Movie fans will recognize Stephen Ohl’s Useless Humans pretty much immediately, though not only for its obvious film homages and inspirations. While this low budget cousin of Shaun of the Dead certainly isn’t bringing anything new to the table, the familiarity comes less from its genre trappings and more from the energy with which it is produced. It has all the hallmarks of a film borne out of friendship, enthusiasm, and free time; the kind of movie that many young film fans – myself included – pieced together in high school. Indeed, the obvious joy with which the director, writers, and cast attack the material is infectious at times, but the scattershot sloppiness inherent in these types of films keeps the audience at arm’s length. And while the shaggy dog nature of the film’s production and storytelling is occasionally reflective of its characters’ aimlessness, the film ultimately disappoints.
The story involves four old friends gathering together at a remote mountain cabin to celebrate the thirtieth birthday of their unofficial leader, Brian (Josh Zuckerman). As they reminisce about old times, they soon discover that their lives haven’t turned out quite the way they’d planned. Terrible relationships, dead-end jobs, and abandoned dreams; our characters realize they haven’t exactly set the world on fire, making them ill-equipped to deal with what appears to be an impending alien invasion.
The idea of blending a hang-out comedy with an apocalyptic scenario is nothing particularly new. The formula started strong with Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters and has since been riffed on by Edgar Wright, Seth Rogen, and Ruben Fleischer. And like those filmmakers, Ohl understands the unlikely key to making this type of film work: while the end-of-the-world logistics are certainly important, it’s the characters and relationships that keep the audience’s attention. If there is no comedic – and occasionally dramatic – chemistry amongst the cast, viewer investment evaporates very quickly.
The cast of Useless Humans does what it can to capture this unusual dynamic and occasionally succeeds. Ironically, though, when telling the story of underachieving slackers, the tone requires more discipline, not less. The Coen Brothers may have built The Big Lebowski around a man deemed one of the laziest in the world, but that doesn’t mean their plotting isn’t airtight. The same cannot be said of this film, which regularly finds time for uninspired tangents and too often substitutes over-the-top histrionics for comedic tension and pop culture references for genuine cleverness, all while occasionally bringing the proceedings to a screeching halt in order to meditate on intricate plot details that are, frankly, uninvolving.
As stated, there’s a lot of pluck to Useless Humans, and the spirit in which the film is made is one that most movie fans will empathize with. Unfortunately, when the time comes to translate that spirit into an engaging, functional story, the film falls short. Without the artistic discipline to nurture that initial flash of inspiration, the movie flames out.