FAN FILM: Suburban Knights (2011)

Suburban Knights (USA, 2011)
Directed by Doug Walker
Starring Doug Walker, Lindsay Ellis, Lewis Lovhaug, Noah Antwiler

As much as film reviewers like myself harp on about the current state of Hollywood and the lack of innovation in Western cinema, we have to acknowledge that we live in a time of great privilege for budding filmmakers. The speed of innovation in digital video, photography and effects means that it is now easier and cheaper than ever before for would-be directors to pick up a camera and make a name for themselves. The internet provides instant, widespread and bespoke publicity for their efforts, challenging both traditional media and the powers that own it.
But this surge in readily-available low-budget filmmaking raises a question for reviewers. Should internet films (and by extension fan films) be readily compared to their bigger-budget, mainstream cousins, or should we suspend our normal critical faculties and embrace their niche nature? At the top end of the fan film-making scale, we have Suburban Knights, the third anniversary special of pop culture comedy site It's not perfect, or for everyone, but for fans of the site and film parodies it offers a great deal of geeky joy.
There has been some debate as to whether Suburban Knights should be considered a bona fide film. It has entries on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, the latter of which doesn't cover TV or internet series, but it was originally released online as a seven-part miniseries that was subsequently edited together. Given the next-to-no budget and the camera quality, we know from the get-go that it's not the most cinematic experience in the world. And unlike Fred: The Movie, it is not attempting to break free from its original medium: it is first and foremost a child of the internet.
The story of Suburban Knights follows the mould of previous TGWTG efforts, packing in as many references and film jokes as possible while still trying to have a coherent story. This time the Nostalgia Critic (Doug Walker) has come across a map left by a missing Dungeons and Dragons player, which leads to an ancient magical gauntlet called Malachite's Hand. In order to find the gauntlet (which they intend to get rich off), Walker and his fellow reviewers must dress up as different fantasy or quest-based characters and do battle with a series of obstacles, including an ancient creature called Cat, the Witch Warrior and villainous henchmen called the Cloaks.
Regardless of whether or not you're a fan of the site, the film is at its most basic a two-hour-long in-joke. It exists as a thank-you to the fans of the site, without whom the different producers would not have become famous, let alone reached the stage where they could be paid to do what they love full-time. The film establishes its niche nature very early on, presuming that you have some foreknowledge of the site or its key personalities before you come to it. Because we are dealing with a specialist internet review site, rather than an adaptation of a book, play or TV series, it is somewhat redundant to criticise it for not having broad, mainstream appeal.
That said, the biggest irony about Suburban Knights is how accessible it is for casual viewers. The site's previous efforts, the TGWTG Brawl and Kickassia, were funny if you were die-hard fans, but to the uninitiated resembled a bunch of nerds acting out their fan fictions. While the film is still in-jokey and geeky, it is far less insular, giving us a story which we can follow and be engrossed by while still giving the die-hards what they want. It's somewhat akin in spirit to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: the experience is still memorable regardless of how many references you spot.
Suburban Knights is also a narratively stronger work than its predecessors, which gives the welcome impression of talent which is developing incrementally. Beyond its novelty values the Brawl was essentially 20 minutes of inane fighting and bad effects, while Kickassia had promise but was basically a feature-length Looney Tunes cartoon (to quote Noah 'Spoony' Antwiler).
This time around there is a stronger plot with some degree of character development, and despite the film spoofing swords and sorcery, there is less of a reliance on special effects set-pieces. Walker wanted to achieve a genuine sense of threat surrounding the reviewers, giving them a genuine reason to club together within their fictional universe. By having your villain as someone who wants to destroy all technology (except iPhones, as it turns out), there is an incentive to join forces against a very credible threat to their livelihoods.
The risk with having a more serious story and tone is that Suburban Knights would risk becoming po-faced. But while Fanboys eventually ran out of steam, Walker is careful to balance out the darker plot points with some good old-fashioned self-awareness. Various jokes are made about the limitations of the production and the overall absurdity of the quest, ranging from Lewis 'Linkara' Lovhaug's demands for a song since he didn't get a story arc, to Brad 'Cinema Snob' Jones' admission during the playground fight that "yeah, this is kinda silly".
If nothing else you have to give props to Walker and his colleagues for the ambition of the project. Like Kickassia the film was shot over a total of four days, with a great deal of location shooting and for the most part with only one camera. If the making-of documentary is to be believed, the film almost didn't come to be: heavy rain and cold weather forced shooting to be abandoned, and it was only through a display of major cast enthusiasm that Walker was persuaded to continue. Considering that a great deal of scenes had to be pared down or cut altogether, it is a small miracle that Suburban Knights hangs together as well as it does.
It would take too long to list all the films, cartoons, TV shows and video games that Suburban Knights references, but suffice to say there are plenty of great jokes to send our inner geeks into a frenzy. The revelation of the fantasy characters is very well-orchestrated, particularly Justin 'JewWario' Carmical's entrance as Jareth the Goblin King, complete with crystal ball and... package. Brownie points also go to Kaylyn 'Marzgurl' Dicksion, who delivers all but one of her lines in Japanese while cosplaying as Princess Mononoke.
But rather than simply dumping a load of references on screen in the hope that some of them will stick, the script of Suburban Knights is well-written and properly integrates the majority of them. The funeral of Ma-Ti (played by the site's executive producer Bhargav Dronamraju) is a beautifully-judged rip-off of Spock's funeral in Star Trek II, complete with Trek obsessive Linkara in full uniform. Brad Jones does an uncanny Indiana Jones impression, dropping in lines from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade with great panache. And Spoony does a great job of channelling the Gatekeeper from Nightmare in the hilarious "give me light" sequence.
There are problems with Suburban Knights, some of which are reflective of the budgetary limitations. Some references don't translate across the pond - there are few Britons who remember the Zelda cartoon, let alone Captain Planet. More problematic are the fight scenes, which drag out and are badly choreographed: you can clearly see people wandering around in the background waiting for their next shot. The playground fight has its moments but feels the most obviously amateurish part, and simply joking about it being amateurish doesn't cut the mustard.
All in all, Suburban Knights is a solid, affectionate and funny fan film which will satisfy fans of the site and hopefully attract a fair few newcomers. While the acting ranges from good to passable and there are technical shortcomings, the film is well-written and rewards repeat viewing with its references and strong story. If nothing else, it sets the bar pretty damn high for To Boldly Flee.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A high-water mark for fan films