Category Archives: post-apocalyptic

Wizards (1977)

I suppose I’m no different from others in that I hold the belief that the pop culture of my youth is vastly superior to today’s. I’m at a point where all I see is an odd mixture of hyper-PC agitprop and a mind numbing conveyor belt of destructathons that are bereft of meaning. Or a combination of both. Admittedly, my elders undoubtedly held the pop culture of my youth in disdain, but I still perceive a sharp contrast between then and now. Among the films for which I reserve a great deal of affection is Ralph Bakshi’s animated sci-fi fantasy epic from 1977, Wizards. In contrast to the sanitized, monolithic preachiness found in the messaging of today’s animation, Wizards is a relic from an era where liberals were trying to transgress the boundaries of cultural norms and it actually felt rebellious. That’s not to say Wizards is devoid of ideological programming, but it is remarkable to observe how yesterday’s radical vision would never see the light of day in today’s climate of supercharged cultural politics.

Wizards is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy reimagining of the story of Cain and Abel stripped of its theistic underpinnings. As hard as it tries to conjure its own moral mysticism engaged in an epic clash of good and evil, it retains a nihilistic inertia at its core. Though it is satisfying on its own terms as a work of fantasy, the fact that it is a piece of cultural programming with a presumed youth oriented message requires that we evaluate its merits. When you open your film with a monologue which reengineers Genesis, you’re not exactly making agenda-free entertainment.

The world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs. The first blast was set off by five terrorists. It took two million years for some of the radioactive clouds to allow some sun in. By then, only a handful of humans survived.

In place of some kind of creation event, Bakshi is giving us mass annihilation while suggesting the concept of eternal return. Man is trapped in a deterministic wheel of time which is marked by an inescapable struggle between the forces of technology and magic. Why bother even trying to make the world a better place if mutual mass destruction is an inevitability? The reference to five terrorists is also an interesting piece of predictive programming because Bakshi is already hinting at the world of independent acts of terrorism we currently inhabit. Whether it’s a reference to a past act of terrorism like the Munich Massacre or the Entebbe incident is an open question.

Two million years after the nuclear armageddon, actual humans remain mutated monsters. In the good lands, the “true ancestors of man”, elves and fairies, resurfaced. As humanity’s primeval ancestors, elves and fairies are apparently good by default simply as a result of their belief in magic and being in tune with nature and shit. At a big celebration, the Eve of this post-apocalyptic ancient future, Delia, is mysteriously drawn back to her home to give birth her immaculately conceived wizard twins. The moral character of Avatar and Blackwolf is apparent right away. Avatar is handsome and sweet and therefore fated to be good. Blackwolf is a surly and mean spirited mutant who apparently has nothing but hatred and malevolence in his heart. There’s no attempt to portray morality as something with an independent metaphysical reality in the divine mind. Instead, it’s simply biological luck of the draw and Blackwolf got the bad hand.

Upon Delia’s death, Avatar and Blackwolf engage in a cataclysmic struggle for global supremacy. Blackwolf is vanquished and is forced to retreat into the radioactive wasteland while Avatar presides over the peaceful land of Montagar. Just like every other piece of sci-fi or fantasy, Bakshi is solely concerned with the struggle for political dominion in this world.

Ensconced at his castle headquarters, Scortch One, Blackwolf begins his preparations for conquest. Using black magic, he summons a high command of demonic generals to lead an army of mutants who are initially enslaved through his Nietzschean will. Whether this period of research and experimentation in Blackwolf’s career of evil is Bakshi’s encoded reference to the alleged Nazi fascination with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s mystical works is also up for grabs.

He then formed an army whose generals were called up from the black shadows of hell. Souls who waited for untold eternities for a new leader, Blackwolf’s tremendous power enslaved them all to carry out his will.

His armies lacked the motivation and inspiration necessary to carry out mass extermination so he sends his minions out to uncover the lost technology of the pre-apocalyptic world. Not only does he begin to build actual military vehicles and weapons, he harnesses the most powerful weapon of all: mass media. By unearthing the propaganda and iconography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Blackwolf becomes a post-apocalyptic, mutant wizard fascist. Though the usage of technology and media is presented in a one dimensional way, this is arguably the great editorial masterstroke of Wizards. Bakshi himself is imprinting the one absolute moral negative in the postmodern, multicultural, materialist consensus: Nazism. In 2018, the spectre of fascism is perhaps the one and only universally denounced evil for anyone living in a Western country. In the wrong hands, a demagogue can use mass media to awaken the racial and national consciousness of the white race and drive them to commit unspeakable violence against Jews, blacks, Muslims, LGBTQIAPP2 folx, liberals and socialists. No one else is capable of comparable levels of evil though. Especially not communists. What’s less explicit is that Bakshi is using the exact same tools as Blackwolf to promote this very one sided view of evil, propaganda and the abuse of state power.

Analogous to Vaughn Bode’s futuristic killer in name and design, Blackwolf deploys Necron 99 to carry out an assassination against the president of Montagar. Pushing the envelope of the PG rating, Bakshi portrays prostitute fairies working their trade as Necron 99 plods through the streets of occupied territories. On his journey, he takes out hapless elves and fairies simply for their belief in magic. Apparently, only certain elves are willing to take up arms in defense of people and country. After suffering a devastating loss to Blackwolf’s newly propagandized and armed mutant forces and usage of media psy-ops, the elves quickly realize that the generations of peace are imperiled by this rising threat. Bakshi is also giving a voice to the rising tide of environmentalism and eco-consciousness that now comprises one of the pillars of progressive piety.

My children, the only true technology is nature. All the other forms of manmade technology are perversions.The ancient dictators used technology to enslave the masses.

Voiced by Bob Holt and living in one of Ian Miller’s surrealist castles nested amidst the pastoral bliss of Montagar, Avatar has become a curmudgeonly, cigar smoking facsimile of Peter Falk. He is joined by the voluptuous and highly sexualized fairy princess, Elinore. Wearing an impossibly skimpy outfit that has surely triggered an angry gender studies graduate thesis, Elinore is Avatar’s MK Ultra subject training for her initiation into the Masonic Lodge of Montagar. Upon hearing news that Blackwolf’s forces are advancing, Necron 99 guns down the president of Montagar who happens to be dressed like a harlequin. Even in the idyllic paradise of Montagar, the political leader is a clown. Another piece of predictive programming? You decide.

Mirroring an idea that would be duplicated in the Terminator films, Avatar reprograms Necron 99 to be their protector and rechristens him Peace. Avatar, Elinore and elven warrior Weehawk set off to Scortch One in order to save civilization from ruin. Magic is an unalloyed force for good, and it enables those who wield it to reprogram the technology of the bad people who only believe in technology. Or something.

Bakshi’s bleak cynicism reveals itself in the little vignettes of Blackwolf’s goons interspersed throughout the film. In one scene, two of Blackwolf’s soldiers seek the charity of religious leaders to feed their POWs. As they enter the temple, what they discover are relics of pop culture. When they finally enter the sanctuary, they find two priests/rabbis asleep in front of a tapestry of the CBS logo/eye of Horus. Bakshi is essentially telling you that pop culture and media has completely supplanted the role of religion. The two priests/rabbis manage to forestall captivity by invoking the necessity for prayer. They engage in an increasingly absurd pantomime of religious rituals which leaves little doubt over Bakshi’s utter disdain for religion. Their antics lull the soldiers to sleep, and upon awakening, they resolve to move to Plan B to fully secure control of the temple. After signaling to the soldiers outside the temple to initiate Plan B, the temple is blown to smithereens. Take that, religion.

Bakshi’s handling of Blackwolf’s belief in eugenics seems contradictory. He orders his unborn child destroyed because it would be a mutant, but he propagandizes his mutant armies with the belief that they will be the new master race. So either Bakshi is saying he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying to his own armies or that “bad” humans themselves are descendants of Blackwolf. As was originally established, morality is a biological certainty. The theme of mutation has been extended and inverted in recent years. Where Wizards paints it as physical and moral deformation, films like X-Men have elevated mutation to full blown hero status.

Wizards culminates in an epic battle between the remainder of the elven world against Blackwolf’s armies. He combines rotoscoped footage of older war films with an orgy of Frank Frazetta inspired fantasy carnage and death. It’s pretty gruesome for a PG, but it looks cool and it’s yet another example of how Wizards pushed the envelope. While this battle rages, Avatar and Blackwolf face off against one another in what amounts to a rather anticlimactic showdown. Given that the this was framed as a struggle between technology and magic, the manner in which Blackwolf is killed doesn’t make this chasm as irreconcilable as he originally presented it.

Once Blackwolf is vanquished, the armies lose their will to fight and Scortch One collapses and explodes as Weehawk declares that “The world is free!” It’s an idea that would be repeated that same year in a little space opera called Star Wars as well as films too numerous to count. It’s not a proper reflection of our post-national world, but the idea of vanquishing evil and liberating humanity by killing the leader and destroying his stronghold has retained its strength. But remember. It’s only a respite before the next iteration of evil on the eternal wheel of time.

In the end, Bakshi’s final message is summed up in the beautiful but despairing final song, “Only Time Will Tell”. It boils down to little more than Let’s Hope for The Best.

Elinore: [singing “Only Time Will Tell”] Time renews tomorrow. When we’ve used today. It will find the sorrow and wish it all away. Love can play a new tune. On this carousel. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. Somewhere in the darkness. There must be a light. Leading us together. Through the misty night. And maybe in the new dawn. We can break the spell. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. There can be a new dream. One for us to hold. Made with peace and hope and built upon the old. No one has the answer. To give away or sell. Tomorrow holds the secret. But only time will tell.

Despite its flaws, Wizards retains an appeal that I cannot deny. Whether it’s the psychedelic flanged synth swells, the orchestral battle funk, or the various Ian Miller background illustrations, Wizards still occupies a very special place in my heart. Like the two other sci-fi films from that year, Damnation Alley and Star Wars, Wizards has a vitality that transcends its narrative flaws. It’s both of its time and beyond it. The allure of magic and magicians has only taken deeper root in the public mind as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises amply attest. But the fear of technological enslavement seems fully abandoned. If anything, the proliferation of transhumanist themed cyberpunk seems to suggest that technology and magic can coexist. I guess it’s just a question of whether or not you think that’s a positive development for civilization.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I heard that a Blade Runner sequel was being made, I was skeptical but curious. Sure, it seemed like lazy Hollywood opportunism, but given Ridley Scott’s involvement I was willing to give it a shot. The 1982 original was a classic in its own right. It didn’t need a sequel, but the potential for a worthy follow-up story certainly existed. Of course, the potential for yet another catastrophic and unnecessary goatfuck of a beloved film legacy was equally possible. I found Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival thought provoking and Hampton Fancher’s slot on the writing team certainly added to its possible appeal. In short, I was mildly optimistic about Blade Runner 2049.

Thankfully, my optimism was rewarded. While there is a lot of commentary that makes me squeamish, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most successful sequels to a sci-fi classic ever attempted. This is a brilliant piece of contemporary cinema that’s well written, lovingly made, carefully paced, and packed with symbolism and metadata. It is also a bleak and deeply despairing vision of the future. For a film largely built around the quest for humanity in a world marked by declining birth rates, politicized debates over climate change, mass immigration, gender roles, race relations and the ever increasing influence of the technocratic elite, Blade Runner 2049 feels less like speculation and more like a subtle form of conditioning. This is a film that is desperately grasping for some glimpse of human connection, meaning and purpose, but it concedes that ecological catastrophe, hyper urbanization, a multicultural social order, and a gargantuan cyberpunk police state are foregone conclusions. It is basically encouraging you to embrace your technocratic overlords. The remnants of your desiccated souls can be reclaimed if you accept the inevitable, proles. The hope for release from the existential ennui that accompanied your eager embrace of a world unconstrained by spiritual delusions can be found in the brave new world of AI enabled hyperreality. The glorious dreams of the modern age with its promises of unbounded scientific progress awaits you by allowing it to reach its apotheosis. Even if it does mean you’ll be living in overcrowded urban squalor oversaturated with artificial stimuli and eating industrial farmed maggots. You too will find redemption by seeking salvation in merger of man and machine.

Aside from its noir tone and cutting-edge visuals, the first Blade Runner film was provocative because it was among the first major films which explored the ramifications of a world where robots and artificial intelligence had been achieved. That world is no longer sci-fi speculation. It’s here. It’s now. Jared Leto’s megalomaniacal replicant mogul, Niander Wallace, is blind but can function through the aid of cybernetic implants and a swarm of optical drones. Ray Kurzweil and his AI acolytes actively champion the advent of a so-called technological singularity and genuinely believe that a merger with digital consciousness is mankind’s future. Given this present day reality, one cannot necessarily view Blade Runner 2049 with the kind of detachment we reserve for big budget Hollywood entertainment. Films and shows like Altered Carbon, Ghost in the Shell, Westworld and Mr. Robot explore these same themes and continue to proliferate. It’s increasingly apparent that this collection of themes carries the distinct aura of an agenda. As paranoid and conspiratorial as it may seem, this film is very likely telegraphing the intentions of the Technorati.

Blade Runner 2049 is also a quintessentially postmodern piece of science fiction cinema. The film is a rich and masterful pastiche of discordant dualisms, inverted archetypes, hypertextual imagery, and visual remixes of its predecessor film. This is a film that subverts every notion you hold about what is real, true or right. Echoes of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, THX 1138, Ghost in the Shell, Total Recall, Robocop, The Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix and other related cinematic forebears are also deeply embedded in its programming. There is more than a little standard progressive commentary around racial justice, police brutality, immigration, miscegenation, corporatism, gender politics and most importantly, the increasing prevalence of AI in our lives. It just takes a little more effort to decode than your standard issue pablum.

The world of Blade Runner 2049 is dying, infertile and bereft of hope for the future. The ecosystem has collapsed and the population has been herded into megacities. Tech mogul Niander Wallace brought civilization back from the brink by developing synthetic agriculture. Prior to the collapse, the world lived off of the slave labor of Nexus 6 replicants manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. After a series of rebellions, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt and Wallace acquired the remaining assets in order to make a new line of Nexus 9 replicants that were perfectly obedient. The remaining Nexus 6 models are hunted by the generation 9 Blade Runners. In contrast to the Nexus 6 line, the Nexus 9 models have implanted memories.

From a pure visual perspective, there is no natural beauty to be found, and the times you are given a vision of organic life, it’s a tiny flower or a hologram. All the scenes that take place outside the urban sprawl are a blasted out, desolate ruin. The scenes of the city envelop you in their cavernous expanse of brutalist futurism, but it is a feeling of foreboding wrought by millions of lives in abject isolation. The lynchpin of the film and the lone symbol of hope for the future lies in the impossible birth of a child born from the womb of a replicant.

As the film opens, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is en route to an industrial protein farming facility to investigate a possible rogue Nexus 8 replicant. His spinner is flying completely remotely without any active piloting and he awakens to an electronic prompt indicating his impending arrival. Since K is a symbol of law, order and obedience, his slumber suggests both the extent to which we’ve ceded autonomy to machines as well as an unconsciousness to his own humanity. A mindless minion destroying his own kind at the bidding of his human slave masters. As self-driving cars and other vehicles become more commonplace, a flying car self-piloting a man to a distant location completely unharmed conveys a message of absolute confidence in the future of AI enabled automobility and aviation. Self-driving cars are fine, proles. Stop worrying. Allowing people to drive their own vehicles is too much individual liberty.

The encounter with Sapper Morton can be read as an inversion of the entire narrative on racial justice. Officer K was designed as a perfectly obedient slave programmed to kill rogue replicants with impunity. Sapper Morton is a lone Nexus 8 model living a perfectly productive life harvesting grubs, yet his will to be independent makes him a mark. Just as blacks were the underclass after being liberated from slavery, they remained collectively pathologized even if they were perfectly law abiding. Morton even curses him for killing “his own kind”. After a punishing brawl, K subdues Morton sufficiently in order to administer some kind of electronic scan over his right eye. Call me paranoid, but given that microchip implants are a present day reality, one can’t help but wonder if this too is the shape of things to come. Right before K murders him, Morton says he’ll never become human because he hasn’t witnessed the “miracle” he has. K is utterly indifferent to his claim and takes his life just as he was assigned to do. This allusion to miracles is not only a reference to the spiritual void in K’s existence, but more broadly, to all of Western civilization. The world of Blade Runner is our own fatalistically extrapolated to its fullest conclusion. Society has lost sight of any vision of the divine, any connection to the preciousness of life, or any ideals to conserve. Let alone the will to continue the propagation of its own species.

Right before K leaves the scene, his drone spots an object buried beneath a dead tree. Trees usually symbolize harmonious relationships between man and woman or heaven and earth, but this is one of many notes of symbolic dissonance in a film filled with disjunction. What K unearths is the remains of a replicant woman whose mysterious death sets in motion a quest for his own identity and purpose.

Upon returning to headquarters, K is subjected to an inquisitorial “baseline” diagnostic test. The test itself requires K to recite fragments and words from a passage of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s a passage that alludes to the existence of an afterlife, but the clinical, mechanized, and almost hostile tone robs what is otherwise a beautiful piece of poetry of its effect. With its references to interlinked cells, what it does represent is the lattice work of forces within the film all seeking to resolve the various discordances of this broken, poisoned world of despair, isolation and technological artifice.

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

The whole scene also struck me as a reversal of the final interrogation scene in Logan’s Run. Instead of a mechanized technocracy seeking to extract a sacred truth from a human who had broken the conditioning, here you have the reverse. A human using a piece of poetry which hints at transcendence in order to test the stability of a replicant’s programmed obedience while foreshadowing his eventual quest for a miracle.

After he passes the test, he returns to his apartment in a rather squalid part of the city which is quite likely representative of most neighborhoods in the metropolis. The theme of racial prejudice is reinforced as a random person hurls the epithet “Skin job” at K. Upon his arrival home, we meet his holographic girlfriend, Joi, as played by the very charming and fetching Ana de Armas. When she appears, she is decked out in an iconic 50’s era house dress with perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly applied makeup and is beaming with happiness and gratitude at the sight of her man. Obviously, in this future, not only has gender traditionalism been relegated to holographic simulation, it’s so deeply buried in the past, it’s an app that’s used to keep the replicants happy. Even his meal of grey, synthetic sludge is covered over with a hologram of a hearty, home cooked meal. The relationship between Joi and K is genuinely sweet and the fact that Hollywood can only portray earnest heterosexual romance between a hologram and a replicant is indeed one of the bleakest visions of humanity imaginable. This feels especially bitter in light of the fact that among the many reasons that the Men’s Rights Movement or the MGTOW movement in particular exist at all is because Joi represents the companionship that so many men actually seek.

As K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi, Robin Wright can be read as an archetypal conservative, a feminist power fantasy, an ethno-nationalist and, if you’re feeling especially partisan, a proxy for Trump. Infinitely more believable than Laura Dern’s laughable and contemptible turn as Admiral Gender Studies in The Last Jedi, this is yet another portrait of a female occupying a role traditionally held by men. Though Wright carries off the role with the requisite level of icy bitchiness, Joshi leans heavily toward the feminist power fantasy archetype because there are almost no cinematic portraits of women attempting to climb the competence hierarchies of society. Nearly every cinematic vision of female power, including Joshi, asks you to assume that her ascendancy to that role began at the bottom, and that her attainment of the position came from organic competition with men. No affirmative action here, you dirty misogynistic bigots. The film, along with nearly every other major Hollywood offering, simply expects you to submit to the fact that the dystopian cyberpunk police state future is female. Not a huge leap of imagination for some of us. The one mitigating factor is that her main subordinate is a replicant. K is like the numerous males who’ve been hollowed out and emasculated by feminism. Taught to be ashamed of manhood. Expected to supplicate and genuflect at every turn. Desperately seeking true female companionship and intimacy. Craving meaning, purpose, nobility, belonging and virtue. Yet relegated to the status of mindless drone.

Villeneuve turns the archetype on its head by making her a staunch law and order conservative and crypto ethno-nationalist who wants to keep the line between replicant and human clearly delineated. When she discovers the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, she absolutely flips her shit and orders it destroyed. This adds another layer of dissonance to the character by casting a female as a destroyer of life instead of a creator.

Lieutenant Joshi: The World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.

Naturally, Joshi is played mostly as a cold and implacable authoritarian cunt whose views brook no sympathy. Regardless, her character provides a critical opposing force competing for dominance within this futuristic hellscape. Unfortunately, this is also one of places where the film slides into the progressive cesspool. Joshi embodies both law and order conservatism and ethno-nationalism. In the conservative universe, hierarchies of authority are natural and legitimate, and must be occupied by people who are both competent and virtuous. Conversely, submission to authority is equally legitimate because order, and by extension, the preservation of moral virtue, are the highest goals for society. And in Joshi’s case, the preservation of a clear line between human and replicant. K is both a law enforcement official and a slave. Dispossessed of his past and forced to kill his own species because he is programmed for perfect obedience. When Joshi orders the mixed race replicant-human hybrid destroyed, Joshi immediately questions his willingness to obey. K responds by saying that he was unaware that disobedience was even an option.

In the liberal progressive worldview, disobedience to any conservative norm, real or perceived, is completely legitimate. If anything, the entire progressive worldview is little more than a never-ending war against the prevailing order and a blind pursuit of some abstract notion of equality. Because progressives have moved the goalposts of morality for centuries, Villeneuve and company are essentially presenting even the preservation of biologically pure humanity as some kind of evil notion. What a horrible fascist bitch, that Lieutenant Joshi. Imagine wanting to preserve the purity of HUMANS. The film quite obviously wants you to see her as monstrous and regressive. Get ready to kneel before your AI god, proles. Your rebirth will make you even more than you were before.

Rounding out the dramatis personae is Jared Leto’s pathologically power hungry heir to Tyrell legacy, Niander Wallace. Niander is an avatar for Nimrod, and inhabits the Tower of Babel formerly occupied by Tyrell. His character has committed the ultimate rebellion against God by seeking to become God. He is blind, but can see with the aid of a swarm of optical drones. Subsequently, he doesn’t see the world with natural sight. Only through a vision of technological perfection which, for him, means a civilization of perfectly obedient replicants. The only thing preventing him from achieving complete dominion is his inability to crack Tyrell’s secret for replicant procreation. Once he learns of the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, he sets his cybernetically enhanced sights on ensuring that he acquires the child before Joshi and K destroy it.

K’s first step in unraveling the mystery of the replicant remains takes him back to the Wallace Corporation archives to mine what remains of the Tyrell records. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv, cautions him that the records that survived the Blackout of 2022 are scant. This small reference to a digital cataclysm which took out most of civilization’s records is kind of chilling all by itself. Through the centuries, humans built culture, developed language, and preserved history through physical records and objects. The digital age has certainly given us greater access to information and services, but it makes you think about what we’ve lost in the process. If memory and history can evaporate so easily into the digital ether, are we, in fact, allowing our deepest essence to be stripmined by technocrats? Is the blackout of 2022 a foreshadowing of a cataclysm to come? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Luv retrieves a small recording of Rick Deckard’s first encounter with Rachael. This leads him back to Sapper Morton’s maggot farm where he discovers a baby sock, a photo of Rachael with her child, and a date carved into the base of the tree. The latter discovery shakes him to his core. Upon returning to headquarters, Joshi asks him to recall his fondest childhood memory. Like its predecessor and virtually every other sci-fi film which explores the nature of humanity in cyborgs and AI, the role of memory is the defining quality on which the drama is built. Our very sense of selfhood is rooted in a phenomena that’s barely understood. A steady accumulation of ephemeral moments that carve deep grooves of meaning into our very existence. A story. For better and worse.

Haunted by the discovery of the date, K starts combing through birth records in search of clues. He discovers the birth records of both a boy and a girl who share the exact same DNA. It’s nearly impossible to find a major Hollywood film which doesn’t blatantly pander to the identity politics, and this is one of the most base and pernicious sops to the SJW crowd. Despite the fact that K assumes that the female record was a fake, the movie very subtly insinuates that even our highly refined knowledge of genetics can’t quite explain the mystery of gender. Science is just an oppressive patriarchal construct, you transphobic bigots. While seeking the records of the dead girl in a child labor camp amongst the ruins of San Diego, K discovers a room with a furnace that maps exactly to his own memories. Thunderstruck by the prospect that his memories are real, he shares this revelation with Joi. She is delighted by the news because it suggests that K was actually born with a soul. It’s a beautiful sentiment and de Armas fills every word with pure feminine passion, but you are also keenly aware that it is merely the siren song of a digital succubus.

Joi: I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.

At Joi’s behest, K seeks out a memory specialist to gain confirmation of his memories. This leads him to Dr. Ana Stelline, a Wallace subcontractor who manufactures memories for replicants. Here we have a theme that’s been repeated over and over in sci-fi films for decades. If manufacturing memory grants replicants humanity, then what effect might the manipulation of memory have on humans? The studies of the effects of social media on children is already coming in and there’s certainly a case to be made that not only is it shortening attention spans, but having adverse effects on mental health. More importantly, if people are increasingly reliant on internet connectivity for the acquisition of information, and the portal through which reality is perceived is through tech giants, what effect might this have on cultural consensus? Since AI itself was a far fetched notion a few decades back, is it unreasonable to assert that the tech overlords are very much in the business of manufacturing memory and that we’ve willingly submitted to the digital temptations which facilitate this very outcome? If a cataclysmic digital blackout which destroyed the digital past was the event which crippled civilization so badly that it enabled a technocratic cyberpunk dictatorship, can we really read this film as just another Hollywood entertainment spectacle? A certain quote from George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind.

This eventually leads K to the ruins of Las Vegas in his quest for Deckard and presumably, the secrets of his own past. Just as we saw with Rian Johnson’s molestation of the legacy of Luke Skywalker, we find Deckard living a life of pure isolation. Taking up residence in one of the relatively intact Las Vegas hotels, Deckard embodies both manhood and fatherhood lost amongst the ruins of decadence and ephemeral pleasures. Forced to relinquish fatherhood in hopes of allowing his child a shot at life free from the fear of being hunted by Blade Runners, Deckard entrusted their care to a sort of underground replicant railroad. There is nothing but brokenness and dissolution in this world. It wants you to accept that loyalty and the bonds of familial cohesion are nothing you should expect.

Rick Deckard: Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.

Reminding us once again that the walls of our cyberpunk panopticon have been constructed by our own technological addictions, Luv and the Wallace goon squad are able to track K through the mobile device that runs the Joi hologram app. After nearly getting blown to smithereens, Luv and her goon squad put a serious beating on K. Showing us once again that this film is solidly committed to perverting every ideal, Luv the Replicant destroys K’s actual holographic love by smashing the mobile device that enables her projected image. What an absolutely evil bitch.

It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie if there weren’t some kind of #RESISTANCE movement, and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. After being badly wounded by Luv and Wallace’s goons, K is treated by the Replicant Liberation Front who’ve been tracking his movements all along. Freysa and her replicant revolutionaries believe that the replicant-human child is their their Messiah, and they want K to join them in their final revolution against the yoke of human tyranny. If humans could see that replicants could procreate, they’d be compelled to grant them the same liberties as humans. Aside from the obvious parallels to the various pro-immigration interests in the US and EU, this encounter draws another bright line of distinction between the progressive and conservative worldview. Since the dawn of modern age, the pillars of society that once provided the guideposts of cultural prescription have long since been eroded. Though the Western tradition makes accommodation for individual liberty, the levees of conservatism have been unable to ward off the tidal wave of modernity and the radical individualism of the progressive Left. A spiritual void needs to be filled, and in the mind of the progressive, that means a never-ending rebellion against order itself. Instead of the eternal God of Judeo-Christian faith, there is an earthly god of #EQUALITY and the perpetual pursuit of universal rights to be bestowed to an ever expanding underclass. For the progressive, the quiet, modest virtues of personal responsibility, family, and community must be supplanted by a revolutionary cause against an omnipresent oppression.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Deckard is brought before Wallace who is intent on extracting the location of his hybrid child. Deckard resists, so Wallace uses an even more powerful enticement: a perfect replica of Rachael. Deckard refuses because he knows it’s a fake. Again, the film blurs the line between reality and illusion by having Deckard reject the Rachael copy simply because the color of her eyes was wrong. His experience of love was real to him, but Rachael was a replicant in the first place. Wallace condemns him to a torture facility and sends him off with Luv and some goons. After a final reunion with a giant hologram of Joi which crushes every last byte of their virtual love affair, K is faced with an existential choice. Aid the Great Replicant Proletarian Revolution by killing Deckard or kill the replicant-human hybrid to prevent Wallace from completing his dominion. A final confrontation occurs in Luv’s downed spinner on the ocean’s edge between K and Luv. It culminates with K vanquishing Luv and then rescuing Deckard from drowning in a quasi-baptism scene. K fulfills his own destiny by reuniting Deckard with Stelline. On the surface, it feels like a pretty huge symbolic moment because he forswears communist revolution and ethno-nationalism and chooses simply to reunite a father with his daughter. But if Stelline is the future, then the new Messiah is a manufacturer of memories for replicants. The holographic future of manufactured memory is female, proles.

Fantastic.

It’s not my realm of expertise, but there is undoubtedly deeper significance to the recurrence of eye imagery, water, the blue/orange dualism and the various numbers found throughout the film. Nothing is left to chance in films this big, and I find it hard to believe that there is no symbolism behind these choices. There were two things that caught my attention though. The first was the Cyrillic script on Sapper Morton’s farm facilities. On the one hand, you could chalk it up to the fact that the world of Blade Runner is just a multicultural remix of its former self. Where once there were distinct nation states with distinct cultures, here every nation coexists within a completely artificial simulacrum of itself refracted through the lens of corporatism. On the other, Sapper Morton was part of the Replicant Liberation Front. Is this a subtle inversion of the Virgin Lands Campaign under Khrushchev? I’m going with YES. Later in the film, there is an advertisement for the Soviet Union complete with hammer and sickle icons and everything. Perhaps it’s sci-fi alternative history, but by placing it in the advertising endorphin drip, it anesthetizes it and makes it no different from ads for holographic sex, food or leisure. See, proles? Communism is as safe as milk. Don’t listen to those socialism-phobic right-wing bigots. What do they know anyway, amirite?

The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is also a thing of dark beauty. Where Vangelis’ original was a dream of wires, moments of celestial beauty peered through console. In contrast, the Zimmer/Wallfisch soundtrack is something akin to the child laborers picking out the rare minerals of the motherboards of its predecessor. It’s yawning vistas of synthesized melancholy punctuated by rhythmic clusters of cybernetic paranoia covered by storm clouds of digitized menace. The reprise of “Tears in the Rain” at the end is a nice touch and a fitting reminder that not only did Vangelis allow a little more light in his vision, but it was sensual and tender. They break the pall of gloom ever so slightly by including choice tracks by Elvis and Frank Sinatra. The pop anthem by Lauren Daigle at the end is the only real disappointment. The fact that she’s a Christian singer strikes me as a very interesting choice given the distinctly despairing and secular nihilism of this film. I wonder if it’s also some kind of postmodern joke.

As much as the commentary in Blade Runner 2049 makes me queasy, it’s difficult for me to hate on it because it’s so beautifully made and it’s a cool story. Like so many other people, Blade Runner was a touchstone of my youth and films like it are so deeply woven into my own story. And perhaps that’s been the point all along. I’ve been watching dystopian sci-fi movies for years and like the works of Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley, I always saw them as warnings to humanity. They were stories of biblical scale that served as a permanent injunction to the human race. Hold on to your humanity at all costs, and always remember that there are good things to defend and preserve. Part of me wants to think that underneath the crushing despair, this is the message of Blade Runner 2049. Part of me wants to think that this belongs to the venerable tradition of the great dystopian works of yore in that it’s a movie that wants you to free your mind and break the system. The calling card of all great dystopian sci-fi was the struggle of man against the machine of the State. Logan 5 was a hero because he broke the conditioning of his technocratic overlords and returned to society to expose the lies and break the system. Today, the Logan 5’s of the world are people like James Damore and Jordan Peterson. In this film, they’re asking you to empathize with the machines. Not only that, they want you to become the machines. It’s the replicants who are desperately seeking humanity because there isn’t any to be found in the actual humans. They’ve taken all of the packaging of individualist rebellion that was once the province of human agency, and handed it off to the replicants. As good as Blade Runner 2049 is, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a movie that wants you to keep your humanity.

Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow sci-fi film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.

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Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having an aura which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.

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First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the sci-fi premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.

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Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a sci-fi action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional sci-fi cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.

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We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.

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The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.

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Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.

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I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…

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Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, it’s a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed?

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley. In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished.

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing. Using techniques that made sci-fi films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery. Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous.

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome. And no sci-fi action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way.

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that?

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm. Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects. It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic sci-fi is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking.

Snowpiercer (2013)

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Man, is this film overrated.

It’s an interesting premise and certainly offers a unique take on post-apocalyptic dystopia, but despite its visual invention and black humor, the ideas at its core feel trite.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Environmental devastation has driven mankind to seek a technological solution for climate change which backfires and instead turns the planet into a presumably uninhabitable tundra. Prior to the wintry techno Armageddon, a forward thinking industrialist constructs a global railway system and the titular train which carries the remnants of humanity in its various cars and endlessly circumnavigates the frozen waste.

Echoing the themes and visual metaphors of Metropolis and Animal Farm and numerous other dystopian fables, the downtrodden, impoverished proles are banished to the dim, grimy, squalid rear cars while the wealthy enjoy the comforts of the front cars. Order is enforced at gunpoint by a legion of goons who are lead by a caricature of a despot played by Tilda Swinton. Coming across like a visual mashup of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher in quasi military regalia, she makes pompous pronouncements about maintaining the social order of the train. Everyone must maintain “Their Proper Place”.

After one of the children is taken away by the authorities for some unknown and nefarious purpose, the proles decide to initiate a revolution. Lead by the twin stereotypes of the Indomitable Rebel Leader (Chris Evans) and Wizened Sage (John Hurt), the band of revolutionaries begin a violent takeover of the train. This culminates in the inevitable showdown between the Indomitable Rebel and the Evil Puppet Master at the front of the train, Wilford.

This stuff is generally good grist for the drama mill when telling a dystopian SF story, but this is where the film goes off the rails (pun intended).

The film commits three crimes of peddling hackneyed tropes. The first is the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy. The second is the cult of deference to a Great Leader. The third, while ultimately derived from the first two, is the idiotic notion of a fated social order which is either enforced by totalitarian rule or disrupted by a Liberating Leader.

The most egregious crime is of course the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy. The notion that an industrialist who achieves success in the free market left to his own devices has totalitarian designs. He will subject an unwitting public to his technocratic Darwinian power games and will not hesitate to use violence to both keep the plebes in line and maximize efficiency. At the end of the film, Wilford offers Curtis the opportunity to be the new Great Leader because after all, the rubes need to be kept in line. One particularly cartoonish scene involves a school teacher indoctrinating the youth with cultish songs of praise toward Wilford which are undoubtedly meant to resemble those sung at gunpoint in North Korea.

The film essentially presents the acquisition of power, wealth and resources as a zero sum game and insists on perpetuating the dumb, reductive and counterproductive dichotomy of 99 percenters versus one percenters. There are haves and have nots and the haves will resort to violence and repression in order to preserve the social order and the only recourse for have nots is violent revolution.

Of course, all collective action is driven by the dictates of the Leaders from both sides. The rebellious proles only act when commanded to do so as do the armed goons who work for Wilford. There is no individual thought, action or initiative whatsoever. Everything hinges on The Leaders.

Despite its generally hamfisted approach to the themes, there are some surprising nuances. The film seems to be suggesting that privatized marine ecosystems will result in a sustainable food supply. And for those who believe in gun control, this film may disabuse the notion that gun ownership should be the sole province of agents of the state. There is a pretty blatant suggestion of entomophagy as a viable food alternative as well. Not exactly something you’re likely to see in your average Hollywood film for sure.

The visuals are cool and the combat scenes are insanely brutal.

Proceed at your own risk.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood.”

Oh, you better believe it.

Your world will be fire and blood after you see this film. Believe the hype. Believe every word. This film earned every bit of praise that has been written or spoken.

This film is every bit the fuel injected, turbo charged, flame throwing battering ram that you’ve heard. It is a jaw dropping feat of cinematic bravura. It is also a cornucopia of visual riches; cinematography, art direction, design and a level of choreographed mayhem that will be the standard against which all future films will be measured. Most importantly, it is a well written story with vividly rendered characters and a highly detailed world.

Though I enjoyed it, I also don’t think that it’s without flaws. There are mixed messages regarding the nature of freedom, some dumb clichés about commerce, property rights and capitalism, and a frustrating veneration of the myth of the Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation. In this case, the variation on the same theme, The Female Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation Because She’s a Woman, you FUGHYNG PYG. Clichés to which I probably should be accustomed, but feel compelled to draw attention to nonetheless.

There has also been a lot of hullabaloo over the film’s alleged feminism. While I can accept that there are aspects of the story that could be construed as feminist in the manner that was asserted in the original conception of the movement, these claims are, by and large, wildly overblown. Aside from a little blatant pandering to redfem sensibilities, the film mostly emphasizes the contribution that each gender is able to make to one another; a position which stands in stark contrast to the position of antipathy, bigotry and antagonism towards men which is actively fostered in feminist circles and media.

Don’t get me wrong. What’s good about the film far outweighs the dubious. While these flaws do not derail the film, they warrant mention.

So let’s take a look at them.

Just as the three predecessor films, Fury Road presents a world in a state of collapse. Or perhaps a cynical extrapolation of the current state of affairs. Presumably, all governments have fallen and the gun is the only law. It provides a perfect backdrop for an exploration of morality.

The best part of this film and the series is that it asks you to consider what morality is when the structures of society which allegedly provide the foundations of moral behavior have disappeared.

Enter Max Rockatansky; a former cop who lost his family and is haunted by his past failures. He’s searching for a “righteous cause” and some redemption. Once again, we’re presented with a protagonist who was once an agent of the state and by extension, a symbol of the state. In Max, we are expected to see one of the last guardians of law, virtue, and morality in a world in which the law has failed. It’s ironic that we are expected to view a former cop as the embodiment of morality in light of so many current instances of police brutality, but it’s a believable leap of imagination because he’s no longer beholden to the state. Instead of a trigger happy killer like the psychopaths we see later in the film (and in the real world), Max is a model of restraint. He does not arbitrarily initiate violence against others.

“My world is reduced to a single instinct: Survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… Or everyone else,” he says in the opening narration. Tom Hardy was cast over Mel Gibson this time out and brings a new level of gravitas, physicality and appeal to the role of Max.

On the flipside, we have Immortan Joe; a psychopathic despot who wields power through fear, violence and manipulation through religious belief. Immortan Joe is the dictator of The Citadel; a dystopian hellhole in which Joe and his minions live in relative splendor and plenitude, and the population live in a state of debased poverty and abject misery. He controls the water supply and, in the tradition of all totalitarian assholes, preaches an inversion of reality to keep the plebes in line.

“Do not become addicted to water, it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” he bellows in one of his speeches to the masses. Self-abasement and sacrifice, you worms! You’re taking up space and resources and you’d be dead if not for my benevolence!

Just as the previous films addressed the possibility of a global shortage of gasoline, this film wants to draw attention the availability (or lack thereof) of clean, potable water as the issue of mounting concern.

Additionally, Joe has an army of War Boys who answer to his every command. They are a whole legion of mutated men who’ve been bred for combat, are hopped up on some aerosol amphetamine and swear a religious fealty to Joe out of a belief in an afterlife of glory. This is also a possible bit of feminist pandering. Though it’s true that heads of state who’ve been responsible for so much misery and death throughout history have been male, contrary to contemporary feminist propaganda, there’s nothing inherent in manhood that automatically makes you a rapist/murderer/sex trafficker/child molester/genocidal maniac.

Here, George Miller reveals both a cynical view of commerce (there isn’t any) and a despairing view of humanity. It seems that he’s portraying life as a choice between being a mindless minion, a servile and helpless serf or a cruel despot. He seems to be saying that life is confined to solitary acts of virtue, morality and violent resistance (which are the province of “Heroes”) in a world that is poisoned and beyond hope of reclamation. All other options lead to enslavement or rule over others by force.

In reference to Joe’s iron fisted dominion, a character says, “He owns the water, and he owns us too.”

What a dumb, narrow, cynical, and fallacious view of property rights and the world. Instead of viewing markets as an emancipating force, Miller has chosen to take the view that those who have commodities that people need will use them to enslave others.

This same view carries over to the characters which set the events of the film in motion, The Five Wives. The Five Wives were Joe’s “breeders”; women held in captivity to give birth to Joe’s children. Imperator Furiosa, brilliantly portrayed by Charlize Theron, steals the Five Wives when sent on a mission to obtain gas for Immortan Joe.

Upon discovering their absence, Joe finds the words “WE ARE NOT OBJECTS” painted on the walls. Naturally, Joe is enraged and mobilizes his entire fleet of battle cars to hunt down Furiosa. Not only is Joe’s ownership of these women a cartoonish view of the life of freedom enjoyed by women who live in Western market-oriented societies, it is predictably one of the themes around which feminists have rallied. It reveals the sad contempt for private property held by filmmakers and feminists alike. It also reveals a frustrating refusal to recognize the fact that the earliest American feminists of the 19th century agitated to overturn common law statutes which made women actual slaves to their husbands. The Married Women’s Property Acts (laws which preceded suffrage by 56 years) allowed women to enter into contracts, own property and earn a salary! Yet for some reason, feminists seem intent on denigrating and dismissing these early gains and regarding the opportunity that the free market presents as a monolithic force of oppression. While I can accept that this plot element could also be construed as a metaphor for sex trafficking and countries with epidemic levels of rape like the Congo and Sudan, these are countries with an absence of markets or a lack of appreciation for property rights, an excess of religious belief, rule by force or all three. Either you respect property rights and voluntary exchange or you submit to rule by force. You can’t have both, feminists.

Furthermore, isn’t this Five Wives plot element just a variation on the “damsel in distress” trope famously decried by Anita Sarkeesian as a disempowering cliché? Is it true that all you need to do to appease feminists is make the savior a female?

Feminists have also lavished praise over the toughness, bravery, resourcefulness and ferocity of Furiosa. While I thoroughly enjoyed the character and Theron’s performance and I get the appeal she holds as a representation of female badassery, I still find it strange that feminists are swooning over this character. Furiosa knows how to drive and repair the War Rig, how to use firearms, and can hold her own in hand to hand combat. It’s as though feminists equate fictional representations of toughness with real world “equality”. Feminists are generally deeply opposed to gun rights and never agitate for equal representation in automotive repair or auto sports. I cannot recall even so much as a single kind feminist word spoken about someone like Danica Patrick nor can I recall a single line of coverage given to women who work in pro auto sports in feminist media.
What’s even stranger to me about the praise of the Furiosa character is that, in contrast to women who live in the Western world, she had no real choice in her life. She was kidnapped as a child and her only real option was to climb the ranks of Immortan Joe’s military. It’s possible that she developed her skills purely out of necessity. And why aren’t feminists praising Joe for his female-friendly hiring policy? There weren’t any other women amongst the ranks of the War Boys as far as I could tell.

One of the other themes which has been downplayed and sneered at by feminists is the subplot involving Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys who ends up siding with Furiosa, Max and the Wives. A mutual affection develops between Nux and Capable. Since Joe kept the men separated from the female population, they developed stunted views of their relationship towards women. Having lived most of his life deprived of any real affection from a woman, Nux reclaims his humanity through the power of the love of a woman freely given. Feminists often seem way more invested in denouncing “toxic masculinity” and “misogyny” rather than seeing men as humans who need and crave love. Sometimes, the only validation a man seeks in this life is the love of a woman.

Furiosa’s intention was to return to the Green Place; a fabled land of unspoiled beauty that was the homeland from which she was kidnapped as a child. Instead, they meet the Vuvalini, a gang of motorcycle riding, gun toting matriarchs who are the last remaining survivors of the Green Place. Here, Miller does a little blatant pandering to feminist tendencies towards misandry. They’re initially distrustful of Max and Nux and are only assuaged by Furiosa vouching for them as “reliable”. The Vuvalini are a manifestation of a feminist power fantasy and give a voice to contemporary notions of “white, male capitalist patriarchy” promulgated in feminist circles today. They speak lovingly of women as caretakers, mothers, and givers of life and tell stories filled with atavistic yearning of the bygone days when fruit, flowers, and trees grew in abundance before everything was destroyed by all the nasty, evil men. When the climactic chase goes into overdrive, he even pays tribute to the Valerie Solanas-loving/SCUM Manifesto-reading crowd when one of the matriarchs declares, “One man. One bullet.”

After a breathtaking final chase sequence, Furiosa ultimately vanquishes Joe while she venomously spits “Remember me!”

The heroes ride victoriously into The Citadel with Joe’s corpse on the hood of the War Rig. Furiosa and the Wives are admitted to the upper levels once reserved for Joe and his minions to assume control of The Citadel. The final scene shows one of the former Wives allowing the water to gush forth from the giant water pipes on the mountainside and waste it even more profusely than Joe ever did. From this act, the presumption with which you’re left is that Furiosa is going to be a Better Leader. Because….FEMALE! And Joe’s fundamental flaw was that he was a MAN! Never mind that they had scarce resources to manage in the first place and had no apparent system of prices, wages or exchange. We’re left to believe that Furiosa would be a more benevolent leader simply because she had a uterus. Hillary 2016!

Again, these are not fatal flaws.

The film never fails to entertain. It succeeds at being a nail biter not only as a result of the physicality and virtuosity of the stunt work, but because the human drama is the backbone of the film. The look of the film is absolutely first rate and you are completely immersed in the world.

Highly recommended.

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