongoing quest to fill the hole left by the absence of new Joss Whedon material (which I swear I will at some point do a proper review of), I recently got into Doctor Who. I’m a few episodes into season 5 of the new series, and even though I’m still in the process of being sold on Matt Smith, I have to say he is doing a remarkable job of filling some very large David Tennant-sized shoes, and overall, I’m really enjoying the show.
But even though I love getting caught up in the gleeful scope and excitement of the Doctor’s world, I do have some quibbles with the show, the largest of which being the constant peril into which the universe is placed. Each Russel T. Davies finale deals with some bigger and bigger threat – to the Earth, to the universe, to every universe, TO EVERY MOLECULE OF EVERY TIME EVER. My first problem is that there’s an, admittedly paradoxical, effect of diminishing returns in constantly increasing jeopardy; there’s a point where the danger gets so big that I just don’t care, and Davies smothered that point in pancake syrup and ate it for breakfast. But that’s a fairly common complaint about the Davies era, and, honestly, a legitimate criticism of science fiction in general (even Buffy, by it’s later seasons, started to make fun of how often they saved the world from TOTAL COMPLETE NO WE REALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME destruction).
No, my second problem, the one that’s really nagging at me, is a suspicion that, in a science fiction story, I wouldn’t be one of the heroes. Look at it this way: for the adventure (science fiction/fantasy/etc.) genre to work, you have to believe that you’d be one of the protagonists. But the fact is, you’re far more likely to be one of the people getting trampled in the background by the evil demon alien robot, and once you realize that, science fiction becomes downright terrifying. It works as wish fulfillment because the audience relates to the heroes, because the viewer can see him or herself in the hero’s capable shoes. Yet simple statistics suggests that you’re more likely to be one of the Muggles, and that is a scary, scary idea. The reason no one cares about the Muggles, from a storytelling perspective, is because they’re helpless and insignificant, because their lives and concerns and preoccupations don’t matter so much in relation to the heroes’. No one wants to be a Muggle, but most of us probably would be. In other words, a sci-fi world is fun if you’re the Doctor or Buffy, but there’s a reason they’re on the screen and you’re the one watching it.
So when I had that conversation with my friend, I had just realized this, and Doctor Who had thus just become terrifying, since I wasn’t relating to the Doctor anymore – I was relating to the clueless screaming people he always runs past on his way to save the day. Luckily, it turned out that Wristcutters was the perfect movie to watch in that situation.
See, the brilliant, marvelous, revolutionary thing about Wristcutters is that there are no stakes whatsoever. It takes place in a grey, worn out, dreamlike, meandering world where nothing matters because everyone is already dead. Now, there’s tragedy in this, make no mistake – smiling, it turns out, is a side effect of having things matter, so no one in this world is even physically capable of forming that expression with their face. But there’s also freedom and beauty and exhilaration in this sort of world. There’s no work, no bills, no deadlines, no obligations or responsibilities or burdens. It’s the kind of world where, sure, people work jobs and exchange money, but you get the feeling that they do so out of habit, and anyway, they can just as easily leave everything behind to go on a roadtrip with their best friend, fall in love with a hitchhiker, and listen over and over again to the only cassette tape that didn’t fall into the black hole underneath the passenger’s seat in the car.
Ultimately, Wristcutters is an affirmation of life (which is a sentence I never thought I’d get to write), but it’s a different sort of affirmation than something like Doctor Who might pull off. Doctor Who operates in grand gestures, affirms life by saving all of it, by protecting humanity as an idea rather than as an individual. Wristcutters is about a few, utterly inconsequential people who, true, do find meaning in life, but only as a byproduct of doing other things. It says, look, you might not matter, but here’s a Russian rock song to sing along to and some cold drinks at a stone temple and a secret hidden beach in the moonlight, and that’s something anyone can achieve, and it’s enough.
I got over my crisis of sci fi faith, and, like I said, I really do like Doctor Who. But in the middle of the WHAT THE WHAT THAT’S AWESOME!!! of science fiction, it’s important to also have movies like Wristcutters, which focus life down to its most mundane and unimportant, and conclude that that’s pretty satisfying, too. I mean, sure, I could relate to the people at the center of the movie, but I didn’t feel like I had to, because they’re not the most important people in this world. Sci fi works because it allows you to imagine the most absolute, wonderful possibilities of humanity; Wristcutters works because it takes a step back, shrugs, and says that everything else is pretty nice, too.
(UPDATE: If anyone’s interested, the entire movie is available on Hulu for free. It’s also on Netflix if you want to watch it there.)