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Steffen Hantke

The Imagery of Revolution in Recent Blockbuster Films

1. Beating Around the Bush: Historical Context

The administration of George W. Bush, currently in its sixth year, has given rise to a number of films that respond with unusual immediacy to the political issues of the day. Many of them are extremely vocal, some even openly propagandistic in their opposition to this administration, its members, and its agenda. The films that most directly address politics in the age of Bush are documentaries like Mark Achbar’s and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation (2003), Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (2004), or Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo (2006). Or they are feature films: comedies like John Sayles’ Silver City (2004) and Paul Weitz’ American Dreamz (2006), which feature thinly disguised fictional characters based on Bush and/or his cabinet; or dramatic films with a more arthouse aesthetic, like Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), or George Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck (2005), which attempts to delineate political survival under an oppressive regime with some degree of subtlety, approaching contemporary politics through the venue of historical precedent or analogy (Bush = Joseph McCarthy).

The same interest in, and attitude toward, contemporary politics can also be observed in other popular media. Television shows like the recently revived Battlestar Galactica (at the time of writing, in 2006, in its third season on the SciFi Channel) have featured episodes on infiltration and subversion, “justifiable” torture, the dangers of a political coup d’etat by an elected official, or the ethics of preemptively destroying a civilian craft that may or may not be in the hands of terrorists. Given its quick production schedules, television has, of all forms of visual mass media, perhaps the advantage of being able to respond to current events with the least temporal delay—it is this “ripped from the headlines” advantage that programs like Law and Order or The West Wing have made their main selling point.

And then there are the big, loud, dumb summer blockbusters. Initiating the recent cycle of the topic of this paper--what one might call “the revolutionary blockbuster”--has been The Matrix (1999, and respectively Reloaded (2003) and Revolutions (2003)), followed by a number of less commercially yet equally populist science fiction and action films. Among them are the two final installments of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, of which especially Episode III (Revenge of the Sith, 2005) seems to be inspired by the Bush administration, with a democracy voluntarily handing itself over to tyranny and a bloody coup by a politico-technological elite that gives rise to Empire. Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) deserves special mention here as a precursor to the commercially more successful Matrix. Dark City also help Alex Proyas land the directing job on I Robot (2004), a science fiction extravaganza followed, a year later, by Michael Bay’s The Island (2005). And finally, there is James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2006), based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1988) that was originally aimed at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and has been retrofitted by its scriptwriters to fit America under Bush. V for Vendetta represents the most recent, and in many ways most vocal entry in the cycle at this moment.

What all of these films have in common is the theme of revolution—a massive uprising against the power structure, lead by a charismatic revolutionary hero (a figure often endowed with religious messianic overtones). In some cases, the political regime to be overthrown is presented in dystopian terms (as in V for Vendetta), in others, it is presented as a dystopia disguised as utopia (as in The Island). The plot in all films hinges upon a moment of cognitive breakthrough—the hero discovers/recovers his own identity and the origin and nature of his own and everybody else’s repression and exploitation—and terminates at the moment when the revolutionary uprising has been initiated, or the decisive act of revolutionary violence has taken place, but before there is any clear sense of its aftermath or of the political order that will establish itself in its wake. Despite this ambiguity as to the final outcome, there is, in all of these films, a clear sense that, a) the revolution was justified, and that b) it was, or is to be, successful. In other words, all of these films embrace the idea of revolution as a justified, desirable, and even heroic act of political resistance.

This basic narrative is tailored quite overtly to the critical discourse on the Bush administration. They transpose current events into the generic vocabulary of dystopian science fiction or the action adventure mode, but within these codes, they visualize and conceptualize either the coming-to-power of the Bush administration or the resistance against it by using the imagery of revolution. In a relatively short period of time—roughly between 1999 and the present moment—the slowest form of media to respond to current events, and what everybody tends to think of as the least political genre in it--the large-scale Hollywood summer blockbuster—seems to have become an arena for the most overt and explicit anti-Bush sentiment.

But are these films really “political” in the same sense that Goodnight and Good Luck or Fahrenheit 911 are? And if so, what exactly constitutes “politics” in this particular type of film? What are its limits, its means of expression, and its potential impact on the larger political sphere?

2. Big Dumb Fun: The Blockbuster Film

Before going into the discussion of some of these films themselves, let me briefly define what I mean by “blockbuster.” One critics, Julian Stringer, bases his definition on “a number of key concepts [that can] broadly be identified as of particular relevance to the idea of the blockbuster: namely, the money/spectacle nexus and, underpinning these two, the size factor and bigness and exceptionality as relational terms” (Stringer 8). This basic definition has implications crucial to any analysis of the politics in and of these films. Somewhat simplified, these implications are:

1. Blockbuster films must be seen in the context of a multinational audience. Not only are the majority of American blockbuster films no longer shot in the US, but revenues are largely generated in the global marketplace, through international releases, video and DVD, and television sales (not to forget video pirating and illegal downloading).

2. Blockbuster films, because of their high production, advertising, and distribution costs, are more closely tied to the logic of the marketplace than any other form of filmmaking.

3. Hence, the duration of individual cycles within the blockbuster genre is dramatically shortened, to the point where one might speak more of clusters than of cycles (e.g. the 1970s disaster films, the late 1990s “comet strikes the earth” disaster films, 1980s hard SF/action adventure films in the wake of James Cameron, etc.).

4. Blockbuster films are filmmaking in the tradition of the spectacle, not the tradition of the 19th century realist novel. They often concern themselves marginally or simplistically with plot, character, setting, and conflict, and are far more invested in a bodily aesthetic of sensation, thrill, shock, vertigo, etc.

5. Blockbuster films are filmmaking by committee. Just as their aim at reaching the vastest possible audience, their origin in collective authorship dilutes any sense of a coherent artistic and political vision.

Given this formula’s thematic alignment with a cinema of spectacle, it may seem obvious that blockbuster films have always been interested in the theme of revolution. After all, the turmoil of revolution provides beautiful, moving images of crowds in motion, large scale violence, politics as kinetic spectacle. But is this, in fact, the case?

Tom Shone’s list of the “Top 50 All-Time Blockbusters (Adjusted for Inflation)” seems to contradict this assumption: on this list, films about revolution are the exception, not the rule. Only David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), coming in at Number 8, seems to fit the bill as far as historical revolutions are concerned. As far as fictional revolutions go, George Lucas’ Star Wars films make the list, among which especially the last film in the second trilogy can be said to deal with the politics of the Bush administration. However, the vast majority of the films listed by Shone, though they concern themselves with war, invasion, and natural disaster, have no interest in the theme of revolution (Shone 18-9).

This lack of historical precedent makes the recent revolutionary blockbusters all the more conspicuous. In fact, it suggests that historical context determines this sudden interest in a theme that has largely been ignored by the genre. Let me give an example of how one theme—that of social class—is presented in these films. Let’s take Michael Bay’s The Island as an example.

3. Looking for Content: A Touch of Class

In a vast underground facility, a community of clones conduct their daily business unaware of the fact that their bodies are groomed for transplantation to hosts who exist unbeknownst to them in the outside world. Living in comfort and under constant secret observation, they are ignorant of the real conditions of their existence, an ignorance that makes them helpless victims. Their exploitation is visualized in two complimentary scenes: one in which a body is dismembered by surgeons as its organs are harvested, and another in which a body is being freed from a womb-like container in which it has been gestating. Bodies as biological raw material—this is a key metaphor that literalizes exploitation, expressing it in the register of the body. Within the cinematic cycle, the metaphor originates with The Matrix, where Neo’s liberation from his biological storage pod constitutes one of the film’s signature scenes. Similar images of bodies as raw material to be manipulated, dissembled and re-assembled, also appear in I Robot and Dark City.

The key image in The Island is clearly that of a working class revolution. It also recurs in The Matrix, when the middle class computer programmer Neo is reborn into a working class universe of clunky machines, bad food, and long shifts without extra pay. In I Robot, the exploited are coded as working class—faceless, anonymous masses who, despite the conspicuous whiteness of their bodies, are assigned the crummy jobs of collecting garbage, watching other people’s children, etc. In The Island, however, the exploited wear the same conspicuous white, and though their lives seem, at a casual glance, to be leisurely, they are still coded as working class—executing meaningless, repetitive tasks and dreaming of escape by winning the lottery. V for Vendetta, the bluntest of all three films, shows us an array of recurring yet nameless characters that are all working class—the television audience pacified by mindless entertainment and political propaganda.

With the exception of V for Vendetta, in which the dystopia does not present itself as a false utopia, all films emphasize that the exploited participate in their own exploitation by misrecognizing their own class allegiance: they may look and feel bourgeois, but underneath it all, they are working class. Revolution is held back as long as the exploited misrecognize their own social status. This false consciousness, the films seem to suggest, must be overcome before the revolutionary potential of the masses can be released and political change can occur.

Seeing the blockbuster films, therefore, in the same context, one might speculate that they address class divisions exacerbated in public consciousness by the wars the US is currently involved in. They address the issue of surveillance, raised by the implementation of the Patriot Act, and the issue of dis-/information, raised by American covert involvement in foreign governments. They express middle class resentment, dissatisfaction with the erosion of the middle class that began under Reagan and seems to accelerate every time a Republican is in the White House. And they address the question whether middle class dissatisfaction carries any potential for revolutionary resistance (in these films, it does, but only as long as middle class complicity is denied with the help of the fantasy that one’s own sense of exploitation is, in fact, akin to that of the working class).

But does this interpretation really make sense, considering that these films are not primarily made for an American audience? Would, for example, a Chinese or Russian audience not also see itself reflected in these fantasies? Or is there something like a global middle class that would respond to the fantasy of exploitation and revolution lavishly laid out in these films? Does the assumption about the films’ politics make sense given the economic necessity for these films to apply to the largest possible audience—an audience obviously exceeding that of middle class film fans (not to mention critics of the Bush administration)? Given these new contexts for the blockbuster film, it seems as if a reading of these films for themes emerging from plot and character fails to grasp their essential specificity.

Let me, therefore, return to the aspect of spectacle.

4. Eye Candy and Politics: Image over Content

Blockbuster films are largely the product of digital technology, especially from the 1990s on when digital technology became so affordable that it replaced most of its visual competitors (e.g. large numbers of extras, mechanical or prosthetic effects, matte paintings, etc.). Rising production costs, coupled with an inflationary increase of size, scope, and speed, have entered into a market-driven dialectic with the digital technologies that, simultaneously, have created these demands and have made it possible to satisfy them.

All three constituent elements of the revolutionary blockbuster—the utopian/dystopian environment, the moment of cognitive breakthrough, and the climactic moment of revolutionary violence—are dependent for their visualization on sophisticated special effects technology. This means, for the most part, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and the digital manipulation of film. This technology—CGI--excels at two types of visualization. It does well with what I would call “vastness,” and it accomplishes astonishing feats in unleashing the camera.

Unleashing the camera is accomplished by creating a digital space and then moving the visual point of view, the origin of the gaze which is no longer an unwieldy physical object in real-space, rapidly through this space (to be precise, it is the space being moved around the POV, and not vice versa). This technology excels at exploring digitally created environments—from the New York in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, to the ship’s exterior in James Cameron’s Titanic. To the degree that the films I have been discussing fall into the category of the fantastic, they are crucially dependent on this technology for visualizing the spaces in which events take place.

More important than the unleashed camera for the revolutionary blockbuster film is the visual motif of vastness, which inspires a sense of the sublime in the viewer. This effect can be accomplished by images based on infinite repetition: taking a single character, real or computer-generated, and reproducing it visually. Hence, crowd scenes, which have always been prohibitively expensive, become affordable and infinitely extendable.

The revolutionary blockbuster revels in vastness, especially when it comes to crowd scenes. The climactic scene in almost all revolutionary blockbusters is a CGI-generated image of vastness: in I Robot, a immense crowd of rebellious robots swarms over the outside of a building like insects. In the closing scene, an equally large crowd, revealed in a long backward tracking shot, looks toward the horizon where the robotic messiah stands outlined against a half collapsed bridge. In The Island, a similar closing shot shows us the repressed clones, all starkly outlined in their immaculate whites against the dark brown earth, flowing over a hillside from where they can see into the distance. The convoluted plot of Matrix Revolutions comes momentarily into focus during a final battle that is staged around similar digital masses. The climactic scene in V for Vendetta has thousands and thousands of citizens, all wearing the revolutionary terrorist’s Guy Fawkes mask, crowd into the center of London, flowing past ineffectual police barricades and past awed policemen. Clearly, the image of the vast revolutionary mass, digitally enhanced to the point of the sublime, is THE central image of all of these films, combining the key metaphor of revolution with the key technology of CGI.

Given all ambiguities and inconsistencies of plot and character I have pointed out before, the question is: what is the political content of these scenes? Moments like these appear to be all connotation and no denotation, endlessly evocative but strangely vague when it comes to specific meanings (not to mention that they sidestep perhaps the most crucial question—which political order is ushered in as a replacement of the one just overthrown?—by freezing the action at the conclusion of the revolutionary moment).

Critics looking for a clear political stance in these films tend to complain about inconsistency and ambiguity. Kevin O’Reilly, for example, calls V for Vendetta “bold and uncompromisingly political,” but also complains that it is ”a confused train-wreck of a film that stands up and shouts its message out loud without having really thought its message through” (O’Reilly, DVD Times). Similarly, the blogger k-punk remarks: “The climactic scenes of V for Vendetta, in which the people rise up (by this time, against no-one) made me think, not of some great political Event, but rather of the Make Poverty History campaign - a 'protest' with which no-one could possibly disagree” (“Dis-identity Politics”).

In this vagueness, which, I believe, results from the primacy of the spectacular image over the logic of narrative and coherent political agenda, revolutionary blockbuster films are reminiscent of their earliest precursors. In the final instance, the recent revolutionary blockbusters return us to the beginnings of blockbuster cinema. Cinematic classics like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Eisenstein’s Batttleship Potemkin, and Lang’s Metropolis, though they exist historically and culturally outside the boundaries of the blockbuster, have fitted the theme of revolution to the grand and grandiose scale of filmmaking. In a sense, they constitute the prehistory of these contemporary films.

5. Learning from Lang: Before and After the Revolutionary Blockbuster

While Griffith and Eisenstein were operating within a clearly defined political agenda, the reception history of Metropolis could be revealing about the political vagueness of recent blockbuster films. In his BFI monograph on Metropolis, Thomas Elsaesser has traced the uneven history of Metropolis--from the multiplicity of meanings the film has acquired for audiences watching it with the benefit of historical hindsight, to the multiplicity of sources from which Lang and Harbou were drawing in the writing of the script, the multiplicity of versions that have come into existence over time, and to the multiplicity of critical responses the film triggered upon release. Most striking among these responses to the film are those concerned with its politics: it appears as if Metropolis has been, at one time or another, the most loved or the most hated film of virtually all political camps. This indeterminacy or inconsistency, both in the text itself and in its reception, makes Metropolis not only “an Ur-text of cinematic postmodernity” (7), but also a blueprint of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. As Elsaesser puts it: “Fritz Lang’s flawed masterpiece,” prefigures “retrofitted techno-kitsch, and thus [became] the archetype of a movie genre [Lang and Harbou] could not have imagined, the sci-fi noir disaster movie” (7).

In terms of their politics, the films I have been discussing follow in the footsteps of Metropolis. They replicate the central visual archetype of revolution as cinematic spectacle established by Lang: the rousing crowd scene in which the revolutionary masses erupt into the dystopian space like water and flood it in sublime overhead shots. Their politics is similar to that of Metropolis: what I Robot, The Island, V for Vendetta, or the Matrix films have to offer is not any less simplistic and trite, or any less ambiguous as to its specific application than von Harbou’s famous statement about the Head and the Hand needing the Heart as an intermediary. Lacking a clear sense of politics, these films might, at best, be considered a barometer of the political mood of the moment, as symptoms of the political zeitgeist. In this sense, revolutionary blockbusters are merely reflections of current events, inventories of the themes, tropes, anxieties, and hopes of the day.

But, just as in the case of Metropolis, it is this absence of a fixed political agenda that also makes these films politically interesting. Just as the imagery of revolution in Metropolis has kept a hold over the collective imagination for a very long time, one might speculate that the reiteration of this imagery in recent blockbuster films speaks of a persistent political desire—not a nostalgia for a time when revolution was a viable political and historical possibility (as one might think in the light of the fact that the major Hollywood studios are largely run by baby boomers), but an expression of a sense of political dissatisfaction so intense that it manifests itself most potently in these simplistic, hyperbolic images. As useless as hyperbole and simplification might be for the creation of a practical political agenda, they are, nonetheless, rousing, moving, and inspiring. Historically inaccurate or not, the legitimization of revolution in these films can be seen as the ennobling of any kind of political resistance. In fact, the often criticized lack of subtlety and specificity in these films might keep them available for re-interpretation, long after their initial release and in geopolitical contexts other than those of their first intended audience. In the hands of an audience that will have to decide what ultimately to do with them, they might very well become, like Metropolis before them, part of the collective political mythology—telling the story of the permanent discrediting of the Bush administration.

Works Cited

Bizony, Piers. “Introduction.” Digital Domain: The Leading Edge of Visual Effects. New
York: Billboard Books, 2001. 9-11.
“Dis-Identity Politics,” k-punk blog, April 25, 2006, Accessed June 5, 2006.
Elsaesser, Thomas. Metropolis. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.
O’Reilly, Kevin. DVD Times, March 19, 2006.
Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town. New York: Scribner, 204. Stringer, Julian. “Introduction.” Movie Blockbusters. Ed. Julian Stringer. London/New
York: Routledge, 2003. 1-15.

There is a larger argument to be made eventually about the cinema of the Bush years. I assume that, in this argument, blockbuster films like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy will feature prominently as examples of pro-Bush films, arguing that just and necessary wars make genuine heroes out of ordinary people as they go up against absolute evil. Despite Republican grumbling about left wing or liberal Hollywood, major films during the last six years have supplied, wittingly or not, fictional endorsement of the Bush administration’s (foreign) policies.

David Leaf’s and John Scheinfeld’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) is a documentary that also uses this strategy, linking images of Richard Nixon with the image of George W. Bush by the caption “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” in its trailer.

These two films also mark the revival of older material as blockbuster. While I Robot is loosely based on Isaac Asimov material (stories dating back as far as the 1940s and the novel The Caves of Steel from 1953/4), The Island is draws strongly from Logan’s Run (1976).

This fact, that the cycle appears to be still in progress at the moment when this essay was written, imposes of course certain limitations on the argument. It is, therefore, to be seen more as a kind of speculative intervention into ongoing cinematic and political trends than as a definitive statement on a distinct historical moment, trading in the certainties of historical hindsight for, I hope, a higher degree of current relevance.

This positive attitude toward revolution distinguishes them from earlier science fiction blockbusters like Cameron’s Terminator films, in which the theme of rebellious technology—“The Rise of the Machines,” as the last of the three films is subtitled—is presented as a nightmare of unjustified revolution, experienced from the point of view of the victims of the new order.

Interestingly enough, Lucas started out as a filmmaker with a film about a failed uprising against a dystopian state, with THX-1138—not quite a film about revolution but thematically related to it.

Incidentally, Kazio Ishiguro’s novel Never Let me Go, which was published within the same time frame as the cinematic cycle I am discussing here, also employs cloning as a trope of exploitation, inscribing it into a historically displaced version of the British class system.

It is important to note that this discourse on class and the theme of misrecognizing one’s own exploitation--partly through the influence of the media, partly through political apathy--resembles that presented in the documentaries by Michael Moore or Achbar and Abbott. The also figures prominently in these documentaries. Obviously, the blockbuster films participate in a discourse they share with more politically and historically specific films, which, unlike the fantastic scenarios that dominate the blockbusters, target very specifically the Bush administration’s neoconservative agenda.

Pier Brizony’s statement that stands at the beginning of a large coffee table book celebrating Industrial Light and Magic strikes me as symptomatic, in its strident protest against the insidious effects of special effects technology on creativity, for the anxieties generated by the more industrial and technological forms of filmmaking: “One of the greatest misconceptions about modern movies is that visual effects are generated by computers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human inventiveness is the most important ingredient and it always will be. Computers offer amazing new possibilities, but the underlying challenges of movie illusions are the same today as they were nearly a century ago when the industry was young. People, not machines, drive the craft of visual effects” (Introduction, Digital Domain 9).

That this visual motif is not limited to the revolutionary blockbuster can be seen in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a blockbuster that deploys it in order to visualize military fantasies—the epic battle in which either an unleashed camera sweeps and careens past the actors (or their digital doubles) in impossibly rapid motions, or that is observed from a panoramic perspective that reduces armies to fluid or colloid masses flowing around natural obstacles and penetrating each other along the front line.

“ . . . critics, journalists, and scholars often claim an insidious superficiality and underlying awfulness for blockbusters, encouraging at the worst extreme blanket dismissals of some of the most popular forms of commercial cinema” (“Introduction, Stringer 1).