The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director:  Francis Lawrence

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Katniss travels for her tour of the districts

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the film Hunger Games and is the next adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novels of the same name. Like the first film, Catching Fire is primarily about oppression and resistance and ultimately, revolution.

This film picks up where the last left off, the main character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is pressured to go on a tour of the entire country to placate the increasing revolutionary feeling of the people outside of the oppressive capital. During her tour it becomes clear to Kaniss that the entire event is an attempt to pacify the population and distract them from their real problems which is most evidenced by her first stop when the high level of security clearly represents the repressive nature of the capital. A sort of public relations struggle between her and the leader of the nation emerges as he puts increased pressure on her to do the will of the central government.

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Riots against the security forces

Eventually, the government announces that there will be a special “hunger games” (the event where each of the “districts” of the government has to contribute one “tribute” in a free for all battle to the death as punishment for a failed rebellion by the districts against the capital some time in the past) that will be comprised of past winners. This move is made to quell the popularity of Katniss and reduce the chances of her popularity as a symbol of resistance.

From this point in the film on, plot twists and developments reveal that a new rebellion by the districts is brewing and that the tributes in the new hunger games are conspiring to foment the uprising. Katniss throughout both films is a sort of reluctant hero of rebellion and remains so until the end of this film where she eventually destroys the very arena where the hunger games are being played in a defiant act which helps to spark a much broader uprising. The film ends with her learning that her home district has been destroyed by the capital and implies that she will seek revenge.

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The dictator gives a speech

One major contrast of this sequel to the first is the use of a more explicitly fascist aesthetic. This comes through most clearly during a scene in the capitol that is reminiscent of the first shots of Rome in the film Gladiator. The first Hunger Games relied on a much more subtle way of showing the repressive nature of the regime of the capitol. Besides the existence of the hunger games themselves which are the most obvious form of oppression, the first film showed the capital’s culture as similar to contemporary capitalism: joyous masses being distracted by superficial pastimes like obsessing over game shows with a very bright fashion sense. This is in contrast to more traditional depictions of authoritarian dystopian futures like in Nineteen Eighty Four where everything is dark and bleak. But in this sequel, we are shown more traditional dystopian aspects of a future society that come through as an anti-fascist commentary.

On top of painting a relatively detailed dystopian world, Catching Fire is also to a limited extent a call to revolution. Besides being a major plot point that is revealed towards the end, in both films the air of discontent by the masses of people is an important part of how the world the films operate. Donald Sutherland even recently went as far as to say the he wanted the film to “stir up a revolution” which goes to show that this interpretation of the film as a call to revolt is not incredibly far fetched.

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Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.

Elysium

Elysium

The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.

​Children of Men​ (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men is a science fiction film that paints a picture of a “hopeless future.” Like most dystopian fiction, the “purpose” of the film is social commentary. The premise of the film is that women have en masse become infertile and as a result, much of the world has “devolved” into chaos and war except for the United Kingdom which is supposedly the “only remaining” stable civilized society. This stable civil society is exposed throughout the film to be based on repression and organized violence against the victims of the worldwide troubles which leads the viewer to believe that this so called stable society is living in a state of denial.

Of course the concept of a chaotic violent world doesn’t require science fiction to showcase, yet as with most science fiction: painting it as an alternate reality or possible future to an extent gives room for commentary. So we see the British military kettling people from around the world, who have moved to the UK to find refuge from the tumult of their place of origin, into cages and camps while sending them off to a ghetto that is separated from the rest of society. We are lead to believe that this is a “possible world.” If the film had taken place in contemporary Afghanistan or Iraq, showing the same actions, the response to the film would be much different, even though the film itself is inspired directly by those very real events. In an interview, Cuarón says that “[e]verything has to have a reference to the state of our times,” which demonstrates the role that the style and particular depiction of this future plays.

There are many social issues dealt with the film, and the infertility question ends up to an extent merely being a plot device to explore these issues. For example, one of the main characters (who is the first pregnant woman in over a decade) is a refugee named Kee and is being escorted by a resistance group called the “fishers” who want to use her pregnancy as part of the resistance to the British state. While the theme of gender seems to be de-emphasized, this usage of the main character who is a woman to simply achieve the aims of political groups could be seen as an exposing the gendered nature of both oppression and resistance (one need not look far for feminist critiques of the Left). These issues playing the primary role in the film shows that the film is not about the future per sey, but rather our current social situation. For example, the director himself said that while making the film, they “didn’t want [the audience] to be distracted by the future. We didn’t want to transport the audience into another reality.”

This sense of not wanting the audience to be distracted by the future contrasts the film with a film like Blade Runner which is the sort of dystopia that focuses on the affects of technology on social change directly. Cuarón actually even said that Children of Men was “the anti-Blade Runner” in terms of the mise en scene (or art and visual standards of the film). This different take on the future offers contrasting visions of how social commentary and science fiction can play out, and Children of Men‘s attempt proves quite successful both politically and in terms of film making. It demonstrates the potential that science fiction has as a tool for exposing social relations of today and what film makers who understand this are capable of doing.

Should Contemporary Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?

The spaceship Prometheus

Jon Spaihts, a screenwriter for the recently released film Prometheus, recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Can Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?” In it, he details the relationship that science fiction has had and can have to space exploration. He details how space travel “originated” with the Cold War and how the “space race” helped to produce a rich volume of science fiction that was tied to the competition between the USSR and USA.

In a way he romanticizes the Cold War, which is not dissimilar to many academics and pro war politicians who long for the days of clear national competition and what they see as an easier appeal to patriotism (in other words: having the big Other to remind the public to fear). Spaihts’ brief history of science fiction here leaves out important historical ties between SciFi and space programs, most notably the “Star Wars program” (see the role of The Citizen Advisory Panel on National Space Policy where SciFi authors were encouraging the implementation of the military  program).

Many on the Left and the Right want to see a sort of space exploration, but what kind of space program does Jon Spaihts want to see revived? Aside from the end of the article where he is implicitly promoting space tourism as a potentially exciting new trend for rich folks who have always dreamed of space, the most telling phrasing is when he discusses trends in SciFi:

Although these trends are cloudy, one can argue that in the last fifteen years the space epic has fallen from favor, as sci-fi films have concerned themselves more with cyberpunk scenarios and Earthly dystopias than travel between the stars. As if our culture as a whole had turned its eyes away from external adventures to internal struggles.

David exploring a space map

So in essence, he sees the “internally looking” science fiction sub genre of cyberpunk as problematic and is advocating for a more outward and escapist space exploration style of the genre. We can certainly see this in Prometheus: a rich corporate boss wants to fulfill his life by funding a trillion dollar space ship to discover the meaning of life. While the film does not necessarily promote this sort of expansionist ideology, nor is it as much of a critique or warning against the corporate lust for profits in space as we find in earlier influential Scott films like Alien. This is problematic for science fiction: the ignoring of the internal contradictions that genres like cyberpunk offer in favor of “outward looking” space exploration stories that move our attention from real struggle to a dream of future prosperity and wonder (which is interestingly very similar to the “American dream” itself).

It would be interesting to hear Ridley Scott’s take on this question, considering he was not only the director of Prometheus but of perhaps the most influential cyberpunk film of all time Bladerunner which is a clear “inward looking” science fiction critique of a future ruled by corporate power.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth film of the original Planet of the Apes series and is perhaps the most “radical” of them all (which is not to discount the political importance of the original film).  It is the account of how the apes came to power through a revolution lead by the main character named Caesar.  The film was made in the context of the later civil rights era and during a time of revolutionary upsurge in the United States and around the world, and while it had revolutionary undertones throughout, including an ending that was “sanitized” to be less radical.

The atmosphere of the film is one where apes are driven into what is essentially slave labor by a “dystopian totalitarian” human society.  The subordinate role of the apes in the film was the result of a plague that killed off all of the pets that humans used to own, so they turned to apes to be their “servants” as a result, with the backdrop of the prior film where it was revealed that apes would one day rule humans: thus leading to an authoritarian control over how apes were owned and disciplined.  This drive for satisfaction and ownership while looking to be serviced could perhaps be seen through the lens of a critique of possessiveness and perhaps even a more Marxian notion of commodification.  It was the humans desire for pets to own, not necessarily companionship, and their fear of their “new pets” that lead to the conditions of the society portrayed in Conquest.

The film is itself a portrayal of a revolutionary situation under the leadership of Caesar who gets to work with “the governor” under the top section of the security of the city while secretly plotting a revolt by training and arming many apes in the city.  Small acts of resistance skyrocket in the city, showing the discontent of the apes who are preparing for revolt and spreading the idea of resistance amongst the general population.

The “Authenticator”

There are many important themes dealt with in the film, including the opposition to the brutal repression of the apes within the government of the city (in a sense representing the “liberal” opposition to a McCarthy style witch hunt).  Another interesting scene is when Caesar’s former “master” is being interrogated by a device called the “authentacator” which is essentially an advanced lie detector test that makes the subject tell the truth.  The dialogue contained in that scene is reminiscent of the calls for transparency in today’s world, yet in this context: that very transparency is used to reinforce the existing power structure.  While this analysis may seem overly analytical, it does remind one of certain criticisms of the post-modern phase of global capital, or the “capitalism with a human face” that is appealed to that attempts to justify continued aggression by the system.

The film depicts a very violent revolution, and while the original ending (spoiler alert ahead) has Caesar ordering the death of the oppressive governor, the studio (supposedly due to negative audience reactions) had the ending changed to make Caesar more forgiving in the end.  This effected the entire structure of the following film as well.  This is an excellent example of an ideological intervention in an otherwise seemingly subversive film for the era.

Overall it is also an example of how a film at this level (a highly grossing franchise) can be “subversive.” This is important in that it demonstrates that not only small independent films can contain messages relevant to liberation and struggle. The shortcomings of the venue and arena where it was made (like the forced change in the ending), however, cannot be overlooked. The double edged sword of “subversive film” that is simultaneously a major Hollywood production and an attempt to critique the existing system provides plenty of questions about film and the film industry.