The Lego Movie (2014)

Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Emmet is thrilled to purchase overpriced coffee. An example of the film's attack on consumerism

Emmet is thrilled to purchase overpriced coffee. An example of the film’s anti-consumerism.

The political ideology of The Lego Movie‘s plot, which was released last year, has been a source of some debate among some in American media circles. It has been accused of promoting a strong “anti-capitalist” and an “anti-business” message, while on the other hand it has even been promoted as a libertarian story that promotes the virtues of individualism against collectivist conformity.

When The Lego Movie was released, channels like Fox Business hosted guests who claimed that it contained an clear anti-capitalist theme and went on to condemn it as what they call a typical example of Hollywood’s “far Left politics.” The absurdity of claiming that Hollywood is anything but one of the main promoters of capitalist ideology in the United States aside, is their claim about Lego Movie correct?

The plot of the film revolves around the all powerful “President Business” who has a sort of Orwellian control over the Lego world depicted in the film. The main character of the film is a construction worker who is over content with fitting in to society, which is highlighted by the popular song in the beginning of the film called “Everything is Awesome” which is a parody of the celebration of every day life. Criticizing this complacency is the focus of the film’s plot, and through the adventures that the main character goes through he slowly develops a consciousness that calls into question the idea that “everything is awesome.” He sees that there exists a popular underground resistance to the status quo of President Business.

As the film develops and the main character becomes more involved with the resistance, he begins to learn that the complacency he suffered from was a major problem for not only him but society as a whole. Although the “plainness” of his personality is often the subject of jokes from his fellow resistance fighters, who end up being popular culture figures in lego form throughout the film (for example, Batman is one of the heroes of the film, although he is portrayed as unintelligent and lucky unlike in most of the Batman films).

The main city of the film

The main city of the film

As the heroes go on their quest, the eventually help foment an uprising against President Business which ends up being the climax of the film. What is the nature of that uprising? Is it, as Fox Business claims, a Left wing fantasy of overthrowing capitalism (represented by the greedy President Business) or is it as Glenn Beck claims: a libertarian celebration of individual creativity? One plot point that is clear is that the conclusion of the revolt is not some radical new order for this fantasy world, but rather a reconciliation between President Business and the resistance. He agrees to allow the masses to express their own creativity and to not try to “freeze” everyone where they’re at. This could be interpreted as a sort of implementation of the American Dream, “we won’t hold you back from realizing your economic potential any longer.” It certainly do not call into question the role of someone like President Business as owner of the wealth of the world he rules over. This vague reconciliation leaves it open to interpretation what the writers meant by depicting this revolt. Being mediated through the somewhat tense relationship between the father and son also adds ambiguity and dilutes the political message, at least to the extent where a more psychoanalytical approach is required.

While there are lines in the film like “the construction worker is the hero” (when the son of the “meta story” is responding to his father when discussing the importance of the toys) may make is feel that it is a film about class consciousness and oppression, we should remember that ultimately it is not a film about empowering those who are oppressed to reorganize their society, but rather to just be able to let their “individual creativity” become unleashed. The film does critique consumerism and implicate critiques the greedy nature of capitalism to a large extent, but the solutions offered fall short of the “far left politics” that Fox Business would have us believe. It is a progressive film, but not a revolutionary film.

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Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism (2013)

Produced by: The Revolutionary Communist Group (UK)

VivaVen2Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism is a documentary filmed during the last election of Hugo Chavez through his death in 2013. The film explores various aspects of the movement for socialism in Venezuela by interviewing activists, workers, and students in Venezuela as well as contrasting it with the struggle against austerity in the United Kingdom.

The film does not only attempt to follow the campaign of the PSUV and Chavez but rather focused on the rank and file of the movement in Venezuela. Very little time is devoted to Chavez or the leadership of the PSUV at all and instead we get a refreshing picture of what is going on in Venezuela by seeing those who are implementing the policies of Bolivarian socialism and the effects it has on the communities in question. This is quite a contrast to most documentaries about Venezuela which focus on Chavez as a figure rather than the overall social process of the movement for socialism in Venezuela.

While the film is mostly comprised of interviews of activists and workers, it also contains a sequence that shows the progress and characteristics of Venezuela’s “socialist city” Caribia.This particular project was considered one of Chavez’s “last projects” but the film demonstrates that it wasn’t just some initiative from above, but rather poor and working people are who make it run and plan how they want the city to work.

VivaVen3The British activists in the film make it clear that Venezuela is in a period of transitioning to socialism and is not there yet, pointing out that there are still rich capitalists there who want to stop this very transition. This is clear with continued battles between the government and opposition forces.

The film itself is a showcase of the process of transformation in Venezuela and serves as a good introductory piece to those who are not as familiar with what is taking place there. It can be a valuable resource for activists and educators looking to study the situation.

At the time of this post, the film can be viewed in its entirety online.

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.

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.

The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

Directors: Pan Wenzhan, Fu Jie

The Women's Detachment

The Red Detachment of Women is a film adaptation (or rather filmed version of) of a Chinese ballet from the mid 1960s. It was produced during the Cultural Revolution in China, which itself made quite an impact on the Western Left (and particularly in the French Left).

The film (and ballet) follows a poor peasant named Wu Qinghua who goes from being imprisoned by her landlord for being in debt through her escape and journey to become part of the Red Army. Throughout the film, she receives training from the Red Army as they prepare to assault the landlord class’ stronghold.

The scenes that depict the Red Army are usually filled with upbeat music and show a joyful cadre willing to fight for the cause. This is reminiscent of classic “Stalinist” films such as Circus (1936) where “joy” is part of every day life and how that every day life relates to the state. In the case of Detachment, these scenes are contrasted with the elite, who are depicted as a classic “bad guys.” An interesting example to highlight how the Red Army is portrayed, when Wu Qinghua enters the camp and falls down, the entire army physically moves down to prevent her from falling; while this is perhaps an exaggeration in analysis due to this being a ballet performance it still shows how the “ideology” is supposed to come through. Criticisms of “binary contrasts” and oversimplification aside, this makes for a plot device that highlights class struggle, and more importantly: the role of women in that struggle.

Red Army helping Wu Qinghua

Throughout the film, women are portrayed as a fighting force, from their training to actual combat (where they take leadership roles as well). This is contrasted with the landlord from the beginning of the film who imprisoned women who owed him debt, and the “tyrant’s” lair, where women were subjected to male rule. While this is all through the lens of the Red Army (and thus the Party) as a whole, it demonstrates the interconnectedness of the two struggles, or at least an attempt to connect the two struggles in this context.

Although the film did have this positive portrayal of women as agents of change, the “hero” of the film who was made a martyr towards the end is a male character. While this makes the film a bit more complicated in terms of portrayal of gender, the film itself still stands as an example of linking the struggle against property and the struggle for women’s liberation (which at the time of this film was an ongoing struggle).

At the time of this writing, the film can be seen in its entirety on “The Internet Archive”

There are also various clips of the film on YouTube

Asghar Farhadi’s speech after winning Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Perhaps even more important than the film itself is the geopolitical implications of this Oscar win and the acceptance speech: Asghar Farhadi, director of A Separation, implicitly denounced the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. It seems to have been received better than Michael Moore’s anti-war speech during the Iraq war.

I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.

The Speech can be viewed at 1:25: