Apocalyptic optimism at the movies
As my friend Lion pointed out to me recently, a lot of movies these days are pushing a very bleak view of the future, essentially advising audiences to prepare for inevitable doom. My mother’s reaction to this observation is that I should avoid that kind of movie, particularly in my present state, and she may be right. But Joe McHugh argues otherwise in his presentation, “Slaying the Gorgon,” which I attended at the Seattle Bioneers satellite conference in 2009. He says that when faced with realities too terrible to face directly, we should seek to understand them using the “mirrored shield of myth” (analogous to the strategy Perseus uses to kill Medusa, hence the name of the talk). So lately I’ve been looking at movies through that lens, and what follows are the results of my recent research into the modern mythology of the apocalypse. (Note: all four reviews have spoilers.)
I will admit that going to see The Croods was probably a mistake. I had finished reading The Great Disruption that morning, and was hoping to dull the pain of thinking about the coming catastrophe by focusing on some fun but meaningless animated entertainment. Instead, the movie hit me over the head with a crystal-clear allegory of Paul Gilding's thesis, while demonstrating how that thesis can be reduced to vapid pop philosophy in the service of frenetic animated nonsense.
Like today's political leaders who can't imagine a world without economic growth, Grug, the leader of the titular caveman family in The Croods, believes in fear of new ideas as a way of life. But one day a disaster strikes and the family's cave is destroyed, forcing them to embark on a perilous journey to find a better place to live. Along the way, they encounter various dangerous prehistoric creatures (many of which are totally made-up), and they’re constantly pursued by a giant crack opening in the earth. (Gilding’s Great Disruption will likewise be a time of constant danger that forces us to transform our society.)
The main character, Grug’s daughter Eep, is nevertheless thrilled by the chance to explore new landscapes and learn new solutions to the potentially deadly challenges they present. These solutions are provided by Guy, an orphan and prolific inventor who also espouses a religious faith in “tomorrow.”* Much like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, Guy wins the hearts of the Croods (especially Eep) away from Grug, who reacts childishly by pretending that he can be an inventor too. In the end, he grudgingly accepts the need for Guy’s leadership and, in what momentarily appears to be a touching act of self-sacrifice, uses his caveman strength to toss the rest of the characters across a chasm to the New World, forcing them to leave him behind.
But this is a kid’s movie, so the filmmakers hacked together a miraculous escape plan for Grug in which he becomes an inventor for real, and uses the lethal piranha birds to power an aerial vehicle made of a land whale’s ribcage. (Similarly, Gilding claims we must use the deadly crises of the Great Disruption as a tool, with the fear of imminent collapse driving us to make an unbelievably rapid transition to a better way of living.) Grug is reunited with his family and, having firmly renounced the fearful caveman lifestyle, they all live happily ever after in a seaside paradise.
*One Christian reviewer was convinced that these were really coded sermons about Jesus, rather than vapidly simplistic libertarian odes to technology and novelty. I almost wish she was right.
At least the advertising for Oblivion is honest about the dark nature of its premise, so that I knew what I was getting myself into (and therefore invited my friend Lion to see it with me and discuss it afterward). The movie is less honest about other things, though. The first version of the story we get is that a war with aliens largely destroyed Earth, and humans now have to complete that destruction using ocean-devouring power plants in order to build a new home for themselves on Titan. This bizarre cover story is replaced with an only slightly less fanciful story of an evil alien machine called the Tet that is completing its conquest of Earth, using human clones with programmed minds as its foot-soldiers, fooling them into thinking that the other surviving humans are the alien enemy.
At first glance, this seems to have little relevance to our current crisis, which humanity brought upon itself. But the two main characters, Jack and Victoria, are just two of those clones. They serve the Tet because they think it's a human institution with good intentions, which is roughly how most people view the abstract and world-spanning Machine of Civilization today. To drive home the point that we aren’t meant to identify only with the human rebels who are trying to thwart the alien’s plans, the filmmakers included an extended “over-shoulder” tracking shot of an alien drone as it shoots up the rebel base. In my interpretation, the overall metaphor is a reminder that our everyday lives and jobs have consequences that we can’t directly see, including accumulating more and more power at the rarefied heights of the economy at the expense of continued destruction of the natural world.
The imagery of the movie, as Lion observed, is intentionally “ghostly,” with the tagline “Earth is a memory” reflected in the washed-out color scheme and surreal scenes of half-buried buildings that have become one with the land. The most interesting location, though, is a solar- and wind-powered cabin by a lake in a beautiful forested valley. Jack visits it out of nostalgia for the lost world he can only barely remember (because the Tet wiped his memory), but the movie also ends with Jack’s wife, Julia, building a future there with a young daughter. Although Jack number 49, the main character, has sacrificed himself to destroy the Tet, Julia discovers that Jack number 52 survived and has been looking for her ever since. It’s a beautiful way to end on a hopeful note, only slightly spoiled by one character in the scene wearing a Coca-Cola t-shirt.
I have very little to say about Iron Man 3. It’s mostly a movie about awesome imaginary technology, complete with amusing malfunctions (a houseplant explodes while testing a limb-regeneration technique; a holographic projector accidentally loads an image of the universe rather than the intended brain scan; Tony Stark’s trademark armored suit keeps falling apart at awkward moments). The only interesting detail comes at the end, when Tony implausibly decides that his suits, which have just proven themselves extremely useful in the climactic battle, need to be destroyed because human relationships, specifically his relationship with girlfriend Pepper, are more important. This gesture toward the growing anti-materialist sentiments in our society, which Paul Gilding discusses in his chapter on steady-state economics, is somewhat undercut when Tony, belatedly remembering to be grateful for the assistance he had received from a boy named Harley, buys Harley a bunch of cool toys to help him pursue his interest in engineering.
In the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock nearly sacrifices himself in the process of saving a world named Nibiru from certain doom. Later, explaining his actions and lack of emotion to his girlfriend Uhura, he refers back to the destruction of his home planet in the previous movie, explaining that the emotions triggered by that catastrophe were so horrible that he vowed never to let himself experience such pain again. It’s an eloquent argument in favor of what Lion refers to as the “emotional numbing” so highly valued in our society, and given how stomach pain has resulted from my feelings of despair and frustration over the last few weeks, I’m somewhat inclined to take Spock’s advice.
Surprisingly, the movie has no other references to the apocalypse worth mentioning. The much more interesting metaphors in the film are its clearly deliberate allegories of modern American military madness. Admiral Marcus, the head of Starfleet, is a George W. Bush analog who’s obsessed with finding an excuse to start a war with the Klingons. To that end, he orders Kirk to use an advanced missile to assassinate a citizen of Earth who’s hiding on the Klingon homeworld (a clear reference to the Obama administration’s targeted killing of U.S. citizens using aerial drones). Despite the fact that Kirk knows the man in question killed his mentor, Admiral Pike, in a terrorist attack on Starfleet HQ, Spock is able to talk Kirk out of executing the illegal assassination order.
But Spock changes his mind about the value of revenge at the end of the movie, when the terrorist (whose name is Khan) severely damages the Enterprise, forcing Kirk to sacrifice himself to prevent the ship from crashing to Earth. Immediately thereafter, Khan crashes his own damaged ship into Starfleet’s home city of San Francisco, destroying several large buildings and presumably killing many thousands of innocent people, but the movie doesn’t ever ask us to worry about them. Spock, thinking only of taking revenge for Kirk’s death, beams down and viciously attacks Khan, who defends himself ably until Uhura arrives to help. She then has to remind Spock that Khan must be kept alive so his genetically enhanced blood can be used to resurrect Kirk.
Continuing the role reversal, Kirk gives a closing speech about Starfleet’s ideals, explaining that taking revenge for lost loved ones is “not who we are.” The filmmakers then muddy the message further by dedicating the film to “our post-9/11 veterans with gratitude for their inspired service abroad…” despite the fact that said service is partly motivated by revenge for a terrorist attack, a fact that the dedication unnecessarily emphasizes by referencing the attack itself.
Okay, so those last two didn't fit the theme very well, but luckily this year’s upcoming releases will provide plenty more fodder for this investigation. After Earth comes out next week, Man of Steel (which starts out with the destruction of the planet Krypton) is less than a month away, and Elysium (which is more of a dystopia, but still raises the question of how it got that way) comes out in early August. I might skip After Earth if the reviews are terrible (which seems likely given M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record), and I’m very likely to skip Pacific Rim, the invasion-of-the-giant-lizards movie that comes out in July. But that still leaves plenty of apocalyptic sci-fi madness to experience and study, even though my mom says I shouldn’t.