Monday, November 27, 2017

Survivor: Edward Furlong Island

Gather 'round kids, and let me tell you tales of the turn of the early years of this century. The world was a different place, a little colder in some ways and kinder in others. Most notably, reality TV was a new religion that washed over the world like a plague. 

Competitions sprang up for every possible scenario. Survivor and Big Brother were training wheels for what came after: Boot Camp, Love Boat, Strip Search, and so on. Everyone knew someone who was constantly sending audition tapes to network after network for unnamed shows that teased of minor fame and heavily taxed big winnings. It was the new American dream.

2005's Cruel World was clearly made at the height of the trend, something you can guess by the fact that Joe Millionaire is referenced in such a way that it clearly assumes everyone in the audience knew exactly what that one-season Fox show was about. While it's no ahead-of-its-time classic like Series 7: The Contenders, this one has some fun.

Quick Plot: Philip (typically greasy Edward Furlong) is still bristling from his embarrassing loss on Lovers Lane (no, not that one), a dating show where he was rejected by the beautiful Catherine (Jaime Pressly), now married to the winning contestant and living in the very mansion where the program was filmed. Bitter and insane, Philip returns to exact his vengeance on the happy couple before setting a much more complex plan into play.

With the help of his dim but incredibly strong brother Claude, Philip invites a gaggle of attractive, fame-hungry 20somethings to the mansion under the guise of filming a new Big Brother-esque reality competition. Because it's 2005, none of the "contestants" have any reason to suspect shenanigans. After all, there were some pretty terribly produced reality shows at that time hosted by dudes like this:

Naturally, being voted out of the house has bigger consequences than losing out on a cash prize and being confined to a deli interview on Late Night (seriously; in the early days of Survivor, David Letterman was so annoyed with CBS forcing him to interview reality show castoffs that he wouldn’t allow the guests in his actual studio). Each elimination is a murder at the hands of Claude or, as the game gets more intense, fellow contestants. 

Directed by Kelsey T. Howard with a clear venom towards the reality genre, Cruel World has a tricky time nailing its tone. There’s a nastiness to its opening, savagely disposing of a happy couple before thrusting a batch of somewhat horrid young people at us. As the cast gets thinned out, the contestants become a little more human and sympathetic. That kind of makes it worse.

I don’t mean to imply that I hated Cruel World. As someone who watched my share of Temptation Island, it felt like a recent time capsule that found a good look into the reality TV boom. I wish the satire was sharper and characters more tolerable, but on a certain level, this is a film that has aged somewhat well in terms of its social politics. It doesn’t make it any more pleasant to actually watch, but hey…it’s more than I expected from an Edward Furlong movie I’d never heard of streaming on Amazon Prime.

High Points
In a post-Gamergate world, there's something incredibly disturbing and  sadly believable about Cruel World's central villain, a socially awkward but tech-smart young white male so embittered by not his dream girl that he'd go to such violent lengths to right the perceived wrong

Low Points
There's an art to ending your film with a nasty stinger, and then there's "just throw some mean twist at the end without any context so we leave our audience feeling kinda crappy"

Lessons Learned
Want to throw your attacker off? Pee on him when he least expects it

Before leaving for a mystery reality competition, carb load

If you arrive at a reality show filming to discover you’ll be sharing a house with Andrew Keegan, assume the role of the smarmy villain has already been cast and promptly choose another one, like cowboy or token gay guy


I hesitate to fully recommend Cruel World to the general public (well, the general readership of the Doll's House, which is an entirely different thing of its own). It has a mean streak and sense of ugliness that I don't generally enjoy, but for anyone with a solid foundation of the reality TV craze that defined the early 2000s, there's a whole lot to appreciate. You can find it now on Amazon Prime. 

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