The Epidemic of ‘Fake Films’

Graphic by David Balodis Serra

DAVO ASKS “How did this get released in cinemas?”

By now, everyone is well aware of how bad Madame Web is. I’m not here to argue that it’s not as bad as people are saying (it’s worse), or that there are any glimpses of effort from the cast and crew obscured within an otherwise terrible film (there aren’t any). Instead, I was inspired to write this article by the overwhelming feeling I got leaving the theatre. The film I had just paid to see and sat through start to finish, did not feel like a real film.

Even the great Hideo Kojima could not find a single thing worth praising in Madame Web

Fictional films-within-films are typically over-the-top parodies of specific genres and their tropes, usually made to look like bottom of the barrel projects. Take for example the fictional ‘Simple Jack’ from Tropic Thunder. ‘Simple Jack’ plays out as a failed  Oscar-bait film, starring the character Tugg Speedman (played by Ben Stiller) in the role of an offensively represented neurodivergent person in the same vein as Forest Gump or Of Mice and Men. It’s even dubbed “one of the worst movies of all time” by the critics in the film.

‘Simple Jack’ from Tropic Thunder

The HBO series Entourage features an similar extended plot line, following the protagonist Vinny Chase landing the lead role in James Cameron’s ‘Aquaman’. Unlike Madame Web, ‘Aquaman’ is a smash-hit at the box office (even Cameron’s fake films don’t miss). This is because the Entourage writers understood something very important that Sony Pictures fundamentally do not: you cannot sell audiences on a character that they have never heard of without a distinct vision from the filmmakers to guide the way.

James Cameron’s ‘Aquaman’ from Entourage

Madame Web’s total failure is due to having no voice at the helm to establish its identity as a film. The cinematography and directing are hilariously amateur and the likely overworked visual effects team create dull action scenes that can only be described as visually offensive. The climax of the film takes place on a completely nondescript rooftop bombarded with weightless explosions. The only memorable element from this sequence is the shoe-horned product placement. The heroes of the film take refuge from the attack by clinging onto a giant Pepsi sign attached to the building. By this point in the film, I was so checked out I couldn’t even be bothered to ask why they thought a collapsing metal sign was any safer to stand on.

The most unsubtle product placement I’ve seen in recent memory. Source: Sony Pictures

The editing and sound design are in constant competition to see which can induce the greater headache. The frequent ‘visions’ the titular character has are accompanied by obnoxiously loud screeches and more fast-cuts than a Michael Bay film. It’s a total sensory overload that left me more disoriented than awed.

Even the usually talented actors involved cannot muster a single good line delivery. Sydney Sweeney and Adam Scott have given excellent performances recently in The White Lotus and Severance, but their charm is totally absent in this film. Dakota Johnson gives absolutely nothing in her performance as the titular Madame Web, other than adding to her pile of nepo-baby allegations. Every line from Johnson is delivered with a monotone cadence and completely deadpan expression. The worst offender of all is the antagonist, played by Tahar Rahim, who delivers some of the most hysterically bad line deliveries in recent memory. Though, who can blame him with a script this poorly written. Even Chat-GPT wouldn’t write a line as clunky as, “When you take on the responsibility, great power will come,” – a pandering attempt to remind audiences of the loosely connected Spider-Man franchise. All these elements combine to create a film that feels like an unintentional parody of modern superhero films.

Madame Web falls flat on its face into a recent category of films dubbed online by many as ‘fake films’. These are films that insist they are blockbusters, sporting generic-looking posters plastered on buses everywhere and terrible trailers played endlessly for months on end at the cinema, only to open to dismal box-office returns. Madame Web has only made $91 million worldwide at the time of writing this, a far cry from the $150 million needed by the studio to make a return on its investment. On platforms such as Letterboxd and IMDB, Madame Web joins the ranks of other high-budget, critical and commercial bombs of late, compiled into user-generated lists of ‘fake films’. Argylle failed to draw any crowd with its bizarre viral marketing campaign, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was dead-on-arrival, and I have yet to meet anyone in real life who has actually seen Morbius (another Sony Pictures disaster).

A list of ‘Real Movies That Seem Like Fake Movies’ posted on Letterboxd that has received close to 300 likes

‘Fake films’ aren’t exclusive to superhero-outings, or even to the big screen. Streaming services such as Netflix have been pumping out embarrassing content for years. With such uninspiring titles like The Grey Man (which sounds like your drunk friend coming up with a ‘cool’ movie name on the spot), it’s no surprise the streaming platform lost subscribers for the first time last year since 2015. Tech giants couldn’t help themselves from a piece of the pie either, with Apple and Amazon producing similarly vapid titles such as Ghosted and The Tomorrow War (has anyone even heard of these?).

You could never convince me any of these posters are for films that actually exist. Sources: Netflix, Prime Video, and Apple TV+

In the past few years, streaming services have become foster homes for ‘fake films’. You could fill an article with the hundreds of titles you’d never look at twice on your Netflix home page. These films actually benefit from a straight-to-streaming release as even if no one watches them, the numbers are never made public, and the streamers can get away with calling them ‘global-phenomena’ (Red Notice being the most-viewed Netflix film on release is pants-on-fire level disinformation). It really begs the question: why on earth did Sony Pictures think Madame Web was a good fit for the big screen?

Luckily for me, Madame Web’s cinema release gave a couple friends and I an excellent opportunity to engage in one of our favourite pastimes: laughing at a shit movie. After the film ended, we debriefed the assault on the senses we had just witnessed. While discussing what films we would watch upon getting home to wash our eyes out, I brought up the infamous Freddy Got Fingered. This amused a friend of mine as an apt ‘fake film’ double feature.

Theatrical poster for Freddy Got Fingered. Source: 20th Century Fox.

For those that don’t know, Freddy Got Fingered is the one and only film directed by notorious Canadian prankster and Drew Barrymore’s ex-husband, Tom Green. If the name rings a bell, you might have heard Green be name-dropped on Eminem’s hit, “The Real Slim Shady”, or have come across his antics from The Tom Green Show (which included pretending to hump a dead moose), that went on to inspire another juvenile and ridiculous MTV series: Jackass.

“… but it’s cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose…”

Freddy Got Fingered incites visceral reactions and leaves you asking, just as I did with Madame Web, “how the fuck did this get released in cinemas?” The plot loosely follows Green’s Gord Brody as he chases his dreams of becoming a cartoonist and getting his own animated series. His journey leads him to Los Angeles and back again, constantly butting heads with his father, played brilliantly by the late Rip Torn, who resents Gord as a total failure. Along his journey, Gord manually extracts semen from a stud with his bare hands, falls in love with a woman who gets turned on by having her paralysed legs smacked with a bamboo cane, and even delivers a newborn baby by biting the umbilical cord off with his teeth. It’s a relentlessly gross film and at times near unwatchable, but one I still urge everyone reading to give a chance.

How it feels to watch Freddy Got Fingered.

Upon release, Freddy Got Fingered was a massive failure. It earned only $14 million worldwide, equal to its budget, but failed to turn a profit. Critically, the film was reviled, and still sits at a measly 10% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yet what separates Freddy Got Fingered from a film like Madame Web on the scale of ‘fake films’ is the clear passion, effort, and unique charm that it is filled with from start to finish. It is a ‘fake film’ in only the sense that it is near impossible to imagine anything remotely similar being made today, let alone released into cinemas. The plot is incomprehensible at best, but each actor gives their all into their performance. The relatively small budget by today’s standards is clearly put to use by crafting inspired, albeit disgusting, sequences that will stick with you forever. I would rather watch a hundred bizarre passion projects like Freddy Got Fingered, than another single studio disaster like Madame Web.

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