Awhile back I caught this amateur music video that a certain anime/heavy metal fan managed to make. Not only was it an awesome visual experience, but I found that it masterfully mixed two of the most awesome things ever! You had scenes from the landmark anime Akira with “No Leaf Clover” by Metallica. What’s not to like?
Finally, I’ve found it! After much searching and digging, I finally found my way to the lasergun from the Akira movie. And I got to say, between anime, live action, and the gaming world, this weapon is about the most realistic take on a lasergun I’ve yet to see. Used initially by military forces in Neo-Tokyo to stop Tetsuo (unsuccessfully, I might add), the protagonist Kaneda would later use one as his personal weapon.
Powered by a portable battery pack, this weapon would fire a lancing beam of focused energy at its targets. In addition to being able to cut through metal and concrete, it was also capable of hewing off limbs. And it did too! Seriously, that scene where the army opens fire on the mob, ick and whoa in equal parts!
Even thought I didn’t think the movie was that hot, these guns did inspired to learn more about coilguns, gauss rifles and EM technology. Known as the EM-1, this weapon was a prototype railgun that was featured in the movie Eraser. Basically, it was this advanced technology that set up the plot, and provided Arny with an excuse to do some Terminator-style double firing!
Running on the concept of a coilgun, the EM-1 would use a super-charged magnetic tube to accelerate a caseless slug to hypersonic velocities. This gave it incredible punch as well as range, and could eviscerate man, machine and solid matter with ease. An x-ray scope was also attached to let the gunner see through solid objects, which was handy considering that this weapon was designed to punch through obstacles and kill whatever was on the other side.
Guitar Case Rocket Launcher:
Here’s a movie I never expect to take anything from. Desperado, the Mexican western-style shoot-em-up directed by Robert Rodriquez, featured a lot of cool guns. But in the end, I’d have to say the coolest were the ones sported by his band members, which came embedded in their guitar cases. Where one man relied on cases that had built-in automatic weapons, the other fired rockets out the front!
I’ve looked it up and can’t find any info on how they rigged this case to do this. Probably just a launch tube and some fire crackers. But it was still pretty cool, and not entirely ludicrous either. Assuming you don’t mind ruining a few guitar cases, this weapon would probably make a great conversation piece and its owner a hit at parties!
Ah, my favorite of the bunch! Known as Joshua, this BFG is named in honor of the Hebrew warrior who led the Israelites to victory over the Caananites, in brutal, genocidal fashion! It’s essentially a massive long slide, chambered for the mighty .454 Casull round which is used primarily for hunting wild game. BIG wild game!
In Alucard’s case, the gun was also fitted with silver-tipped bullets for hunting vampires and demons. So in addition to packing a massive punch, it could also turn the undead into ash with a single blast. And of course, Alucard’s super-human strength gave him the ability to endure the weapon’s massive kickback!
What do you know, it’s two for one day! Here we have Alucard’s second gun of choice, known as the Jackal. Officially, it’s known as the ARMS 13mm (.51 cal.) Anti-freak pistol, and in many ways represented a step-up from the earlier Joshua. Also produced by Walter, the Hellsing organization’s own gunsmith, this weapon was made in response to Alucard’s request for something “bigger”.
And that’s precisely what he got! In addition to having less kickback than its predecessor and firing spent casing to the left (so as not to obscure Alucard’s view of the target), this gun also fired 13mm (.51 cal) bullets and came in a sleek, black gunmetal design. In addition, it also had the words “Jesus Christ is in heaven” scrawled on the side, no doubt a comical reference to the man Alucard intended to use it on!
Is it a gun, it is a blade? Well… yes. The property of Squall Leonheart, from Final Fantasy VIII, this weapon is basically a stainless steel broadsword with an inset .44 magnum revolver. Firing this gun off in the midst of a sword fight not only has the potential to punch a big hole in the enemy, it also produces a wild vibration in the blade that makes it cut even better.
Much like Cloud’s Blade from FF VII, it is heavily oversize, though not as much. Though even the designer claimed that it had an “odd appearance” in hindsight, and the configuration makes it look a little unwieldy, you can’t deny that its pretty damn cool!
Prosthetic Leg Gun:
Now here’s a novel take on both movie guns and prosthetics! Taken from the movie Planet Terror, is essentially a Bushmaster Carbine with the addition of an M203A1 grenade launcher.
This gun made its appearance when the character Wray gives Cherry Darling (played by Rose McGowan) the assault rifle grenade launcher combination as a replacement for her prosthetic leg. She put it to good use, alternately kicking and blowing bad guys away with it!
The Robocop franchise was nothing if not good at popularizing cool guns! And this one was no exception. Known as the P50, this .50 cal semi-automatic sniper rifle was featured repeatedly throughout the film. Intended as a shout out to the “Cobra Assault Rifle” from the first movie, this weapon had the same things going for it, namely explosive, punchy firepower!
It’s first appearance was during the robbery of the gun store at the beginning. It later appeared in the hands of some of Cain’s thugs who used it to blow Robocop’s hand off during his initial confrontation with the crime boss. It was then used by those same thugs later on Robocain himself. Robocop then confiscated it and used it against Robocain during their final confrontation. With one clean hit, he managed to destroy Cain’s autocannon’s with this baby. Always great when accuracy and firepower come together!
Named in honor of the fact that it puts monsters out of their misery, Hellboy named this one “The Samaritan”. Although the caliber is not listed, the bullets appear to be at least one inch (25mm or 1.00 cal) in diameter, glass tipped, and filled with holy water.
In addition, the construction of the gun is heavily consistent with the name. The metal is forged from a combination of Irish church bells, cold iron from crucifixes, blessed silver, and other mystic metals. The handle wood of the grips is believed to be that of the cross of which Jesus Christ was crucified on. Holy religiosity Batman!
It weighs ten pounds, making it double effective as an impact hammer. And of course, the size of the gun also gives it a kickback which would be capable of breaking a regular man’s hand off. Hence, nobody but Hellboy even takes it out for an evening of monster killing!
Wow, a third installment! Did NOT see that one coming. And I’m really trying to get off this guns and robots kick, I swear! I’ll be back tomorrow with something else… maybe!
Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!
A Clockwork Orange:
This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.
In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!
The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…
Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.
Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.
As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!
A Scanner Darkly:
Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.
Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?
For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.
In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!
In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!
And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.
How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…
In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.
To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…
Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.
Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!
But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.
A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.
Children of Men:
Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.
What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.
In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.
Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.
For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.
In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.
Ghost in the Shell:
Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).
Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.
In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.
However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.
As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.
Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.
In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.
The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.
Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.
A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.
This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).
The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.
In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…
In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.
Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.
The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!
Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.
But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!
*Interesting Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?
Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.
In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.
This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.
Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!
But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?
Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.
Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?
Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…
Here’s a cult classic you don’t hear about often. But that’s the way of cult classics, isn’t it? You never hear about them until you stray into the fan community and they insist that you have to see it. You finally do and then maybe, just maybe, you yourself become an accolade. Once that happens, you might eventually become aware of the community of fans that’s out there – most likely they have an internet fansite going – they spread the word and make sure the movie is listed as a “sleeper hit” or a “hidden gem”.
Yeah, that’s about how I came to see the movie Strange Days. I can remember when it came out back in 95, how little fanfare and attention it got and how briefly it was in theaters. In fact, I didn’t even hear about it again until recently when it turned up on somebody’s top ten lists of the best sci-fi movies. Upon further investigation, I found that this movie made it onto a lot of people’s lists, even a few professional ones. And since I committed to covering sci-fi cult-classics awhile back, I thought I’d check this one out. And, I am pleased to say, I was pretty impressed.
In spite of being well-received by critics, this movie did quite poorly at the box office. Surprising, considering the all-star cast and the fact that James Cameron co-wrote and produced the thing. And when I stay all-star, I mean all-star! Ray Fiennes, Angela Basset, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Michael Winscott all had main roles in this movie (this last guy you may remember as the creepy villain from The Crow, and every other movie he’s ever done for that matter!)
However, as is often the case, the movie went on to attract a cult following who enjoyed the movies cyberpunk elements, its millennial theme and dark, paranoid feel. And with few exceptions, the acting and delivery was quite good. Ray Fiennes excels at being the sleazy but redeemable huckster, Basset as his concerned and beleaguered friend, and Winscott as the creepy, paranoid control-freak. Juliet Lewis came off as a little labored, but then again, her dialogue was kind of the cheesy, looks good on paper stuff. Still, she manages to pull off the abused, damaged damsel quite convincingly (draw whatever inference you will from that ;)).
In addition, the movie did a good job of capturing that pervasive sense of millennial madness that was beginning to manifest around the early-mid nineties. While things like the Y2K virus quickly became a cliche, especially after they proved baseless, the years leading up to the millennium were not without their share of fears, concerns and a general sense of imminence. Many people, both religious and secular, predicted doom, thinking the world would end. Others predicted a sort of social cataclysm, that mobs and rioters would take to the streets and begin looting, especially if all the grids went down. But most, I think, were just worried that the madness and hysteria would be self-fulfilling, that some riots and crackdowns might happen before everyone realized that the world wasn’t ending.
Also, the technological aspects of this movie were quite interesting. Mainly, they centers on a form of virtual entertainment known as the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a device which can record and playback events directly from the wearers cerebral cortex. This predicted the internet phenomena in many ways, the concept of “viral videos” and snuff films being the main plot device in the story. And one of the major events in the movie, the murder of an outspoken hip-hop artist and the controversy surrounding it, predicted the death of Tupac Shakur, which took place around a year later.
The movie opens on the last days of December, 1999. Violent crime and gang warfare are getting out of control, and in the midst of all this, a major recording artist and activist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) is killed. Meanwhile, a woman is being chased by two policemen, played by Vicent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner, who clearly want to kill her. Seems she saw something and was wearing a SQUID at the time, and when she gets away, the policemen retrieve the device and realize she got it all on tape (disc, whatever!).
Meanwhile, we meet Lenny Nero (Ray Fiennes), a former LAPD officer who has since turned to the world of contraband and sleaze, selling SQUID tapes to anyone looking for a break from reality or themselves. However, Nero has a rule that he never sells “blackjacks” (i.e. snuff films), because he considers himself a purveyor of experiences, not a peddler of smut! His friends, Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Basset) and Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) are also former LAPD officers who have since retired. Mason now does private security while Justin is a private eye. They don’t approve of what Nero does, but stick by him because of their friendship, and in Mason’s case, feelings of unrequited love.
Things begin to unfold when the woman who was being chased, named Iris (Brigette Bako), finds Nero at a bar. She claims someone is trying to kill her and has to flee, but that she recorded the entire thing on a disc and dropped it in his car. However, his car is soon towed and he’s unable to figure out what she was talking about. Shortly thereafter, a “blackjack” is dropped off at his house that shows someone killing her. Nero is freaked, especially since when he last saw her, Iris also told him that their mutual friend and Nero’s former lover, Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), is in danger as well. This presents Nero with an opportunity to see her, only to be told by her and her manager that he’s not wanted. In between telling him that they are through, Justin is sure to relate that she’s also afraid because her manager, Philo Gant (Michael Winscott), is becoming increasingly paranoid and controlling. Spurned, Nero shows Mason and Peltier the blackjack and they are similarly shocked.
Shortly thereafter, Nero and Mason go to pick up his car so they can see what Iris dropped off and run into the same two officers who were chasing Iris earlier. They narrowly escape them and then view the tape, where it shows these same officers murdering Jeriko in cold blood. Shortly thereafter, Nero finds his supplier, Tick (Richard Edson), dead from an overdose of the SQUID. It looks like an accident, but Peltier suspects foul play since what appears to be an isolated case of murder might have something to do with a larger conspiracy he’s been hearing about. According to Peltier, there is a militant movement coming from City Hall and the LAPD who are determined to bring the city under control, even if it involves death squads! Because Jeriko was a major activist who was bringing the gangs of LA together to reign in the LAPD and the cities politicians, these squads would have been targeting him.
They then go to pick up Faith who is at a New Years party being hosted Philo. She reveals to them that she knows what going on, that Philo has become a total “wirehead” (i.e. SQUID-addict), who’s in the habit of having his artists followed because of his increasing paranoia. Iris was his mole and was tailing Jeriko, and was therefore with him when he was murdered. When she showed the tape to Philo, he feared for his business, beat her up, burnt the tape and told her killer where to find her. However, she made a copy in advance which she then put in Nero’s car. They now understand why Faith was afraid and trying to keep Nero away. Clearly, she feared for her life as well and didn’t want him getting involved. They all agree they should release the tape, but both Peltier and Nero worry about the impact it will have – i.e. a full-scale war between the gangs and the LAPD.
However, their rescue attempt is thwarted as Philo and his thugs intervene. Faith is then taken to his suite where she expects to die. After arguing and regrouping, Nero and Mason decide to attempt to rescue her again. Meanwhile, the streets are filled with people celebrating, rioting, and signs boasting “2K”. In the midst of the rowdy chaos, Mason and Nero manage to sneak into Philo’s party, Nero attempts to rescue Faith while Mason confronts the police commissioner and slips him the disk. Mason gets into Philo’s suite but finds him dead, and that Peltier, his friend, is the one who killed him. Seems he and Faith have been having an affair, and that HE was the one who murdered Iris and sent the tapes to Nero. He also confesses that the whole conspiracy theory was just his way of keeping Nero away from the authorities. In the end, it was all just a “traffic stop gone wrong”.
While this might seem like a letdown, I actually preferred it to the alternative. Rather than there being some big conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the real motivating factor in all this was just random violence. And it is for this reason that Peltier did what he did. In a world as messed up as theirs, he believes what matters most is getting what you can before you’re murdered senselessly. In any case, Faith comes in and distracts him long enough for Nero to get the upper hand and they fight. Nero gets a knife in his back (symbolic since his friend betrayed him) but manages to toss Peltier from the balcony in the end.
Down below, Mason has been forced to flee the party when the two crooked officers spot her and begin chasing her through a crowd. She subdues them, but then is set upon by several riot cops. She is cornered and beaten, and it looks like its all over until a number of people in the crowd decide to help her out. A big fight, symbolic of the war they were anticipating, begins, but is broken up when the commissioner arrives and reveals he’s seen what’s on the disc. The two officers are arrested, one eats his gun while the other – D’Onofrio, in true psychotic form – tries to shoot Basset and is gunned down!
The movie ends with the New Year being rung in. Yes, in spite of the shooting, several deaths and a near riot, the countdown happens as planned and people cheer. Ah whatever, it’s New Year’s right? No sense letting a few fatalities ruin the biggest party of the millennium. Everyone is merry, people kiss (even some riot troops and civilians), and of course, Nero and Mason hook up! Seems he’s finally taken the hint and broken it off with Faith who, let’s face it, is more trouble than she’s worth. War is averted, the New Year arrives without the apocalypse, and there’s resolution all around!
Overall, I can see why this movie was a cult hit and why it didn’t do so well in theaters. For one, it wasn’t the usual big-budget splashy action flick Cameron is famous for, and it didn’t have a faithful marketing effort behind it. And that’s to be expected from a noire, cyberpunk thriller such as this, studios just don’t seem to know how to peddle and pigeon hole it. However, given its obvious depth and signs of quality, I think it was inevitable that audiences would take notice of it, adding it to their lists of favorites alongside movies like Blade Runner and Akira.
For one, the movie managed to capture, years in advance, the feeling of paranoia that surrounded the actual millennium. Ultimately, these fears proved to be baseless (just like in the movie!), which was one of the things I found subtly brilliant here. Long before the myth of Y2K began to circulate, it was easy to see how people would treat the millennium with a certain degree of paranoia. The religiously minded would fear that the apocalypse was at hand, the paranoid would expect riots, and others believed the world’s infrastructure to all go down! But of course, the clock struck twelve… and nothing happened. And, the plot where a hip-hop artist/activist is murdered in many ways predicted the feelings of loss and suspicion that followed Tupac’s death. Many of his die-hard fans continue to say he was assassinated, some even that he’s still alive!
In addition, the concept of VR technology and human experience was explored in depth and I found this very effective as well. On the one hand, the SQUID technology is just like a drug, something people do to escape their daily lives. On the other, there’s a lot of time dedicated to showing how something like this would have a negative impact on people’s memories and experiences by depriving them of authenticity. On several occasions, Nero is criticized for not being able to let go of the past, mainly because he keeps reliving it with his SQUID. The character of Mason says at one point that memories are meant to fade. Ergo, reliving his old experiences is depriving him of the ability to move on.
But what was best was the twist at the end. Ultimately, the threat came from close to home rather than from death squads or in the form of some big, shadowy conspiracy. All along, the characters are moving about thinking that they are witnesses to an assassination and that they can’t trust the authorities. But in the end, it turns out that the “assassination” was just a random act of violence – albeit with disastrous consequences if it went public – and that it’s their best friend they can’t trust. All of this is in keeping with the central theme and setting of the movie, which again, is millennial madness and an impending set of doom, all of which proves baseless in the end.
Movies like this one remind me that Cameron had a keen mind and some pretty cool ideas way back when. So… what happened? How did he go from Aliens, T2 and Strange Days to “I’m king of the world” and “Unobtainium”? Was it the money? Must be the money. Screws up everything!
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (admittedly, not the funnest movie around)
Hello, and welcome to my updated review list. After many, many reviews and plenty of change-ups in the lineup, I decided it was time to revise my master playlist. I do this mainly for the sake of being succinct, seeing as how I put up three in the last two months. The first was dedicated to initial ideas for reviews, the second to all the ones I forgot, and a third for animes that I realized were being neglected. There was also the constant need to go back and alter these lists so that I could indicate which reviews were covered and when. So to simplify things, here is my new master list, with the titles that have already been covered listed first with the date of their review provided. As usual, I will try to stick to this lineup, but some of the later ones might be brought forward if it seems like its taking too long to get to them.
Enjoy! Oh, and fyi, suggestion are still welcome!
1. Terminator: Salvation – July 7th
2. Independence Day – July 9th
3. Blade Runner – July 10th
4. Alien franchise (movies 1 through 4) – July 10th, July 11th…
5. Dune (1984, and the 2000 miniseries) – July 14th, 16th, and 18th
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey – July 21st
10. Starship Troopers – July 28th
11. Akira – Aug. 2nd
12. The Terminator franchise (movies 1 through 3) – Aug. 7th, Aug. 13th…
13. Equilibrium – Aug. 14th
14. The Star Wars prequels – Aug. 24th and 25th
15. The Matrix Trilogy – Sept. 4th, 11th, and 17th
16. Strange Days – Oct. 18th
17. Ghost in the Shell
18. V for Vendetta – Oct. 21st
19. Avatar – Sept. 29th
20. District 9
21. I, Robot – Sept. 27th
22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
23. 28 Days Later – Oct. 28th
24. Ninja Scroll
25. A Clockwork Orange
26. Predator franchise (1, 2, and Predators)
27. Screamers (first in the Philip K Dick lineup)
30. A Scanner Darkly
31. The Adjustment Bureau (finishing off the PKD segment)
32. Lord of the Rings (like I said, some fantasy will slip in, and allowances must be made for such classics!)
33. Willow (another fantasy honorable mention)
34. Solaris (the original and the Soderberg remake) – thanks to Tom Sharp for the suggestion!
37. Princess Mononoke
38. Vampire Hunter D.
40. Children of Men
41. The Watchmen – Oct. 12th
42. Tron (original, and Legacy)
44. Twelve Monkeys
45. Iron Man
It’s funny, just yesterday I was putting the finishing touches on my review of Akira when I realized something. When addressing the topic of Anime, I could only come up with three titles that I’d ever seen: Akira (naturally!), Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D. I therefore concluded that I was a bad geek for it. However, in going through a list of the top animated movies of all time, I found myself remembering title after title that were in that list. First there was Princess Mononoke, then Perfect Blue, and more recently, Ghost in the Shell and Metropolis. And while they didn’t make any Top Animated Movie lists, there’s also Fist of the North Star (bleck!) and Legend of the Overfiend (I didn’t know it was a violence-porn movie going in, I swear!) These are certainly prime examples of Anime, though not all are decent movies (especially Overfiend!). And with only one exception they all fall under into the category of sci-fi/fantasy. And I’ve seen em, which, if I’m not mistaken, negates what I said earlier…
Yes, as it turns out, I’m a geek, and a big one at that! I mean, how many people can honestly say they’re not geeks when they’ve sat through this many Animes? It helps if you have geek friends who are also film buffs, the latter being the only other demographic that I could think of that’d spend this much of their spare time watching animated films (or waste, depending on your point of view).
With this in mind, I want to revise my most recent review list to make room for some of these titles. With the possible exception of Perfect Blue (since it was a film adaptation of a novel about celebrity and stardom, good one too!) I will be adding all of these titles to the list. Perhaps I will make it a special segment, sci-fi/fantasy Anime, beginning with:
1. Akira (reviewed on Aug.2nd, and followed by:
2. Ghost in the Shell
3. Ninja Scroll
5. Princess Mononoke, finishing up with:
6. Vampire Hunter D.
And… God forgive me, I think I’ll even dedicate a review or two to the cheesy Fist of the North Star and the insanely gratuitous Legend of the Overfiend, if only to warn aspiring geeks and existing ones who haven’t seen them yet what to avoid. Trust me, you’re missing nothing by skipping these!
In the meantime, geeks of the world unite! Anime! Nerdasm! Birkenstocks! (Not particularly geeky, they just make a fine product!)
I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a lot of Anime. I know, that probably makes me a bad geek. But what can I say? You gotta be into that kind of thing and apparently, I’m not. But over the years, I’ve managed to find a few titles that I did like. Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, and – best of all – Akira! Yes, not only was this the best piece of Anime I’ve ever seen, it managed to tell a story that still intrigues me years later. Not long ago, I watched it for what felt like the umpteenth time and found that it I still get wrapped up by its stunning visual effects, existential ideas, and its post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk theme. I tell ya, the animators spared no expense when it came to visuals, and the story-writing and direction was reminiscent of Kubrick in a lot of ways. Much of what is happening is shown, not told, and those watching it might therefore feel the need to see it more than once. But enough gushing, time to get to the review!
The movie Akira was actually based on the Manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also brought in to direct the movie. The movie condensed the storyline of the six original Manga novels, but kept all of the major themes and plot elements. Much like the comic, the movie is set in Neo-Tokyo, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future city where biker gangs rule the streets and an authoritarian government is hiding secrets about human experiments. It was well received by critics when it was first released in 1988 and has gone to become one of the top-rated animated movies of all time, and of course it attracted a cult following in the process. However, there were also some critics who panned it, claiming that it did a poor job of condensing six volumes of Manga into one two hour movie and cut corners in the process (fans of the Dune series can no doubt relate!) These critics tended to be in the minority though, with fans and critics alike hailing the end product for its visual style, its imaginings of a dark future, and its attention to detail. I, if it hasn’t been made clear already, am one of them!
The movie opens on a silent, birds-eye view of Tokyo in 1988, right before it is vaporized by what looks like a nuclear attack. The entire city is engulfed in light and things white out. The scene then changes to an orbital view, where the white light fades and we see what look like thermal images of Tokyo harbor. The white turns to red, which turns to blue, and the outline of a new city, build on the ashes of the old, appears. And then, a close up on the massive crater that was Tokyo and the name in big red letters… AKIRA! What is awesome about this scene is that there is virtually no sound at the beginning. You hear what sounds like a strong wind, but that’s all until the title rolls and a caption tells us that the setting is Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after WWIII. When the sound rolls, its just a series of loud, metallic pangs that chill you to your bones! An effective opening, conveying a sense of apocalypticism and dread, punctuating the visuals and making it clear that more horror and fright are on the way!
We then move to the streets of Neo-Tokyo where we meet the main characters of Shotoro Kaneda, the leader of a Bosozoku biker gang, and his buds. They’re up to their usual thing, battling the Clowns (a rival gang) and making a big mess of the streets in the process. Meanwhile, student and civilian protests are taking place not far away and the riot police are out in full force trying to contain them, shooting them with tear gas canisters and beating them with truncheons. In between all this, a man who is clearly a member of some underground cell is running through the streets and trying to stay ahead of the police. With him is a small boy who he appears to be rescuing, and we can tell he’s no ordinary child because his skin is blue! The resistance man is then shot when they run into the riot police’s barricade, and the boy gives us a preview of some freaky powers when he screams and shatters all the windows in the area, sending everybody running. In the crowd, a young girl and an older man are watching, themselves members of this same underground, and become perplexed when they see the blue boy disappear.
We go back to Kaneda and his biker gang, who appear to have routed the Clowns and are now chasing them down. Tetsuo, the obvious runt of the litter, gets seperated as he tries to chase down too Clowns, and ends up running into the blue-skinned boy. A mere second before impact, the boy freaks out again and Tetsuo’s bike explodes, sending him into the pavement. Kaneda and the others show up just in time to see him wounded but not killed, and the blue boy as well who’s appearance shocks them. Military choppers and shadowy figures show up seconds later, with some big mustached Colonel and an older, blue-skinned person leading them. The boy is taken away, the elder one scolding him for trying to get into the outside world where they don’t belong. Tetsuo is taken as well, with Kaneda and the rest unable to help because they are at gunpoint and face down on the asphalt.
This sets off the three intertwining plot elements that make up the movie. One the one hand, we have Kaneda and his friends trying to find Tetsuo, all the while trying to survive in the hostile environment that is Neo-Tokyo. We have the resistance looking to get back into some government facility so they can free these blue-skinned kids – known as the Espers, clearly the subject of experiments and covert activities. And we have the Colonel, who’s running said facility, overseeing the experiments on these individuals, and trying to figure out what to do with Tetsuo. It becomes clear after just a few scenes that his exposure to this small child is changing him, in the psionic sense, and now they must figure out what to do about it. While he presents an interesting phenomena, a normal person changed through accidental exposure, there are hints that this chance encounter could bring disaster.
In between all this, we get numerous snapshots of what life is like in the post-apocalyptic city, and all of it is interesting and awesome. The police are overworked trying to control a population that is beginning to become unruly after the shock and horror of a nuclear holocaust and the push to rebuild. The public school system is clogged with orphans who’s parents died in the war and who have to turn to biker gangs and deviant behavior to express themselves. And behind it all, there is the shadowy government project being run by the Colonel, who is haunted by the visions the blue kids are showing him and a name which might be a person, a phenomena, or both… Akira! At one point, in a scene that is both expository and foreshadowing, we are shown an underground facility where a massive cryogenic unit sits and waits. As they inspect it, the Colonel is reminded of conversations he had with the resident scientist about the children could be the next phase in evolution, how it is frightening, and how he fears for the city. In any case, we see a name on the big cryogenic unit… AKIRA! Whoever or whatever this is, its clear that the blue kids are related, and that the war itself might have had something to do with it.
At about this time, Tetsuo manages to escape from the military facility. He finds his girlfriend, Kaori, steals Kaneda’s bike, and makes plans with her to get out of the city. Unfortunately, some Clowns find them and begin beating the crap out of them. Luckily, Kaneda and his buds were on their tale and manage to intervene, but clearly something’s wrong. In the course of taking his revenge on one of the Clowns, Tetsuo begins to lose it. When they try to stop him, he starts to lose it and says that someday he’ll show all of them (case of foreshadowing here). To make matters worse, he starts experiencing intense migraines and has apocalyptic visions. He sees the city crumbling, his body falling apart, and hears the name Akira ringing like a shrill bell in his mind. And, wouldn’t you know it, the military shows up again and hauls him away! It seems that whatever is happening to Tetsuo is beyond his control, and naturally, his friends are even more determined now to find him and figure out what’s going on.
Paralleling this, we get a scene where one of the government bureaucrats is meeting with the leader of the resistance. The two watch a public protest where a religious cult begins burning TV’s and other “decadent” possessions, calling forth the name of Akira as some sort of messianic prophet and saying that the time for atonement has come. The bureaucrat explains how this is a sign, how the city is saturated and begiinning to rot like “an overripe fruit”, and how Akira is the seed that will soon fall and grow into a new order (clever metaphor). We are still not sure who or what Akira is at this point, but its clear that whoever or whatever it is, everyone is looking to it for deliverance. The resistance and their bureaucratic ally want it to pave the way to the future, the government wants to keep it under wraps, and the people on the streets see it as the name of the messiah. Real cool! From all of this, we see that at all levels of society, the name Akira is a secretive, powerful, and dangerous thing.
Along the way, Kaneda finds out about the resistance and begins making common cause with them. This begins when he notices that a particular young woman named Kei, whom he is obviously infatuated with, has a way of showing up repeatedly wherever and whenever shit is going down. At first, he was just trying to nail her; but in time, he comes to realize that she is part of an underground cell that is looking to expose a government secret, the same one that Tetsuo is now part of. They agree that they can help each other, mainly because she and her friends can get inside the facility and she is sympathetic with Kaneda’s desire to save his friend. Eventually, they succeed, but their attempt at a rescue coincides with another, scarier development.
In the facility, Tetsuo is still changing, and the process is getting beyond all control. His psionic abilities are reaching dangerous proportions, and he wants answers! He has come to see that there are others like him (the Espers), which happens after a psychedelic episode where the children enter his room in the guises of childhood toys and transform them into nightmarish creatures that try to devour him. It’s not quite clear why they do this, perhaps they grew scared of him and wanted to put him in his place. It is clear to them from their visions of a catastrophic future that Tetsuo is a threat, so perhaps this was their way of telling him to behave. In any case, this scene is nothing short of art! At once nightmarish, hallucinogenic and psychedlic, it manages to intrigue, creep out and terrify, in that order. And, ironically but fittingly, it ends when Tetsuo accidentally cuts himself and the children are terrified by the site blood and flee. However, Tetsuo is now angry and abundantly aware that he is not alone. He sees in his mind’s eye where the Esper’s nursery is, and sets out to find it, them, and the answers he seeks.
In the process, a number of attendees and guards try to stop him, but he makes short work of them all. Yes, Tetsuo has come to understand that whatever is changing him has given him some freaky powers, including the power to kill with a simple thought. As he walks along the hallway, he kills numerous people in sick and ugly ways, a clear indication of his descent into madness and a preview of what’s to come. Once he reaches the blue kids’ nursery, they begin fighting it out with their crazy mind powers, and the effects used to illustrate this are not just cool, they’re crazy! One really gets the sense of the psychic and psychotic; music, effects and dialogue all coming together to intrigue and scare the viewer! In the course of all this, Tetsuo gleams a name from their minds. Seems their is another like them, someone who is even more powerful than the Espers and Tetsuo combined. Tetsuo wants to find this person, this… Akira! He even manages to get the location from their minds before they are interrupted.
That interruption comes in the form of Kaneda and Kei who have successfully broken in amidst the chaos. They have a brief rendezvous, but Kaneda’s attempts to get Tetsuo to leave with them fail. Seems Tetsuo thinks he’s beyond Kaneda’s help now, and that he’s in charge and ready to show him what’s what, as promised earlier. The Colonel and more men enter and attempt to stop Tetsuo, but he kills even more people, destroys the nursery, and flies from the facility (much to his own surprise). Seems his body is now flying him on autopilot and taking him out into the city to find the last known location of the fabled Akira. The Colonel and his troops are then forced to declare martial law, in part because of Tetsuo’s escape, but also because the government has decided that he is not fit to run the program anymore and try to arrest him. After a brief scene where some bureaucrats show up and a minor gunfight ensues, the Colonel orders his troops to arrest all members of the government and get their asses to where Tetsuo is heading! He means business now!
Meanwhile, Kaneda and Kei have been arrested and stuck in a cell. Here,Kei begins to explain exactly what they think Akira represents. In a word: evolution! Essentially, Kei says that the power that has driven single cell organisms and reptiles to evolve into spaceship-making, atom-splitting humans is still at work. Harnessed in the human genome is a ton of energy that is just waiting to manifest itself in the form of freaky powers, the kind that Tetsuo and the Espers now demonstrate. Kei begins to become distant as it is made clear that one of the Espers, the young girl, is speaking through her. She explains that in the past, this process went horribly wrong, but someday soon, it would become a reality and their kind would exist freely. Kaneda is totally lost, but that doesn’t matter for long. Kei snaps out of her dream-like puppet state and reveals that the door to their cell is now open. Seems the Espers are pulling strings to make sure the two of them get out.
With the help of voiceover, they even say that they plan on using the girl to stop Testuo. And they don’t make it far before they put that plan into action. After meeting up with Kai, another member of the biker gang, Kaneda is told that a rampaging Tetsuo killed one of other members. He’s pissed, but is made even more pissed when the Espers show up and make Kei come with her. She walks away (on water, no less), and leaves Kaneda fuming angrily over how helpless he feels. Caught between a friend who’s gone rogue and some freaky kids who are using his would-be girlfriend for their own purposes, all the while caught up in plot he can’t begin to understand, he decides to set out on his own to find Tetsuo and end him!
Speaking of which, we meet up with Tetsuo next and see that he’s been stalking the streets and killing anyone who gets in his way, all the while seeking the other secret facility where, as we saw earlier, Akira is housed. This is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie, as the street people, seeing some psionic boy in a red cape (yep, he fashions himself a cape!) become convinced that Tetsuo is Akira and start following him like a messiah. They all die, naturally, as Tetsuo’s is forced to fight his way through soldiers and his powers cause untold amounts of collateral damage. When he finally reaches the facility, just outside the uncompleted Olympic Stadium (bit of a side story to that one), he runs into Kei again and they fight. Not so much “they”, more like the Espers fight Tetsuo through her, but of course he beats them/her and breaks into the facility anyway. As soon as he cracks open the cryogenic seals that hold Akira, the Colonel arrived outside the stadium and begins to fill him in via a megaphone.
We then get the big moment of truth: turns out the facility was holding the remains of a boy, a boy named Akira. He is what caused Tokyo’s annihilation in 1988, as he was an evolutionary curiosity that evolved beyond anyone’s control. After the explosion, which started WWIII since everyone thought Tokyo was under nuclear attack, his remains were sealed away for future study. That’s it, that’s all! No mind-blowing conspiracy, no earth-shattering answers, just a bunch of test tubes and tissue samples in formaldehyde. And as for the conspiracy, that was just the government trying to keep the truth of Akira under wraps so they could study it in the hopes of preventing the same thing from happening again. Hence why they’ve been holding the Espers in a sealed location, seems they were Akira’s fellow potentates who survived the obliteration.
Tetsuo is obviously phased and disappointed, but he’s quickly snapped out of it with the arrival of Kaneda. The two get into it as Kaneda tries to talk him down, but a fight quickly ensues with Kaneda employing a captured laser gun and Tetsuo using his freaky powers. The government jumps in and tries to kill Tetsuo with their orbital laser satellite, but this only manages to critically injure Tetsuo by blowing off his arm. The kid proves beyond their control again, and flies into orbit where he takes over the satellite and then crashes it. This, however, gives Kaneda, Kei, and Kai a chance to escape.
A lull follows as the Colonel and his forces lick their wounds, Tetsuo fashions a new arm out of random machine parts, and Kaneda, Kei, and Kai recharge the laser gun and keep each other company. Some time later, they all meet up inside the stadium, where Tetsuo has placed the remains of Akira on a sort of shrine and is sitting in the chair he has fashioned into a sort of throne. Symbolism! The Colonel urges Tetsuo to come home, but he refuses. He is once again losing control and its beginning to show in his body, which is sprouting amorphous blob-like appendages! He is also losing his mind, at once amused and in terrible pain over what’s happening all around him. The Espers show up and begin praying to the remains of Akira, hoping to get some kind of instruction or deliverance. Seems they too revere him since he was the first to undergo what they are experiencing now.
Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori is also drawn to the stadium, but she soon dies as Tetsuo’s loses all control over his body and it consumes her. Kaneda returns, shooting his laser and trying to bring Tetsuo down, but the attempts appear to be in vain. Even Tetsuo is being killed by his own abilities now and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. And the scientists watching it all are stunned when the queer instruments they have that measure psionic abilities go off the charts and begin to show the “Akira pattern”. And then, in a blinding burst of revelation (destructive, apocalyptic, revelation!) Akira appears to the Espers! His white light, much as it did at the beginning, starts consuming the stadium and Tetsuo’s amorphous body. Kaneda is willing to risk his own life to pull Tetsuo from the expanding ball of light, but the Espers decide they will take Tetsuo with them and save Kaneda by sacrificing themselves. Essentially, they are going into the light, which means either death, transcendence, or a little of both. Kaneda, Kei, and everyone else, will be sent back in the process so they can live on.
However, Kaneda is still inside the light for a moment and experiences what can only be described as a taste of transcendence, or possibly the afterlife. It is a totally mind-blowing scene, biggest one of the movie, as he watches entire city blocks get mangled in the light, catches glimpses from their and Tetsuo’s life, and hears the Espers speaking to him about the meaning of it all. He gets a chance to say good-bye to his friend, who appears before him as a blinding ball of light, and sees moments of their lives together. He then wakes up next to Kei, safe and sound. Might sound cheesy, but trust me, its sad, meaningful, and above all, awesome to behold. All the more so because you’re not being told what’s happening, you gotta figure it out on your own. The vivid imagery and passing bits of explanation paint a picture, but you’re left pondering what it means.
Meanwhile, the city is once again in ruins, even though Kei, Kai and Kaneda survived. The Colonel has also survived, having found shelter in a nearby tunnel when the apocalyptic light show began. Clearly, they are the survivors of this new apocalypse, and it is to them that the responsibility to rebuild once more falls. The Espers end things by reiterating their final message, how things are changing, and though the world may not be ready, someday what they have will become a reality. “It has already begun…” they say at the end. By it, of course, they mean the next leap in human evolution, where we will evolve beyond flesh and blood bodies and become unrestrained forces of pure consciousness, with all kinds of freaky psionic abilities! Yes, the day will come when we shall all be… Akira!
Okay, I’m feeling mind-blown just recounting all this. Like I said before, this movie did things right, relying on a sort of show-don’t-tell philosophy, psychedelic and existential themes, and an attention to detail that is unsurpassed. From a technical standpoint, there was also the stunning visual effects and a great combination of music, sound and visuals to punctuate the plot and dialogue. But the thing I liked most was the depth and development shown by the plot and thematic elements of the story. For example, the clear religious themes: First off, there was the coming of the messiah and the End of Days. There was also the Garden of Eden or Deluge Myth that was present at the end. Lastly, there is the Fall. All of these were present at one time or another, the first being a recurring theme while the others became clear closer to the end. The fascinating and gritty use of them all was awesome, terrifying and hugely intriguing.
Then, of course, there was the plot. You’d think that with the archetypal and religious tones that were at work, you’d get some cliches or cardboard cut-out characters. But, interestingly enough, the characters were pretty damn realistic throughout. They are at once cynical, greedy, scared, brutal, and sympathetic, no one a crystal-clear good guy or bad guy. Whether it was the overwrought bureaucrats, the cautious and troubled Colonel, the street toughs who see each other as a family, the fallen Tetsuo or the romantic scientists, every character felt genuine and justifiable. Just like real people, everyone is motivated by their own combination of things, no one is perfect, and everyone just wants to do what they think is right. That, plus the fact that the story doesn’t end happily, but with some hope, was also very realistic. In the event that human beings actually began manifesting psionic powers, we can expect that the results would be frightening and probably disastrous. And in all likelihood, it would take a few disasters before humanity found a way to control it or live with it.
That being said, the movie could also be a bit daunting at times. Towards the end, the action sequences and dialogue did get a little drawn out and could even feel emotionally taxing. Like with a lot of movies of its kind, there were moments where I was just like “enough death and destruction! Get on with it, already!” But for the most part, this is effective in that it conveys the right feel and attitude. After all, death, destruction and the apocalypse are not neat and tidy things. They are painful, demoralizing and downright brutal! One would expect scenes or total destruction and terrible strife to be sad and terrible, so I can only say that Katsohiro’s direction was realistic in that respect and in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. Speaking of which, the movie also showed some very obvious insight into the mentality of destruction and holocaust. All throughout the movie, there is a sense of shock and horror at work, and it comes out in full force at the end. But unlike your average disaster movie, the destruction in Akira wasn’t some cheap attempt at action-porn, it was the real deal!
And you really get the sense that this speaks directly to a sense of cultural experience, Japan being a nation that has not only experienced earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes regularly in the course of its history, but is also the only country on the planet that has experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack. When one sees the blast at the beginning, the flashing, cooling orbital view, and then the big, black crater, one immediately thinks of Hiroshima, and not just the physical impact but the terrible psychological toll it took as well. All the scenes involving the orphaned kids, the apocalyptic dreams, the post-war reconstruction; you really feel like Katsohiro was relying on the real-life experiences of those who had been there.
Oh, and one final note: I’ve since seen two versions of the movie, the original VHS release that was available back in the 90’s, and a more recent version which was clearly dubbed in Japan. The Japanese dubbed one is actually more faithful to the original dialogue, but my advice would be to get the version that was dubbed by Hollywood studios. The translation was better, and the dialogue and voices more effective and less cheesy. Don’t know what it is about Japanese voice actors, but the men sound too gruff and the ladies too high-pitched! Also, in what I am assuming was the original Japanese script, the dialogue was also remarkably less subtle. If you can see both versions and compare for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.
But other than that, this movie is an enduring classic for me. Its appeal is cultish, its style awesome, and its effects stunning even though they are over twenty years old by now. I look forward to the live-action American remake of this movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set for release sometime in the next year, or possibly 2013. One has to wonder how they will spin things and if they plan on sticking to the grit and realism of the original. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I might have to give it a scathing review!
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Direction: 10/10 (Yo!)