Movie Review: Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's hard to pinpoint when the feature film based on the Adult Swim cartoon actually starts - there's a hilarious opening spoof of vintage concession pre-roll - but I guess it's best to start talking about Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters when the protagonists first appear onscreen.

Things begin in Egypt (or perhaps New York, as a subtitle suggests) thousands of years ago in a time described as "The Past." Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad tumble out of the Sphinx statue's behind and begin to battle a giant poodle who lives next door. They speak first in an ancient dialect before switching mid-rant to modern-day English.

Shake and Meatwad are unable to start a nearby getaway Jeep Wrangler, and Frylock, though spewing his trademark lasers from his eyes, is killed.

Or is he.

This small battle is shown to be an errant story - told in tag-team fashion by the three safe in their small rental house - but neither it nor the similarly bizarre tales that follow can be labeled flashbacks, flashforwards or secondary narrative threads.

What the opening scene does is set the tone for a film to have no concrete sense of place or time. As The New Yorker veteran George W.S. Trow insists, we live in a context of no context, and this film uses that liberting premise as its primary theme.

Frylock and Shake narrate scenes like these often, and a notepad outline of this film would look more like a brainstorm with various thoughts connected by lines, disparate ideas flowing in all directions. In the first hour, fans of the show will recognize: the Mooninites, Carl, Oglethorpe and Emory, Steve, Dr. Weird, Cybernetic Ghost and other peripheral characters.

In said timespan, this diverse cast of favorites: travels through time and outer space; fights for world domination; argues over furniture; talks about sex; makes fun of each other; and exercises.

Yes, exercise is the recurrent theme.

The Insanoflex is a futuristic workout machine that the Cybernetic Ghost (with his rambling premonitions) predicts will destroy mankind if anyone can ever find the large computer chip needed for operation. See, whoever uses this muscle-builder will become so buff that all the women will want to have sex with him and the population will falter because of inbreeding.

The machine looks like this, and much of what happens onscreen deals with various parties attempting to find the chip and become buff in order to attract women and have sex with them.

Along the way, we're given numerous inside jokes, references to televised episodes and creation myths - all of which might be true, but probably not. The creators are aware that many fans want answers about the Force's origins, purpose and history; they know also that defining anything beyond generalities destroys the power of the show.

Keeping things hilariously vague is the only way to air one episode about a killer spider and another about a belt that gives the wearer the powers of Foreigner. Only with this sly, sometimes frustrating sense of humor could the duo produce an extended movie that runs around in circles, propelled only by poking fun at every reason people go to the movies.

This is where the nay-sayers will begin to bristle: After the first freakout is finished is when the plot should unfold. That's the way things work: Movies must have a purpose, since we're supposed to be in the theater for a reason.

Historically, films survive only with many anchors to people, place, time and logic; this one floats amicably amid a sea of references to the past, present and future. It is bound to nothing and no one.

But judging by this film - which is similar to a collection of eight or so episodes - the creators' blank-eyed rejection of all rhyme and reason is more complex and compelling than most would think. The movie revives and celebrates the Dada aesthetic: Take things that mean nothing, change their setting and transform them into something new entirely.

By blurring lines between parody and pastiche, high and low art, cartoon design and painting, trash and beauty, Aqua Teen is both a commentary on how contemporary audiences digest information and an embodiment of our short attention spans, acute sense of irony, love of genre-mixing and refusal to accept the standards set by decades of established artistic practices.

Remember: Master Shake is a milkshake, Meatwad is a meatball, and Frylock is a side of French fries. These are the easiest, most blatant symbols of mass consumption, and I love them dearly as friends.

Oh, I've heard all the dismissals inspired by that realization. It's just stoners making stuff for other stoners. It's trash TV on par with Beavis & Butthead. It's just a bunch of weird stuff thrown together.

I guess I can't deny any of those, but anyone who uses that ammo to write off the show doesn't understand that, for better or for worse, this stuff is fascinating, clever and completely hilarious to millions.

And that means something - namely, that creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis have invented a visual masterpiece both appropriate in and critical of contemporary American culture. It's a portrait - nay, a manifesto - for all those people unable to grapple with what bombards us every day.

Sadly, that means a rather limited shelf-life.

In 20 years, I doubt many will laugh when Shake steals Carl's tiger-print sweatpants, the Mooninites return to Earth just to steal an ashtray and coffee table, or Frylock assembles the Isanoflex in his living room.

Only this generation - one engulfed by and flitting through a constant stream of information swirling about - will understand a concept that condenses so much from so many places, in such haphazard fashion.

This is a strange film for very strange times.

It was made for me, and I'm proud of that.

Grade: A