You might be living in a dystopia if… they remake all the classic dystopian films, and they’re no longer dystopian.
Sure, you saw the new Robocop, why not? Your expectations are so beaten down that not getting shot for texting during it is enough to leave a pleasant enough memory, soured only by the recollection that it lacked the ultraviolence and biting satire of the original. But behind all the throwaway action clichés and plodding exposition… did you hear it laughing at you?
Robocop is only the latest, and one of the less ridiculous, rehashes of some of the most incisive scifi films ever made. Paul Bartel’s deliriously black comedy Death Race 2000 posited a breezy utopia where colorful derby racers slaughtered society’s deadwood even as they cheered for their murderers. Death Race (2008) was a steakhead prison break retread that replaced David Carradine’s far-out Frankenstein with a generic alpha asshole (Jason Statham) and abandoned the original’s satirical edge in favor of rad gladiator action porn. The pay-per-view death sport isn’t a commentary on our amoral obsessions with vicarious death or sport as a tribal control mechanism; it’s just a badass thing that you’d probably watch, if it was real.
Likewise, when Norman Jewison’s operatic bloodbath Rollerball (1975) got the remake treatment, the whole dystopian context was totally ditched in favor of a South African setting. In 2002, Rollerball isn’t the sole outlet for a world completely dominated by corporations and divided into market territories rather than nations. The champion isn’t an unwilling Spartacus whose fumbling attempts to question history threaten the whole system. He’s just that one dumbass from American Pie, who joins this new extreme sport with obligatory urban sidekick LL Cool J and extreme action happens while Slipknot lays down a sickass nümetal anthem.
Dystopia? You’re soaking in it.
In spite of the utter failure of the remake, this one still stings because the feudal oligarchy culture of Rollerball evoked so succinctly in William Harrison’s short story “Roller Ball Murder” and his script for the ‘75 film is closest to the future we’re headed into: where political influence and even judicial decisions are openly on offer, and education deteriorates in a vicious circle of budget cuts, privatization and faith-based erosion of even fundamental scientific education. Literacy circles the drain and bigger, dumber spectacles and diverting celebrity outrages promise the only release from the infuriating dumb show of political gridlock and economic decline. The rigged failure of all public services seems, and indeed is, engineered to leave us eagerly awaiting some kind of bold free market solution. Give us Rollerball, or give us Deathrace. We can’t afford, and many of us can’t even spell, liberty.
The original Robocop shocked a mass audience by taking the sociopathic greed of the Reagan years to its logical conclusion, depicting a Detroit sucked dry of public resources and essential humanity, and turned over to a monolithic for-profit corporation. Since 1987, Detroit has worked overtime to meet writer Ed Neumeier’s bleak prediction for the Motor City—choking on austerity measures, cashiering public workers, defaulting on pensions and pawning its art collection, even as it gets taken to the cleaners by his fuckhead lawyers and accountants. Detroit residents today would probably mortgage their firstborn to live in the squeaky-clean version of their hometown in the new Robocop, which was pretty obviously shot in Toronto.
In the original film, Omni Consumer Products is anxious to break into the market for domestic pacification, but the wedge they get is when the real police go on strike. Labor problems aren’t an issue in the remake—unions apparently don’t exist, street crime isn’t especially bad, and Robocop is here because a corporation needs to sell him to us.
Where the original gave us the iconic overkill of the hapless executive at the demonstration of ED-209 to show OCP as equally dastardly and incompetent, the new prologue shows OCP’s military robots wreaking heavy-handed havoc abroad exactly as they were programmed to. America alone remains “robophobic,” but the scary part of OCP’s urban pacification program is, we’re doing it right now.
All across America, news stories are becoming even more appallingly commonplace than school and workplace shootings: of routine police encounters with nonviolent offenders or innocent citizens where any misunderstanding or failure to cooperate ends in a swift shooting or public beating or execution by truncheon, Taser, boot heel, and sleeper hold. The deaf, mentally ill, homeless, and people of color, especially black men, black boys, black girls and black mothers, have joined kids with toy guns in the endless litany of death by noncompliance or mistake. Where the Reaganotic ‘80s were feverish with the irrational fear of street crime perpetrated by the gangs hyped on new 24-hour cable news and inspired by the oddly multiethnic street gangs of eighties action films, now the fear of terrorism is perpetually stoked by the market for detection, interdiction, and deadly force. The daily toll of out-of-control police forces in every state, like the ever-escalating public-private surveillance state, is just a cost of living in the land of freedom.
One can argue that law enforcement’s increasing reliance upon a comply-or-die doctrine is not a sea change so much as a shift in media focus, political climate, and audience perception like the one that created street crime and terrorism hysteria in the first place, but you’d have to be one disingenuous motherfucker to argue that it has always been thus.
One “benefit” of warfare we’re always reminded of is the innovations we bring home from the battlefield. But it’s equally true that we end up using the same tactics to deal with the enemy, for better or worse, against our own citizens. The veterans who change one uniform for another inevitably bring military practices, habits, and attitudes back home.
After World War II, police became more like the military units they’d served in abroad, with greater specialization and new tactics to respond to organized crime with flying squads, automatic weapons and undercover agents. After Vietnam, every large urban department got helicopters and tactical squads to deal with new counter-culture, drug and immigrant crimes. Ever since, law enforcement has been in a supposed arms race with criminals, which ended when police departments began receiving, whether they asked for them or not, all manner of surplus military hardware from the Global War on Terror.
For the last decade, as America has marinated in the anxieties and xenophobic fever-dreams of 9/11, we have watched as our soldiers were blown to bits by IED’s on routine patrol, and as they shot up carloads of innocent families and orphaned wailing, bloody children by mistake at checkpoints in Baghdad; as our elite Seal commandos hunted and executed bin Laden (the Emmanuel Goldstein of our age), and as our drones blew up Afghan wedding parties mistaken for Taliban convoys by console gamer “analysts” in Pentagon basements. We have agonized over the minutiae of withdrawing our demoralized, traumatized troops while pushing away the larger questions of what the fuck we thought were trying to do in the first place, or what we’re doing with the untried prisoners we’ve forgotten at Guantanamo. And it only seems like it’s over because we’ve lost the will to even pay attention anymore, and an obliging media has taken the cue to move on to less depressing news.
And kickass sci-fi action.
Our police and deputies and prison guards are often the same veterans who manned those checkpoints with orders to Shoot to Kill anything that moved, who guarded those prisoners who may or may not have helped cause 9/11, and whose routine deaths in custody were almost never investigated; and all the reservists and Guardsmen whose lives at home faded away while they languished in foreign hellholes on endlessly extended tours, and who came home to hear the garbled collective mumble that it was probably all a mistake.
For America’s entire history, its judicial climate has swung between righteous rage on the part of the victim, and sympathy for the rights of the accused. The late 60’s and all of the 70’s saw an explosion of offbeat counter-culture and “broken system” films and books that celebrated outlaws, renegades and outsiders who stood against or exposed fundamentally corrupt, rotten establishments everywhere, from summer camps and Southern prisons to the churches and the Presidency. The outlaws are wrongfully convicted, trying to “go straight” or else we weigh their petty crimes against a system gone mad.
The pendulum swung back in the ‘80s and we have, for almost two generations, lived in a Dirty Harry, Death Wish climate where extreme measures by police and vigilantes are sanctioned by a fearful public against armies of subhuman street gangs, foreign terrorists and slave traffickers whose guilt is always a fait accompli; where rehabilitation is futile and all the symptoms of a neglected, corrupt and barbaric prison system are only bonus punishment for criminals whose guilt is never, ever in doubt; where crime stories are uncomplicated fantasies of catharsis and abjection that avenge the innocent and punish the Other, who is never, ever us.
Ironic sendups of the genre, from Judge Dredd (the 2000 A.D. comic and Dredd ) and Escape From New York to The Running Man and Robocop ‘87 give the low-information viewer the brutal affirmation of authority he craves while layering in a sickened detachment, the saturation of gore and machismo mounting in hopes of re-sensitizing us to the taste of sadistic authority’s boot. But as with Mad Max (now being remade!), and practically every action movie since, our diseased longing for an authoritarian badass is most clearly delineated when it’s served straight as remoseless vengeance porn.
The troubling question Robocop posed was not whether robot cops would be a good idea. It was the question of what we ourselves become, when we close our minds to solving the roots of societal ills like crime, and instead take up arms to chop off all the symptoms of the infection. Verhoeven made Peter Weller’s transformation into an orgy of ballistic body horror that went south of Cronenberg. When his visor is finally removed, the neutered, stricken Officer Murphy looks like a moribund lab animal.
The new design is something terrifyingly stripped of human flesh, yet sleek and totally in touch with its feelings—”a product with a conscience”—at first. Having been created as a marketing device to sway public opinion in favor or robot stormtroopers, much like the movie itself, Det. Murphy gradually loses his humanity to the corporate tinkering. And this is the fascinating part of the remake that will go largely unnoticed by those justifiably annoyed by its bloodless violence.
It’s troubling that, while less sensational than in Verhoeven’s film, the violence is no more realistic, but director Padilha isn’t interested in the gun battles at all. What takes up a huge portion of the running time is the endless war of attrition waged by Omnicorp against not street crime, but public opinion. Robocop here isn’t an end in itself, but a publicity stunt to ease America’s last twinges of doubt about military robots and omnipresent drones replacing our police. The threat of this kind of world is vividly shown in the prologue, as faceless robot stormtroopers shake down an occupied Iranian neighborhood. Swap “contractors” for robots and Iraqis or Afghans for Iranians, and it’s not science fiction at all.
Where the original had Robocop trace his own murderer into OCP’s boardroom, there is no grand conspiracy in 2014 beyond the corporation’s relentless need to take over the market. Alarmist graphics showing a blood-dipped America as a closed market project a running total of lost revenue in the hundreds of billions. Whether we need it or not, they’re going to sell it to you.
In the end, we want to feel safer when a cop ogles us through Google Glass or strolls through our TRW file and Facebook page to see if we’re one of Them. Because in the end, we want what they want us to want. The relentless tinkering with the new Robocop is all about how corporations, having come to control the market and the government that “regulates” it, now find themselves engineering the consumer as a product. In manufacturing consent to cyborg cops and robot death squads, the corporate mentality is shown in far more nuanced detail than in its awesomely ridiculous predecessor. They’ll do whatever they have to do to look like they care until they make the sale, and if you don’t want to buy it, they’ll keep fucking with your brain until you do.
When Robocop kills too slowly because of human hesitation, they mess with the chips plugged into his brain and flatten his dopamine levels until he acts like a robot. Either this is corporate culture doing a premature victory lap wallowing in their hegemony, or it’s an astute unpacking of how the free market can become the enemy of freedom. Of course, Robocop triumphs in the end by simply overcoming his programming, but can you?
Fantasies of One Man Standing Up against dystopias sweeten our jaded cynicism with a spoonful of false triumphalism that is even more dangerous than fatalism, because while the educated people who should lead the popular demand for change sink into apathy, those who would in any better system choose reform or revolt instead follow these imaginary action messiahs into the armed forces, law enforcement or other positions of petty power that will satisfy their inner Judge Dredd that they’re really Snake Plissken. The Horst Wessel March as covered by Metallica.
Everybody knows that whether she ever heard of it or not, The Hunger Games is a straight-up chop-job of the infamous Battle Royale. Sure, one need not have heard of the long-forbidden Japanese epic of generational genocide to come up with a similar idea, but the appropriation is an illuminating recipe for how to turn thought-provoking anti-establishment art into post-literate catnip.
Battle Royale is so shocking because until we wake up on the island with those kids, we don’t know anything’s wrong with this world. Presumably, these kids have heard of Battle Royale, but not even the class’s quirky outsiders are suspicious about the nature or timing of their field trip. The survivors are subtly distinguished by virtue, cleverness and heart, but again and again, we see innocence and decency trumped by deviousness, cruelty and sheer dumb luck.
Contrast that to the messianic aura of inevitability around Katniss (can you say or think this name without hearing, cat-piss? I can’t), and you see why her saga is so overwhelmingly popular with young adults. Teens LOVE how global gloom and oppression enable their hormone-driven fantasies of persecution and dominance by adults. But every YA dystopia has its foil, a spunky, bright-eyed empty suit of a protagonist who will advance on a rail through the funhouse of empty PG-13 menace to escape or overthrow the regime, as surely as the old will someday die.
But does the messianic arc in The Hunger Games, or in any of the eerily similar pseudo-sci-fi horde like Total Recall (2012) and Elysium (2013)—inspire any kind of real activism? Do girls who devoured the Suzanne Collins books emerge from the theater acutely aware of? Or do they come away with a feel-good assurance that they, or someone with Jennifer Lawrence’s airbrushed but attainable good looks, would nip it in the bud after some focus-grouped action set-pieces and romantic montages?
Which brings us to the imminent disaster that proves this paranoid screed is, if anything, insufficiently cynical. See, they’re remaking, or re-adapting, 1984. As a romance, with Catherine Stewart standing in for Julia… or hell, make her the Winston Smith.
As much as I’d like to see Bella from Twilight with a cageful of rats strapped to her face, I’m not just flinging geek-feces at message boards in righteous indignation; I’m existentially terrified that the corporate overlords think we’re already dumb enough that this shit will make us feel like we’re winning while they try to bring back debtor’s prisons. I’m terrified that Orwell’s complex burial of his Socialist ideals under the horror show of authoritarian Communism will become not just a glossy reimagining, but a declaration of war on the original text and upon literacy itself, the kind of witless pablum the music machines churn out for the proles in 1984, and this time, our proles might just suck it up.
Like almost every adolescent male of my era, I was totally owned by 1984 in 1984, and even more so by the less melodramatic but far more fucked-up Brave New World. 1984 is consistently one of the favorite books picked by American men, up there with The Stranger, Catcher In The Rye and Fight Club, because they burnish the alienated everyman, just trying to make his way in a nightmarish, hostile world that pointlessly plots his undoing.
It’s no accident of public school curricula that we get the dystopian and existential lit around the same time that we confront our own mortality and ultimate insignificance; the epic downbeat endings give solace and some fleeting glimpse of personal grace to be extricated from the whole shitty, thankless struggle. We need dystopian fantasies, especially when we’re young, and they need to be challenging and dangerous, not loud and shiny and inflated with false hope. Some ideas are too dangerous to be set free in a “free market,” like the idea that a free market isn’t good, or that the free market isn’t free.