This week, a dire double feature of the fearsome future come true…
Science fiction’s capacity for accurate forecasts can be subdivided into two groups. On the one hand, Star Trek is almost certainly why cellular phones looked like mollusks for a solid decade, the inspiration for Skype, and informed what is now developing as our three-dimensional hologram entertainment industry.
But then there are the instances when dystopian nightmares are so accurate it seems like our police state policymakers turned on these pictures, took notes, and said “How soon can we make this happen?”
Such is the case with Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997) and Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), two films that resonate as if contemporary reflections. Both screenplays tapped into a Cassandra-like prescience that few people grasped upon their original release. Rewatching these films during the Trump presidency is a frightening, heart-wrenching engagement.
Troopers, spoofing an overly-didactic proto-fascistic pulp novel by Libertarian Robert A. Heinlein, follows a group of 23rd century high schoolers (Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris) who enlist in the Federal Armed Services in order to gain franchise in a hyper-militarized society that is going to war against extraterrestrial Arachnids (“Bugs”) hailing from the planet Klendathu. Over the course of the picture, they ascend the ranks at the expense of any humanist instincts they hold within themselves.
Verhoeven grew up in the Nazi-occupied Hague near a V-2 rocket launchpad. A darkly satirical filmmaker critiquing American neoliberalism, consumerism, and ascendant police encroachment on civil liberties, he approached the production with the dictum “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me.”
In this stroke of brilliance, the director avoided attempting to match the pontifications of Heinlein’s original text with progressive counter-messaging. “I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism.” In essence, the picture is an almost-postmodern text from a future fascist society, lacking any dissident hero rejecting the strictures of his authoritarian government. Whereas Winston Smith of Orwell’s 1984 loathes Big Brother and aspires to subversion, the protagonists of this film aspire to conformity and revel in its benefits.
“I was using [Nazi filmmaker Leni] Riefenstahl to point out, or so I thought, that these heroes and heroines were straight out of Nazi propaganda. No one saw it at the time. I don’t know whether or not the actors realised – we never discussed it. I thought Neil Patrick Harris arriving on the set in an SS uniform might clear it up.”
In January-March 1997, George Lucas saturated the film market with the record-setting Special Edition rereleases of his space opera trilogy. November 1996 brought audiences Star Trek: First Contact, a more mature serial catered to military sci-fi fans with an action plot featuring the arch-villainous Borg, but even there the moral is spoon-fed to the audience with grand speechifying by the heroic Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Other noteworthy genre films of the year included Men in Black, Alien: Resurrection, The Fifth Element, and The Postman, all of which were aesthetically-engaging intellectual lightweights. Even the Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, undeniably one of the more cerebral pictures of the entire decade, resorted to visceral set pieces with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and a hammy Jodie Foster in its denouement.
“With a title like Starship Troopers, people were expecting a new Star Wars. They got that, but not really: it stuck in your throat. It said: ‘Here are your heroes and your heroines, but by the way – they’re fascists.'” The film bombed at the box office and with critics because, after hours of stultifying contemporaneous fare, audiences had no idea how to process a picture coming from so far out of left field that had multiple subtle critiques of hegemonic late-Nineties neoliberalism and unipolar American imperialism. At a time when Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian intervention” regime change wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq were hailed by sectors of the liberal-progressive community (including Bernie Sanders), the critiques this film offered were fundamentally misread as a dumb-as-dirt, gore-soaked teen action picture, a strange intergalactic crossbreed of Rambo and Aliens by way of Beverly Hills 90210.
Yet in this political landscape, it is more powerful than ever because, like Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, its ludicrous totality demonstrates the ethical and moral hollowness of such a militarized society. Its dearth of pontification is a deafening rebuttal that few other progressive-leaning films can accomplish (though admittedly there are still fans of the film within the military who seem to miss that the picture is arguing against their entire existence).
Children of Men, adapted from a novel by P.D. James, is the story of drink-sodden English civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen) and his quest to deliver the pregnant African refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to a mysterious meeting off-shore with a group known as the Human Project, which is seeking to cure an eighteen year-long worldwide infertility epidemic. Britain has devolved into a xenophobic, hyper-militarized landscape where refugees are caged by the government and an immigrant solidarity group, known as the Fishes, prioritizes its hyperbolic ideology over the human lives they render as instrumental to a larger cause lacking connection to reality.
As a product of the Dubya administration years, the film was read as a stinging critique of the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Sequences seemed to re-stage infamous photos that broke into the press with the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh.
But now, with an adamantly nativist White House and Congress, a slight refocus is provided that makes the film much more horrific. “This thing was not imagination. People were talking about those things, just not in the mainstream!,” said Cuarón in a recent retrospective interview.
Writing at the time of the film’s release, Roger Ebert said “I realized after a point that the sets and art design were so well done that I took it as a real place. Often I fear it will all come to this, that the rule of law and the rights of men will be destroyed by sectarian mischief and nationalistic recklessness. Are we living in the last good times?”
Today, the film seems like a manifesto for those who struggle against this government. With a working class single Black mother designated as the salvation of humanity, the film articulated a powerful representation of radical intersectional feminism, long before that framework went mainstream. By showing the pitfalls of both organized religion and militant Left politics, it shows how both methods of coping with our material circumstances are ultimately “the soul of soulless conditions” while simultaneously (and subversively) re-staging the Christian nativity story sans the obnoxious white supremacist narrative tropes. By having characters make mortal sacrifices in the name of solidarity with Les Damnés de la Terre, the audience is prompted to an understanding of what is truly at stake in our contemporary struggles. And it is in the conclusion of the film, one of mysterious hope and closure despite the preceding 109 minutes of desperation, that viewers ascertain the fortitude to face these difficult times.
“That possibility of tomorrow exists. What’s really relevant now is to stop being complacent. If you’re less complacent, you are disappointed when this stuff happens, yes — but you say, ‘Yeah! It was coming.’ By being complacent, you remove your critical muscle. If anything, what’s happening now is everything’s out in the open. Racists are going to be racist institutionally. They don’t hide now, into norms of etiquette. This is great, because now you know where you are,” said the director.
Hollywood sucks for several reasons here.
First, both these films are aberrations as opposed to the norm of mainstream Hollywood cinema. Troopers was a freak accident, described by the director as the “most expensive art movie ever made,” because corporate management at Sony Pictures was frequently rotated during production, which prevented studio bosses from catching on to what Verhoeven was up to. Children was a British production that was only distributed by Universal, whose botched marketing campaign made the film a commercial failure.
But more disturbing, and certainly less-recognized, is how Hollywood has spent the past 25 years aiding and abetting, directly and indirectly, the ascendancy of the proto-fascistic politics we confront today. In their 2017 study National Security Cinema, Dr. Matthew Alford and Tom Secker, using primary documentary evidence provided by Freedom of Information Act requests, examine how 1,947 films and television shows distributed between 1911 and 2017 have been produced in direct collaboration with the Department of Defense. Recently Verhoeven expressed alarm that a remake of Starship Troopers, intended much more faithful to the source novel, one that is on the recommended reading list of the Marine Corps, is in the works.
“It said in the [announcement] article the production team of the remake would go back more and more towards the novel. You feel that going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump Presidency.” No doubt this fealty to Heinlein will encourage collaboration with the Pentagon, who might eventually use it as a recruiting film, not unlike how it currently collaborates with the video game industry to develop first-person shooters that subtly encourage teenaged enlistment.
The convergence between Tinsel Town and the warfare state has been a high-profile romance for decades. Gone are the days when Jane Fonda invited the demonization of vast swathes of the public for expressing solidarity with the North Vietnamese or Francis Ford Coppola directed a war film epic that laid bare the depravity of that war. Instead, Stephen Spielberg produces ultra-patriotic ballads celebrating American militarism and Democratic Party neoliberalism while Michael Bay collaborates with Jerry Bruckheimer to film extended recruitment commercials for the various branches of the armed services.
Not only has Hollywood created potential inspirations for our real-world dystopia via these pictures, they have in fact collaborated with the note-taking policymakers, telling the gendarmes “Give us a few years and we’ll deliver a plebiscite approving these measures.”