From the very beginning, mainstream movies have often been set in a future world that exhibits many of the ills found in the contemporary. This allows the film to adopt a critical stance but without risking a confrontation with the powerful financial interests that dominate mainstream movie-making, who don’t seem to mind a bit of subversion tucked away in a science fiction subgenre.
The future as dystopia can assume one of two guises. It can be a world in which there is material abundance and sybaritic pleasures but one governed by strict rules that prohibit personal expression, even on the level of sexual intimacy. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an inspiration for these sorts of movies, ranging from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” to Sylvester Stallone’s “Demolition Man.” Both of these include a comic scene in which the protagonist, who has woken up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, is shocked to discover that sex in the future does not involve actual intercourse, but electromechanical substitutes. In all other respects, the citizens enjoy the good life despite being tightly controlled by a paternalistic state.
The other model is George Orwell’s “1984”, which is far less pleasant across the board. There are harsh living conditions, force-fed propaganda messages and brutal repression directed against dissidents. Obviously, Orwell’s future is a lot closer to the one that late capitalist society seems to be evolving toward.
The very first foray into a scary future was Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a film that featured factory workers slaving away in the bowels of the city under the control of a master class that lived in luxury on the surface. They ultimately rebel against their conditions in a manner that must have resonated with the average worker in Weimar Germany, where the film first appeared. Despite its ostensibly radical vision, Marxists did not exactly greet the film with open arms. They were repelled by a class collaborationist message that involved the tyrant’s son interceding on behalf of the workers after he wakes up to the system’s injustice. While one might quibble with a certain kind of dogmatism that failed to recognize a great work of art on its own terms, the critics were hitting on something that pervades all such films. That is the tendency to feature a kind of super-hero who liberates the oppressed rather to depict the oppressed liberating themselves. The latter message would appear to defy long-standing studio parameters, even more so than those involving sexual taboos.
These considerations provide a context for evaluating three recent films that are of ascending interest, both cinematically and politically: “V for Vendetta”, “District B13”, and “Children of Men”.
1. “V for Vendetta”
The screenplay for this 2005 film was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed the Matrix series. Before they made films, the Wachowskis wrote comic books for Marvel, the publisher long associated with super-heroes and pushing the envelope of the genre. Marvel Comics have spawned a number of blockbuster films in recent years, including the X-Men and Spiderman series. Its proclivity for making money attracted the interest of corporate raider Carl Icahn who fought Ron Perelman, another corporate raider, for control of the 3 billion dollar comic book empire in 1989. Icahn’s goal was to move Marvel into the film-making business. Eventually, the value of Marvel stock suffered a huge loss in value, despite being “hot” in the mid 1990’s.
Stenberg Brothers poster
In 1993, comic book artist Neil Gaiman gave a speech to an industry gathering in which he compared comics to the tulip mania of the 17th century and accused his audience of selling cases of comics to children who thought they were buying collectors’ items, the equivalent in essence of their seniors who bought Enron or Pets.com stock around the same time.
You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you’re selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse.
(NY Times, May 24, 1998)
The Wachowskis are very much a product of this world. They understood that the Matrix films would appeal to the same kind of audience that flocked to other Marvel Comics adaptations. The Neo character played by Keanu Reeves was not that much different from Spiderman or the X-Men, who were plucked from obscurity and thrust into planet-saving roles. What the Matrix offers, however, is an opportunity to be educated in Wachowski thought, which can best be described as a kind of neo-Gnosticism that pits the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness, in this case a network of artificial-intelligence guided robots that have taken over the world. To show that they were some degree sensitive to real-life struggles against injustice, they cast post-Marxist and African-American scholar Cornel West in the final 2 films of the Matrix trilogy.
Larry Wachowski, who went to my alma mater Bard College, had told West that his writings had influenced his work. As it turned out, one of the two sentences the Wachowskis had written for West’s character (“Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation” run counter to West’s socialist beliefs but that did not prevent him from agreeing to play a bit role.
In many ways, “V for Vendetta” seems to be right up the Wachowski brothers’ alley. With a masked, lone-wolf, anarchist-terrorist hero battling the fascist rulers of a Great Britain of the future, the story once again places the emphasis on the individual redeemer. To show their affinities with Marxist culture, if on a somewhat superficial level, the promotional poster for the film was done in the style of the Stenberg brothers, two mainstays of Soviet poster art.
The screenplay was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. Moore had published with Marvel Comics’s UK subsidiary during the 1980s and later moved to DC comics, a competitor. A number of films had already been made based on his graphic novels, all of which he regarded as a travesty. “V for Vendetta” seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, however. Even before the work began on the film adaptation, Moore said he was not interested. Referring to Larry Wachowski, Moore told the NY Times in March 12, 2006: ”I explained to him that I’d had some bad experiences in Hollywood. I didn’t want any input in it, didn’t want to see it and didn’t want to meet him to have coffee and talk about ideas for the film.”
Joel Silver and wife at Matrix premiere
That did not convince the two brothers and producer Joel Silver, who had collaborated on the Matrix series, from going ahead on the project. (Silver regards himself as an expert on Frank Lloyd Wright, and owns several houses he designed. He added: “I buy art – I don’t make it.”) The principals obviously understood that big bucks were involved.
While Moore’s novel was an attack on the Thatcher regime, the movie is a thinly veiled attack on the abuses associated with the “war on terror”. The British government uses the mass media to control public opinion in an ongoing conflict with domestic dissidents and enemies abroad, including the USA somewhat inexplicably. The atmosphere is very much that of Orwell’s “1984”, with a passive population being force-fed idiotic “entertainment” and political propaganda on a nonstop basis from government-controlled television stations.
In tune with a general sense of suspicion about the government in the post-9/11 period, the “V for Vendetta” plot includes a government conspiracy to unleash biological warfare on an unsuspecting population that in some ways resonates with claims that the American government developed the AIDS virus in secrecy as a weapon against African peoples and gays.
“V”, the hero of Vendetta, who is responsible for a series of Weatherman-style bombings of unoccupied government buildings, styles himself after Guy Fawkes, the Roman Catholic who was hanged in 1605 after being implicated in a plot to blow up the Parliament building. V was the victim of an early experiment in developing an antidote for the virus and now seeks revenge against the people who wronged him. Throughout the entire film, he demonstrates not the slightest inkling how Great Britain ended up in such a state or how his isolated actions will end the dictatorship. Leaving aside these sorts of fundamental questions, V’s character development is hampered by the fact that he is behind a mask the entire film. Although Greek tragedy and Jean Genet utilized masks, I found this device utterly counter-productive. Then again, the Wachowskis are no Sophocles.
In the climax of the film, V succeeds in blowing up Parliament with the help of Evey, his acolyte who can best be described as a yuppie TV junior employee that he recruits to his plot in a variation on the Stockholm syndrome. After simulating a rat-infested dungeon that Evey originally assumes was inside a state prison modeled after Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, V somehow pressures her into becoming an anarchist-terrorist like himself.
As implausible as this sounds, it is nothing compared to the final moments of the film when thousands of ordinary citizens converge on the Parliament just before it is blown up. They are wearing Guy Fawkes masks that he has sent out in the mail. Apparently, just receiving such a mask is sufficient to get them to turn against the system. What a fool I was to sell socialist newspapers throughout the 60s and 70s. I would have been better off blowing up buildings and sending out Karl Marx masks to complete strangers, I guess.
2. “District B13”
Thankfully, this 2004 French film now available in home video lacks the pomposity of “V for Vendetta”. It is a straightforward action film strongly influenced by Hong Kong cinema that depicts a Paris in 2010 divided between haves and have-nots. Uncannily anticipating the 2005 suburban rebellion mounted by North African and Arab youth, District B13 refers to the area where have-nots reside that is cordoned off by guards functioning like the Israeli army. Its citizens are subject to a continuing decline of jobs and social services. The main economic activity in the ghetto is selling drugs.
In the opening scene, a drug gang stages an assault on the top-floor apartment of Leito, who is washing drugs that he has stolen from them down his kitchen drain. Leito (David Belle) has decided to launch a one-man crusade against people selling drugs on his block. The gangsters chase him across rooftops in a gravity-defying scene that is equal to anything I have seen coming out of Hong Kong in recent years.
Leito, a Portuguese name although his nationality is not identified as such, eventually takes drug kingpin Taha Bemamud (Bibi Naceri) into custody and turns him over to the cops who release him. It turns out that the cops are just as bad as the criminals they are sworn to oppose. It is of course no accident that the top gangster is a North African. Although the film clearly takes the side of the victims of racism, it is not beyond a bit of stereotyping.
Naceri co-wrote the script with Luc Besson, the producer of “La Femme Nikita” and a host of other action films. On December 12, 2006 Besson announced that he is ending his film career and starting a foundation to aid youths in poor French neighborhoods. For some reason, it is hard for me to imagine Joel Silver or the Wachowskis following suit.
Leito is framed by the cops and sent to prison for a long stretch. After the authorities discover that Taha has acquired a neutron bomb on the black market, they decided to send Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli), an undercover cop, into District B13 to wrest control and defuse the device. Since nobody knows the byways of the district as well as Leito, they team him up with the cop, who is a martial arts expert like him. The remainder of the film consists of kick-ass action without the kind of idiotic trick camera work that has marred recent Hong Kong movies and sharp attacks on the hypocrisy and racism of the French police and politicians.
3. “Children of Men”
Like “V for Vendetta,” this is a dystopia set in a future Great Britain that has many of the characteristics of the contemporary 9/11 political landscape.
The screenplay is an adaptation of P.D. James’s 1993 novel of the same name, whose plot is based on the premise that the entire human race becomes sterile in 1995. Since women can no longer conceive, they concoct elaborate baby-naming ceremonies for kittens, etc. Set in the year 2022, everything about Great Britain is still the same despite the fact that it is dying.
In Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (co-written with Timothy J. Sexton), elements of James’s plot are retained but are overlaid with many aspects of contemporary British and American reality, including most of all an all-out war on immigrants from Arab and North African lands and elsewhere, who are rounded up like cattle and transported to detention camps where they are humiliated and tortured. In a conscious evocation of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we see them in cages and covered by hoods.
When a young African woman becomes pregnant, an underground group devoted to defending immigrants’ rights decides to use the baby as a propaganda symbol for their struggle. Julian Taylor, one of their leaders (played by Julianne Moore) decides that the baby should rather be allowed to grow up in a commune run by something called Humanworld and enlists Theo Faron (Clive Owen), her lover from years earlier, to spirit mother and child away from the group.
Like Bogart in Casablanca, Faron is not really inclined to sacrifice himself for any cause even though he–like Bogart–has an activist past. Also, like Bogart, he has contacts inside government circles that will furnish transit papers to the mother and child that will allow them to escape the deadly net that all immigrants face. From the minute that Faron decides to take part in this risky mission, the film hurdles forward with the speed and power of a runaway locomotive.
Cuarón, who has directed films as varied as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Y tu mamá también” in the past, brings an entirely new perspective into this genre. His future Great Britain has very little of the high-tech feel associated with what essentially amounts to science fiction material, but instead consists of a series of riveting images of what the future holds in store, largely drawn from the present-day. We see stacks of burned cows in the countryside, evoking the aftermath of the “Mad Cow” outbreak. People still travel about in railway cars, but the windows are covered with steel mesh that protects them from rocks thrown by gangs of feral youth who wander about like characters in a Mad Max film, but without the tricked-up costumes and vehicle gadgetry. And everything is covered in filth and decay. This is a Great Britain that has the bombed out look of contemporary Baghdad. The message seems to be that as long as Great Britain carries out an assault on foreign lands, it is destined to bring ruin on itself.
Although the sheer movie-making talent exhibited in “Children of Men” makes me reluctant to subject its ideas to scrutiny, a word or two about this is in order, especially given the obvious seriousness and sincerity of its writers and director. It has to be said that the underground rebels come across as little better than the fascists they are fighting to overthrow. They are utterly ruthless in their methods and seem bent on nothing except achieving power, despite mouthing slogans and jargon about the downtrodden. One imagines that the original material by P.D. James was not very much help to start with, since one of the principal demands of her rebels was the closing of porn shops!
While film-makers’ imaginations run wild when it comes to the future, they seem a bit limited when it comes to the current day. Despite 5 years of a war on terror and growing repression against domestic dissidents and undocumented workers, there has not been a single movie that takes on these questions without flinching (there of course have been powerful documentaries.)
When somebody like Oliver Stone decides to make a movie draped in the “remember our heroes” iconography of 9/11 rather than one about the victimization of Muslims in America, it is not too hard to figure out the mood of Hollywood. Like the Democratic Party it orients to, it has lacked the guts to take the system on full throttle. Instead it prefers to bankroll movies that dance around the edges like “Babel” or “V for Vendetta”.
Unlike novel-writing, which ultimately costs nothing more than the time of the author and the reams of paper it takes to complete his or her work, a motion picture requires millions of dollars of up-front funding. That kind of project, like running candidates for major office, is highly reliant on the deep pockets of individual investors. Perhaps the definitive statement on the current period will have to come from a novelist, although the prejudices against an old-fashioned novel of ideas seem to dictate against that outcome. But with the ever-increasing tide of injustice and cruelty manifested by a system in decay, one can only hope that an artist will step forward and accept their role as unacknowledged legislators of mankind, as Shelley once put it.