Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hollywood Fears Drones, Loves the Drone King [movie reviews]

This article discusses the plots of numerous sci-fi movies and contains spoilers for:  Total Recall, Elysium, Revenge of the Sith, The Lego Movie, Robocop, Captain America Winter Soldier, X-Men Days of Future Past.

You might think that Hollywood would be afraid of a ruler who is building an army of automated machines and an automated system for detecting threats to the regime.  It is amazing the number of movies that depict fear of the drone/droid, the soldier that is programmed simply to follow orders and has no qualms about war crimes and no Oathkeeper sentiments about the Constitution.

Revenge of the Sith
The recent trend could be said to be heralded by the Star Wars prequilogy, where the bad guys start out with access to a robot army, and eventually replace it with an army of clones (essentially a clone becomes a sort of human automaton for the purposes of the plot) called Stormtroopers.  Given his political leanings, Lucas may have had the university shootings of the Nixon era in mind when he conceived of the clone origins of Stormtroopers.  Also back then, he didn't have CGI, so Stormtroopers are much more nimble than any robot seen in the first Star Wars.

Total Recall
More recently we have the Total Recall remake. The remake tightens the colonialism angle and changes the setting to be completely on Earth.  Instead of the Martian colony vs. Earth, it's the Australian colony vs. Britain in a post-apocalyptic time--basic Two Worlds theme. The British dictator amasses an enormous army of robot soldiers which the Australian people will be powerless to stop.  The Australian people appear to be unarmed and can only run in terror as doomsday approaches.  It doesn't matter if the British people aren't keen on genocide; the autonomous battle droids will destroy on command.  NO human army necessary.

The Supersoldier Era
Similar problems in Elysium.  Director Blomkamp makes a very similar movie to his previous District 9: a reluctant hero with a severe medical condition trying to get to a magic healing machine in the sky.  The adaptation of this plot to a Two Worlds story makes for a more gritty realization of the movie Upside Down (another Two Worlds sci-fi fantasy).  No extraterrestials in Elysium, however, quasi-governmental corporations are still responsible for slums, but in Elysium the protagonist is another factory worker who helps build battle droids (as in Total Recall) who will later show expertise in disabling them.  Elysium shows the totalitarian oppression accomplished through these droids and drones.  Only police/soldiers and criminals are armed, so the 2nd Amendment has been successfully dismantled in the future.  Blomkamp expands the apartheid theme of District 9 into a fanciful treatment (and moral framing) of America's immigration problem.  In the end, the Constitution of the future is not just a living document but living code.  Rewriting the code can instantly confer a right to free healthcare (not to mention the right to not be arrested) on whole populations.  (If only we didn't have this whole plague of representational government standing in the way of amnesty!)

Which brings us to the Robocop reboot.  Where in the original Robocop movie corporations seem to be stepping in for a missing government, the reboot has been reworked into a morality tale that blames the corporations for bad government policy.  The movie frames its politics by showing a robot army used by America to occupy a Middle Eastern country.  It is extremely successful in reducing American casualties.  Suicide bombers are shown discussing how they don't want to kill anyone, just want to die on national tv (which is astoundingly different from suicide bombing in the 21st century), recasting terrorism as martyrdom.

A piece of legislation called the "Dreyfus Act" keeps the American government from using the military droids/drones to police its citizens.  So, as in Elysium, evil "corporationy" corporations are at work to overturn the Dreyfus Act (by funding a tv program for propaganda purposes) so they can sell even more droids.  Unlike the original, Robocop is simply a way to market robot police: by making a man into a robot soldier.  No politicians are shown to be villainous, just the cold-hearted corporate bozos.  The lead villain is named "Sellars" just to drive home that it's the bourgeois merchant class you are to fear.  If the government turns its robot military on its own citizens, it's the fault of corporate lobbying, so let's not ask why the government wants robot soldiers policing its own people, like an enemy occupation.

Robocop Alex Murphy is incredibly successful at solving and eliminating crime with his datamining, auto-profiling, and invincibility.  He should change his name to Homeland Security.  Is the point of Robocop that liberty is too essential to risk it even if that means are streets are not as crime-free?  Where are the pro-gun liberals?  They should take this message to heart.  Or is the message that a robot army is only bad if a corporation builds it?  Shouldn't we be afraid of a government empowered to squash any civilian uprising?  Even President Lincoln acknowledged that a people have a natural right to overthrow their government (whether he actuallly believed that is another matter).  Certainly all the authors of the Constitution, the Declaration, the Federalist papers and the Anti-Federalist papers agreed with that as the most fundamental right (because without that right, what happens when the government stops respecting your rights?).

Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier seems to be afraid for another reason.  The robot army in this movie is a bunch of aerial warships that combine the Obama-era data-mining powers of the NSA with the ability to target from the air anyone deemed likely to pose a threat to a totalitarian government.  The idea behind this movie is that once a benevolent government acquires the power to oppress its citizens, it is in immediate danger of a coup from people with the will to oppress the citizens.  Shades of this appear in The Avengers when the supersoldiers question whether a government more highly armed than its people can be trusted to always have their best interests at heart.

Days of Future Past
And now we have X-Men: Days of Future Past, which features a future where mutants are hunted by super-drones/droids, and not just them but anybody that carries the potential in their DNA for these paranormal mutants. Kind of like the Patriot Act under both Bush and Obama has been used to for purposes other than anticipating terrorist acts.  Kind of like a "legal regime" for indefinite suspension of citizen rights (Rachel Maddow).  Yep, the government gets so afraid of mutant terrorism (and they have good reason to be afraid) in the 1970s (alternate timeline) that they start work on droids that can detect a mutant and destroy him.  Eventually, these drones acquire powers that (out)match that of the mutants and the people of the world are oppressed by them in a indefinitely long contingency dictatorship.  By creating machines that even mutants couldn't fight, they ended up with a government that the people couldn't fight.

Lego Movie
The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air, a fundamentally Libertarian movie that got past the Hollywood censors by naming their villain "Lord Business."  Lord Business is not just the President but the major stockholder in a wealthy conglomerate that controls most of the media, makes all the automated voting machines, and runs all the surveillance systems in the country.  He also has a robot army consisting of battle drones, worker drones, and "micro-managers."  The people are lulled into being micro-managed by the tentacles of Lord Business's empire until it reaches its logical conclusion of total control.  The political solution ends up with the people arming themselves with ideas and the weapons those ideas bring about.  Nice! This movie doesn't have so much the nebulous notion that corporations are inherently evil, although it obviously denounces cronyism and crony-corporatism, and makes a plug for the little business owner and his ideas.

Is it ironic that the movie that seems the most friendly to robot armies is a movie starring Matt Damon, one of the few Hollywood liberals that question why Obama is eroding our rights when he promised to bring back the Bill of Rights.  (In his words, the President "broke up with" him.)  In Elysium, the oppressive robot army turns good.  At the movie's end, instead of being horrible they all of a sudden act with great compassion and care.  It is good to have a robot army because a benevolent dictator (as Sean Penn conceived of Hugo Chavez and Castro) can use them to bring "liberty and justice for all."  This is almost a 180 from Winter Soldier, except that Elysium takes great care to show at the beginning how dangerous this technology is when used indiscriminately on a largely unarmed populace.

The ending of Elysium evoked this techno-socialist fantasy by Richard Brautigan:
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Brautigan dreamed of a time when we will all be Eloi.  He wasn't concerned about the Morlocks.

You would think by now that people would have realized that whatever power grabs you tolerate in the President you trust, you leave open to the next President, whom you probably will not trust.  While Hollywood might appear to share our fear of drones and homeland security, they are still busy buying $40,000 plates for the man that has done more to increase their scope and use of homeland security and drones against the American citizen--except for Matt Damon, remarkably, who actually has noticed that Obama is everything they supposedly hated about Bush.  Most of them aren't concerned because as long as it's Obama eroding the Bill of Rights we're just being watched over by machines of loving grace.

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