Popcorn and Politics: Hollywood's New Combo

There's a new trend in mainstream Hollywood cinema: Infusing politics into popcorn movies in the form of contemporary social issues. That it takes place in the least “serious” movie-going season, summer time, makes this phenomenon all the more peculiar.

Almost every film this season, and particularly the blockbusters, also functions as political allegory. The trend began with the very first summer movie to be released, Ridley Scott's religious epos, “Kingdom of Heaven,” and continued with the new episode of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” “Batman Begins,” “George A. Romero's Land of the Dead,” and Spielberg's “War of the Worlds.”

Politics used to be the domain of independent cinema, both features and documentaries, but no more. Each and every genre of Hollywood moviemaking is now imbued with political messages. They can be explicit or implicit, heartfelt or cynical, conscious and subconscious, but for those who care to look beyond the surface, the references are there.

Critics used to complain that Hollywood's subservience to the box-office and to image-conscious pressure groups has made it impossible for a satire to have an actual target, for wit to contain any truth. But this is no longer the case. It might have taken longer than anticipated for the 9/11 terrorist attacks to exert its influence on pop culture and dominant cinema, but the fact that most blockbusters are imbued with a dark tone is certainly attributable to that momentous catastrophe.

Film differs from other arts, such as music or painting. We don't question the ideology of composers and painters, although their works always have ideological implications. But in narrative films, we are concerned with whether the filmmakers are telling the truth as they see it, or whether they are manipulating, oversimplifying, and lying in order to serve their own purposes.

Mainstream American cinema doesn't exist anymore in a state of innocence, untouched by the world. Rather, it has political contents in its text or subtext, which could be conscious or unconscious, hidden or overt. But a more politicized mainstream cinema doesn't necessarily mean denying pleasure from viewers. It means that American movies have become more complex, nuanced and more multi-layered. The new blockbusters and popcorn movies are more subjective, more ambiguous, and more difficult to interpret.

Kingdom of Heaven

The era of “Kingdom of Heaven” offers many parallels to today's world in the way it depicts how the Christians and the Muslims have used and abused each other. The film uses historical events as a canvas on which to paint a human drama, choosing period of equilibrium between the Crusaders and the Muslims, in which a balance of power prevailed. The peace is maintained by Baldwin IV and Saladin, men who are both at odds with extremists within their respective camps. Kingdom of Heaven suggests that the Latin Kingdom has stood for hundred years, and that it's “mistakes” like greed, ambition, fanaticism that began to shake it.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

The final episode relates the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, a process that's placed against the changes of the benevolent Republic into an evil Empire. In his script, written in the 1970s, Lucas wanted to reflect how Caesar came to power in a sci-fi setting. At the time, Nixon was still in power and the Vietnam War still raging, two political events that influenced Lucas' thinking. He perceived the U.S. as a very powerful and technological force trying to take over a little country of peasants like Vietnam.

Much darker in tone and graver in subject than the previous installments, “Revenge of the Sith” was the first episode to be slapped with PG-13. If the first trilogy was bright and positive, the new one, particularly Episode III, is like a Greek tragedy. But despite the tragic spin, Revenge of the Sith ends with a more upbeat note.

The first prequel was about a young boy, and the second more of a love story between Anakin and Padme. The first trilogy released is the children's story, and this one is about the father, or rather about fathers and sons, and how one generation has to clean up after the other.

The different ideologies of the two trilogies reflect their disparate political contexts. The first trilogy, released during Jimmy Carter's and the first Reagan's administration, was a reassurance type of film because the political universe was one without ambiguity or failure. There was hope for political-cultural vindication through individual heroic action. The first “Star Wars” provided further reassurance in its childish tone, special effects, emphasis on the nuclear family, fear of fascism, and restoration of the order of the Father.

In contrast, the new, darker episode reflects the paranoia of American society during the Bush administration. It details arrogant military strategies, decline in democratic discourse, and rise of global totalitarianism, while disregarding individual civil rights. The running themes of “Revenge of the Sith” are concentration of power, greed, and corruption. You don't have to be a Freudian psychologist or sociologist to guess George Lucas' political agenda.

What unifies “Revenge” and gives it its arch are the two central transformations. The first is of Palpatine, from a benevolent and thoughtful Chancellor of a Democracy into the dictatorial and power-thirsty leader of the feared Galactic Empire. The second and more important transformation is that of the heroic Anakin, prophesized to be the Chosen One, the individual to bring balance to the Force and ensure peace in the galaxy, into the dreaded Darth Vader, the Emperor's right-hand man.

Batman Begins

In this telling, Bruce Wayne is haunted by the specter of his parents, gunned down before his eyes in the streets of Gotham on a night that changed his life forever. Tormented by guilt and anger, battling the demons that feed his desire for revenge and his need to honor his parents' altruistic legacy, the disillusioned industrial heir vanishes from Gotham and secretly travels the world, seeking the means to fight injustice and turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.

Given that Christopher Nolan's previous films (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) are imbued with noir sensibility and visuals, “Batman Begins” is dark, violent, and decidedly less campy than the previous Batmans. “Batman Begins” is film noir par excellence, with all the motifs that define this genre: guilt, pain, loss, impact of the past on the presence, and so on. This Batman is the most serious of the five films, and it begs the audience to take it seriously, too.

To portray the full arc of Bruce's story in a realistic manner, Nolan explores the complex psychology of the man behind the myth, or more specifically, the journey through which he becomes Batman. Since there isn't one definitive account of Batman's origins, Nolan and writer David Goyer take considerable liberty with characters and motivations. In recounting Bruce's odyssey from his traumatic childhood to his emergence as Batman, they present a more realistic take on his story than any seen in previous incarnations.

Conceptually, Nolan thinks of “Batman Begins” as an epic-adventure in the vein of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Man Who Would Be King, “Blade Runner,” and “James Bond, rather than “Spider-Man” or “The Hulk.” Nolan's psychologistic philosophy is applied to every aspect of the story, offering a logical explanation for everything that Bruce does.

Bruce returns to Gotham to find the city devoured by rampant crime and corruption. Wayne Enterprises, his family's former bastion of philanthropic business ideals, now rests in the hands of CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who's more concerned with taking the company public than serving the public good. Batman is a hero driven by negative impulses, a flawed hero, who has taken his self-destructive emotions and made something positive from them. Batman's ambitious quest to forge his mind and body into a living weapon against injustice inspires both fear and admiration. What distinguishes Batman from his counterparts is that he becomes a hero by mastering his own will power, through hard work and training.

Since everything is ripped away from him in a second, Bruce has to deal with intense guilt, anger, loneliness and confusion. Pained by what had happened, he leaves Gotham in search of answers on a never-ending journey. Battling with himself internally, he must continually assess his actions and control his demons, overcoming the pull toward self-destruction.

A complex character that exists on the edge between good and bad, Batman embodies the danger and ambiguity that can be channeled into something positive and powerful. He has a kind of intensity, a fire burning inside. The film's point is that Bruce is an ordinary man who has made himself extraordinary through determination and self-discipline.

Concerned with grounding Bruce's story in a recognizable reality, Nolan mixes elements of the mythology with his own interpretation through the theme of fear. The power of fear, in all its negative manifestations, becomes the film's dominant motif, one that strikes immediate relevancy with contemporary audiences. It also serves as the film's most intriguing ideas: A hero who must confront his innermost fear, and then attempts to become it. The bat is a personal symbol that induced fear in Bruce as a child. As an adult, it's a constant reminder of the night his parents were murdered and of his own guilt. When he returns to Gotham, the bat persona becomes the answer to his need for a disguise. Bruce uses it as a means to manipulate other people's fears, as well as master his own fear.

Land of the Dead

George A. Romero has made four zombie pictures, beginning with the landmark black-and-white “Night of the Living Dead,” and continuing with “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” Working with a bigger budget and a more recognizable name cast, Romero has made a stylish, self-conscious horror flick with strong political overtones.

In Romero's new vision, the world as we know it is a memory. In its place is the nightmare existence of the humans—the living—versus them, the “walkers.” What's left of mankind is cordoned off behind the walls of a fortified city, while the walking dead roam the surrounding wasteland. New premise is based on a gimmick: No place is safe from the zombies who might appear in mass numbers out of nowhere.

“Land of the Dead” brings to the surface the politics of social class. The few wealthy and powerful try to exert control and maintain an impression of life as it was. They dwell high above the city in the exclusive towers of Fiddler's Green, the last bastion of the ruling class. On the streets, below, however, the remaining majority of the city's inhabitants eke out a hard-scrabbled life, seeking solace in the vices still available to them, such as gambling and drugs. Both the lofty heights of Fiddler's Green and the demoralizing lows of the city below are controlled by a handful of ruthless opportunists, led by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper).

To bring food and essential supplies to the city's occupants and to allow the Green's well-to-do to acquire the scarce luxury items (to which they were once accustomed), a hardened group of mercenaries, headed by Riley (Simon Baker) and his second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo), run retrieval missions outside the city, protected by their armored vehicle, Dead Reckoning. Riley and Cholo are not more moral than Kaufman, since they are in it for the money, which they hope to use for personal pursuits.

While Kaufman and his employees concern themselves with commerce, life is changing both within and without the city's walls. Anarchic unrest is on the rise among the city's disenfranchised. Outside, the army of the dead is evolving, learning how to organize, communicate, and attack. When Cholo commandeers Dead Reckoning, intent on extorting millions out of Kaufman, Riley is called into action to stop Cholo and to protect the city and its population from the growing army of zombies.

What unifies Romero's zombie films is their function as a prism through which he explores current-day mores. Each film reflects its era's socio-political climate, but taken together, they represent one continuous story. “Land of the Dead” is set in a devastated world, where there's no electricity. Romero presents a critique of American society, where apathetic citizens ignore terrorism and other problems, pretending that if they ignore the issues, theyll simply disappear.

The social fabric is disintegrating, and civilization is falling apart, turning into small units that try to function on their own. In this world, the “heroes” are mercenaries, who go out into the dark side to bring back basic supplies, like food. Changes in the zombie characters also reflect political shifts. In “Land of the Dead,” the leader is a black man named Big Daddy, who, after witnessing yet another routine slaughter of a zombie, begins marching toward the city, signaling the other walkers to join in an ever-expanding army. In the first film, the zombies were stumbling, mindless creatures, whereas in the new installment, the zombies possess a slowly dawning consciousness and new organizational skills.

War of the Worlds

Spielberg's “War of the Worlds” is an apt companion piece to his first sci-fi feature, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” made in 1977. Both “Close Encounters” and “War of the Worlds” are big, noisy, meticulously crafted adventures, but they are vastly different in significant respects. Over the past three decades, a lot has happened to Spielberg the man and the filmmaker, Hollywood and American cinema, and the political world we live in.

The family as an institution is central to both stories, albeit in different ways. In “Close Encounters,” the family begins unified, but soon disintegrates when the father deserts—and is deserted—by his clan. In contrast, when the story of “War of the Worlds” commences, the family is already broken. It's established right away that Ray is an irresponsible and immature father, whose attitudes toward his children and the sacredness of the family need to change.

Both “Close Encounters” and “War of the Worlds” have explicit and implicit political messages that reflect the socio-cultural contexts in which they were made. Because Spielberg had such an optimistic view of the aliens, “Close Encounters” was not the cold panorama of space ships, gadgetry, and special effects that most sci-fi films are.

“Close Encounters” represents a desire for authoritative guidance in a culture lost in the complexities of the era. The Everyman hero Roy yearns to escape the confines of his domestic and civilized prison so that he can return to a golden age of childlike responsibility, where all the decisions are made for him. In contrast, Everyman Ray begins as a child-like irresponsible father, whose kids are more mature than he is.

In “Close Encounters,” the security offered by religion and domesticity is replaced by affinity with the world of childhood, belief in the magic of toys and Disney movies, and assurance of chosen status. There's a sense of assurance in the alien revelation that strengthens Roy against his loss of employment and separation from family. A tension is set up between the reactions of the adults and the child, and the resolution of the tension is by turning adults into children. By submitting to the alien presence, adults recapture the wonder and magic of lost childhood. The crowds at the highway, the cops, Roy, and even the investigators have a childish expression of adoration on their faces.

“Close Encounters” urges the viewers to believe that “we are not alone,” that there is no reason to fear the aliens because they represent a benevolent, well-meaning force. In “War,” the aliens are malicious and need to be destroyed for humankind to survive. In “Close Encounters,” the communication with the aliens is more desirable because it's based on musical notes and sign language-forms of universal communication. Human language is an ideological weapon and it creates barriers among people.

If “Close Encounters” is a Disneyland version of the American Dream, “War of the Worlds” is a darker account. In the new movie, Ray has been a lost child for too long, and he can't rely anymore on any other outside authority figure, let alone the aliens. Nonetheless, though “War of the Worlds” is more pessimistic than “Close Encounters,” its human message is more upbeat. In “Close Encounters,” Roy cannot achieve salvation or control his own destiny—he needs the interference of outside forces—whereas Ray's odyssey means achieving control and redemption through mastery of his own will.