Since we live in a world where it’s easier to imagine total environmental collapse than equal social and economic rights, it’s not surprising that sci-fi dystopias are everywhere. At first, Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” seems to be a particularly tone-deaf one, opening with a direct reference to the Nazi concentration camps’ practice of tattooing prisoners.
The TV show “Colony” has alluded to that period in history with far more grace and subtlety.
In this case, criminal Americans are exiled from the country, sent into a desert wasteland called the Bad Batch, and apparently stripped of their citizenship. Here, our heroine Arlen (Suki Waterhouse ) pays the price for traveling through a “no woman’s land” — she’s not sexually assaulted, but one arm and one leg are amputated. Never mind that this Texan seems so innocent that she couldn’t have committed any crime except getting a cherry tattoo while underage.
In the Bad Batch, being female makes one vulnerable, just as it does in the real world. Arlen’s relative innocence also contributes to her peril. She’s not exactly street-smart. Lost in the desert while tripping on LSD after attending a rave, she loses track of the little girl she’d been watching over. Cuban immigrant Miami Man (Jason Momoa) rescues her and becomes her protector for the film’s middle third.
Other characters treat Arlen like a fetish object. Weirdly, Amirpour seems to do so too. While I know nothing about the director’s sexuality or kinks, she seems to revel in the image of a scantily clad Waterhouse in chains. Even after Arlen becomes an amputee, the film continues to present her as attractive, although the character relies on cutting out magazine issues and placing them strategically in mirrored images to get a sense of herself as whole again. Depicting a disabled woman as beautiful in 2017 may not be the absolute peak of enlightenment — and, to its credit, the film never pats itself on the back for doing so — but many lesser films and filmmakers would treat her as a gross freak.
Amirpour has an eye for long shots of the desert, as she showed in her debut film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” but it’s not a tourist’s view. She emphasizes the desolation of the dunes and the constant presence of predators like crows, searching for the dead bodies that can often be found there. Her images rarely bring out their beauty, with the exception of the scenes where Arlen is stoned. As before, Amirpour has a feel for what it’s like to live among landscapes that some people might find picturesque and others as oppressive. She filmed “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ in a city dominated by the presence of oil wells.
The limit of Amirpour’s vision of the future is how old-fashioned it is. This film owes a huge debt to George Miller’s “Mad Max” films, particularly “The Road Warrior.” From them, Amirpour learned how to build a barely functional society from the ground up, with people scrounging for junk and a stand where “Noodle Lady” sells pasta for a dollar. (Few characters in this film have proper names — Arlen is a major exception.) EDM even takes the place of the punk references in “The Road Warrior,” while the appearance of an army of pregnant women near the end evokes the brides of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Although “The Bad Batch” is far less overtly political, it also brings to mind Peter Watkins’ 1971 agitprop classic “Punishment Park,” in which Black Panthers and hippie pacifists are given the option of racing through the desert for their freedom.
Released almost simultaneously with Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature “The Babadook,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” gave horror fans hope that the genre could develop new female voices. It also spoke from the Iranian diaspora; while made in California, it was set entirely in Iran, where Amirpour’s parents came from, and featured dialogue in Farsi. (Alas, Amirpour’s weaknesses with dialogue are more apparent when she writes in English.)
“The Bad Batch” remains true to genre, but it leaves horror behind, at least in the literal sense. But when you wind up depicting a world where the population is deliberately kept doped-up, women are forced into pregnancy, comforts are based on social corruption, and the nuclear family is the only solace, horror is never really that far away.
THE BAD BATCH | Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour | Neon | Opens Jun. 23 | IFC Center 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com