As a mid-range games studio Rebellion has never exactly made major waves in the market. They seem content to limp along with the basically competent ‘Sniper Elite’ series and the occasional oddity such as ‘Strange Brigade’. As a publisher though they’ve stood out thanks to their ’90s era pop punk attitude and continued ownership of Judge Dredd. So the news that they were to expand into a film and television studio was an exciting prospect and made their debut feature one to watch. Sadly though, if School’s Out Forever is any indication, we shouldn’t hold out hope for a stunning follow-up to 2012’s Dredd anytime soon.
No, School’s Out Forever is a hot mess of a film. A tonally imbalanced, badly scripted attempt at the kind of anarchic action fare that makes up Rebellion’s typical output. Set at an elite private school the film focuses on a handful of students and teachers caught up in a complete breakdown of British society a mere three weeks after a deadly viral outbreak. A scenario that would have been laughably absurd before we were trampling our neighbours to death for the last loo roll in the shop.
As you might have guessed one of the films biggest missteps is its half-hearted attempt at topicality. Leading man Lee (Oscar Kennedy) is a working-class scholarship student while his best friend Mac (Liam Lau Fernandez) is a silver-spooned big man on campus. Yet the divide between them is never the source of any dramatic tension. They pal around in the post-apocalypse without any attempt to suggest an artificial hierarchy that might complicate matters. In fact, Lee seems largely onboard with Mac’s naked sociopathy, only turning on him after a particularly bloody execution in a film full of them.
Let it be said though that the film never attempts to skimp on violence just because of its young cast. At times the film is full-on Lord of the Flies anarchy as teachers are drowned in toilets, bandits bludgeoned with cricket bats and when the guns come into play it’s as brutal as Dredd himself. It is here that you get some idea of the film School’s Out Forever wanted to be, and the private school setting and vaguely-defined virus is merely a framework for. The problem is that it’s a such a poorly assembled frame that you can’t even enjoy it on a visceral level.
There’s a three-week time skip to allow the film to jump to Britain in anarchy. However, it only serves to pull the viewer out of the story when the time could be better spent establishing the school and the elitist attitudes that are supposed to drive major character turns. The film never hesitates to show the public school kids meeting the wrong end of a pitchfork but doesn’t bother to characterise them enough to make it feel tragic or cathartic. In fact, the film never seems to know how we should be feeling at any given moment. Should we be laughing at the cartoonish violence and inept survivalists or sympathising with the children as they bury their loved ones? It fumbles the kind of wild tonal shifts that Edgar Wright handles like a maestro.
In the hands of any other studio School’s Out Forever would be an unremarkable oddity. A satisfyingly violent action film that never capitalises on its setting or ideas. A public school as a sanctuary from the apocalypse, fighting rival communities made up of former parish councils? That’s a fun idea but sadly it is not this film and that sets a troubling precedent for Rebellion’s future.