Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Jan 26, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

by Will Ross
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Though it was one of the defining events of the 21st century so far, and ripe with dramatic potential, the 2008 global financial crisis has yet to receive anything like a definitive comment in cinema. Sure, Margin Call was a solid and intelligent all-rounder, and Inside Job was a competent breakdown and civics lesson, but for an event engineered with such villainy that had such widespread impact, eight years is a long time to go without essential representation by a great artist (the other transformative American event of that decade, 9/11, was five years removed from Paul Greengrass’s masterpiece United 93). With the United States’s apparent disinterest in banking reform, the topic isn’t getting any less important, so it’s surprising that the most high profile effort towards it so far is directed by Adam McKay, of all people.

McKay is an odd choice for a comedy drama prestige film. In spite of ample experience in the “comedy” realm, his work has all had a ramshackle absurdity that ensures they cannot be taken seriously, and frequently turns that to his advantage. The Big Short, despite its frequent quips and asides, absolutely must be taken seriously in order to work on any level at all, and McKay doesn’t seem to have the directorial toolkit to make that happen.

This is not to decry McKay as incapable of relevance. I’ll be damned if I can think of another director who could have made Anchorman, and whatever you think of that film, it had a powerful influence on the decade of comedy that followed. He has a deft sense of comic rhythm where it counts. But he’s also never produced a film that formed an irreducible whole; his spotty music choices, indulgent stylistic tangents, sloppy pacing, and near-incompetence as a camera director make sure of that.

McKay doesn’t overcome any of those weaknesses in The Big Short, not by a long shot. But his strengths do keep the script’s quips from thudding too mechanically. And, to its credit, the screenplay rattles off its breezy dialogue very nicely, for the most part. In any case, it’s clear that Charles Randolph has a fine utility with words, if not entirely with structure. The Big Short flirts with a hyperlink influence, but the disparate paths of its characters never cross, probably because in real life they never did cross in reality, and as the film is fond of repeating via voiceover, This Stuff Really Happened. But the separate stories never cross in a meaningful thematic way, either. They just trundle along their parallel story threads, going through the same events with the same emotional tenor and the same overarching observations and the same results, and the only thing that keeps them feeling any different is the contrasted personalities involved, which are thinly sketched at the start and then hardly filled in at all, in spite of being capably embodied by the film’s all-star cast.

But the script’s greatest sin is its celebrity cameo-lectures, which are disastrously disruptive to the film and condescending to the audience. An especially frustrating instance comes just after the film hits one of its emotional peaks, as a character realizes the full scope of the coming blow to the global economy. Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine” plays over the soundtrack as voiceover gives way to a flurry of impressionistic cuts between cooking, casino bets, and then the whole thing stops dead so that Selena Gomez can spend two minutes explaining what a synthetic CDO is, even though the scene that just happened did a perfectly fine job of that. There are three or four of these interruptions, and, unsurprisingly, Randolph has stated that they were McKay’s idea.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the counterintuitive but excellent choice of “Sweet Child O' Mine” was also McKay’s, but the editing that accompanies it is very obviously the work of one of his two major new collaborators on the film, Hank Corwin. Corwin gives The Big Short a lot of its best moments, bringing his editing bona fides from Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life to bear with some ingenious flashes of discontinuity or subjective flashbacks, while also being obviously beholden to the arhythmic onus of his material. A film with heavy coverage, length, and a multi-threaded structure is a prime candidate for a rewrite in the editing stage, and doubtless Corwin could have done it, but that would have required more rearrangement than was possible in a 2015 release window.

If there’s one person who benefits from Corwin’s work more than McKay, it’s his second major new crew member, Barry Ackroyd. The English director of photography is a near-ideal choice for the project; he excels at bringing the best out of directors with little confidence with the cameras (Ralph Fiennes had him take charge for the entire visual design of 2011's Coriolanus), and might be the best docudrama cinematographer working today (and any docudrama DoP needs a damn fine editor backing him or her up). And yes, the best visuals feature dynamic, reactive handheld movements and reframing, and they’re entirely typical of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography. The worst are arbitrary, uninspired coverage choices and awkward, locked-off compositions and dollies. Those are entirely typical of — you probably see this one coming — Adam McKay. Which points to one of two things: either Ackroyd isn’t at home with still frames and compositions, or Adam McKay is a lackluster director of visuals who scuttled The Big Short’s chances at aesthetic cohesion. (A reminder: Ackroyd shot the magnificent, classical, locked-off compositions of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.)

This illness at ease pervades almost every aspect of The Big Short, and it compromises the film’s message delivery. An early voiceover insists that the machinations of all these deals and financial terms are not beyond our understanding. If it trusted its dramatic pull and had the assured procedural storytelling, it would be able to prove this, instead of throwing asinine Bill Nye the Science Guy-style educational vignettes into the middle of its plot mechanics. Instead, it is a deeply patronizing experience, and it’s hard to give it points for necessity given the existence of Margin Call, which is at once every bit as comprehensible as The Big Short, and a smarter, more focused, and more complex film in every way that matters.

McKay is a little more at home when he steps into the dramatic territory of another recent film about excessive, criminal greed in this neighbourhood, The Wolf of Wall Street, and yet any comparison shows Scorsese’s 2013 opus as the riskier film that plays its tonal shifts and “can’t-believe-it’s-a-true-story” spectacle with unstoppable forward momentum. That movie about a banker convicted in the early 2000s did much more to convincingly inspire anger against the (still unconvicted) white collar criminals who engineered the recession in '08 than this film that deals directly with the latter subject. The Big Short is allowed to succeed on its own terms, of course, but I’m not sure that the people who made it were ever sure what those terms ought to be. I don’t dislike Adam McKay — I could never dislike anyone who could conjure the good-natured anarchy of a film like Anchorman, short of Nazi apologism or something — but I can’t think of a clearer recent example of a director dragging down his material and his collaborators.

by Will Ross
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There are three misdirections in the title of Boy and the World. The first is “Boy”, and though this misdirection lies at the heart of the film’s single most brilliant and defining gesture, I daren’t spoil its corresponding reveal at the end of the film, so you will have to take my word for it (I’ll throw in a couple of cryptic allusions to it to make up for that). The second is the ordering of the nouns, because while the central boy and his childlike perspective of his surroundings is central to the movie’s approach, the film is ultimately more concerned with the machinations of a World slowly crumbling under some combination of aggressive, unchecked capitalism and fascism.

The third misdirection is tonal, for a glance at Boy and the World’s promotional materials, or any given shot, or even just watching the first few minutes, would suggest you’re in for a feather-light, gamboling trip through elaborate images whose base aesthetic use a child’s doodling and collage as its main reference points. Writer-director Alê Abreu maintains that visual style, but it quickly transpires that Boy and the World is a sorrowful film, filled with equal rage and despair for a world whose consumerism and commercialization is crushing beauty and joy out of everyday life and systematically threatening the bonds of familial love. That it combines this form and intent, as well as moments of humour, but never indulges in cheap irony or sarcasm, bespeaks a maturity and seriousness that inspire an emotionally-involved political engagement. There aren’t many animated features that even aspire to that, let alone achieve it.

The film’s plot revolves around a little boy living on a farm in the country, who scampers happily through the rainbow-pastels of the grass and plays with the animals and lives a life of such innocence that when his father gets on a train and leaves for the city, he is unable to comprehend the absence of a loved one, let alone accept it. Seemingly more by impulse than by despair,the boy hops on a train and journeys to the city, and on his way there he encounters people struggling to make daily ends meet. These people’s entire lives appear to revolve around their labour; one is an old, sickly-looking man who picks cotton on a farm under the harsh scrutiny of his foreman, and one of the film’s most distinctive stretches of its kid’s-art style is a birds-eye shot that reduces the farmworkers to computer-arranged rows of abstract, geometric shapes. When the oblivious boy reaches the city, the structures and oppressiveness of consumer-capitalism become even more suffocating. The film, as I said, is a broadside to these environments, and though their design becomes ever-more elaborate, the film never loses sight of the person at its center. Indeed, the exhaustion of merely processing the world’s backgrounds and operational minutiae is enough to make the mere companionship of the boy’s newfound friends profoundly comfortable, and those moments of respite help the film narrowly avoid becoming a ceaseless parade of impressive but unmodulated design concepts. (And then that final revelation reveals the devastating irony of those acts of compassion.)

All of this is handled through wordless, subjective illustration, and I can’t say enough good things about how Boy and the World expands the possibilities and scale available to this kind of hand-drawn, show-the-brushstrokes animation. After I fawned over Inside Out, it was somewhat taken to task by some friends, who argued that its commercially-friendly adventure-story plot structure limited its ability to fully explore its conceit, that some “in the brain” scenes are arbitrarily justified, and that for every innovation towards the metaphorical depiction of an inner life, the film set down some sort of limitation. It’s hard for me to refute these claims (though I disagree that they meaningfully detract from Inside Out’s accomplishments), but it’s easy to see Boy and the World as somewhat of a corrective to these caveats, with its tricky ambiguity between real-world experience and expressionistic memories.

An even more fruitful comparison can be drawn between Boy and the World and Don Hertzfeldt’s 2015 short World of Tomorrow, a film similarly concerned between the impact of “progress” upon its stick figure characters; while World of Tomorrow suggested an inner life so defined by technology and digitizations that the film’s environments are visually defined by computer-perfect lines and shapes, Boy and the World uses its drawn-on-paper aesthetic to express the view that capitalist industrialization is incompatible with basic human decency. Both films have a decidedly pessimist outlook on techno-industrial progress, but the clichéd rural-urban/happiness-misery dichotomy of Boy is my only real sticking point with it. That’s not to say that Abreu’s politics are shallow or stupid; indeed, if they were, I doubt he could conceive images at once so intellectually and emotionally evocative as cities so over-developed, they taper upwards into the sky like long, upside-down funnels.

Boy and the World’s last 15 minutes are some of the most dense, upsetting moments of any recent movie I’ve seen precisely because its allegory is so convincing, its expressions of joy and culture (and cute dogs) so loving and beautiful that it’s nearly unbearable to see them beaten down by the powers that be. There is a momentary formal rupture during this climax that replaces animation that suggests a cold, literal reality But the film stops just short of hopelessness, thank god; though it’s undeniably sad, it holds tight to the comfort of beauty amidst tragedy, and the inalienable personal charm of its craftsmanship suggests that there is an intrinsic joyousness to living and feeling that, in some way, makes it all worth it. Even that could have amounted to sentimental defeatism in the face of oppression, but Boy and the World couples that final personal message of hope with the impression that the seemingly endless cycle of that oppression may also mean that there’s still time to make a change.

by Will Ross
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In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

This is an excellent example of the shinpa dramatic form that was one of Mizoguchi's primary narrative influences throughout his career. In shinpa, the poses and artifice of kabuki were somewhat lessened in favour of a more 'modernized' theatrical approach, without fully adopting western standards of realism. The class and gender issues of the time were often a central feature of the story; the kind of issue that most directly concerned Mizoguchi was the narrative of the woman who suffers inordinately for her man in order to support him in his social rise. As Tadao Sato explains in his comments on The Water Magician on the Digital Meme DVD presentation, this was a common real-life scenario at the time, as the western-style modernization of the Meiji period encouraged education and upper class professions, but these positions were only available to men. Thus, women often had to help their men within the limited range of work available to their gender, fostering a common sense of guilt among the men whom they supported.

In The Water Magician, the woman in question is a traveling performer, a water artist named Taki no Shiraito. She falls in love with and resolves to support an out-of-work young man, Kinya Murakoshi, by sending him to school in Tokyo, and periodically sending him the money she earns as part of the troupe. However, an unprofitable winter and Shiraito's impulsive generosity soon leaves her unable to support him, with mutually tragic consequences.

The awkwardly staged light comedy of their early meeting — where Shiraito's earnest flirting goes virtually unnoticed by Kinya — is a solid explanation in itself of why Mizoguchi's later work was so humourless, and the story relies upon some extraordinary coincidences and somewhat unbelievable character choices by Shiraito to position the lovers in the impossibly unfortunate finale (the final, crucial beats of which have either been cut at some point and necessarily replaced by narration, or were unwisely never included in the first lace). Nonetheless, the emotional intent of the star-crossed dynamic partly survives the film's flaws, especially when the plot gets properly moving in the second half. What's especially distinctive is Mizoguchi's direction, which shows him well on the way to full mastery. Clever match cuts, expressive compositions and blocking, and absolutely gorgeous lighting conceits abound, as does a hint towards his later "One scene, one cut" style: a stunningly elaborate tracking shot shot that preludes the climactic crime at the picture's center. It moves from a wide exterior to a tight interior room, before moving to the doorway of another room and settling there. Whatever the film's flaws, its visual panache alone makes it an enjoyable experience, and its contemporary popularity and place in Mizoguchi's filmography make it an excellent historical reference.

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The Water Majician (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933, 100m) (with benshi narration)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nPMcjNAbXs 








Hey, Will has a new review of Andrew Haigh's 45 Years up over at Tiny Mix Tapes! Why don't you go check it out?

by Will Ross
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It’s reassuring, at this late stage in his career, to see Quentin Tarantino entertaining the notion of reining himself in a little. His latest, The Hateful Eight, only takes place in two locations: a stagecoach hurrying to outrun a fierce blizzard, and a frontier outpost called Minnie’s Haberdashery, short one Minnie and plus a cadre of strangers with unclear identities and motives. It shares its broad structural outlines with his second film, Reservoir Dogs, and though the basics of Tarantino’s ideology haven’t changed — the crooks and liars of both films each have their own moral codes whose incompatibility brings them to a decidedly nihilist result — the scope of his politics has. Depending on how skeptical you are of his intent, that scope has has been either permitted or necessitated by Tarantino’s relentless pastiching of bygone genre after bygone genre (blaxploitation, kung-fu, westerns, WWII revenge), and it’s made each movie he makes a stickier wicket to dissect and debate — especially in light of the violence running through all their films, and its use in moments of catharsis.

The Hateful Eight is among the name-brand director’s most divisive efforts to date, and as far as I can suss out there are two primary reasons for this. The first is a matter of craft; the vast majority of the film takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery, and the first half especially attempts slow-burn suspense with a surprisingly slow body count; I found this material psychologically bracing and superbly crafted, thanks as much to the script’s diverse characterization as to Tarantino’s evolving, impressively non-repetitive camera placement and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s careful application of those blown-out highlights only he seems to be capable of pulling off. That half gives way to a second half that rapidly accelerates Tarantino’s inversions of audience sympathies and expectations. Some have found the film boring and indulgent; to me, the film is too densely layered with dramatic details to pick at to feel anything of the sort.

That boredom, or disinterest, or however The Hateful Eight’s detractors wish to characterize their impatience, may be directly tied into the second primary reason for the film’s divisiveness: it is a political jumble. This jumble is, make no mistake, largely a matter of design — the script is too careful about its refusal to morally approve of any one character to consider otherwise — but what is more contestable is whether this jumble contributes to a cohesive top-down satire of American race and gender relations, or whether it is confused at best and toxic at worst.

At the very least, I think Tarantino can be granted that he takes the material seriously. Though the film indulges in macabre humour, none of its violence feels celebratory or joyful; gone is the calculated cool of moments like the Tupac-backed shootout of Django Unchained (in fact Hateful has only a few moments of pop music, and besides the ending song they feel misplaced next to Ennio Morricone's effective original score). Instead, the sudden, enthralling violence of the film frequently gives way to immediate, disturbing visions of pain and sorrow, be it a frown of resigned disappointment before an execution or a slow-motion display of unscored screaming and writhing after a game-changing sneak attack. The director’s other films have mixed moments of justified and senseless or ambiguous violence; in this case, the morality of every act of violence is scuttled by some detail of motive or execution. Though that partly absolves the film of claims that it trivializes or celebrates violence, it creates another issue. It compromises The Hateful Eight’s effectiveness as satire.

Microcosm is avoided at every turn. Everyone is either too caricatured or too complicated to actually represent a cultural faction, and that limits the reach of Tarantino’s commentary both in historical and contemporary contexts. Thus, despite the explicitly political crossfire of motives in play, the only coherent viewpoint Tarantino expresses is a broadly philosophical one: lying begets lying begets hatred begets hatred begets violence begets violence. The opening image, a stone carving of Christ on a crucifix in a snowstorm, encourages a connection to such biblical morals.

Nonetheless, Tarantino’s moral relativism is not always even-handed; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the scheming, handcuffed, dead-or-alive bounty mark around whom swirls the film’s violence and distrust, is on the receiving end of an awful lot of misogyny; unlike the film’s depictions of racism, however, this attitude is never seriously challenged. I wouldn’t say that’s tantamount to misogyny on the film’s part, but I would say that Tarantino’s fixture on a melting pot approaching boil seems to have exposed a lack of engagement with sexism. As a small mark of consolation, Daisy is the fixture of the film’s most awe-inspiring sequence, an extended shot of the prisoner playing guitar and singing in the foreground as she frequently, furtively glances over her shoulder to watch her captors. Every glance is accompanied by a focus rack and a sudden change in sound perspective as her voice becomes distant, her lyrics almost incomprehensible, before both sound and picture both whip back into focus as she turns her head back forward. It’s a moment that reminds that though the political success of Tarantino’s films is often in question, his wealth of storytelling ideas never ceases to amaze.

And, for what it’s worth, those ideas transmit significantly better in the film’s 70mm roadshow presentation. Not because the logistical nightmare of reviving 70mm film projection is any kind of visual revelation (the 65mm photography is a boon to the film, but the projection might as well have been 4K), but because the different edit of the film improves it at several key moments, including the aforementioned guitar scene and an intermission that both calls attention to the bisected approach of the film’s two halves and gives Tarantino a chance to employ a delightful structural gag just after the film starts back up. Moments like these make for undeniably engaging cinema, so long as the prickly disposition and up-and-down political messaging of the thing don’t turn you against it before it has a chance to impress you. The Hateful Eight consistently compelled me and challenged me and never slips up enough to collapse, though it’s so oversaturated with moral and ideological qualifications that it never had a real shot at being an unqualified success.



by Will Ross
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In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

Mizoguchi's next extant film, the short melodrama Tokyo March (1929), is far more interested in more intimate social conflicts than The Song of Home. At its center is the geisha Orie, who becomes the object of two young, wealthy men's interests. A romance between Orie and one of these men, Yoshiki, seems imminent, but hearts are broken when Yoshiki's father reveals to her that she is his illegitimate child, and Yoshiki is therefore her half-brother. It's a plot that obviously would have been unacceptably salacious in the west, but it's resolved all-too-tidily when Yoshiki happily resolves to marry Yoshiki's friend instead, and Yoshiki decides to travel to America to find his future. Yet, as Yoshiki leaves, Mizoguchi has one more shot of Orie looking mournfully downward. Complicating details like this, as well as the film's superimpositions, montage-like cutting, and fluidly composed camera angles and movements, suggest Mizoguchi was far more in command of both his craft and his subject matter in 1929 than he was in 1925.

Tokyo March survives only in a substantially reduced form, but the benshi narration in the version I saw — which, despite having a score and the narration, has a too-fast framerate, speeding up people's movements — has a somewhat distancing effect that allows the narrative to move very fleetly; there is, it seems, less need to linger on visual beats when they can be expressed verbally by a live narrator. The downside of this is that even though it’s entirely comprehensible, the focus swings from Mizoguchi’s strong visual storytelling to the efforts of the benshi, but it’s still a happier state for the film to exist in than so many other fragmented silents whose lack of supporting text makes viewing a theoretical exercise.

This brings us, appropriately, to two much more irretrievably fragmented Mizoguchi works. The first is Asahi wa kagayaku (The Morning Sun Shines), which in its original release was a hard-hitting journalism drama that incorporated documentary details of the printing process. Now, it only survives in a version that has cut out all fictional elements to form a short documentary, and I suspect the remaining footage was not directed by Mizoguchi, though I couldn’t find any direct statements to support the notion. The other remnant is even less cohesive: a brief, four-minute dance sequence from Tôjin Okichi. Evidently, the complete feature film was Mizoguchi’s first to use his now-famous one-scene, one-take approach. This surviving section, however, renders the dance in five shots, and its photography seems a great deal below Mizoguchi’s standards. Nonetheless, there is less of a tendency towards a montage aesthetic here than in, say, Tokyo March, and five shots for a three-minute sequence at least suggests a broader economy to the director’s coverage choices.

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Tokyo March (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929, 28m) (English subtitles, no Benshi narration, but played at a proper framerate)
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nPMcjNAbXs

The Morning Sun Shines (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929, 25m)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4NR8xLyrDE

Dance scene from Tôjin Okichi (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1930, 4m)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2sNRzLEH8s

by Will Ross
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In David Christopher’s essay, “The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films”, he proposes a political distinction between dystopian science-fiction and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic sci-fi: “the fall of capitalist culture in apocalyptic narratives and its full realization in dystopian ones” (57). Nonetheless, Christopher mutually ties these subgenres to a reactionary capitalist ideology, arguing that they either encourage “repressive tolerance” (a term quoted from Herbert Marcuse) by purporting to display social decay that has not yet come to pass, or legitimize values of capitalist reform or reconstruction (58). However, an examination of numerous examples within these subgenres reveal that these arguments for ideological trends are subject to considerable crossover and contradiction: in Christopher’s line of argument, to depict a pessimist dystopian vision is to imply to an audience that such a thing has not or cannot come to pass, while to depict reform codifies capitalism as the correct governing ideology. In the latter case, the audience would have to recognize the on-screen world’s parallels to reality, an awareness which the former case precludes. What’s more, not all films in these subgenres even take place within a capitalist setting. The ideological problems that affect the dystopian and post-apocalyptic subgenres, therefore, are more complex and varied than Christopher gives them credit for. However, many of these films still possess a reactionary strain that muddies or contradicts their attempts to problematize contemporary social and political constructs. In this essay, I will explore the political distinctions between dystopian and post-apocalyptic films, propose what links the politics of their fantasies beyond the reform of a pre-canonized capitalism, and provide example of how such films navigate (or fail to navigate) socially subversive narratives within a genre whose productions are often beholden to commercial interests.

First, it will be useful to establish that it is not necessarily useful to form a dichotomy between post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinema. The emergence of a harmonious, equality-based society in a post-apocalyptic setting is unheard of in science-fiction, relegating the vast majority of new-forming civilizations to dystopian status. Second, the defining political structures of dystopia ought to be defined. A broad assessment of such structures suggests that the defining parameter of dystopian society is the impression of halted progress — that scientific development and advanced technology have either moved entirely out of the reach of the lower classes (except to control their behaviour and exploit their labour), or stopped altogether. In both cases, a bureaucratic or tyrannical ruling class usually plans or emerges to capitalize on this technology gap, be it through methods of technological design, obscurement, or enforced scarcity. As dystopian narratives progress, their protagonists become more aware of and opposed to their social condition, and seek to remedy it either by seeking personal interests or attempting subversion. The outcomes of these narratives can be categorized into two contradictory conclusions: a pessimistic one wherein the characters’ efforts prove futile, whether they are hopelessly under-equipped or their ideological opponents too diffuse to meaningfully damage; and an optimistic one where heroes emerge and pose a legitimate threat to the the established order of the dystopian system(s), or overthrow it altogether. While most narratives often opt for the latter arc, they seldom form coherent or convincing solutions to their oppression. From the early landmark of Metropolis onward, resolutions of complex social problems in dystopian cinema have often been arbitrary, reactionary, comically platitudinous, or all at once (as in Metropolis’s moral pronouncement: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”). The chilling effect that such endings have upon whatever groundwork for subversion may have been laid before them does much to support the view that dystopian science-fiction films are a subtly anti-progressive subgenre.

Ridley Scott’s Alien is an especially potent example of my proposed acid test for dystopian science-fiction as defined by halted technological progress for lower classes. In it, a crew of blue-collar labourers on an industrial space barge called the Nostromo are prematurely awakened by their unseen and unheard corporate masters in order to procure a dangerous alien specimen from the surface of a nearby planet. This arrangement is striking because of how completely removed the crew members are from their superiors: they receive orders from a computer, are constantly working to maintain their spaceship’s inner workings, and, unlike most spacefaring sci-fi, they almost never receive any kind of help from the high tech industrial gadgets and machinery around them. The crew is isolated from their technology even when they are within it. This hostile isolation is constantly reinforced by visual metaphors of the film’s production design, and by the plot itself. For instance, when the crew members crawl through the ship’s ducts, the sharp circular teeth of the ventilation doors make a knife-like scraping sound as they open and close around the character moving through them. Later, when a plan goes awry and the final surviving crewmember Ripley tries to reverse a self-destruct sequence, the computer arbitrarily refuses.

In the essay “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott’s Alien”, T. J. Matheson suggests that, while most science-fiction that casts a skeptical eye on technology’s usefulness is “presented either as a misused tool of some evil or misguided human (or otherwise sentient) agency or one that has become dysfunctional,” (217) Alien’s claustrophobic technological setting removes any overseeing human influences and, as he quotes from Jacques Ellul, shows that mankind is “all the more the slave of abstract ones.” (219). I believe that this reading is a near-miss. The crew of the Nostromo serve technology because the latter has been designed for that function by the unseen administrators of the corporation. Instead, technology’s role as an abstracted mediator for labour and enforcer of the ruling class’s will is used to emphasize the contemporary estrangement of the exploiter and the exploited. Such is the totality of the company’s self-removal from its labourers that even their sole representative among the crew is an artificial construct, an android planted among the crew’s ranks without their knowledge to remind them of their contractual obligations and ensure that they are carried out. Instead of the romantic space of heroic figures sent on glorious missions across the galaxy, space is envisaged as an ideal ghetto. Unlike Metropolis, Blade Runner, and other urban dystopias, which symbolically distinguish the rich and the poor by their occupation of a high or low vertical placement in the city’s architecture (Andrew Milner, 267), Alien uses the locational abstraction and isolation of space to emphasize the technology gap’s role in modern ghettoization. (Ridley Scott went on to invert this arrangement in Blade Runner.)


In spite of the triumph of sole survivor Ripley over the murderous life-form brought on-board, her situation at the end of the film does indeed seem to “make an optimistic interpretation of Alien virtually impossible.” (Matheson, 227) Ripley defeats the creature by strapping herself into a chair and blasting her foe out into the vacuum of space, guaranteeing its death by torching it with the ship’s engine as it spirals away. As she prepares for slumber in an escape shuttle, Ripley narrates that “with a little luck the network will pick me up” — a promise of, at best, further subjugation, and at (a likely) worst, an endless drift through space, from which the only plausible rescue is the the “little luck” of a greenlit sequel. Either way, as she drifts off to sleep, victory has been earned through a moment of mechanical control that is inconsistent with and contradictory to the themes of the film thus far, seemingly dictated more by the commercial imperatives of a happy ending than a logical working-out of the film’s technological class struggle. Under the framework of halted scientific development, The Matrix’s perfect simulation of urban America in the 1990s would seem to suggest that the masses are already in an ideal state to be placated and system(at)ically exploited. When we meet Neo, he is kept largely ignorant to the truth of his surroundings and his own importance through a matrix of intellectual control that need not enter the realm of science-fiction to seem plausible: drug culture, an anonymous position in a dull office, and a ubiquitously encouraged submission to authority are among the tools that convince Neo that both he and his world are unremarkable. But the most insidious control of the human race by machines (who, this time around, really are an inhuman force of power) is the utter obscurement of the true development of technology, through technology. The bodies of all human beings are, in fact, being harvested for energy in pods built by machines. To placate them, the machines place each unwitting person’s consciousness in an elaborate simulation of the 21st century, from which certain humans have escaped and formed a rebellion (disconnecting returns them to the “real world” of the late 22nd century). Such a system of oppression requires a hefty dose of philosophically tinged pseudo-science (e.g. “The body cannot live without the mind”); nevertheless, the central metaphor of The Matrix is clear: before oppressive systems of control can be overcome, it is necessary to reject the prevailing paradigms entirely in order to see and contend with the truth. However, the Christ-allegory of Neo’s resurrection at the end of the film does not tie this notion to contemporary issues of biopolitics and capitalist malaise, as the narrative has up to that moment. Instead, there is a sudden increased reliance upon mysticism and religious allegory that distances the film from real political import. The question of precisely which intellectual paradigms must be shattered to overcome our dystopian fate seems to be beyond the imagination of the Wachowskis; in spite of the preponderance of religious and philosophical allusions scattered throughout the film, the breadth of ideological readings it has inspired might be more indebted to the surreal inscrutability of its key moment of resolution (Smith’s quick dispatch at Neo’s hands), a moment whose intellectual disjuncture with the rest of the movie is thrown into even sharper relief by its root in a conventional heteronormative coupling that miraculously inspires the peak of the hero’s power. The Matrix imagines and rhetoricizes rebellion, but against the abstract sprawl of the machines’ technological oppression, it is seemingly powerless to offer anything short of a miracle as an answer. The gap, it would seem, is too profound to close by practical tactics or intellect.



However, The Matrix’s final moment of peril offers a perhaps-unintentional asterisk to this failure of ideology and imagination. After unplugging from the Matrix, the rebels reawaken in the real world as their ship is breached by sentinel machines. To stop them, they use an electromagnetic pulse, an on-ship weapon that immediately wipes out the functionality of any electronics in range. The caveat of such a weapon, however, is its double-edge: it nullifies its user’s technology as well. But, as Trinity explains in an earlier scene, “It’s the only weapon we have against the machines.” This leveling out of technology by force may be the only method of subversion that has achieved intellectual and narrative credibility in dystopian narratives, and it finds its clearest expression in post-apocalyptic films. In these movies, a breakdown in power structures lessens the technology gap between the powerful and their dissidents. The latter party’s ability to triumph over oppressors and would-be oppressors often derives from the reduction of this gap. In The Matrix, the “real world”, in spite of its tasteless food and scorched climate, has been so thoroughly devastated by war that even the machines are apparently desperate for a renewable source of energy, necessitating the harvest of human beings as a means of survival. It is here that victory against the agents of oppression seems most plausible and tangible; the technology gap is largely one of ontological influence, and once that influence has been broken down, there seems to be no clear advantage the machines might have over the humans, who can procure multitudes of knowledge with a split-second neural download. Instead of pursuing this possibility, the film seems to suggest that the mystical idolatry of Neo’s effortless manipulation of the illusory Matrix is the path to liberation.

The difficulty of solving such problems with a film borne of heavily financed, commercially-motivated production is understandable, and few franchises exemplify this better than George Miller’s Mad Max series. Each entry is directed and co-written by Miller, and serves as a different perspective on the breakdown, re-emergence, or redemption of dystopian power structures. The first three films each offer their own diagnosis and consequent ideological response to the moral turpitude of post-apocalyptic dystopias: cynicism (Mad Max), pragmatic survival (Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior), reform and flight (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The fourth entry, Mad Max: Fury Road, offers an especially well-considered depiction of both a dystopian power structure and its means of rehabilitation. The film takes place decades after war has obliterated the Earth’s landscapes and left them as deserts so barren that a tyrant called Immortan Joe is barely able to scavenge enough technology to take power. However, with a smattering of cars, weapons, and simple machinery, Joe recruits a small army of zealous worshipers, sculpts out a lair in a massive butte, and claims exclusive control of its precious resource: an aquifer, the only known clean water supply in the region. Joe induces widespread thirst and starvation, and he emphasizes the technology gap between him and the masses in every way he can, especially through conspicuous consumption: his method of dispersing water to the people is through massive, impractical waterfalls that splash and dissolve into the dust below, and his car is formed by two Cadillac Coupe de Villes. But unlike Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which takes place mostly in a reconstructed society called Bartertown that is ruled by scheming capitalists, the regime of Fury Road appears to be a sort of neo-medieval, patriarchal theocracy, where the resources necessary to labour are so scarce that slavery becomes a position of privilege. In Fury Road, we see a perpetuated distinction between a self-sufficient community with its own internal hierarchy and exploitation (flowing downward from the Immortan to his army and “wives”), and the foreign masses, given enough to guarantee survival and fealty but not enough to permit strength. Thus, the film emphasizes its technology gap as a means of enforcing class difference via control of production, artificial scarcity, and military authority, but it does not do so in a capitalist framework.

However, that gap is meager compared to the aforementioned examples of Alien, whose exploited labourers have no practical control over technology and their superiors are absent, or The Matrix, wherein human beings have no knowledge that any significant gap exists at all, let alone that they are being oppressed. The revolt against Immortan Joe that constitutes Fury Road’s central narrative thrust is arguably only plausible because a capitalist regime has not yet had time to take root. The film can therefore be said to effectively criticize and subvert patriarchy and theocracy, but not capitalism. Unless, that is, we incorporate the film’s backstory into this reading, when capitalism destroys itself and all but annihilates life on earth over “oil wars” and “water wars”. So the laying of groundwork for Fury Road’s triumph over an exploitative society comes at a heavy price indeed, and that’s before the death and carnage that constitute its appeal as an action blockbuster have taken place. Even then, the film concludes with a revolution, but stops short of proposing a new socio-political order; its heroes rise to power, but we do not have the opportunity to see how they distribute and exercise it.

Thus, the pessimism or inconsistency of dystopian and post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema’s criticisms of capitalist exploitation and other social injustices would seem to be more a consequence of those systems’ tenacity than an inherent ideological complicity of the subgenre. If the subgenre has a unifying political premise, it is that oppression is most effectively enabled by advancing oligarchical control of technology and stymying the population’s access to it. Conversely, it is most effectively resisted when that gap is closed. While the most convincing of these films tend to emphasize an extraordinary loss of life — and even civilization — as the precursor to political upheaval, more often than not their resolutions are simpler and more optimistic. Ironically, these endings may work to quell any sense of dissent against oppressive social systems that the audience may have developed. By pandering to audiences with facile solutions to dystopias, they encourage a complacent and misdirected attitude of unfounded hope. The ending of Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic sci-fi farce Brazil provides a salient argument against this trend in dystopian cinema: for a moment, it seems to adopt an optimistic ending, as the protagonist and his love interest drive away from the endless tangle of the city’s machines and institutions into a green-hilled horizon. Then, he is suddenly revealed to be merely hallucinating this false ending. In reality, he is still strapped to his chair in a torture chamber, destroyed, hopeless, and smiling.



Bibliography 

 Christopher, David. “The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films.” Cineaction 95 (2015): 57–58.

 Milner, Andrew. “Darker Cities: Urban dystopia and science fiction cinema.” International journal of cultural studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 267.

 Matheson, T. J. “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.” Extrapolation 33, no. 3 (1992) 217–219