Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

Reading the Anthropocene:  Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood”

Continuing on with my “Reading the Anthropocene” series, today I’d like to talk about the second volume in Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAdam Trilogy,” ominously titled The Year of the Flood.  Unlike the first novel, which was told from the perspectivenovel of the embittered Jimmy, this one is told from the dual perspectives of Toby and Ren, two survivors of the plague and former members of the religious cult known as God’s Gardeners.  As the novel toggles between Year Twenty Five (the eponymous Year of the Flood) and the past–interspersed with exhortations from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners–we get a glimpse into the lives that Ren and Toby led prior to the plague.  Both women emerge as tenacious survivors in a world that, as becomes clear, is perilous for women, who are often subjected to the violently sexual whims of men like Blanco (Toby’s employer and tormentor for most of the novel), and exploited for their bodies.

If in many ways the first novel portrayed the misogynist worldview of both Glenn and Jimmy, The Year of the Flood acts as something of a corrective, evoking shades of The Handmaid’s Tale with its rigorous focus on the perspectives of its two female protagonists, Toby and Ren (Brenda).  While Brenda’s storyline focuses on her sexual objectification as part of the Scales and Tails strip club, Toby’s focuses on her search for meaning in a world that continues to collapse around her.  While she finds respite for a time with the God’s Gardeners, she is eventually forced to find shelter elsewhere after Blanco continues to pursue her and jeopardizes the entire Gardener colony.  Nevertheless, Toby puts her Gardener-learned skills to good use, and it is precisely these skills that allow her to continue surviving in the harsh, unforgiving world left in the wake of the Waterless Flood (the plague).  While Ren does not possess the same amount of agency as Toby, she is still just as much of a survivor, enduring neglect and abandonment by her mother as well as by  Jimmy (for whom she harbors a long-unrequited love), as well as the harsh exploitation of Scales and Tails.

One of the most compelling (and sometimes frustrating) things about this novel is its mixed tone about the God’s Gardeners.  At times, it seems that the novel wants us to view them sympathetically and their worldview–with its emphasis on returning to the principles of the earth, its compelling mixture of science with genuine religious faith, and their eco-friendly practices–as a genuinely practical alternative to the corporate/military dystopia which surrounds them.  Indeed, several of the “hymns” that punctuate the main narrative are actually quite touching and melancholy, evoking as they do the heavy price humankind has to pay as a result of its pushing so many species over the brink of extinction.  However, these moments of pathos remain at least slightly undercut by the exhortation that begins the Adam One chapters, which routinely refer to his fellow Gardeners as “fellow mammals.”  To me, this always strikes a bit of a humorous note, a sly wink from the narrator (perhaps even Adam One himself?) and a suggestion that perhaps all of this should not be taken too seriously.

Of course, no review of this series would be complete without an obligatory mention of the animal hybrids, especially the pigoons (who of course make several appearances, usually as a torment to Toby).   These quasi-pigs continue to be a menace, disturbing precisely because they so seamlessly embody a strange sort of cuteness with a brutal and sinister cunning.  A new hybrid, the liobam, also makes an appearance, as a bizarre cross between the lion and the lamb, manufactured by yet another religious sect in the hopes of bringing the apocalypse to pass (hence the lion laying with the lamb).

Again, despite the brutality and the animal hybrids, the end of the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note, as the journey narrative seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion:  Amanda has been successfully rescued, the remnants of God’s Gardeners have been reunited at last, Jimmy is brought back from the precipice of death, and the People of Crake approach.  Unlike many products of the anthropocene (particularly films like Melancholia and the literary works of authors like Paolo Baciagalupi), the trilogy (so far, at least), seems to be cautiously optimistic about hte advent of the anthropocene.  Humankind might be capable of destroying the world, but these novels suggest that it is just as capable of rebuilding at least a measure of what was lost.

Reading the Anthropocene: Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”

In this, the inaugural entry in my series “Reading the Anthropocene,” I’ve decided to focus on Margaret Atwood’s biting dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, the first volume in the “Madaddam Trilogy.”  The novel, by turns funny, disturbing, terrifying, and even oddly sentimental, is a testament to Atwood’s continuing ability to paint a portrait of a future world that could, feasibly, stem from the one that we are currently in the process of creating.

The novel, set sometime in the not-too-distant future, follows the character Jimmy, narrating both his present (a world in which most of the population has been decimated by a terrible plague), as well as the past (in which he befriends a scientific genius named Crake, as well as an inscrutable young woman named Oryx).  Theirs is a world overrun with science and capitalism, where a select group get to live in various Compounds (owned by corporations), while most of humanity is relegated to the crime and disease-ridden (and thus sinisterly appealing) pleeblands.  After an unremarkable (though quite unhappy) youth, Jimmy ends up attending the disgraced Martha Graham Academy to study humanities, while Crake (originally known as Glenn), ends up at the prestigious Watson Crick Institute.  Gradually, unbeknownst to Jimmy, Crake develops a pill that, while claiming to offer sexual satisfaction to any who take it, is in actuality the host for a powerful virus with which he intends to restart the evolutionary clock, replacing flawed humanity with his own bio-engineered race of humanoids (dubbed either Crakers of the Children of Crake/Children of Oryx).  Using Oryx as his proxy, he spreads the virus around the world, triggering the apocalypse, but leaving Jimmy alive to care for his creations (he also kills Oryx, leading an enraged Jimmy to shoot him in turn).  At the end of the novel, Jimmy realizes that he is not, in fact, the only human left alive, as two strangers walk into his territory.

As this description makes clear, Oryx and Crake doesn’t pull any punches, serving as a needling rebuke of our present cultural moment and our obsession with the endless production of beauty, food, and all of the other fatally glitzy trappings of modern capitalism.  Indeed, one cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy for Crake’s point of view, given how thoroughly we have managed (so far) to ruin much of the planet that we call home.  Like the best dystopian fiction, particularly that which has emerged during the growing awareness of the anthropocene, the novel attempts to make us aware of just how much ruin we are in the process of perpetrating, ranging from the mass extinction of species (by the time in which the novel takes place, many species of animal have gone extinct) to dangers of science gone unchecked.  Even climate change makes an appearance, though in this novel it remains on the edges, a haunting reminder of things to come (it makes a marked appearance in several places in the novel’s sequel, The Year of the Flood).

At times, the novel manages to evoke the viscerally terrifying nature of a world in which commercialized science has run amok, playing havoc and manipulating every aspect of nature in an attempt to reach some intangible, and ultimately unattainable, measure of perfection.  It’s hard to say which of the fantastic creations the novel evokes are the most disturbing, whether it’s the fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly carnivorous pigoons (pigs that were developed as homes for easily transplantable human organs), or the Chickie-Nobs, a genetically modified chicken that produces a steady supply of chicken nuggets (the chicken itself has no brain to speak of, only that part that manages the unconscious functions necessary for the barest survival).  Even the relatively benign creations, such as the rankunks (raccoon/skunk hybrids), still carry with them the idea that they are not completely natural and that, as a result, they might turn sinister at any moment.

Like many cultural products of the anthropocene, Oryx and Crake attempts to make sense of a world gone mad (both in the context of the novel and, one could argue, the world that we currently live in).  The novel expresses a hope that the end of the world as we know it can be understood at the level of the personal (after all, it is due to the actions of a single individual that the virus is unleashed), but also that that individual and his motivations can only be understood in their complexity when we situate them in the world in which they live.  Thus, there is something both comforting and disconcerting about this vision of the end of the world, as we are, at least briefly, encouraged to believe that the end of the world can be understood (and thus, perhaps, prevented) at the same time as we are also encouraged to understand that, in some fundamental way, the end of the world will always remain inscrutable, forever beyond the grasp of any one thinker 0r reader.

Further, like Atwood’s other (and probably most famous) dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with Jimmy/Snowman stepping out to confront the two newcomers to his territory.  While the novel ends on a cliffhanger (we are left wondering who these people are and what they are doing, and we have no idea how they greet the arrival of Jimmy), there is still the faint sliver of hope that somehow, human life has not been entirely extinguished.  Given the lengths to which the novel goes to make Jimmy (who adopts the name of Snowman in his interactions with the Crakers, for whom he is something of a prophet), a quasi-sympathetic character, we hope for his sake (and our own?) that there is still hope that our world can be rescued from the ashes.

That is a hope that, as the full force of the anthropocene becomes more and more obvious with each passing day, begins to seem ever more futile and more ephemeral.  And that, in the end, grants this novel its raw and terrible power.

Film Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

When I first heard that another version of the Mad Max story was in the offing, I wasn’t terribly excited.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction (being obsessed with the anthropocene and with the ways in which humanity seems fixated on its own imminent destruction), there was just something about the way this film was advertised that made it seem like just a bunch of stuff getting blown up without much more than that behind it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with scenes of wanton destruction per se (Michael Bay has practically made a career out of it), but it’s not my personal cup of tea.

But somehow, Mad Max, either in spite of or because of its particular mix of narrative sparseness and excessive visuality, manages to reach a level of operatic viscerality that seems all too rare in our age of blockbuster cinema.

Throughout its two hours, not a great deal happens.  Max (Tom Hady), the titular character, becomes enslaved by the minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who utilize him as a “bloodbag” for Joe’s “War Boys.”  After Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with several of Joe’s enslaved wives (who bear with them the possibility of flawless children), the enraged dictator sets out with an enormous war band to reclaim them.  A lot of bloodshed, violence, explosions, and thunderous music occurs, and in the end Joe is slain by Furiosa who, along with the wives, reclaims Joe’s colony for the people.

Of course, I would have gone to see the film for no other reason other than that it seems to have aroused some MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) to heights of apoplectic rage typically reserved for feminist reading groups.  While I’m still not quite certain what about the film aroused such fits of spleen (other than the fact that it features female characters that have agency that can fight as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts), there was much else about the film that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Indeed, despite some initial reservations about the film, I finally just gave in to the power of the image and the sound and embraced this raw experience of cinema.

However, while the aesthetics and affect of this film do rely, for the most part, on intensity, there were a few genuinely touching and soft moments thrown in, such as the steady conversion of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who gradually finds his thirst for blood replaced by genuine affection for the escaped women.  The fact that he ultimately gives up his life so that others may live gives his presence in the film a certain poignancy that serves as a nice counterpoint to the more laconic and hard-edged presences of Max and Furiosa.

As in so many dystopian films of the anthropocene, our future is a bleak one, with a landscape blistered by hot sun and scarce water, many of our descendants deformed from the damage that we have so willfully inflicted on our planet.  However, as with most dystopian tales, there is also a strain of utopianism, an expression of a desire that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world after all.  And, in this case, that means that the waters of the Colony will be made available to all, and women’s bodies will no longer be subject to the sexual whims of a deformed and diseased dictator with the effrontery to position himself as a savior.

Overall, there is something disorientingly and perturbingly bizarre about the mixture of technology and the primitive that is a central part of the film’s aesthetic.  This sense of the bizarre and the almost unthinkable, I believe, is key to the film’s general appeal.  I’ve begun to wonder recently if there is still room for awe and wonder, awe, or shock in our modern world and especially in our explosion-ridden cinema.  If anything approaches that possibility, I argue that it is Mad Max.  While on the surface it appears to be just another action flick, there is a lot more going on here than at first meets the eye.

Through its narrative leanness and its startling and sometimes horrifying visuals, Mad Max pricks us with the fatal and dark reminders of our own hubris and vanity.  If there was ever an era when we needed those kinds of reminders, when we needed to be shocked by the powerful nature of the cinematic image, it is this one.

Let’s just hope that we can finally take heed.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”: A Melodramatic Myth for the Anthropocene

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ll be the first to admit a fair amount of skepticism going into Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of superhero films, and while I believe that Marvel films in particular are often far more complex and nuanced in their address than might appear obvious at first blush, I am also not a particular fan of Joss Whedon, who I find something of a pretentious (if talented) bore.  Further, I found the first Avengers film to be compelling but not groundbreaking in any meaningful way (though it was highly entertaining).

Fortunately for me, this film managed to trump its predecessor in almost every way imaginable.

Of course, per the usual, it has all of the explosions and titanic battle scenes that have become a staple of the Marvel films, lightly leavened with snappy dialogue and witty repartee between the various characters (Black Widow particularly excels at this).  And, there’s even a little bit of a love plot thrown in, as Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk continue to develop their (perhaps ultimately doomed) relationship.  Each of the characters remains haunted by their pasts and their futures, and it is precisely the fear of future failure that leads everyone’s favourite playboy/philanthropist/bad boy Tony Stark/Iron Man to set in motion the process that ultimately creates Ultron, an AI whose daddy issues ultimately lead him to attempt to destroy humanity.

What struck me as I watched this film was how intensely melodramatic it was.  Of course, melodrama is, it seems, built into the very DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in this film it seemed to take on mythic dimension, as the film articulates a remarkably (and troublingly) reflective take on the brink of destruction.  As Ultron (played with a memorable and menacing growl by the inimitable James Spader) remarks, humans excel at creating the very thing that will ultimately destroy and supplant them.  Just as human parents beget the children that will eventually take over their role on this mortal coil, so Ultron has decided to take it upon himself to rid the earth of the meddlesome, murky, and ultimately destructive presence of humanity.  The fact that he doesn’t succeed in doing so doesn’t really lessen the bite of his caustic remark, which is troubling precisely because it is true; the nature of organic life is, indeed, predicated precisely on change, on a constant sense that our own individual lives on this planet are finite, that our descendants are biologically intended to replace us.  To me, this was one of the most frightening moments on the film, precisely because it cuts through all of the bombast and hyperbole typically associated with this genre to hit at a point that we, as a species, constantly try to forget.

Further, a profound sense of melodramatic melancholy haunts this film, as each of the key characters struggles to find that space of innocence that scholar Linda Williams is key to the ways in which melodrama functions as an affective mode of storytelling.  So much of this film remains predicated on the “too late” moments; it’s too late for Bruce and Black Widow, Iron Man remains haunted by the possibility that he will be too late to save his companions, that he will in fact be to blame for the death of everyone and everything he has come to care about.  These moments are, of course, coupled with “on time” moments:  Hawkeye’s family and his bucolic house in the countryside are saved; Black Widow is saved from Ultron (don’t get me started on the way in which she is basically reduced to a damsel in distress); and, of course, humanity is ultimately saved from absolute extinction.

And yet, for all that the film strenuously wants us to believe that saving the world is the ultimately goal, the most terrifying thing about the vision articulated by Ultron is that, unfortunately, he’s right.  We as a species have pretty much brought the world as we know it to the brink of ecological, environmental, and biological catastrophe (we are living in the anthropocene, after all), and one can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, the dropping of the city of Sokovia onto Earth (thus triggering a mass extinction of humanity) wouldn’t be such a bad thing, after all.  Of course, the film does everything in its formidable power to disavow this possibility, in the process suggesting that it is not, indeed, too late for the collective us in the audience to do something to save our world from its own doom.  As a species and as a culture, we desperately, one might say hysterically, desire to return to some world of pre-lapsarian grace, when we still had a sense of control over own destiny, when we were not faced so imminently, and perhaps inevitably, with our own destruction (one could even say that the anthropocene is one big “too late” moment).

What emerges from this film, finally, is a stirring melodrama that actually manages to perfect that sensibility into something approaching the emotional heights of Greek myth.  Unlike the Greeks, however, who set their myths in their remote past so as to make sense of their own present, the Marvel films present us with the uncomfortable knowledge that the world onscreen is very much like our own; the possibility of our own imminent destruction, no matter how much we try to disavow it, always intrudes on the affective bounds of the film.

Indeed, the final credits unfold against a backdrop of titanic figures doing battle, a potent reminder of the stakes involved in the film that we have just seen.  And yet, like any great myth, Avengers:  Age of Ultron confronts us with some of the most unpleasant truths and facts about our own culture.  Rather than dismissing it as just another blockbuster piece of junk, I find it valuable to think through what the film can do when thought about as a complex piece of filmmaking with something important to say.  What say you, readers?  Do films like this have something important to say about our present world?  Sound off in the comments below.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

I will admit to no small amount of trepidation going in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  As a long fan of the franchise and a devotee of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had high expectations of this sequel (made all the more intense by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the film has so far garnered from the critics).  Even as a devoted acolyte I couldn’t help but wonder:  will this film live up to my expectations?  Is it even realistic to think that it will?  I honestly didn’t think I could stand the disappointment if it turned out that I couldn’t connect with the film in the way I had to its predecessors.

Luckily for me, I did.

Not that there weren’t a few touch-and-go moments.  The beginning of the film is very deliberate in its pacing, showing us in great detail the society that Caesar and his fellow apes have painstakingly carved out of the Muir Woods.  For a while, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with Dawn, although I should note that from the beginning I was intellectually engaged with the aesthetics and politics on display.  Two scenes (neither, ironically, involving the main protagonist Caesar, but instead his chief lieutenant and confidante Maurice the orangutan), proved unequivocally that this film indeed reaches into the depths of emotion, both human and nonhuman.  In the first, Maurice carefully instructs young apes in the laws that govern their fledgling society, including the cardinal rule that ape shall not kill ape.  In the second, Maurice bonds with the young human Alex, both of them connecting over a comic book.  Throughout these two scenes, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, the deep, soulful eyes of Maurice beckon to us, suggesting a world of wisdom gained through suffering and pain, but also through witnessing the miracles of compassion and triumph through adversity.  At the same time, they also remind us of the fact that, for all Maurice and his fellow apes may behave like humans, part of them remains beyond the pale of human understanding.

Perhaps no figure exemplifies that message better than Koba, the tortured and scarred bonobo from the first film.  Having made it through the rebellion and risen in the ranks to stand next to Caesar, Koba represents the fundamental distrust that nonhuman apes  have of their human counterparts (and with good reason, considering the troubled and violent history that undergirds the relationship between the two groups).  When a troop of humans seeking the use of a hydroelectric dam to keep their struggling colony stable stray into ape territory–shooting a young chimpanzee along the way–it is Koba who pounds the drums of war.  And it is Koba who ultimately betrays Caesar by shooting him and leading the apes on a march on San Francisco.  And it is, alas, Koba  who not only imprisons Maurice and others he deems too faithful to the memory of Caesar, but it is he who also breaks the ultimate commandment and murders Ash after he refuses to kill a defenseless human.  In the end, after an epic battle between Caesar and Koba, between conciliation and annihilation, Caesar sends his erstwhile friend plunging to his death, having proclaimed that Koba, through his betrayal of his own kind and his warmongering, is no longer an ape.

Far more than a typical action flick, this film is instead a tragedy, brimming full of pathos and the seeming inexorability of war between humanity and apes.  Koba, far from being an outright villain, emerges from this film as its antihero, but this is not to say that his vision of the future is an unjust one nor that Caesar’s is the only viable option.  When Koba, having successfully overcome the human defenders of the San Francisco colony, stridently and defiantly announces that now they know what it is like to live in cages, I honestly felt the same thrill I felt when the apes succeeded in escaping from San Francisco in the first film.  Given the tortures he has endured–made clear when he shows, in brief and poignant gestures, the human-inflicted scars on his body–how can we, as viewers, not be sympathetic to him?*  The fact that his body, especially his face, is rendered in such exquisite detail, underscores the dark depths of his tortured and twisted psyche.  The film may not ultimately ask us to approve of his actions, but it does invite us to understand them.

All of this is not to take away from Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see the ways in which he has evolved as a leader and as a character.  If Rise chronicled Caesar’s loss of innocence in the face of human cruelty and subsequent rise to leadership, Dawn shows us the terrible price exacted by that role.  There is a world of sadness and melancholy in Caesar’s eyes as he views the digital footage of his long-dead father-figure Will, and even more when he regretfully tells his human ally Malcolm that all-out war between humans and apes has already begun.  We, in the audience, also understand that Caesar has finally accepted the unfortunate fact that violence and bloodshed will only end when one side has finally emerged triumphant.  It is a truth all the more bitter in that it so nakedly reflects the unfortunate realities of our own geopolitical experience.

This film is, ultimately, an expression of what the best science fiction can do.  It can utilize the filmic technologies available to evoke a world so completely that we believe it is possible.  The cinematography here is brilliant, ranging from the murky, blue-tinted shadows of the apes’ forest home to the glaring reds, oranges, and blacks of Koba’s triumphant yet costly (in terms of ape life) siege of the human colony.  Just as importantly, Michael Giacchino’s score manages to evoke both soaring emotions, as in the final scene of Caesar’s acclamation by his followers, to deep and abiding unease, as in the score’s numerous disturbing and unsettling orchestral allusions to the original 1968 film’s soundtrack.

In the end, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a potent reminder to humanity of not only how precarious our species’ existence is but also, as Caesar ultimately realizes, how little separates us from the nonhumans with which we share the world.

Five Things to Do Before Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost ready to hit theaters, it’s time for all Apes fans and newbies to start preparing for the movie of the year.  Though one can certainly go into this film cold, I would recommend enjoying many of the other films and novels that comprise this venerable franchise.

1.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Novel

Whether you’re new to the franchise or an experienced Apes veteran, you should definitely take a look at the novel that started it all.  Though substantially different in tone and plot than its subsequent adaptations, Pierre Boulle’s novel is nevertheless a masterpiece and classic of science fiction and well worth the read.

2.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Films

If you haven’t seen the original entries in the franchise, you should absolutely do so before the release of Dawn.  Though the first in the original five films is by far the best, the others have their virtues as well, despite declining budgets and box office returns.  The fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has a great deal in common with the upcoming Dawn, and it will be interesting to compare how the two films respond to the different cultural and social pressures of their moments of production.

3.)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When it was released in 2011, very few thought that this film was going to be anything close to a success.  With the bitter taste of Tim Burton’s unfortunate remake still lingering ten years later, it was with unalloyed joy that many Apes fans greeted this thoughtful and intellectually challenging reboot.  Far from relying on trick endings (as Burton’s remake did), this film, like its venerable predecessors, asked some tough questions about the nature of sentience and the complex and fraught relationship between humans and their closest living relatives.

4.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm

Normally, I am not a fan of media tie-ins, largely because they are often full of bad writing and execrable plotting.  It was with some surprise, therefore, that I read Greg Keyes novel, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s successful rebellion.  The plotting is deftly and concisely wove and the writing is at times profound.  It takes a special kind of talent to create ape characters who can be both similar and yet utterly alien to human sensibilities, and Keyes does this admirably with Koba, the tortured bonobo.  Like the two films it straddles, this novel forces its human readers to evaluate their own complicity in the oppression of nonhuman animals.

5.)  Quarantine, All Fall Down, and Story of the Gun

These three short films provide a window into the world that emerges after the Simian Flu begins to take its toll.  I have to admit that I was somewhat wary going in, but I was blown away by both the quality and the emotional depth of these short films.  Each of them has their own shining moments, but I was particularly struck by the ghostly presence of the apes that haunts the second and third films, in the forms of a pair of ghostly eyes/a footprint and the sound of screaming chimps/a silhouette, respectively.  Story of the Gun is especially moving, as it shows, in the ownership history of one gun, the gradual decline and collapse of human civilization as we know it and in the process shows just how fragile and illusory are the bonds that stand between us and anarchy.

And if you have time…

Planet of the Apes on Television

Believe it or not, there were not one but two Planet of the Apes television series, one a live-action drama that takes place centuries before the events of the original film and the other an animated children’s series that features a much more advanced civilization of apes.  While somewhat spotty in quality, they are still worth seeing as they help provide an even more in-depth look into the sprawling mythos that has emerged around the idea of apes becoming the dominant species on planet Earth.

(We’ll just try to collectively forget about the unfortunate 2001 remake, though it too has spawned its own mythos-in-miniature).

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” May Be the Best Movie of the Summer

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise, so it will also come as no secret that I am VERY excited for the imminent release of the newest entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and, unlike some, I don’t mind the repetitiveness of the titles).  Now that we have gleaned several tantalizing glimpses as a result of a fevered marketing campaign, it’s time to ask the tough questions.  What is there really to look forward to in this recent entry?

To start with the most basic, we will finally get to see the aftermath of what occurred in the first film.  While escaping from San Francisco and fleeing into the Muir Woods, to say nothing of starting a devastating flu epidemic were truly stupendous accomplishments, the trailer for the upcoming films suggests that we will get to see what the fallout from that is like.  (The immediate aftermath is laid out in the novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm by Greg Keyes.  It is a truly well-written work that asks the same sorts of questions raised by Rise).  This is a world, after all, that has been radically altered by the downfall of humanity into disease and lawlessness.  As a result, there is an openness to the world that this film will represent, in which the future is literally up for grabs as each side stakes out its territory.

As part of this, the trailers and other TV spots suggest that we will gain a greater glimpse of the social organization of the apes.  Clearly, Caesar will be the leader of his fellow non-human simians, but the society the trailers have shown is highly evolved.  We will at last get to see how it comes to pass that the apes have their own homes, as well as how some of them have mastered language, both signed and spoken.  While this society will, undoubtedly, bear some relationship to our own (since, as most readers will recall, Caesar was raised among humans and only left their orbit once they showed their cruelty to him and his kind), it will also be vastly different.  These are, after all, apes that have evolved to be human-like but not entirely human.  As such, the film provides a fascinating and tantalizing possibility of what a non-human civilization could look like.

While the apes will no doubt steal the show (as they did in the first film), the human characters also look like they will gain more development than they did in the first installment of this reboot.  Gary Oldman (his most recent asinine statements notwithstanding) will no doubt shine as Dreyfus, the human leader spurred on by a hatred of the apes and a deep mourning for his lost family (who presumably died of the flu).  I suspect that most of the human drama will hinge on their collective sense of precariousness.  Though certainly precipitated by 10 years of post-flu chaos and martial law, this feeling will most certainly be heightened by the looming possibility of an ape invasion that could snuff out what little tendrils of civilization humanity has managed to cling to and resurrect out of the chaos.

The truly pressing question, however, is this:  what will be the outcome of the battle that we have seen in the final trailer?  The stakes, we know, are as high as they possibly can be, as this seems to be the point at which the scales may tip decidedly in favour of the apes.  After all, at some point in the franchise we are going to have to learn how it came about that non-human apes came to be the dominant species on planet Earth.  Just as importantly, we will also find out whether Caesar will survive the battle that threatens to engulf both his people and the humans to whom he clearly feels some ties.  If he does not (and it is a definite possibility that he will meet his death in this film), then the misanthropy represented by the vengeful bonobo Koba could well set the agenda for future generations of apes.  And for humans as well.

While it will no doubt draw heavily on its precursor in the original series Battle for the Planet of the Apes (in much the same way that Rise drew inspiration from Conquest), Dawn looks as if it will, in good post-apocalyptic fashion, point out just how transient we humans really are.  And that is a truly good lesson for us as a species to learn.