Ever since the 1950s at least, science fiction and horror movies have served to make some social or political point either tilting to the left (The Day the Earth Stood Still) or right (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). That tendency continues unabated as three recent movies have provided commentary on contemporary society while scaring the bejesus out of you or at least striving to do so. In order of success, I refer you to the following.
Splice refers to gene-splicing and particularly the attempt of two molecular biologists to create new life forms based on a motley collection of animals, drawing from the strengths of each. Their initial specimen looks a bit like an oversized slug. The hope is that the new species will be mined for genetic material that can fight diseases such as Parkinson’s, etc.
The two biologists are a husband and wife team played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. The casting of Brody, an actor known for a-list productions like The Jacket and The Pianist , might indicate that this is no run of the mill monster movie. Brody and Polley are Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, who come across as the sort of people who live in Tribeca rather than suburban tract housing. As expressions of their hipness, Clive is seen at one point in a plaid suit that you can spot in a Madison Avenue boutique if you ever wander along that outpost of conspicuous consumption. On their bedroom wall there is an oversized oil painting based on Japanese manga (comic book) art. On the evening after they have made their gene-splicing breakthrough for a powerful bioengineering firm, they sit around trying to decide how big an apartment they can now afford. When they get their comeuppance, as will be inevitable from their scientific hubris, you can’t suppress a feeling that they had it coming.
Elsa is even more ambitious than her husband, not only in terms of commodity fetishism but in pushing the envelope in gene-splicing. She says that the ultimate product will not be based solely on animals but on a combination of human and animal. This will be a better guarantee of curing diseases, as well of course of securing fame and fortune.
The result of their latest experiment looks more or less like an even larger slug on legs. It turns out that this is a human embryo that is growing outside a mother’s womb. As it progresses rapidly to maturity, the end result is something that looks a lot like Mariel Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Manhattan except with a serpent like tail and ostrich like legs and an inability to speak. She has the intelligence of a human being, however, as well as the sex drive.
Previews might have led you to believe that Splice had something in common with Species, another monster movie that did scare the bejesus out of you even if it lacked the sophistication and kinky intelligence of Splice. The true inspiration for Splice is not the run-of-the-mill monster flick but the poignant 1935 Bride of Frankenstein which has the monster demanding of his maker that he find him a mate since he can no longer stand being lonely. When the husband and wife created their version of Frankenstein, they did not anticipate that her hormones would be raging not three weeks after they created her. The complications that this would lead to, however, have nothing in common with the average teen romance. This is instead hormones from hell.
While one might not expect a mainstream movie like this to examine the contradictions of genetic splicing in the fashion it deserves, one might hope that it might inspire others to penetrate to the heart of the matter in the way that my old friend Mark Jones once did:
A genetic engineer has created a mouse with ears that glow in the dark, by splicing firefly genes into mouse DNA.
More practically, transgenic pigs that freeze to death if left in the open because the human genes they’ve got don’t let them accumulate fat, already make our bacon. Coming soon: bespoke pig heart transplants in case the fat-free pig didn’t help us avoid coronaries. I have been reading up on genes and transgenic science, and how the media handle it all. The stories and images arrive by stealth in our unconcscious from inside the labs where evolution is being undone. They ought to make your hair stand on end (when the journal Nature broke the story of Dolly the cloned sheep — ‘More important than Darwin, Einstein and Copernicus together!’ — its graphic designers airbrushed one leg black, to make the thing look more cuddly. They forgot a cloned sheep whose ‘parent’ has four white legs can itself only have four white legs).
These images of biotech at work are mostly like that: not stark tekno, but homely flesh-tones: a bowl of rice, an ear of wheat, cheerful rodents made literally anthropomorphic, like the mouse with a human ear growing on its back. Oh, cute!
These images condition us to accept something more terrible than anything Himmler, Pol Pot or Mengele did. None of them managed to rob their victims of their humanity. We can feel pity and terror for the hollow-eyed, numbered prisoners of Tuol Sleng, but a mouse with luminous ears? You cannot pity the loss of something that was never there in the first place. This not a living thing, it is quasi-alive, it is just an agglomeration of high-spec cells which happens to move around and stare vacantly. Now, just as the first slaves were modeled on the first domesticated animals (hunter-gatherers do not enslave) so the first not-human humans, or bits of humans, will be modelled on the mice with the ears. Headless humans grown from our own nail parings for our own transplants. Androids like in Dick’s 60’s classic, the basis of Blade Runner.
Daybreakers is a vampire movie with a difference. In the distant future, the vampires have taken over the world and are harvesting the remaining human beings for blood who are attached to various tubes that provide just enough nourishment to keep them alive. It is a metaphor, of course, for industrial meat production and a barbed commentary on how ghastly the capitalist mode of food production is.
In the same way that bluefin tuna is becoming extinct today, human beings are dwindling down to a few so much so that blood is rationed to the vampires who often are forced to accept an animal substitute that leaves them unsatisfied. It is the difference, one supposes, between soyburgers and the real thing especially if you prefer your burger drippingly rare.
Ethan Hawke stars as Edward Dalton, a researcher like the yuppie couple in Spice whose job it is develop blood substitutes for the bioengineering mega-corporation he works for. Like everybody else in the company, including the villainous president Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), Dalton is a vampire. And like any other employee working in a large corporation, he doesn’t like his job very much and won’t drink human blood on principle. In fact becoming a vampire has not turned out to be everything it was billed to be. You might live forever but you can’t even look at a sunny sky when you get up in the morning. Also like other vampires, Dalton drives around during daytime in a special car that has those smoked-over windows like rap stars drive, but even more opaque.
Eventually Dalton hooks up with a band of human beings, including an ex-vampire (Willem Dafoe, of course) who has learned how to become a human being. Turning his back on his bloodthirsty tribe, like Jake Sulley in Avatar, Dalton leads a desperate mission to destroy the vampire world by turning them into human beings.
Someday Hollywood might make the vampire movie we really need, one in which the Dracula figure is a hedge fund manager or an oil company executive. This will be the fitting epigraph rolling across the screen in the opening credits:
Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.
–Karl Marx, Capital V. 1
Edward Dalton’s renegade status, so much like Jake Sulley’s in Avatar, is once again a dominant plot element in another monster movie, not nearly as successful as the other two despite its overweening ambitions to say something important.
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the Afrikaner supervisor of an ethnic cleansing project in Johannesburg, South Africa. The target, however, of the cops and military is not a group of undocumented workers from neighboring countries, a situation that occurs all too frequently today unfortunately in post-apartheid but class-divided South Africa. Instead it is thousands of space aliens who turned up one day out of the blue in a huge space ship hovering over the city. They are wrested from the ship and forced to live in a slum (district 9) where they are regarded as scum by their earthling neighbors, including black and colored South Africans. While it is true that backward attitudes prevail in much of South Africa today despite the victory against apartheid, there’s no suggestion in District 9 that xenophobia might be rooted in joblessness rather than in one’s genes. The general sense of District 9 is that the human race sucks. I admit to feeling this way from time to time, but would never make a movie along those lines, or write an article to that effect here.
District 9 is at its Hobbesian and misanthropic worst when it depicts a Nigerian gang in the same terms as Steven Seagal schlock. They operate as villainous stick figures who take advantage of the suffering space aliens who pay black market prices for the cat food their palate favors.
The first half hour or so of the movie is the most tedious, structured as a faux documentary following Wikus Van De Merwe on his rounds as he serves eviction notices to the space aliens, who are called prawns by the human beings because of their similar appearance to the marine life. They are going to be transported to a concentration camp outside of Johannesburg and any of them who refuse to sign the eviction order faces beatings or worse.
The movie only picks up when Wikus begins to turn into a prawn himself, the victim of some sort of mishap in one of their shacks that like so much in this movie remains unexplained. He then becomes a combination of Jake Sully in Avatar and Elliott in E.T who is determined to help the extraterrestrial return home.
Like E.T., the prawns are actually much smarter than the human beings who keep them in a virtual ghetto. They are capable of space flight and other advanced technologies. This, of course, does not square with their being so easily wrested from their space ship and forced to live in squalor, nor does it square with many scenes that depict them in anti-social behavior that is the stuff of all ghetto movies, including the unfortunate Precious.
I only decided to watch District 9 since it was now accessible from Netflix. If you sensibly avoided the price of admission for this confused and sorry movie, I can recommend renting it from Netflix where I promise you it will probably not be half as bad as Iron Man 2 or The A Team.