Atomik Circus [The Return of James Battle] (2004)

(aka Atomik Circus – Le retour de James Bataille)

Luc Besson created a new school of French film when he made The Professional.

In fact, there are times when it seems that France no longer makes any films other than extravagant thrillers with more flashy style than substance.  Think Diva, The Fifth Element and Crimson Rivers and you’ll see what I mean.

Atomik Circus certainly seems to fall into this category, with its often weird camera style and the dark and gloomy way it uses its steamy-little-town-in-a-swamp setting (much like the Bayou country in Louisiana).

But that doesn’t account for its strange and ironic sense of humor which reminds me more of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s post-Jeunet et Caro work.

A professional stuntman, James Bataille (Jason Flemyng), is hired to do a motorcycle jump for a big festival.  He falls in love at first sight with the daughter of the man who hired him.  Her father doesn’t approve, and when James’ big stunt ends in disaster, he makes sure that James gets 133 years in jail.  Of course, we learn all this in less time than it probably took you to read this.

But not even jail can keep the tragic hero from his girl, so he escapes, only to reach the swamps just the alien invasion starts…

Atomik Circus starts with a strange and ironic narration from an unseen and unknown narrator.  It delights in showing us how weird this little community is, from the psychotic hunter whose dead (and presumably preserved) mother is still sitting at the dining room table, to a cow pie festival, blonde Mexicans, an entirely gruesome bit of self-administered first aid,and the worlds most appalling dog owner.

Of course, when the aliens themselves — weird, Lovecraftian things with lots of tentacles and swarms of flying, one-eyed, starfish things with claws on their points — finally enter the picture, they do so with a lot of enthusiastic B-Movie gore as they slaughter most of the people in town in one big scene.

These days we’re quite used to seeing blood splash on the camera lens during scenes like these, but that’s actually quite a recent development.  Generally, people have given the credit to Children of Men (2006) where it was more or less an accident:  the complex, climactic scene takes place in a single take and rather than re-shoot the scene when they found blood had splattered the lens, they chose to use it anyway.  However, this gimmick is used repeatedly throughout this film, and no wonder as the creatures make plenty of mess once they attack.

James’ girlfriend Consia is an aspiring singer, and plays a rather large number of songs throughout the film.  She’s played by Vanessa Paridis, a French singing star and occasional actress.  Frankly, I don’t think it adds a lot and it does go on a bit.  But it doesn’t hurt the film much either.

Supposedly, the Poiraud brothers, who wrote, directed, and even created the original home made comic book version of this film, got their backing on this film because their cast impressed the producers.  I have to admit that I find this decidedly believable as it is hard to imagine that there would be that many hard-headed money people out there who would be willing to sink their cash in an insane, art house comic book B-movie gorefest.

It all comes to a strange and ironic ending, with our unseen narrator being unhelpful and James facing an even greater challenge than he has so far.  It’s a glorious mess, a rich and weird mix of a lot of things that at first glance shouldn’t work together at all.  In between the beautifully steamy settings, the atmospheric cinematography, the bizarre characters and all that enthusiastic gore, we have a lovely and ironic tale of a “tragic” hero, invaders from space, other dimensions and even a big ray gun.  It’s loud, manic and quite funny in a low key and very French sort of way.  It seems a shame that it is almost entirely unknown here.  But the, once again, we are up against the usual problem of our American bias against subtitled films.  And the usual problem that some of these films that went undiscovered on their initial release do not necessarily get English subtitles on their DVDs.  And the usual problem that they just aren’t available here in any form.

However, if you can find it, it is a wild ride.  It isn’t perfect, it may not gel completely, and there is far too much singing.

But there are more than enough flying tentacled monsters to make up for any of those flaws!

Buy from Amazon (import):

(For a better poster, see here.)


And check out our new Feature (Updated May 16, 2019):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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