All of these recent apocalypse thrillers sought to prove that the world and its disasters might be better understood in showbiz terms. If these films sought to edify, it was on the basis that real life and its tragedies, political and corporeal, might be elevated through translation into familiar commodities. Apocalypse films strived to make history itself more legible and authentic—in other words, more real—by assuring their audiences that the unsettling headlines were natural material for the movies. After having seen these pictures, we are meant to come away convinced that the medium made our own lives and history more palpable and real.
The least ambitious, and generally the least, of these films was Snakes on a Plane. As an action picture, Snakes on a Plane, nominally directed by David R. Ellis, would have been shelved twenty years ago because it fails to meet the most basic measures of competency for the genre. There are no sequences in Snakes on a Plane—all of its minor thrills come about independent of any shot-by-shot set-up. There is no impulse to build suspense in this film: each autonomous shock derives its effect from the four-word premise, not from any attempt to establish parallel action, drop clues, or present the illusion of spatial unity.
The film itself is slight but the phenomenon is not. The pre-release fervor over Snakes on a Plane could even be called, to borrow a term developed by Miriam Hansen, a modern-day instance of vernacular modernism. With Snakes on a Plane we saw fans creating tributes and parodies well before the film itself entered commercial release. New Line Cinema’s decision to insert a line in the final cut (‘I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!’) that had been dreamed up by bloggers and Snakes groupies ginned up publicity by pandering to fans but pretending that the choice represented some unspoken democratic evolution in the filmmaking process. But Snakes on a Plane yielded lackluster returns and prompted a number of pundits to declare the failure of the internet to cook up a genuine blockbuster. That’s the important part: rather than abetting a sly studio ploy, the Snakes on a Plane fans denatured one—stripping a product of its commodity character and reappropriating it for more esoteric amusements devoid of exchange value.
Surely Samuel L. Jackson, still trading on the badass persona he perfected in Pulp Fiction a dozen years earlier, accounted for part of the appeal. But arguably just as much enthusiasm flowed from the premise itself, among the most direct in recent times: snakes—on a plane. Whether acknowledged explicitly or not, the scenario of ‘snakes on a plane’ suggested a burlesque upon the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, not least a xenophobic euphemism for the terrorists themselves. If fans found the idea of snakes on a plane inherently funny (and most did, seizing upon the phrase as a rueful acknowledgement of life’s exasperating tribulations) then it had at least something to do with the anarchic dimensions of the premise itself. With most Americans familiar with the time-wasting hassle and false sense of safety instilled by stripping away shoes, belts, camcorders, and, later, toothpaste in the name of homeland security, snakes on a plane sounded like a memorable and better-than-average day at the airport. Laughing about the possibility of venomous vipers in the overhead bin stood as a perfectly healthy way of displacing unease about shoe bombers and the like.
United 93, ostensibly the more serious of the two productions, also had something to do with working through trauma. Director Paul Greengrass and distributor Universal exuded seriousness of purpose throughout the whole campaign, hoping to avoid or marginalize accusations of exploitation. Their unorthodox press kit—which included biographies of the United 93 passengers rather than the actors—was praised in most of the long reviews. Scraping for words, most cited its ‘documentary’ style as evidence of its credibility. This represented a new way of defining the documentary—one simply on the basis of unrecognizable actors and quite ignoring the film’s mannered style. No documentary outside of The Last Waltz lights its ‘subjects’ this carefully and no documentary I know of attempts to make its subject matter fit so snugly in the dynamic babble-and-swagger idiom established by television series like The West Wing.
Indeed, United 93 is a very tasteful production if you can overlook all those tense shots that leave the audience wondering whether the stewardess with her back to the camera will have her throat slit in this shot or the next. Otherwise, though, it’s a model of restraint, holding off on the ominous music cues until the end and reducing the potentially jingoistic dialogue on the plane to a troubled whisper. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, most of the praise lavished on United 93 simply and uncritically celebrates the fact that the filmmakers took a humanistic approach as opposed to a racist one, which I suppose constitutes some sort of achievement in this day and age.
But to congratulate Greengrass and Co. for recreating the events of the United 93 hijacking without stooping to virile, patriotic rallying cries elides the larger problems of the film. One must wonder, as did Jonathan Rosenbaum and the millions of habitual filmgoers who avoided this picture, how edifying such a tasteful recreation could ever be. True to Greengrass’s painfully neutral method, there’s no background here, no intimation that the attacks had any substantial basis in political, socioeconomic, or religious terms. Without any explanation or context, the incident is reduced to, or perhaps circumscribed within the boundaries of, irrational horror. It’s a film that asks its spectators to reconfigure an abstract tragedy as an immediate one, perhaps reclaiming a political event as a personal one. But no matter how visceral the violation becomes, is not the end still an essentially vulgar desire to declare, ‘I know how it felt on that plane; I saw the movie’?
A friend has suggested that United 93 can be read as indictment of divided labor and modernity’s malaises. I don’t begrudge him that interpretation, nor would I deny anyone the right to suggest, for example, that one of the film’s radical humanistic gestures—its insistence that the hijackers were, in their own way, just as frightened and confused as the passengers—proffers a subtle but crippling blow to the neoconservative project of making ‘Islamofascism’ sound like the most formidable and resilient threat ever dealt to the Republic.
But most every interpretation of the film wanders like that, assaying the terrorist attacks, their aftermath, and their representation here as one big, unsettled metaphor awaiting exegesis. Political opinions, well-grounded or inchoate, masquerade as film criticism.
Approaching United 93 as a curious cultural object rather than as a work of art (with all the intentionality and efficacy of expression that implies) seems more fruitful at present. As I wrote earlier, the film seems like an artifact from a culture still unable to come to terms with something. Instead of educating its audience about 9/11, United 93 packages an incomprehensible tragedy in familiar showbiz terms. A mix of slasher movie suspense and procedural teledrama, United 93 attempts to demonstrate that even the most complex events can be understood through the discourses concocted by the entertainment industry. So total and surreal was the devastation that for the first few weeks after 9/11 it was almost a cliché to declare that the attacks resembled the improbable images of a blockbuster movie. Now United 93 has brought us full circle by suggesting that the hijackings actually could be translated faithfully to entertainment conventions. Nothing lies outside the domain of the movies.
Hollywood movies also serve as the main reference point for The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s skillful monster movie that became South Korea’s biggest blockbuster to date. The Host, like every Spielberg film, is about rebuilding a family amidst extraordinary and often horrific circumstances. Killing the rampaging monster isn’t just a matter of civil service or even survival instinct—it’s about making the world safe again for daddy-daughter time. The heavy debt to Spielberg is thrown into relief by minor deviation from the blockbuster template, whether it be the soft critique of American imperialism or the entrancing moment when collective mourning becomes the stuff of a raucous comedy routine. And yet to celebrate The Host because it tweaks the political position and emotional range of the standard-issue Spielberg blockbuster demands an impoverished criterion of judgment; like The Wild Bunch or Far from Heaven, The Host only works as art if a mildly revisionist impulse to lampoon genre convention is accepted as the basis for aesthetic profundity.
On its own terms, though, The Host serves well enough as a diverting, riveting two hours of digital entertainment. The insinuations of deliberate environmental degradation, capitulation to American military might, and opportunistic use of disaster as a pretext for political suppression announce The Host a topical variation on an old formula. Like the other recent apocalypse films, there is self-consciousness about the enterprise—a desire to entertain mixed with a fashionable nod to vague political disillusionment. And also like the rest, the apparent need to dress up old-fashioned thrills in topical guise is ultimately more informative than any of the political statements these movies purport to make. Just as United 93 assures us that there’s no trauma too messy for the medium to unravel, The Host settles our conscience about consuming destruction-as-spectacle by according both destruction and spectacle a tinge of currency and savvy.
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto upholds this politicizing impulse even when superficially straying from it. Gibson takes something genuinely exotic—the death throes of a lost civilization, rendered in a dialect unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the audience—and makes it recognizable in a droll, daffy way. Jaguar Paw and his people are presented, from the very first scene, in terms lifted from the Hollywood buddy comedies of the last two decades—a subgenre almost inseparable from Gibson himself. Unlike United 93 and The Host, there’s no suggestion of Us vs. Them here—men everywhere, in every culture, crack stupid jokes about small penises. Humiliation humanizes us all.
The second half of the film, an extended chase sequence, is pure grindhouse junk edited more intelligently than usual. The grotesque set pieces—a panther mauling, a man ripped apart by a hunter’s trap—get the down-and-dirty job done, eliciting hoots and cheers from the cheap seats. It’s this section where the film’s pretensions are most incompatible with its skeezy models and their rather primitive means of audience engagement.
Up until that point, Gibson had been spinning some kind of allegory about civilizations in decline. In interviews, the director compared the Mayan human sacrifice rituals graphically realized in Apocalypto to the Iraq War, with the implication that prolonged Mideast conflict will bring denizens of Western Civilization to the level of snarling savages again. The racial politics behind Apocalypto are troubling indeed, not least in the abrupt finale in which the chase comes to an end on a beach where friend and foe observe the arrival of several ominous conquistador vessels. Are the Spanish meant as some divine corrective to indigenous decadence? Or does their arrival instead constitute the most brilliant anti-climax in movie history, a tectonic shift in the moral order that renders the preceding two hours a quaint lark? As a friend put it much more succinctly: conquistadors—deus or deus ex machina?
How one reads the film’s ideological project depends largely on whether one thinks Disney would be demented enough to spend millions of dollars on a movie that consciously floats a thesis that might be summed up, in classic grindhouse fashion, as ‘They had it comin’ to ‘em!’ As with The Passion of the Christ, the film’s incidents demand to be read allegorically, even for audiences accustomed to more casual viewing practices. Gibson’s violence—so excessive and so abundant as to run contrary to any principle of narrative economy—exhausts thrill, momentum, spectacle, catharsis, and every other showbiz justification for putrid gore so early in the game that the only rationale left is that the Violence Means Something. Make no mistake: that flesh was ripped apart for our sins.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men brilliantly combines and contradicts all of the impulses and strategies outlined above. Like the others it might be accused of imaging the apocalypse not as a unique, world historical event but as the culmination of slick genre exercises. To regard the film’s relentless and haggard drive towards anti-climax and death as a critique of the action genre’s more heroic and bombastic impulses—in other words, to commend Children of Men for minor deviations from a well-oiled framework—would be just as disingenuous a position as saying that United 93 lends gravity to 9/11. There is a moment towards the end of Children of Men in which the sound of an infant crying—so familiar to all and yet alien to everyday human experience for the past eighteen years of an infertile Earth—very nearly halts a scene of urban warfare. We see where this sentimental interlude is going: the fighters recover their humanity at the sound of untarnished innocence and drop their arms, embracing and smothering each other with the kisses of universal brotherhood. Instead, the mortar fire resumes after a few seconds of awed silence. The apocalypse continues unabated.
What would one really be admiring here: the morose thesis, the upending of a genre expectation so perfectly prepared, or Cuarón’s calculated skill in making the consumption of the same old Hollywood goods look like anything but?
Likewise, the film’s politics are, to put it generously, confused: protest and conformity, opposition and authority form two indistinguishable positions in England, 2027. According to Children of Men, the Government decries dissent as an act of terrorism—which might be a pungent critique of the former if the film weren’t so intent on showing that left-wing political activists do tend to act like terrorists and greedy, sadistic, narrow-minded ones at that.
Children of Men vividly portrays a political disaster in medias res, its instigators and its redeemers equally contemptible and equally unfit to fix any of it. With outrageous crimes met with equally preposterous and cynical resistance, the film alternates between being a call-to-arms and a call-to-complacency. The only hope for salvation comes in the form of one woman shepherded by one man to one island in one corner of the world where one baby might reverse the fate of mankind.
What a smug, shrill, nihilistic idea for a movie this is. The camerawork saves it.
Rather than imparting lessons about the present through appropriating familiar styles, Children of Men forges a new one. Of course, the mise en scene is not entirely original; in fact, it might be described as a version of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice engineered for the Playstation 2 console. And yet this shot-gun marriage is a harmonious—and, what’s more, expressive—one. The long takes conceived by Cuarón and his cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki, are unabashedly virtuosic, which should normally be understood as a limitation for art. But these one-shot sequences—notably the attack on the car early on or the siege on the tenement much later—are all about creating a world in such focused, uncompromised detail that its destruction might be more deeply felt. The imagery throughout is concentrated without devolving into symbols. Whether one writes off the conceit of shooting an attack on a car from angles inside and outside that car without a single obtrusive cut as empty showmanship or not, it’s difficult to deny that the image of Clive Owen and Julianne Moore spitting a ball back and forth between each other’s lips is an affecting and novel but perfectly comprehensible vision of love, trust, comfort, and, ultimately, symbiosis.
Many of the film’s images possess the immediate legibility of ideograms—impressions of rage, despair, and fleeting love. Because the images flow so supplely from one to the next, the frame itself takes on the air of a squalid sanctuary. When the delicate, xenophobic police state collapses towards the end of the film, anonymous Homeland Security officials haul Pam Ferris (who plays Miriam, a maternal, good-hearted dyke who helps to guide Owen, Moore, and a very pregnant Claire-Hope Ashitey) off a bus and throw her up against a fence alongside other hooded prisoners. We see it all from Owen and Ashitey’s point-of-view, from the bus window: a rifleman paces back and forth, inspecting the victims. We drift away without seeing a shot fired—we don’t have to. That’s the material logic behind the style: in this world, slipping from the view of the anxious camera is tantamount to death itself.
One more thing about Children of Men: around the edges there are images and ideas drawn from the television news of the last five years. Headlines, slogans, music cues, snapshots, and, in the scene described above, allusions to the infamous images of Abu Ghraib. These political references are, in the context of a film that treats its nihilism and defeatism seriously and rigorously, admittedly problematic. Time once described Stars Wars—that pop amalgam of John Ford and Leni Riefenstahl—as ‘a subliminal history of the movies’; in much the same manner, Children of Men is a subliminal history of Anglo-American politics since 9/11—pilfering an image here and there, stripping it of its political context, and offering it anew for all its emotional and dramaturgical value. In this sense, Children of Men is a powerful, vexing collage of familiar images. Each workaday atrocity flashes on the screen for the moment and shakes us from the genre routine perfected by the other apocalypse thrillers. Instead of trying to construct a history that supplants ours, Children of Men lets the pain of our world suture its own. It resembles being roused from a nightmare and then slipping right back into another one.