Relevant Events & Art


Over on his blog, Mark Charan Newton talked briefly about the link between the Occupy movement and the upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, which seems to tap into the 99% idea with its recent trailer. I've got my doubts that a film of this magnitude would be directly influenced at the core by something that's happened: the Occupy movement has been around for around three months, and the film's timeline would predate that by a considerable amount of time. The marketing department, however, could certainly use the sudden relevancy of the issue and angle quite a bit of marketing towards that theme.

This has me thinking about the creation of films and art in general. Certainly, science fiction has a tendancy to be very relevant. Avatar and Moon in 2009 really took a stab at the state of environmentalism and energy consumption in the world, while this year's film In Time landed at the right moment, right when the Occupy movement started up a couple of months ago. These are big, societal issues, and if someone has their head to the ground, listening for what might come next, it's certainly easy to see some of these things happening down the road: the genre is a good place to examine such issues. While The Dark Knight Rises is already written, it's far from in the can: the next steps would be the post-production stage, where the editing shapes the footage into a regular, finished product, and I would be not at all surprised if some of the events in the tale end of 2011 will help to shape the film that we'll see next July.

Science Fiction is a relative genre, and often, the films that really last the longest are the ones that seem to retain a certain amount of relevancy the longest: films like Soylant Green, Silent Running or Outland are perfectly watchable, interesting films that hold up considerably well in the present moment, because they really carry messages that resonate: environmentalism, corporations running amok, and bleak futures, all of which we're seeing in full force in the present day. Certainly, the fact that the film Moon has drawn upon some of these films and become a critical success in the last couple of years is testament to that.

It would be facinating to take some of the politically charged films from the 1970s, go to the raw footage and recut and re-edit the film with the current context of today in mind to help shape the story. In all likelihood, I'm guessing that the films wouldn't change that much: the points those films made then are the same or similar now. Similarly, it would be interesting to take the footage that's been shot from The Dark Knight Rises and have it cut back in June 2011, and to compare the final product next year. How different would it be?

Soylent Green

My girlfriend and I have begun a sometimes-weekly thing, where we'll pick out an old science fiction film and watch it, a sort of date night in. A while ago, I solicited my Facebook networks for a list of such movies that I needed to watch; the list grew immensely, and ever since, I've been picking up a lot of these older films as I find them. I've found a couple thus far: Planet of the Apes, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Alien(s), Omega Man, Logan's Run and recently, Soylent Green.

I had picked this film up, because it was on sale, but also because it has coined one of the absolute classic phrases in the genre: "Soylent Green is people!", screamed at the end of the film by the lead star, Charlston Heston, after he discovers the truth about the food that people have been eating all along. Most of these films, I've found, have been highly entertaining ones, watched simply for their status in the genre. But with Soylent Green, I found, there's a very relevant message in the film: when people and nature compete, mankind will do what it takes to win, even if by winning, mankind turns to somewhat drastic things in order to continue to survive.

Oddly, I was somewhat reminded of one of my favorite (and frequently mentioned) books, The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both works feature near-future societies, where human populations have overrun their natural food supplies, and in a large way, are dependent upon larger companies to feed the larger population. The Windup Girl does this in a sophisticated, modern manner, while Soylent Green demonstrates the food shortages in a particularly excellent scene when Heston's character, Thorn, confiscates a stash of food from a rich murder victim's apartment, bringing it home for his elderly friend Sol.

At the onset of the film, set in 2022, the Soylent Corporation is the leading manufacturer of processed food, and is the only thing between the starving, overcrowded New York City, and total chaos of a hungry mob. Introduced is Soylent Green, created from plankton, which is rationed out to the people in the streets. Investigating the murder of William Simonson, Thorne discovers (from a report in Simonson's home) that the oceans have become depleted, and that the man had been a prominent member of the food company. The murder trail leads to a horrible conclusion: unable to cope with a vanishing resource, the company began to take dead people, and processed them as the namesake foodstuff. Unable to cope with what the company had been doing, Simonson arranged his own death.

At the heart of the action and dystopia that is presented, the film is an excellent cautionary tale, one that has an exceptionally well thought-out world that is frighteningly realistic. Recently, Charles Stross wrote an interesting blog post about the number of people that it would take to maintain the current level of society. Where most of everything that we do is supported in high percentages, from the design of the cars that we drive to the medicine that keeps us alive. When it comes to food, he notes that in the 1900s, it took around twenty to thirty percent of the work force to provide food for the entire population. Now, however, it takes .5 to 1% of the population, with an additional couple or percentage points to distribute it all, to do the very same thing. Just go to your grocery store and look at what is available at  your arm's length to see the variety of food. The logistical elements that go into creating everything there is enormous, automated and the nightmare of every green-eco activist who advocates for a clean living. With the preservatives, chemicals and emissions from cows that go into the whole process, there's a major impact to the world around us that just isn't visible to the average consumer. This makes the entire process far more scary, and in my mind, brings us quite closer to the worlds that have been presented in these sorts of bio-punk stories.

As climate change occurs and becomes more noticeable, it's likely that the science fiction genre will begin to look far more closely at this sort of science and dystopian future as a means of creative origin. Already, it's fairly easy to point to Bacigalupi's fiction, but in other venues, such as Lightspeed Magazine, there's already been a story about a similar future, and as these stories will undoubtedly become true, it's entirely likely that a lot of these authors will see their stories come true, in some form.

I don't think that I'd like to see the overpopulated world of Soylent Green or of The Windup Girl. The huge numbers of people, competing for food, and at the mercy of the food corporations is a frightening vision of the future, but in some ways, it's already becoming reality.