IT takes a certain sensibility to enjoy a show about a floating box of French fries; a giant, self-important milkshake; and a talking wad of meat who share a beat-up house in New Jersey and routinely suffer deaths of fantastic gore. And, naturally, that's exactly what has made "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" a cult hit.
The TV cartoon is a bizarre, even subversive series that draws a geek-squad fan base, inspired a theme song by vintage rapper Schoolly D and voice cameos by Sarah Silverman, Todd Field and Ozzy Osbourne's lead guitarist Zakk Wylde, among others. And, until recently, it was virtually unknown by the general public.
In January, "Aqua Teen" officially entered the cultural lexicon after Boston authorities mistook the show's marketing campaign for a terrorist bomb plot. Police shut down the city for what turned out to be lighted silhouettes of a show character holding up his middle finger. Soon, even buttoned-down congressmen were cracking "Aqua Teen" jokes.
On Friday, the TV series makes the leap to full-length feature film with "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters," a virtually plotless, often gory and hallucinatory experience that pokes as much fun at the overwrought Hollywood blockbuster as it does at the "Aqua Teen" fans themselves. Those would be the more than 1 million viewers, most of them 18-to-34-year-old men, who take this absurdist show far more seriously than the creators intended.
The movie is strictly low-fi, two-dimensional animation, but took more than two years to complete, inspiring endless speculation among fans. At one point, clips were released online, feeding hopes that the movie would give meaning to "Aqua Teen's" otherwise meaningless premise, a nonlinear collection of random acts of mayhem. Instead, fans will get 75 minutes of material so unhinged it makes the TV show look like the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report."
"Aqua Teen" creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis started writing it in their spare time and then asked Adult Swim, a Turner Broadcasting System network that shares nighttime channel space with the Cartoon Network, to help fund its completion. Ultimately, it cost $1 million. First Look Pictures was interested even before its executives saw the finished film. Studio staffers polled their teenage children, realized they had a potential hit and took a gamble on the TV show's moviegoing demo and will open the movie in about 800 theaters nationwide.
Though it might sound like a risky venture, skeptics should note that the audience most likely to see this movie is much the same crowd that made the Spartan war story "300" a surprise box-office phenomenon.
MAIELLARO and Willis use their movie, which they wrote, directed and co-produced with Jay Wade Edwards, to offer a tiny shred of reason behind the comic horror fantasy they launched in the wee hours of Sept. 2, 2001. Back then, the show, which unfolds in 11-minute episodes, six days a week, launched with no back story. There were simply three roommates in New Jersey -- Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad -- and their neighbor Carl, a regular guy and classic-rock-loving Jersey stereotype. There was also a psychopathic scientist named Dr. Weird who seemed to have no connection to the others.
Absent any context, fans of the show conjure their own meaning in chat rooms and on fan sites. And that's just fine with Maiellaro and Willis. They aim for the greatest degree of nonsense, writing out plots, then skipping key points entirely just to confuse the audience. "It's absurd, like anti-writing," said Willis. "It's almost like anti-television....There isn't a subplot."
The movie ultimately reveals the origin of the characters, a tangled story of shared brain matter, a talking watermelon slice, Rush drummer Neil Peart's "drum solo of life" and a buxom nine-layer burrito voiced by Tina Fey. But it's virtually incomprehensible. Long before any revelation, kittens are exploded, a giant killer exercise machine wreaks havoc, the main characters are eviscerated in different ways and one admits that he is a woman trapped in a man's body. Oh, and Phil Collins' 1981 hit "In the Air Tonight" also plays a role.
To an outsider, this is either self-indulgent bad writing or fodder for bong hits and acid trips.
Early reviews of the movie -- shown in its entirety on Adult Swim on April Fool's Day, though mostly in thumbnail size -- posted online by amateur film critics have been pretty brutal. On aintitcoolnews.com, one reviewer proposed the filmmakers "scrap the film and start over." Cartoonbrew.com called it the "worst animated film of the year."
But devoted fans contend that these folks have missed the essence of the show entirely. The point, they say, is that there is no point. The brilliance of "Aqua Teen," they say, is in its Dadaist non sequiturs, which are often so far-out that each episode requires multiple viewings to catch the subtle humor and offhanded pop-culture references. One fan responded to the bad review on cartoonbrew.com by likening "Aqua Teen" to early Monty Python. Another suggested that the show shares a sensibility with "Seinfeld" and avant-garde French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard.
"There is an underlying logic behind it, but they're really not concerned with it," Todd Hanson, story editor of the Onion who has voiced an "Aqua Teen" character on the show, said of Maiellaro and Willis. "It's just like, who knows what they were thinking? The only way to figure it out is to watch it three times and then try to reverse-engineer it."
Here's one episode Hanson considered especially memorable:
Meatwad wants a new doll, so Frylock buys him the cheapest one he can find. The doll ends up being a violent alcoholic. So Frylock buys the expensive "happy" doll. The evil doll then emotionally tortures the happy doll until it blows its own head off. Then the episode veers into a parody of the 1986 sci-fi cult classic "Highlander" and Master Shake jumps off a cliff to prove his immortality, survives and then is struck by lightning and burns to death. Good times.
In the beginning
THE show originated as an unaired episode of another Adult Swim hit, "Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast," for which both Willis and Maiellaro worked as writers. They wrote an episode in which Space Ghost couldn't afford to pay for his order at a fast-food restaurant. In lieu of money, the chain demanded that its own promotional superhero mascots appear on Space Ghost's show. Frylock was a wizard who shoots rays from his eyes. Meatwad was a shape-shifting blob of rejected meat that had fallen off the conveyor belt of a processing plant. Master Shake had no real powers. And aside from the word "hunger," the show title was a complete misnomer.
None of this back story made it to the show, though there's a hint of this original plot in its opening credits and the characters' "powers" still exist. Instead, Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad started out as detectives, but that too was quickly abandoned in favor of less linear stories.
Long Beach fan Chuck Warren, a 24-year-old psychology student, has watched the show for three years and blogs about it on his website atypicalweb.com. He even met his girlfriend Rebecca, 26, on a fan site and their "Aqua Teen" affinity was so great that she moved to California from Tennessee to be with him.
"It's a polarizing show," Warren said. "You either love it or you hate it."
Absurdist humor seems to infiltrate every aspect of the "Aqua Teen" experience. A disclaimer on the film's production notes states, "Pretty much all of the information in these character notes was blatantly plagiarized from Wikipedia." It's true. It was.
Most famously, the show in January became the ultimate absurdist comment on modern life when Boston citizens noticed magnetic electronic placards of one of the Mooninites, characters based on 1980s-era videogame icons named Ignignokt and Err. Unsure of what they were, people reported them to police. Consequently, the city's highways, bridges, waterways and subway service were shut down for hours.
Then it got even weirder. Video artists Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were arrested for placing the 38 placards. (They filmed their late-night high jinks and posted it on zebbler.com, Berdovsky's website.) The next day, they held a news conference. MSNBC and Fox News carried it live.
Standing on the courthouse steps before a bank of microphones and a crowd of very earnest reporters, the two men adamantly refused to answer any questions that did not pertain to "hairstyles of the '70s." This ridiculous episode, which is still on YouTube.com, is now part of the "Aqua Teen" lore.
That kind of publicity could work in the movie's favor, drawing a broader audience. "Aqua Teen" lovers like Warren, however, are calling the film a "fan movie." He and his girlfriend arrived 7 1/2 hours early to see a special MySpace.com-sponsored screening of the film in San Diego last month. They were second in line, in front of about 700 others. Aside from the band of drunk frat guys next to them, Warren said the crowd response was pretty tame. As far as the film itself, Warren considered it just another poke in the ribs from Maiellaro and Willis.
"It's them saying it doesn't matter," he said. "As a fan, I kind of liked that. They threw it all in your face and you had to take what you wanted."