Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's the Apocalypse, Charlie Brown!

Has there ever been a more misleading titled film than A Boy and His Dog? This 1975 post-apocalypse tale (based on a short story by Harlan Ellison) may call to mind images of My Dog Skip, but it has far more in common with Logan's Run, The Road and Big Fish.
If that seems like an odd combo, then you're just getting started with this weirdly wonderful little cult film. With a cast led by Don Johnson (!) and the mutt that played Tiger during the first season of The Brady Bunch (!!!!!!), L.Q. Jones'  A Boy and His Dog is original, haunting, and sometimes, just darn adorable.
Quick Plot: In 2024, the nation is recovering (well, not really) from World War IV, a five day nuclear skirmish that followed the 20+ World War III. Food is scarce, but fertile women are even harder to find, a troubling fact for our 18 year old hero Vic (Johnson).
Luckily enough, Vic (aka Albert) is blessed with the world’s best travel companion: Blood, a collie mix who can communicate (in a wry and engaging voiceover by Tim McIntire) via telepathy from some fancy futuristic genetic experimentation. The details are fuzzier than a dog’s tail, but we buy it because hey: it sure beats the eerie puppet mouth action in Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Boy & Dog explore the dusty deserts without much aim, stopping occasionally to swipe some canned goods from lavish slave brigades or watch some decaying film reels at underground movie theaters reminiscent of 1970s 42nd St. coated in 9/11 dust. It’s here where our plot picks up, as Blood sniffs out an incognito female Quila (Susanne Benton) and Vic readies his guns...

...because a shootout follows. 
Although he’s expecting resistance, Vic quickly discovers Quilla isn’t the blushing maiden he’s so accustomed to raping. Somewhat intrigued by her eagerness, Vic is surprised at how hurt and angry he feels when she slips away to return home.
And what a home it is. Hidden underneath the barren wasteland of earth is “Topeka,” an artificially maintained biosphere ruled by “The Committee” of middle-aged mime-faced bureaucrats with painted smiles masking utter apathy. Executions are handed out to blankly accepting townfolk and a gigantic good ol’ boy android maintains security. Our young buck is dressed in flannel and overalls and given a special duty I won’t spoil here (although Netflix’s general description does, so for that I sentence them to the farm). Needless to say, post apocalyptic polygamy isn’t quite the blast it might appear.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange, oddly paced cult favorite that does a whole lot of interesting things in its surprisingly dense 90 minute running time. From a gritty opening landscape to the truly bizarre Topeka, it creates a new type of dystopia that’s simultaneously familiar and like nothing you've really seen. 

Perhaps what really makes Jones' film so memorable is how well it juxtaposes the tragedy of our world’s death with a playfully macabre sense of humor. VIc isn’t a nice guy--his main motivations are rape and canned goods--but Don Johnson makes him likable in a scrappy and believable way, while Tiger and McIntire succeed together at creating an actual character out of what could easily have been a cute gimmick onscreen.
I unfortunately have not read much Ellison, although I did have the pleasure of seeing him in person at a sci-fi convention about ten years ago (that’s right; I was this nerdy as a teen). Although he had mixed emotions on this adaptation,* his wry touch is felt thoughout A Boy and His Dog. That's a very good thing.
High Points
Typically, the “special appearance by” credit irks me, but if there’s one word that adequately describes Jason Robards in mime makeup, it’s special

As a former dog walker, I know that many canines don’t appreciate the high pitched “here, puppy puppy” soprano employed by eager pet lovers. Hence, the moment Quilla lapses into baby talk to lure Blood into her good graces, I laughed out loud both at the ridiculous of the situation and Blood’s amusingly dry response.
The ending, right down to the controversial pun*, feels so surprisingly right for our main characters and the world they inhabit
Low Points
The “Screamers” are a menacing and unseen presence and I don’t mind their mystery, but it also feels as though there's a whole narrative to this apocalypse we never get to know
While everything about Topeka was creepy in a bizarrely broken and forced kind of way, the min-revolution seemed rushed and poorly explained. We can infer that Quilla’s charms went fairly far, but the inclusion of two other challengers of the system felt more convenient than organic.

Lessons Learned
Always trust your dog when it comes to judging character
Being under the control of a manic slave driver isn’t fun, but stealing from one is surprisingly stress-free
Movie theater popcorn will never go out of style
Calla lilies make an elegant and surprisingly convenient wedding bouquet, particularly when you need to conceal a crow bar but don’t want to clash
Due to the treatment of women by Vic and the film’s final line (one of Ellison’s biggest quibbles with the changes), some have accused A Boy and His Dog of being misogynist. While there are no admirable female characters, all of the men are equally simple or morally bereft. Quilla is a nasty and devious creation, but she’s no better or worse than Robards’ totalitarian secretary or Vic’s ambivalent rapist And hey, I’d rather see a female antagonist make use of her sexuality for a masterly plotted plan than sit back and have it help her without her own consent.
***** Thus End'th Spoiler Rant****
This is a must-see for any post-apocalyptic afficionado, and a strangely entertaining treat for general sci-fi and cult movie fans. I can’t speak for the DVD as Netflix is currently offering this as an Instant Watch, but from what I’ve read on Amazon, it currently has a disappointingly bare bones release. While I heartily endorse a viewing, it may be in your best interest to take advantage of the free streaming and keep a look out for a hopefully upgraded edition in the future. 


  1. Great review there! A Boy and His Dog is a dang classic. Just the other day a friend of mine talked about how much he hated this movie and just turned it off before it was over. JUST TURNED IT OFF!?!?! Time to reevaluate that friendship. Jeez.

  2. I wonder at what point he gave up. If it was before Jason Robards pancake-faced mime king, then your "friend" is to be pitied for missing out on such a wonderfully bizarre time. If it was after, he should have his skull crushed by a farmboy android.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. I'm fucking on it! I have had this in my queue for some time and I LOVE any sort of Apocalyptic movie, especially an odd one from the 80's. This one already sounded very interesting, but after this review, it sounds even more so.

  4. It's a gem Matt, and I think you'll get a huge kick out of it. Try to avoid reading the Netflix description since it gives away a surprising little plot twist. Just press play on your instant watch and eagerly await Jason Robards dressed as a mime.