War is a savage act of mankind, full of brutality and suffering. Yet “war” can also be a backyard game created by children and designed for fun (and still some brutality).
I played “war” or capture the flag, paintball, etc. many times as a kid., but I do not think I was ever involved in as intense of a game like the one at the center of the new Canadian indie film I Declare War – a kind of Lord of the Flies meets Platoon.
In this game of “war” sticks are guns, bigger sticks are bazookas, and paint-filled water balloons are grenades. Each “army” has a fort and a flag they must protect while simultaneously running missions and maneuvers to capture the other team’s flag.
There are a few rules (relayed to the audience through wonderful animated titles): a team must capture the other team’s flag and return it to their general, if you are “shot” you have ten seconds before you come back to life unless you are hit with a paint grenade, and if you are “killed” then you must go home. Of course, rules are meant to be broken in both real war and pretend war.
The two teams are run by PK, a retainer wearing, toe-headed moppet, and Quinn, a tall, gentle kid who falls quickly to a coup d'état led by Skinner, a chubby unpopular kid with serious anger problems and looking to settle a score with PK.
PK is obsessed with war. He soaks in films like Patton and can readily recite years of military history depending on how it applies to their current situation. This passion has given him an advantage in their backyard games and he has never lost a “war.” His relentless “do whatever it takes to win” stance has garnered him respect amongst his peers and his fair share of enemy flags, but it has also cost him the occasional friend in the process.
I Declare War pays homage to several popular war films in a variety of ways – Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and others. It borrows well-worn themes like the loss of innocence and friendship, as well as stock character types (the hero, the crazed officer, the religious one, the naïve one, the fat one, and even a Mata Hari-like double agent seductress) that appear in almost all these same war movies. The film, and the young characters, eventually begin to wear on the viewer as the film stretches its imaginative, but rather thin plot into a longer than necessary conclusion (though still only about 90 minutes).
It is easy to make some far-reaching allegorical connections to American and international military policy, but that is not the point of the film. I Declare War sets out to blur the line between fantasy and reality in a child’s imagination – and for the most part, it succeeds. The film really does put you into each character’s mind – the sticks look like guns and the imaginary bullets fired sound real, so they do to the audience as well.
But where the film falters is that it also blurs the line between a fun kid’s movie and a serious adult one. The filmmakers try to have it both ways, which only ends up hurting the film. On the surface, the movie seems to be more kid-appropriate – it features only kids in all roles and is about a game played during youth. But underneath that, it is also a fairly intense examination of friendship and bullying that is quite violent and filled with severe adult language.
Ultimately, the film is a brilliant idea that just never really comes to fruition. If it had stuck with just being a fun kid’s movie along the lines of The Sandlot or The Goonies it could have been a great dose of youthful nostalgia and still garnered a more inclusive audience. If the filmmakers wanted to go the opposite direction, then they should have ratcheted it up even more – the violence, the language, the visuals, the allegory, etc. But toeing the line between both paths really hinders the film. I Declare War has its moments, but it leaves much to be desired, including a little more fun!
I Declare War opens Friday, September 20 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center at 7:00 p.m. nightly (except Monday at 5:30 p.m.).
So come out to the Zeitgeist (1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. New Orleans) this weekend and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South.
You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.
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