All Out of Bubblegum

The recent death of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has conjured childhood memories of WWF wrestling for quite a few who grew up in the waning years of the 20th century. Fewer remember his leading role in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), perhaps the last major Hollywood film to deploy a surprisingly cogent critique of contemporary capitalism.

Piper’s role as John Nada exemplifies a current of 1980s science fiction cinema in an era poised between its recent low budget past and its emerging blockbuster future prefigured by the works of Ridley Scott and James Cameron. His character at once exuded the machismo ethic so popular in the era whilst maintaining a critical edge, a kind of Rambo without the reactionary politics. Revisiting the eerily prescient 1980s dystopia seems to be as fitting a tribute as any to Piper’s life.

Neoliberal Alienation

Carpenter’s film was produced at the end of the 1980s at the moment that the various “revolutions” of Reagan and Thatcher and neo-liberalism seemed to have consolidated and moved beyond their period of cruel incubation. From the collective chests of humanity burst mini-financial crashes, failing banks, the Savings and Loans scandal, plant closings, community collapses, and the rise of the ugly New Jim Crow by way of the Orwellian “War on Drugs.” Nonetheless, extreme confidence in authority figures—at least among the white population that counted—had shaken off the doubts of the 1960s and 70s, giving way to an exuberant confidence in American exceptionalism and other bizarre screeds.

The collapse of the Eastern bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed only to confirm this state of affairs. They Live captures this mood in a speech that John hears from a leading politician (who seems to be an analog of George H.W. Bush), “The feeling is definitely there. It’s a new morning in America. Fresh, vital, the old cynicism is gone. We have faith in our leaders. We’re optimistic as to what becomes of it all. It really boils down to our ability to accept we don’t need pessimism. There are no limits…”

In the film, John Nada (his last name signifying “nothing,” thereby cementing his role as “Everyman”) is homeless and jobless. His difficulty finding employment at the beginning of the film contrasts with the imagery presented by the propaganda of the Reagan years and the era of neo-liberal assault. Every leading politician today finds it necessary to praise Reagan’s legacy, but They Live summed the essence of his supposed “revolution” in a way that few other films managed in the era.

Nada moves into Los Angeles and stays in a tent city while working with his new friend, Frank Armitage, at a construction site. The camp is raided by police, and afterwards Nada stumbles on a box of contraband that the camp organizers had been busted for: sunglasses. But not any sunglasses. These enabled the wearer to see through the façade of everyday life and understand the true psychoanalytic content of advertisements and media productions. Further, the glasses enabled the wearer to tell human beings from their rapacious, and very alien capitalist rulers.

 
 

The displacement of the newly transformed capitalist class into an alien force accomplishes much for the audience. It allows for a direct experience of the quality of what they themselves are going through in everyday life, albeit through the lens of a science fictional morality play. Without crudely addressing the capitalist class’s rulership, Carpenter’s film demonstrates the alien nature of their rule over society.

Indeed, in the same way that the product of a worker’s labor is denied them and then presented as an alien commodity form to them, the capitalist ruling class is presented as alien to its subjects. The state apparatus is the only mediator between them and their subjects who seem to them a strange and unruly mass driven by crass resentment of their low position in an ostensibly “natural” order. Accordingly, forms of social mobility for some are utilized as a means of maintaining the class’s hegemonic status.

In a similar way, the aliens in the film recruit humans—including would-be revolutionaries—to their class and bestow upon them the wealth, access, and status of their own position. Nada and Armitage are given the story of the aliens’ agenda when they are mistaken for such social climbers. Nada’s response to this is a refusal to submit, and he carries out an act of “revolutionary suicide” (i.e. engaging in an act of self-sacrifice for the better of the cause itself). This act ultimately disrupts the signal that allows the aliens to perpetuate their illusion, and everywhere humans notices the aliens and their Superego-esque injunctions to obey, enjoy, and so forth.

Praised by numerous leftists, the film has nothing to say about collective action and presents an almost misogynistic attitude towards gender politics. Nonetheless, it lays bare the means by which consent is secured for the capitalist world order: hegemony over the socializing and knowledge-producing powers within society as well as a monopoly on violent force, coupled with release valves such as selective social mobility to curb dissent.

Slavoj Zizek infamously cites the movie in numerous works of his, including his documentary (directed by Sophie Fiennes) The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. To briefly rehash Zizek’s points, he uses the violent confrontation between Nada and Armitage to illustrate the psychological violence necessary for radicalization, points to the role of psychoanalytic methods used to produce consenting subjects, and uses the glasses to make his point that we are always-already seeing through the prism of ideology—that is to say, there is no naked empirical observer innocent to ideology, ideology permeates the very act of experiencing the world.

Zizek’s embrace of the film aside, it is worth remembering Piper’s role as a kind of inverted action hero for the era. While the Chuck Norris/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarznegger types shilled for Reagan’s resurgent imperialism and reactionary offensives, Piper gave a sense of humanity to an (admittedly ham-fisted) attempt to say something important: that we are already living in dystopian conditions and so rebellion is more than a right, it is a necessity.

Mad Max, Feminism, and the Sublime Car Chase

There are few films that achieve critical and commercial success while asserting ostensibly left wing political content within the rubric of Hollywood blockbuster films. In general, these films are structured to avoid politics altogether while, at best, pushing the boundaries of an established genre’s limits for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. Within these constraints, the achievements of Mad Max: Fury Road are astounding, even if they do fall short of establishing a quintessentially “feminist movie,” as many of the film’s acolytes claim.

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Upcoming Blockbuster Movies: Or, Hollywood Milks Sci-Fi

The culture industry is in full swing with the upcoming summer movie season, the time of blockbusters and, nowadays, big adaptations of sf properties. As I type, the Star Wars Anaheim event is ongoing, complete with a teaser trailer reveal that predictably threatened to burn the internet down with traffic. On top of that, a leak of Batman v. Superman’s trailer compelled Warner Brothers to go ahead and release it, and it has contributed to the current trailer craze. But there is more than just Hollywood, Japan’s infamous Toho—of Godzilla and other tokusatsu fame—is set to release the first of a two part live action Attack on Titan film directed by the infamous Shinji Highuchi.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Dr. Strangelove Meets Godzilla: a review of World War Kaiju

The advent of atomic weaponry in the 1940s forever changed the calculus of power between humanity and nature. In many ways nuclear power radicalized the metabolic rift between the productive apparatus of global capitalism and the biosphere by making the science fictional prospect of actual global warfare and radioactive fallout a hard reality. Coupled with the anxieties and red scares of this period, a culture of panic manifested itself with the advent of atomic horror films in the United States and the first kaiju films in Japan. The subject matter of writer Josh Finney’s independent graphic novel, World War Kaiju, reflects back on this time period by inverting the relationship between metaphor and its referents: what if the metaphors were the actual, and rather than waging war by means of atomic weapons the US and the USSR carried out an arms race of giant monster production?

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Living in a Science Fictional Universe (and the Revolt of Fantasy)

We live in a world in which killer robots stalk the skies, blasting enemies of the state off the map without resort to judicial procedure. Electronic devices routinely replace organs and genetically-modified foods dominate our grocery shelves. Thousands of artificial objects orbit our Earth, sending real time information for purposes ranging from ordinance delivery to pizza delivery. Most possess more computing powers in their phones than the Apollo astronauts enjoyed on their mission to the Moon. At the recent SXSW tech and entertainment festival, protests decried the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence—though it seems this was a calculated deception designed to create a buzz on social media networks that now connect people in an ever-growing web of instant communication. Robot cars anonymously roam the roadways of the United States and the ghostly areas around Fukushima, where a nuclear disaster followed an earthquake and tsunami just a few short years ago. This is a world in which the human productive apparatus has, in the interests of a tiny elite, monumentally altered the climatic system of the entire planet, inaugurating what some call the Anthropocene: an epoch of natural history defined by human domination of the natural order on Earth.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Simians, Cyborg-Women, and Godzilla: 40 Years of Terror of Mechagodzilla

Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of Terror of Mechagodzilla, the final installment of the original Godzilla series (known as the Showa era among fans). The film saw the return of director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, and actor Akihiko Hirata. Each had worked on many of the other films, but crucially they worked together on the original 1954 masterpiece. The film was envisioned as an attempt to bring the genre back to a more serious place while retaining the heroic characterization of Godzilla battling off alien invaders, though on this account it must be judged as a failure. Nonetheless, there is much to note on the significance of this film in the history of sf cinema.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Gamera Reborn: 20 Years of the Guardian of the Universe

Twenty years ago today, Daiei’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe hit theaters in Japan. The product of director Shusuke Kaneko and writer Kazunori Ito, Daiei’s production shocked fans and general audiences with an unexpectedly successful revival of what had been the campiest of kaiju series. Originally Gamera had been Daiei’s attempt to cash in on the “monster boom” of the mid-1960s, but the films degenerated as budgets shriveled to nothingness. When it was announced that Daiei would be reviving the titanic terrapin for a then modern audience, it was assumed that the films would be mere shadows of the 1990s Toho Godzilla series. When the film surpassed the special effects, writing, acting, and pacing of those Godzilla films, a kind of revolution in the kaiju genre took place.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Chappie: A Science Fictional Fairy Tale

In spite of the torrential downpour of negativity from the established universe of Hollywood film critics, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have accomplished another masterpiece of contemporary sf cinema in CHAPPiE. A tale of the inanimate becoming conscious, the film recalls the folkloric magic of Pinnochio set in a universe heavily influenced by Robocop. Hard science aficionados seeking the algorithms of consciousness will be sorely disappointed by the film’s flippant attitude to the mechanics of artificial intelligence beyond the basic distinction between strong and weak AI. Nonetheless, the purpose of art is not to instruct us in the facts of science, and the heart of science fiction is the exploration of the possibilities and consequences enacted by scientific principles rather than the mechanics of the principles themselves.

 

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Mister Netanyahu Goes to Washington

Bibi Netanyahu is coming home. Well…technically he is Israeli, but one can forgive the perception that the United States is his home based on the way he carries himself, who his friends are, who primarily donates to his campaigns, and the number of times he has addressed Pat Robertson’s ghoulish 700 Club TV show.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Blomkamp Resurrects the Alien Universe

What I’m conflicted about is the possible end of Blomkamp’s run at original science fictional cinema. Plucked from independent film-making by the institution formerly known as Peter Jackson, Blomkamp turned against established franchises when his Halo project collapsed in pre-production hell. Jackson’s confidence in his work allowed for the development of District 9, a politically-charged science fictional film that evokes the imagery of apartheid alongside an alien encounter set in South Africa.

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.

Science Fiction Mythologies

With the current proliferation of science fiction films and television one cannot help but notice that science fictional modes of expression have risen from the margins of pulp novels and comic books to the mainstream. But is that all that is happening here? Is this a mere trend that will soon be upended by a return to realism? Is this situation even primarily about changing genre conventions?

There is something more going on than a mere popularity contest being won by spaceships and mutants. Sf scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. laid it out like this, “The widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science-fictional habits of mind, so that we no longer treat sf as purely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but rather as a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction.”

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"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.