The camera loves Greg Sommer, the thirtysomething subject of Skull World. It’s hard to look away from a documentary whose primary talking head is more often than not encased in a homemade skull mask. An energetic extrovert who held his high-school graduation ceremony hostage for five minutes while he ranted and raged in character as his bony alter ego, Sommer now lives in his mother’s basement, works in a graveyard and has dedicated his life to “box wars” – a global phenomenon wherein would-be warriors construct their own stylized cardboard weaponry and body armour, and pound on each other in parking lots and public parks.
Documentaries about role-playing subcultures have been in vogue over the past few years. Skull World tries to differentiate itself by focusing intently on a single box warrior in lieu of a more panoramic view, but Justin McConnell’s film isn’t particularly interesting as a character study. The problem is not Sommer, whose fondness for all things gross and ghoulish is consistently amusing and even endearing. The issue is that McConnell has made the film in thrall to his subject instead of trying to prod or probe beyond the corrugated, spray-painted surfaces. He’s operating more as a fan or a friend than as a filmmaker.
McConnell’s intimate proximity to the material may explain why Skull World is such an undisciplined piece of filmmaking despite its solid production values. Shot over a period of two years, during which Sommer’s labours take him from school fun fairs in the United States to Australia (the ancestral homeland of box wars), the film tries to disguise its basic redundancy through sheer velocity. It’s fast-paced and yet repetitive. The footage of the box wars is entertaining – the weapons are fake, but the blows look like they hurt – and yet when stretched over 100 minutes, these group throwdowns lose their novelty value.
The most admirable thing about Skull World is that it refrains from poking fun at Sommer and his pals for their geeky enthusiasms, and yet this same indulgence is its greatest weakness. A better movie would have tried to precisely pinpoint the reasons that so many guys want to transform themselves into life-sized versions of their childhood action figures. Instead, Skull World simply asks us to sit back and enjoy the three-ring circus that is Greg Sommer’s day-to-day existence.