With Kung Fury, Culture Reaches Peak Nostalgia

The Kickstarter-funded action spoof has been a hit on YouTube, but is it the future of film or a sign of the industry’s demise?

Laser Unicorns

The premise of Kung Fury is the stuff nonsensical B-movies and particularly elaborate fever dreams are made of. A Miami cop is struck by lightning and bitten by a cobra, which events give him magical kung fu powers that he uses to fight (in no particular order) a sentient arcade machine, the Norse god Thor, and Adolf Hitler.

The 30-minute movie was crowd-funded to the tune of $630,000 on Kickstarter, played at the Cannes Director's Fortnight, and has been distributed on YouTube, where it’s earned 11 million views in five days. David Hasselhoff performed its theme song. Considering its small budget, Kung Fury is a feat of technical genius, even though its imagery cynically appeals to its audience's nostalgia. As a one-off, it’s a hilarious trifle. But in the crowdfunded future, will all movies look like this?

There's a reason Kung Fury was such a Kickstarter phenomenon, after all. When it debuted on the crowdfunding website in December 2013, it came with a five-minute sizzle reel of the special effects Swedish director/star David Sandberg had cooked up with his own money. "It's an action comedy about a super kung-fu cop in Miami in the 1980s who decides to travel back in time in order to kill Adolf Hitler," Sandberg declared, somewhat matter-of-factly, to the 17,000-odd people who spent their money to help him achieve his vision. Shot entirely in front of a green screen, Kung Fury represents the leaps and bounds visual effects have made in the 11 years since the release of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a Hollywood action blockbuster starring Jude Law and Angelina Jolie that was filmed in a similar matter—but cost $70 million to make.

Kung Fury doesn't quite have the sheen of Sky Captain or similar Hollywood green-screen epics like Sin City or 300. But it's not far off. Considering the film was shot at Sandberg's offices in Stockholm, piece by piece, with actors and extras doing their individual work before being composited into the computer-generated backgrounds of the film, Kung Fury is quite a jaw-dropping achievement. Sandberg wears his inspiration on his sleeve—seemingly every cheesy 80s action movie gets a nod, from the street gangs of Robocop to the dark Patrick Swayze heroics of Road House to the extended Nintendo ad campaign The Wizard.

But those were films made with the severe limitations of both their era and the rigid narrative formulas demanded by their studios. Kung Fury mocks those limitations by imitating them—its hero gets barked at by a grumpy boss who complains about City Hall, he jumps from location to location with little explanation (visiting the Viking era along with Hitler's Germany) and executes perfect action move after move with plenty of help from Sandberg's visual effects team. Any time there's a continuity error that requires shooting around (one actress was replaced between shooting the trailer and the full film), the screen blurs with VCR "tracking" static to make it look seamless.

From a storytelling perspective, these kinds of films have existed for years: The TV channel SyFy long produced Z-list creature features before realizing their viewing audience was largely tuning in to laugh at them. The network's programmers leaned into that reputation and created trashy gems like Sharknado, featuring stars (Tara Reid, Ian Ziering) whose careers had taken something of a nosedive. That film was made in 2013 for $2 million and runs for 85 minutes. Extrapolate out Kung Fury's budget to feature length and it would cost about the same—in fact, Sandberg promised a feature if he raised $1 million, although he didn’t hit that goal. But it looks much, much better.

These kinds of things always have diminishing returns, though. Sharknado has already produced two sequels—entry three is subtitled Oh Hell No! and features, among others, David Hasselhoff. As SyFy has dialed up the irony, interest levels have declined, although the profit margins remain tempting enough to surely guarantee a few more sequels. What makes Kung Fury stand out compared to SyFy's efforts is the obvious labor that went into crafting its visuals and the pure raging id of its plot: Sharknado works up some faux-science nonsense about a tornado hitting a school of sharks, but Kung Fury can conjure whatever villain its imagination allows. (It's almost underwhelming that with that blank a canvas to play with, Sandberg settled on fighting Hitler.)

But in the end, Kung Fury is a confection, and a rather cynical one at that—a perfect argument for the Kickstarter-to-YouTube model, which will reward projects that speak to the broadest online audience. What helps the film stand out from the pack is its technical mastery, but also the fact that everyone on the internet with a disposable income has seen a few 80s action movies.

The ultimate fear is that more and more entertainment plays to that low common denominator, appealing to the internet’s love of crisp visuals and nostalgia. While that genre will always exist, it’s hard to see it sustaining an entire industry. Family Guy has lasted for 13 seasons with a sense of reference-based humor that appeals to the same audience: nominally niche, but actually very broad. It's one thing to rack up YouTube views, but you might wonder if we'll be talking about Kung Fury a year from now—or even a month.