Movie review: “The Darwin Awards”

The Darwin Awards is a 2006 comedy, written and directed by Finn Taylor. It stars Joseph Fiennes as Michael Burrows, a criminal profiler for the San Francisco Police Department. He has an uncanny knack of placing himself in the shoes of the criminal, imagining what would have made him behave the way he did. Unfortunately, Mikey also suffers from acute hemophobia: the merest glimpse of blood makes him keel over in a faint. Not the most useful response when encountering extremely bloody crime scenes. Having keeled over once too many times, at yet another scene of slaughter on the part of a serial killer, he is dismissed.

Undaunted, he decides to offer his skills to an insurance company, as an investigator of those really strange cases that apparently cost insurance companies millions in claims. He is granted a probation period of 4 weeks to examine a bulging folder of cases of people who have accidentally killed themselves or lost parts of their anatomy in disturbingly strange ways. The final aim of this investigation is to create a profile of such people, effectively predicting the likelihood of their demise or dismemberment in suspicious circumstances, to save the insurance company money.

He is paired up with Winona Ryder as Siri, an insurance investigator. Although she starts off as being a bit hard-nosed and stand-offish, it turns out that she is quite a sensitive soul. The two of them set off across America, where they encounter whole host of rather peculiar folk who either completely or partially succeeded in wiping themselves out. Most of the film is seen through the camera lens of a young college student, who is shooting a documentary, and as such refuses to get involved in assisting the two main characters, even if they are in desperate need of help and are about to wipe themselves out too.

The title of the movie comes from the tongue-in-cheek award “named in honor of Charles Darwin, the ‘father’ of evolution”, to “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it”. There are five rules for inclusion on the official (and very funny) website, as a Darwin Award contender:

  1. Reproduction: “The candidate must remove himself from the gene pool.” (either by dying, or by rendering himself incapable of reproduction)
  2. Excellence: “The candidate must suffer an astounding lapse of judgment.”
  3. Self-selection: “The candidate must be the cause of his own demise.”
  4. Maturity: “The candidate must be capable of sound judgment.”
  5. Veracity: “The event must be verified.”

There is also a category for Honorable Mentions: “The stupidity displayed by the participants in the following tales stops short of the ultimate sacrifice, but we salute their spirit and innovation.”

And another category for Urban Legends: “Urban Legends are not eligible, but they remain in the archive as wonderful illustrations of heroic, albeit mythical, martyrs to the good of the gene pool.”

In the movie, there are several re-enactments of stories that are either urban legends or actual Darwin Awards:

  • the story of the man who decided to prove to his friends that the windows of his penthouse apartment are shatterproof by jumping through them;
  • the man who tries to steal a can of coke from a vending machine;
  • the very drunk couple who put their camper van on ‘cruise control’, in the mistaken belief that this is the same as a plane’s ‘autopilot’ – with painful consequences for the two of them, as well as for a dentist and his hapless patient;
  • the two hillbillies who go ice-fishing with a stick of dynamite;
  • the two doped-up Metallica fans who climb over a wall to attend the band’s concert…

But the most famous one is the JATO rocket car story. To quote from Wikipedia :

“The Arizona Highway Patrol came upon a pile of smoldering metal embedded into the side of a cliff rising above the road at the apex of a curve. the wreckage resembled the site of an airplane crash, but it was a car. The type of car was unidentifiable at the scene. The lab finally figured out what it was and what had happened.

It seems that a guy had somehow gotten hold of a JATO unit (Jet Assisted Take Off – actually a solid fuel rocket) that is used to give heavy military transport planes an extra ‘push’ for taking off from short airfields. He had driven his Chevy Impala out into the desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. Then he attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, got up some speed and fired off the JATO!

The facts, as best could be determined, are that the operator of the 1967 Impala hit JATO ignition at a distance of approximately 3.0 miles from the crash site. This was established by the prominent scorched and melted asphalt at that location. The JATO, if operating properly, would have reached maximum thrust within five seconds, causing the Chevy to reach speeds well in excess of 350 MPH, continuing at full power for an additional 20-25 seconds. The driver, soon to be pilot, most likely would have experienced G-forces usually reserved for dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners, basically causing him to become insignificant for the remainder of the event.

However, the automobile remained on the straight highway for about 2.5 miles (15-20 seconds) before the driver applied and completely melted the brakes, blowing the tires and leaving thick rubber marks on the road surface, then becoming airborne for an additional 1.4 miles and impacting the cliff face at a height of 125 feet, leaving a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.

Most of the driver’s remains were not recoverable; however, small fragments of bone, teeth and hair were extracted from the crater, and fingernail and bone shards were removed from a piece of debris believed to be a portion of the steering wheel. Incredibly, an intact bumper sticker was recovered as well. The text on the sticker was; “How do you like my driving? Dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT.”

The movie was at times very funny, and at times reallllly painful to watch because you could SEE that things were going to go veeeeeery wrong, but you couldn’t do anything to stop it.

P.S. There is also an interesting cameo appearance by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as himself.

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Other movies we’ve watched in July:  

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