It occurred to me that maybe this whole post-a-day-for-thirty-days thing might be harder than I thought. Take yesterday’s entry for example. I actually had notes written down, and could have followed them, but truth be told: I don’t have all that much time to write that isn’t full of distractions. Ideas also come to me very slowly, which is why I’ve stayed at about one entry every week or week and a half. When I try to go faster than that, well, I end up with scattered, incomplete ideas like I did yesterday. But I suppose that’s why I’m doing this. It’s some sort of masochistic brain training regimen, a self-imposed blogger’s boot camp. So stick with me if, for the first half of these thirty days, I produce some pretty rough material.
While I still have ideas from yesterday’s entry rattling around in my head, I might as well get it out. Also, beware. I’m gonna spoil the crap out of some movies.
One of the things that makes sci-fi so interesting is that it is a mirror into our collective fears. For example, a long time ago, before we could reach out and touch our own solar system, science fiction was earthly. What scared us most was what we didn’t know about ourselves. Frankenstein praised the revolutions in medicine and science, but asked how far they would take us and what kind of monsters awaited discovery or creation. Similarly, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published the same year (1886) Sigmund Freud set up his private practice, explored the darker sides of the human psyche. And it wasn’t for nothing that people were a little freaked out by the monsters within. During the late 1800s, H.H. Holmes used Chicago as his personal charcuterie. And few years after Stevenson’s novel was published, at least five London prostitutes would end up dead, and their killer would be forever undiscovered.
A half century later (or so), the new fear was The Bomb. The world had watched in sublime horror as the Atomic Age crescendoed, and the fear of annihilation–of the apocalypse–became very real. Before, with trains and cars and airplanes, the four horsemen seemed a bit antiquated; humanity could do anything it set its mind to. Science and technology exploded, and then it imploded. Radiation was the savior and destroyer. In our imagination, ordinary men were transformed into superheroes by radioactive bug bites, but Godzilla punished us all the same for our arrogance. In the giant-bug movies of the 1950s and ’60s, radiation was almost always the culprit. The Amazing Colossal Man was transformed into a monster (without calves, apparently) by plutonium radiation. Sure, it’s funny enough now. MST3K did an episode for this movie. But it shows just how mixed our feelings were about this terrible new power we had unleashed. Like the monsters in our psyches, this new discovery could build a paradise or burn it all to the ground.
Right now, zombies as a movie monster are a tired thing. We’ve done them to death, and there’s kind of an unofficial moratorium on more zombies. But they are more of a cultural barometer than just about any other monster out there. When Romero put out Night of the Living Dead in 1968, it was radiation that brought the dead to life, but this time not necessarily from bombs. As our awareness of this new discover expanded, our vision lengthened, and our guilt increased. We had been to space and put our feet on the Moon, but in Romero’s vision, not even death would be an escape from the Pandora’s Box we had opened.
Ten years later, the threat of nuclear apocalypse was still there, but the Vietnam War was over, and Americans found themselves with a new set of problems, more domestic. I really want to argue that A Clockwork Orange (1971) fits in here somewhere, possibly with some sentiment of brainwashing and governmental or extra-governmental control over the body, but I feel like it might be a stretch. Still, it’s hard not to think about it as we move into the late ’70s. Dawn of the Dead (1978) is perhaps one of the best criticisms of consumer culture ever filmed. The radiation may still have turned people into zombies, but the zombie as an organism had mutated. Instead of being an aimless husk, a shell of human cynicism, the zombie now had a real, gluttonous hunger. It compulsively fed, not to sate itself, but to acquire more stuff because it was unable to appreciate what it had. The same argument could be made for Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). A Galactic Empire that practically owns most of the star systems out there uses its military might to acquire more and more. Because what good is owning most of the things when you can own them all? It’s like the Emperor thought planets were Pokemon.
And then, boom! Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), Mad Max (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Insanity. And a good year at the movies, to be sure. More fear of governmental and corporate control, but also hope. As odd as it sounds, Mad Max is one of those movies that says, “Hey, yeah, we’ll probably get wiped out, either by our own hand or through some freak accident. But look: even if some of us begin to hunger for flesh and motorcycle-related violence, we will survive.” Eh, OK. Maybe that’s just me. But, seriously, a common theme that runs through all these movies is the question, “Who are we?” Just how much do we have to strip away before we stop being who we are or what others expect us to be? The crowning achievement of this exploration in the ’80s (in sci-fi, of course) is probably Blade Runner (1982). Harrison Ford is a cyborg. I think we all knew this, but just in case you didn’t I’ll write it again, because I love the way the words look on the page. Harrison Ford is a cyborg. In Blade Runner, very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was published the same year Night of the Living Dead came out), a guy tracks down androids posing as humans and murders them because it’s his job. Trouble is, his girlfriend is on Santa’s naughty list. Oh yeah, and so is he. Because Harrison Ford is a cyborg. But we don’t find that out until super late in the movie. According to the best test humanity has to offer, neither he nor his girlfriend are distinguishable from anyone else. So what were they? Robots? People? At some point, it just doesn’t matter. It was a good thing to start thinking about toward the end of the Cold War, when our most hated enemies and partners in the apocalypse were about to become our friends again. It was also a groovy thing for our older siblings to think about while they got high and listened to Duran Duran.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, our worries have once again turned to the boundaries of science. Plagues, famines, overpopulation, and pharmaceutical regulation have been manifesting themselves in movies since the ’90s. Again, we can check our zombie barometer, and see it. 28 Days Later (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), World War Z (2013), and the ongoing TV show The Walking Dead all feature zombies as a plague and each individual zombie as a plague carrier. Zombies have also become faster. This doesn’t actually heighten the terror, however, just moves the movie along faster for audiences that have increasingly shorter attention spans. But this is our generation’s apocalypse. Forget the world ending in ice or fire. For the next few years, at least, it will end in a cough.