Terminator: Salvation!

Hello and welcome to my first film review! Yes, much like my idea for a beer blog and my desire to write, it seems that a forum and an idea have once again come together to give me a chance to express my inane thoughts. Funny how that works, I guess the universe really does have a sense of humor! And as with all those other things, I value feedback and other opinions highly, so please feel free to drop a line and offer your own thoughts on all the subject matter I choose to review. After all, good films and cult classics need to be praised, or trashed, as the case may be. Furthermore, I would welcome suggestions as to what movies people would like to see reviewed. After all, what constitutes a cult classic is open to interpretation, and I’m currently looking for ideas for what to do down the road. That being said, let’s get to my first review…

As promised, I’ve decided to dedicate my first post to the relatively recent movie Terminator: Salvation, the fourth and most recent installment in the Terminator franchise. I say most recent (as opposed to say, last) because of the rather shameless hints that were dropped at the end of the film, but more on that later… And, just to be a nice guy, I’ve also decided to throw in some headers that looks like this (Background—>), (Content—>), and (Synopsis—>). This way, people can skip whatever sections they don’t want to read, cuts down on reading time. Yes, I am verbose, but at least I admit it! Anyway, it’s time to get down to business! Terminator: Salvation!

(Background —>)
When I first heard the film was coming out, I was hopeful. In fact, I was downright excited, seeing as how the last installment (Terminator 3) was a relative flop-fest that seemed totally unnecessary and was generally panned by critics and fans. And the way I saw it, this movie was supposed to do for Terminator what the Dark Knight (also starring Christian Bale) had done for the Batman franchise. My hopes were high, and I can honestly say I was genuinely impressed with the movie for the first hour or so. As hinted at in the previews, it was action-packed and pretty gritty, presenting the world of Judgement Day and the Resistance. And since that’s what fans came to see, I went in thinking that the movie would make good on these promises.

Then, the climax came… and all those hopes fell to pieces. Yep, the movie had the dubious honor of being pretty good up until the ending, at which point the audience is left with a contrived explanation for everything that’s happened and leaves the viewer thinking: “Really? That’s what they decided to do with this? REALLY?” Yes, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth that only seemed to get worse the further I got away from the movie theater. What should have been a fun movie that ended the franchise on a high-note was instead a contrived, forced story with a heavy-handed message about sacrifice and redemption and an over the top, totally implausible climax that was also meant to be open-ended. This last aspect of the film was especially bothersome, since it felt like this was a rather crass attempt to hedge the movie’s bets, letting the audience know another movie could be coming, if only this one made enough money!

But I digress… To recap, this movie was supposed to explain how John Connor and the resistance took down the machines in the future. This is pivotal to the entire plot of the franchise, the very reason why Skynet began sending Terminators into the past, to kill John Connor, the man who would lead the resistance to victory. Similarly, it is why Connor and the resistance began sending back their own people, to ensure Connor exists so that their victory will be assured. In the course of all this, we are treated to a temporal paradox. By trying to protect the future, they essentially created that future. Kyle Reese becomes Connor’s father and the remains of the destroyed Arny machine are found and become the basis for Skynet’s development; hence Judgement Day and the victory of the resistance over the machines becomes inevitable. Then, in movie two, the characters try to break this paradox by destroying the company that invented Skynet and every trace of its research. And, once they’ve killed the evil T1000, Arny sacrifices himself in order to ensure that no trace of the technology will ever fall into the wrong hands. Cool, smart, and virtually seamless. Since the rise of the machines was not totally ensured until Arny himself was destroyed, no obsessive critic could say “if they blew up Skynet, shouldn’t that be the end of the movie? Would Arny and the T1000 just, like, disappear?”

But of course, the studios decided a third had to be made. I mean, no sense retiring a franchise just because the story ended, right? Not when there’s still millions to be made! Naturally, this would prove difficult since the third movie took place after Judgement Day was supposed to have happened (Aug 29th, 1997). How were they to explain this, you might ask. Well, simple! The main characters didn’t stop Judgement Day in movie two, they only postponed it. It’s inevitable, and everything they do in the third movie only ensures that it happens as foretold. Not so smart and seamless, kind of flaccid really, but what the hell? If nothing else, it opened the franchise up again, which was what many fans wanted. Terminator 1 and 2 were box office smashes and critical delights, cult classics and just downright awesome! The studios couldn’t end it all there, so one crappy movie to get things rolling again could be seen as forgivable, provided the fourth one put things back on track.

Yeah, well… that might have been the case had the movie delivered on what was supposed to be its aims. One, show the world of the future, post-Judgement Day, where the machines and resistance are battling. Two, explain how Connor and the resistance brought them down, bring us to the point where the Terminators were sent back in the first place. That’s all… just work within the framework established by the other movies, and don’t do anything stupid like try to throw in another paradox or up the ante with an even bigger crisis. But of course, that’s what they did…

(Content—>)
At the very beginning, the movie introduces us to Marcus, a convict who gave his body to science via the Skynet corporation. Then, we are quickly brought to the future where Connor is a player in the resistance, but not yet its leader. He stumbles onto a facility in an opening action sequence that is cool, but kinda inexplicable (why, for example, did the machines set off a nuke in the distance?) Then, in the ensuring sequences, we are fed two plot tidbits. One: the raid put the resistance in possession of a master list the machines have been compiling, a list of everyone they wanna kill! The name at the top of the list, followed shortly thereafter by Connor’s and the names of all the resistance leaders… is Kyle Reese! Cue scary music! You see, Reese is still a boy at this point in the story and has not yet joined the resistance. If he were to die, Connor would cease to exist, and the resistance would be screwed. Oh, and the other tidbit, the resistance has figured out a way to shut the machines down using some kind of high-frequency thing, and they are planning their final strike with it on Skynet itself.

Then, out comes Marcus, the confused and obvious man-machine hybrid. The audience has the benefit of knowing this already thanks to all the trailers and spoilers. The only question is, what the heck is his purpose? Why was he created and what is he going to do? Well, after wandering from the facility the resistance just attacked, he runs into (of all people!) Kyle Reese. Through him he learns of the resistance and Connor, and then the boy and his little mute friend are captured. He then runs into a resistance fighter, played by the always smoking Moon Bloodgood! A budding romance forms, even though the two have absolutely no chemistry and the whole thing feels forced (but on behalf of men everywhere I think I can safely say, that shower scene was pretty damn hot!) Oh, and speaking of forced, were also treated to some obvious hints that Marcus is, despite his past, a nice man who’s looking for redemption. Then, of course, the wandering continues and they get back to the resistance base, where Connor just happens to be in charge. Shortly thereafter, Marcus steps on a land mine, and his secret is out. HE’S A MACHINE! (more scary music!)

Now Connor is left to ponder over the mystery of the man. Here we have a Terminator that walked right into his lair, has no idea he’s a Terminator, and is telling him he needs their help to rescue the kid who will grow up to be Connor’s father. The kid is currently in the machines HQ, and an attack on that place is impending. We can smell the tension at this point, as we are all well-aware of the fact that if the attack is carried out and Kyle Reese dies, that Connor will never exist and the machines will win. Things are beginning to make sense. So what does Connor do? Let’s Marcus go because he thinks he has a shot at getting into Skynet’s base, and follows him in himself, but only after he’s given all the resistance cells who listen to his pirate radio broadcasts the message that they are to disobey their orders and hold off on the attack. And with Marcus inside the facility, things finally come together. Some programming things takes over, he wakes up after being repaired by the machines, and the big, mean Skynet computer lets him in on everything.

And, as I said before, the explanation is bunk! The part about the “signal” was kind of neat. It’s a Trojan Horse, you see. Instead of shutting down the machines, its actually a tracking signal which the machines are now using to locate all the resistance’s positions and destroy them. But the rest? Bunk! I know at this point they want to make us think that all hope is lost so we start caring and get all emotionally involved, but man, what a stupid attempt at trying to tie all the loose ends together! In essence, Marcus was designed with the foresight that a man-machine hybrid would somehow manage to wander the desert, find Reese, find Connor, and deliver them both to Skynet so they could be killed. That was his purpose from the beginning, and what seemed like coincidences was in fact Skynet pulling his strings.

Really? I mean, aside from seeming highly contrived and way too convenient, the explanation is devoid of any and all logic! If the machines wanted to do what they’ve done many times over now and send out a machine to get Connor, and by extension Reese, why not just program him to kill them? Hell, Marcus had Reese at gun point twice in the movie, within the first half hour! If he was under Skynet’s control, why not just tell him to pull the trigger? Second, he was well within range of John Connor on multiple occasions too. If his death is what Skynet wants, why not let him kill him? Why the stupid game of cat and mouse, luring him to the base and all that? One shot, bang! and the movie’s over. I know, then the movie would end abruptly. But I mean c’mon! Both these people are supposed to be at the top of the machines hit list for Christ sakes! And as Connor’s father, if Reese were to die wouldn’t that make Connor disappear from the face of the Earth, thus taking out both of their biggest worries and making their victory inevitable?

But even more nonsensical was the fact that Marcus, now supposedly under Skynet’s control at this point, just reaches into his neck and yanks out the chip that’s in there, cutting off Skynet’s control over him, and goes off to save them both. A chip in his neck? That’s how Skynet was controlling him? Why not his brain? Why not somewhere where he wouldn’t be able to get at it? In fact, what the hell was the point in letting him keep his brain and heart but turning them rest of him into hardware? The flesh I can understand, you gotta put a facade on his exterior so he can get past the guards. And even the brain bit I could understand, that could be seen as a way of making sure he retained his humanity, so no one would guess he was an AI by his total lack of feeling… but the rest of him? Hell, the heart was just an obvious Deus ex Machina which comes out at the end. The rest served no purpose! But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The other problem I had with this climax was obvious. How does Skynet know how things are supposed to unfold? I know that at this point in the story, everyone knows about the prophecies and the future, as told by Connor, but he has all this knowledge because he was told about it by those who were actually THERE! Kyle Reese told his mom what was going to happen and she told him, simple! The machines? They got no crystal balls, they got no people from the future telling them how its going to be. So how do they know Reese is Connor’s father? How do they know Connor is the one who will destroy them? How, for that matter, do they know that they’ve repeatedly failed to “get John Connor” as Skynet puts it? It wasn’t until Connor and the resistance had them on the ropes and were delivering the death blow that Skynet even decided to send Terminators back in the first place, as we are told in the first movie. So really, how does Skynet know anything? Some explanations of how they figured this out might have actually helped tie things together more plausibly. Like, “we interrogated people and they told us about Connor and who his father was. We did some calculations using higher-order mathematics and temporal theory and established that they needed to die!” Just a thought. Also, some indication of how the machines were building a time machine in the first place so they could send Terminators back in time to kill Connor and his mother. It’s been established that they were doing this in the earlier movies, so shouldn’t the machines be actively working on that by this movie? Wouldn’t now be the time for them to send Arny back to kill him and his mother? Wouldn’t now be the time for Connor to send Reese back so he can do what he’s supposed to do, i.e. save his mother’s life, knocking her up with him in the process? Temporal paradox people, these things need to happen in the past so things will unfold in the future…

Ah, whatever, there’s enough wrong with this movie without over-thinking things. So, to summarize, Connor rescues Reese, Marcus rescues Connor, and they decide to set some of the machines fuel cells to explode. These just happen to sitting around since the base is also a factory where the Terminators are built. And to top off this unlikely ending, the resistance flies in to their rescue and pulls everyone out before Skynet goes boom! Uh, really? If it was this easy to get into Skynet, why the hell didn’t they do it sooner? Shouldn’t this big, important base have some kind of… oh, I don’t know, defenses??? In fact, we already got to see these big gun towers protecting the place when Marcus walked in. What the hell happened to those? A quick scene or one line of dialogue would have solved that, say you had a hard time punching through and lost a lot of men, or have Marcus and Connor say they managed to disable them from the inside! Show some people dying or some such shit, it’s not that hard!

Then, back at the resistance base, the medics declare that Connor will die. Hold on, I thought, were they really going to kill him off now? Now that they won, were they going to sacrifice their main character? Such a move could only be considered risky and respectable, but of course, they didn’t! Remember Marcus’ real human heart? Yeah, well, he decides to commit the ultimate act of sacrifice by giving it to Connor, thus fulfilling the whole redemption angle of this movie. Personally, I would have thought saving Connor and Reese the first time around and ensuring that the machines lost the war would have done it, but what do I know? Then, in a final scene, Connor has a voiceover explaining that in spite of the fact that the big bad machine is dead, there is still danger because Skynet’s “Global Network” is still out there. What the hell man? Wasn’t the whole idea that taking down the central AI would knock out the machines everywhere, or at least leave them disorganized and easy pickings? Why is there more to do if you just whacked their nerve center? Did you really think the audience would be screaming out for more, or was this just in case the studio decided to squeeze the franchise for more blood down the road?

(Synopsis—>)
Okay, to be fair, there were some things I liked about this movie. The action sequences, for one. We did get to see some pretty cool scenes where Gatling-gun toting Terminators shot up the streets, HK’s were doing aerial combat and big towering tanks blew shit up. And the robot bikes and other assorted killing machines were neat as well. But those strengths were not played upon nearly enough in this movie. Also, the homages that were paid to the originals: Marcus doing the whole “you hit me, I look at you angrily before taking you down” thing that Arny perfected in the second movie, Bale saying “I’ll be back”, the scene with Guns and Roses playing while he hijacked a bike, the cameo by the Arny-bot; those were all pretty cool too. But none of that could save this movie from its forced ending, its heavy-handed theme of redemption, or the fact that the movie should have ended with Skynet being destroyed.

The romance story is also pretty stiff, the actors themselves just don’t have the right kind of chemistry to sell it, and the dialogue between them is pretty damn cheesy. Marcus: “I’m not a good man!” Moon Bloodgood: “You are, you just don’t know it yet.” Yeah… yeah. But what was most disappointing about this film was the fact that instead of redeeming the franchise after Terminator 3, the movie ended up doing the same thing it did: cash in on the franchise with a movie that was all flash and little substance, not to mention full of plot holes so big you could drive a truck through em! I could be wrong, maybe that was their intention from the beginning. But it seemed to me that the whole point of making a fourth movie was to end the series with a bang. Instead, we got a whimper and were openly told we could expect more, should they decide to make another. I don’t know about you, but if they do decide to make T5, I’ll wait to download. That’s right, I won’t even rent it! Take that, money-grubbing studios!

Terminator: Salvation:
Entertainment Value:7/10
Plot:2/10
Direction: 6/10
Total: 5/10

1984: the year that wasn’t (Phew!)

1984_John_HurtTo finish off this review of the two great satires that encapsulated the 20th century: 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. As I’ve said many times in the course of this thread, there has been an ongoing debate as to which vision of the future came true, and it appears that Huxley’s was the one that proved to be more accurate. But as I said in the previous post, the era in which the books were written had much to do with their divergence of opinion. And ultimately, it was the course of history that proved Orwell wrong and vindicated Huxley. But then again, his book was a cautionary tale, something that was not meant to come true, right? Damn straight, so let’s move on…

And as I also spoke about in the previous post (at great length), Brave New World was written within the context of the 1920’s as a satire on Fordism, commercialism, mass-consumption, leisure, propaganda, and the American Way. Beginning in the early 20th century, shorter hours and better pay, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies that targeted the working class, were used to tame an increasingly unmanageable workforce, not to mention immigrants. In addition, it ensured the creation of a new consumer base, on that could fuel ongoing economic growth and industrial expansion. Win-win! Well, sort of… Then, as now, the most effective way to steer workers away from radical organizations and immigrants away from their traditional cultures was seen to be the combination of nationalism and commercialism, consumption advertised as a way to achieve the American Dream of prosperity and acceptance.

IngsocBut by Orwell’s time, a new demon had emerged that threatened to extinguish human freedom. The roaring twenties, a time when bribing the workers seemed both enlightened and possible, ended abruptly with Black Tuesday and the crash of the New York Stock Exchange. Mass unemployment, desperation, drought; all these led to the radicalization of society and the rise of totalitarian ideologies. For the first time since the Age of Revolution, human beings appeared willing to surrender their freedom in exchange for security and a better life. And with Liberal-Democracy largely discredited, people needed a new philosophy to look to for solutions. On the one hand, many intellectuals and workers found a likely candidate in the Soviet Union, the home of Marxist-Leninism and the global crusade against capitalism. On the other, people began to turn to a strange new – but no less radical – philosophy known as fascism. This polarization tore many countries apart, with different segments of society turning on each other to the point of civil war. This trend continued well into, and even after, World War II. The Age of Extremes was born!

Which brings us to George Orwell, an intellectual and writer who turned to socialism at a young age and saw it as the means to cure the ills of traditional liberal-democratic society. After years of championing reform in England, he joined the international brigades and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Like many intellectuals who looked favorably to the Russian example, he quickly became disillusioned with Soviet Communism, witnessing firsthand its methods and motivations in the field. The Great Purges, in addition to leading to the death of millions of Russians, had the effect of alienating countless intellectuals who had turned to Russia for inspiration over the years. Those who had visited Russia were especially appalled. The liquidation of the Kulaks, the Show Trials, the Great Terror, the constant purging of political dissidents; all of this convinced people just how precious human freedom was, and how flawed social theories that promised utopia truly were.the_blitzDuring the war, Orwell became further disillusioned by the growing trend of authoritarianism in his own and other democratic countries. While he initially approved of the process of “socializing” the economy, a necessity in a time of total war, it soon became clear to him that the process of censoring information, controlling industry, and using war as a means to keep the population united and compliant could lead to totalitarianism at home. These themes were all central to 1984, a book that takes place in a futuristic London that very much resembles London during the time of “The Blitz”. And just like in World War II, England (renamed Airstrip One, part of the global state of Oceania) is at war with another global power named Eurasia. The war dominates the lives of the people, with all aspects of society being slaved towards the need for victory. Industry, security, information, education, and even record keeping; all of these are controlled by The Party, Orwell’s satirical rendition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the only power in the one-party state that has been in power as long as anyone can remember.

In the novel, society is rigidly divided between the Inner Party, the executive branch who’s membership is secret, the Outer Party that is made up of bureaucrats and government workers, and the Proles, the proletariat who have no power or any understanding of how it is exercised. Four institutions dominate Oceania, the Ministry of Love (responsible for breaking the will of dissidents), the Ministry of Truth (responsible for misinformation and propaganda) and the Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), and the Ministry of Plenty (Responsible for rationing and controlled shortages). In keeping with this contradictory appraisal of all things, the three slogans which embody the state’s power are “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. And above all else, the ever-watchful state is embodied by “Big Brother”, a frightening yet somehow comforting caricature who represents the police state, depicted as a man with cold, dark eyes and a big, black mustache (echoes of Joseph Stalin and the cult of personality).

ministry_of_truthAll of these institutions, the entire agenda of the party, is clearly dedicated to preserving its own power and the total control they have over people’s lives. The war is ongoing, the shortages and fear it inspires constant. Propaganda and monitoring, which includes telescreens and the “Moment of Hate” are inescapable. No one has a moment’s peace or privacy. The people are taught that the war has always been, and with always the same enemy, regardless of the fact that the enemy frequently changes. Thanks to the Party’s control over information, no one knows whats really happening or whether or not a war is even taking place beyond their borders. Thanks to the Party’s censorship of all records, no one knows the true course of history or how they got to where they are. When a person is purged, they simply disappear, and no one knows if they ever really existed thanks to the Party’s control of all census data. Hell, thanks to the Party, no one even knows if it is 1984 at all…

Enter the main character, Winston, a man who remembers something of what life was like before the revolutions and the ongoing war. He is searching for answers, a search which leads him to his love Julia, a woman who actually enjoys sex, contrary to what women are taught in Oceania. The two then meet up with a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who is apparently a member of the resistance as well. In Oceania, the resistance is a clandestine group that is led by a figure known as Goldstein, a man who embodies all things evil and treasonous as far as the state is concerned (echoes of the Nazi campaign against “The Jew”). Through O’Brien, Winston and Julia are given a taste of freedom and a copy of Goldstein’s manifesto which explains how the Party seized and exercises power. Satisfied with the who, the what, the where and when of it all, Winston is left with only one question: why? Why did the Party take power, why do they exercise it so brutally and repressively, and why do they want force humanity to live a constant state of war and fear? There has to be a reason, right? Right?

ministry_of_loveWell, as it turns out, there is. In the end, Winston and Julia are betrayed and sent to the Ministry of Love. Winston soon meets O’Brien again, and realizes he’s been had, that there is no resistance, and that O’Brien and the Inner Party were the ones who wrote Goldstein’s manifesto. After being tortured and forced to confess his treason, Winston is given the answer he seeks. The Party, O’Brien claims, is interested in power, power for its own ends, the power to tear up minds and remake them however they see fit. The main difference between the Party and others like it in the past is that the Party has no illusions of why it does what it does. Then, to complete the process of torture and brainwashing, O’Brien and the Ministry of Love force Winston to betray Julia rather than undergo his worst fear (in Winston’s case, being eaten alive by rats). When its all over, Winston ends up at the same cafe he saw in an old photograph, one which he was previously ordered to destroy. In this photo, some old Party members who were purged were seen sitting after clearly being tortured, and right before they were killed. In this way, we know that Winston is about to die, but not before he says good-bye to Julia, they confess that they sold each other out under the pressure of torture, and he undergoes the terrifying transformation to become what the Party wants him to be: a loyal and loving servant of Big Brother.

I tell ya, this book scared the crap out of me when I first read it! It was so gripping that I read the bulk of it in two sittings, (something unheard of for me) and took its many lessons to heart. Foremost amongst these was the message that human freedom is precious, that empathy and feeling are what make us human, and that the last thing we should do with our minds is surrender them to those who promise us deliverance from our suffering and an earthly paradise. I am thus far relieved that his predictions did not come true, for it is how 1984 came to be that is very important, and often overlooked in my opinion. In essence, Orwell feared that the process of total war would continue well into a third world war, that society would be destroyed by nuclear bombs and then overthrown by radical revolutions, and that the world would descend into a series of totalitarian regimes that had learned from the failures of others and could therefore not be overthrown as the others had. But lucky for us, World War III didn’t happen (yet), democratization and socialization spread in western nations, and the Cold War ended. Fears of a totalitarian future have been renewed since 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, but these fears have served to demonstrate how important and enduring Orwell’s vision was.

George-OrwellIn a way, Orwell was a more effective satirist than Huxley in that his vision did not come true. Which, after all, was why he wrote it, wasn’t it? The whole point of cautionary tales is that people avoid what they’re being cautioned about, right? RIGHT? Well yeah! Orwell sought to warn the people of his day what could very well be coming, what could come from the scourges of total war, the desire for security, revolutionary justice, and putting one’s faith in ideologies that promise an earthly utopia. In many respects, its a credit to him that people have to turn to Huxley’s vision to identify the sources of their oppression. It means he did his job!

So thank you George Orwell, and rest in peace knowing that the world is still safe from 1984… so far!

Brave New World Revisited

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to delve into the two great satire-epics in more detail. First up, the satire that came true: Brave New World! And as the title says, I would also like to include a little commentary on the thoughtful essay that capped off his thoughts about his magnum opus, its reception, its enduring legacy, and the themes it addressed. There were so many, so where do I begin?

For starters, the central premise in his work: that humanity would be controlled through amusement and pleasure, not fear or brutality. Without a doubt, his commentary was based on the age in which it was written (American society of the 1920’s), an age in which amusement was seen as the cure to all social ills. It might even ventured that if he wrote it a little later, say, during the 30’s and 40’s during the age of totalitarianism and total war, he might have thought differently. One could make this case, but whether by circumstance or design, he ended up being right. In the post-war era, with the death of Soviet Communism, the extension of democracy and the growth of the middle class throughout the industrialized world, it seemed that the forces of repression would need to be more creative if they were going to control the hearts of minds of the people. And, in many respects, they succeeded. With the advent of television, mass advertising, mass consumption, deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, the decline of job security, unions, public broadcasting, and the concentration of industry and information into fewer and fewer hands, personal freedom once again appears to be threatened by the forces of repression and conformity. In fact, in many ways, life today is beginning to resemble life in the 1920’s when Huxley wrote his book. Funky coincidence huh?

But enough background! Let’s get specific. Brave New World opens on the facility where selective breeding takes place under the watchful eye of Mustaffa Mond, one of the ten leaders of the world and the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. It is quickly made clear that in Huxley’s world, the World State as its known, all people are predetermined before they are even born. Those who do manual labor are specifically designed for it, their size, physical and intellectual capacities tailored to that purpose. Alphas are the top of the line people, tailored for intellectual work and management, Gammas and Epsilon’s perform the most menial tasks, and Betas and Deltas do all the stuff in between (middle-management and processing, I guess!) In this way, class conflict and expectations are eliminated, no one can feel unhappy with their vocation because they can expect nothing better, and to just to make sure readers are catching on to the subtlety of this assembly-line birthing process, the people in this future revere Henry Ford and cross their chest with a large T when uttering his name. Henry Ford, the man who invented the assembly line and the concept of unskilled labor, who reduced his workers to cogs in the machine, and then bought their loyalty by cutting their hours and increasing their pay. Some saw these as enlightened reforms and Ford as humanitarian; but other, smarter people, saw it for what it was: an attempt at making his workers passive consumers! And what was good for Ford was good for all industrial giants, America soon followed suit and the age of plenty was born! A fitting social commentary, but I’m getting off track here.

Another element that is used to control society are “Feelies”, and like many things in the novel, it took some historical context to teach me the true genius of this concept. You see, at the turn of the century, the relatively new phenomena known as motion pictures were called “movies” (get it?). When sound was incorporated, the term “talkies” came to be used. Sensing the trend, Huxley came up with the idea of “Feelies”, films where the audience were wired into the theater so they could feel everything happening to the actors. Clever! And then there’s the designer drug Soma, a chemically non-addictive substance that people are actually encouraged to use, the process of which is known as “going on holiday”. Whenever people are frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, restless, or angry, they are encouraged through conditioning and slogans to take their Soma and bliss out. Echoes of antidepressants perhaps? Speaking of conditioning, Huxley sought to portray the forces of commercialism by once again taking things to the next level. In addition to signs, radio jingles, and pervasive ads, people are conditioned from an early age through sleep conditioning to consume, use Soma, and follow the rules of the World State. One such rule is that everyone belongs to everyone else, including in the Biblical sense. Yes, in this world, promiscuity is encouraged and orgies are commonplace, all to keep people satisfied and avoid the pitfalls of monogamous relationships, which include jealousy, infidelity, and crimes of passion.

Thanks to all these measures, society is kept controlled and everyone is happy. Well, almost (here comes the plot!) Enter into this world an Alpha named Bernard Marx (recalling the venerable Karl) who is unhappy with society since he does not fit in. His discontent with all things is often blamed on the fact that he is a bit stunted and maladjusted, the result of a mistake rumored to have happened while he was still in the test tube. His partner Lenina (as far as that is possible in a promiscuous society) is more the traditional sort, and the object of desire for multiple main characters. Together, they visit a Reservation, where the so-called Savages who do not belong to the world state reside. Here, they meet John, the lovechild of a former Alpha who got knocked up and was forced to live out her life on a Reservation in former Mexico. When they find him and speak of their world, which he knows about only through stories his mother told him, he decides to return with them. But, much to his chagrin, he does not fit in in this Brave New World either. Lenina and he are incapable of forging a relationship, despite mutual attraction, because of their different values. In John’s world, his views on love having been shaped largely by Shakespeare and traditional “Savage” values, love is monogamous and righteous. In Lenina’s, love is free and cheap, and to be shared openly.

By the end, all the non-conformists are forced to leave, Bernard and his free-thinking friend are forced to live in exile. Lenina goes back to the world she knows, having been rejected and even beaten by John, and John exiles himself to the countryside to live a simple life. But the forces of civilization won’t leave him alone, they chase him to his new dwelling at an abandoned lighthouse and demand he entertain them. Things get a little violet, the crowd is doused in Soma gas (a standard tactic during a riotous event in the World State), and John and the people engage in a drugged-inspired orgy. When he wakes up, he’s overcome with guilt, realizes he will never be left alone, and hangs himself. A sad and fitting ending, the boy who could not function in either the “civilized” or free world resorting to the only out he can think of. Between barbarism and insanity, death appears to be the only option.

In hindsight, Huxley said that he wished he could go back and revise Brave New World, offer some third options and potential solutions other than suicide. For example, he hoped that the idea of the colony of exiles could have been developed more, where free-thinking people could have come up with some solutions to the problems of insanity and barbarism, civilization and its discontents. But arguably, this way was much more effective. In the end, the point of how a “utopian society” crushes the will of sensitive, thinking individuals, how it does not suffer challengers or people do not see eye to eye with it. And lets not forget that good art needs to frighten and offend sometimes in order to make its point. Letting people down easy just waters down the message. At least I think so. So writers remorse aside, I’d say Huxley’s vision was well-rendered in his book and needs no revisions.

And its ingenious really, regardless of whether or not history has proven his vision to be the more accurate one. Because in truth, the totalitarian age, if it taught us anything, was that human beings cannot be forced into anything for long. In order for people to surrender their freedom, they need to be made to do so willingly, and that takes fear and/or the promise of something better. In addition, it also taught us that totalitarian regimes can only truly thrive in underdeveloped corners of the world where they benefit from ignorance, poverty, and a long history of abuse. And even then, they cannot last indefinitely. Modern, developed countries that boast high rates of literacy and take things like mass media for granted require a more subtle approach when it comes to tyranny and social control. Power can never be exercised by a single man, woman or institution, and it cannot be overt. It must take place behind the scenes, where prying eyes cannot easily go, and excesses and abuses cannot easily be proven. Similarly, punishment must be equally subtle, meted out in ways that are either covert or even appear to be benign or beneficial (aka. therapy, mental hospitals, doping, etc). And above all, measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are kept happy, or at least that the majority are kept happy while the rest are kept marginalized and divided. And last of all, there has to be ways to channel or dissuade discontent. Campaigns and institutions that put a happy face on bad things are a good example, as are offices that give the illusion of making a difference or fighting the system, when in fact they are serving it.

Brave New World, ladies and gentlemen! Not as good a read as 1984, but definitely more accurate and prophetic in terms of its vision. Take that, Henry Ford! You and your little Model T too!

Of Dune and its Alternate Ending

Not long ago, I joined a few Dune fansites and became part of the growing trend of Herbertians who are disillusioned with the path his franchise has taken (see the link below for the specific web sites). All of us were in agreement about how poor a job his son Brian and KJA have done since they stepped into his shoes. Amongst us, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t think they had exploited, abused, misled, and even raped the franchise for all it was worth. Foremost amongst our complaints was the rather cliched and shallow way they would present characters, construct plots, and just generally fail to meet our expectations. To be fair, Frank set them pretty high, but nevertheless…

Another MAJOR gripe we all had in common was how the Dune franchise ended. None among us could accept that Herbert EVER left notes indicating that his story was to conclude with robots returning to the known universe to wreak havoc and get their revenge. Nor could we believe that it was all meant to climax with a meeting between Duncan Idaho (the ghola-turned Kwitatz Haderach) and Erasmus (Evil the robot), and working out an agreement whereby humans and robots would learn to live together. Not only was it a terrible cliche, a ripoff of the Matrix, totally shallow and bereft of any of the original depth and commentary that Herbert wrote into his originals, it made no sense! The evil robots returning did not fit with Herbert’s original books at all, at no point was the Butlerian Jihad anything more than deep background, and no mention made of them at all when talking of humanity’s future of Leto’s “Golden Path”. Nor was there ever any hint that the robots were evil, that was merely the product of Brian and (much more likely) KJA’s juvenile mind! So really, that ending could only have been the result of them wanting to tie the ending to their own terrible contributions.

But the question remained, what WOULD have been a good ending by actual, Herbertian standards? How would he have ended the whole thing, if in fact Dune 7 were really meant to be an ending and not just another installment? For example, who were the old man and woman in the garden that Duncan kept having visions of? What was the true nature of the threat that the Honored Matres were running from? Why was it they needed the Bene Gesserit’s famed defences against poisons and toxins? How would the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu alliance deal with it? In book six of Dune (Chapterhouse), they had already found a way to neutralize the HM’s sexual imprinting by programming it into Duncan. Odrate and Lucilla managed to bring down the HM and orchestrate a merger by taking over the leadership of their sisterhood. And the remaining Tleilaxu master was in possession of the ghola genes of many of the Old Empire’s most famous people, something which the old man and woman seemed marginally concerned about. And Duncan had plotted their no-ship to fly to another galaxy, in the hopes of getting away from the old man and woman and exploring new space with his crew. So the question remained, where was Frank going with all that?

Naturally, it couldn’t have been that the old man and woman WERE Omnius and Erasmus, the evil hive mind and his sidekick! And the purpose of the gholas couldn’t have been to just bring them back for no reason except so that all the original characters could have another run at life and live happily ever after! But strong hints were given that the threat to the HM’s, personified by the old man and woman, were in fact, evolved face dancers who had broken free of their masters and were now a threat to the Old Empire itself. As for their interest in Duncan, they seemed to think he was a threat to them, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered trying to catch him in their tachyon net, which itself seemed to have something to do with fold space technology. All the while, there was the fact that the BG were once again producing natural spice, turning Chapterhouse into a new Dune now that the original had been destroyed. In so doing, they were once again breaking the hold of any one group on the production and distribution of the product, and were once again breeding Leto’s sandworm. By this point in the story, Leto’s hold on humanity was broken with the death of the sandworms and destruction of Arrakis, but it had also been revealed (in the storehouse he left for them to find) that he had foreseen this crisis and was still urging them towards a special purpose.

All of that was established. So what was about to happen? Well, whereas many of my counterparts felt that by this point in the books, Leto’s vision (the “Golden Path” as it was called) was at an end, I felt that it was still going. I believed, based on my own reading of the text, that Leto had been preparing humanity without its knowledge for the threats that would be facing it come book 5 and 6 in the original series. The Famine Times and the Scattering were part of his initial plan, the consequences of his 3500 years of rule and deliberate control over spice production. These, in turn, served the purpose of breaking humanity’s addiction to spice and forcing them to develop alternatives, and ensuring that they were scattered in many directions so that no fate could claim them all. The development of the HM’s and their return to the Old Empire was also a result, therefore one could argue that it was something Leto had intended. By this logic, I felt that this threat had to be the thing that threatened humanity’s extinction.

In the original works, nothing was ever said about an external threat to the Old Empire. However, ample page time was dedicated to saying that humanity had become complacent, too static, too dependent, and was not prepared to deal with threats to survival. Teaching about survival was the main theme of Leto’s “Golden Path”, preventing humanity’s extinction the overall purpose. While other fans suggested that those threats came and went, I believed they were just on their way. And my own feelings were that they had something to do with two things: one, a possible alien race, once hinted at when it was said that one of the main reasons humanity kept its nukes was because of the possibility of encountering another “intelligence”. Two, the ongoing hints that the worm and the spice were not indigenous to Arrakis, but had come from somewhere else. Leto’s Scattering placed humanity in different galaxies and universes, perhaps one of these was the original source of both? And, now that humanity had reached out, perhaps they had found them and were drawing their attention, bringing them back into the Old Empire. An alliance between the HM’s, the BG’s with the various houses, Ixians, Guild and remaining Tleilaxu, was what was needed to defeat them.

Or not… Chances are, I’m wrong on several or all fronts. But that’s because I’m not Frank Herbert and chances are, only he ever knew what Dune 7 and/or the conclusion to the saga would really look like. His death had deprived us of that vision, and his son and KJA are either unaware or it too, or are unwilling to share it as originally presented. I HAVE to believe that, because there’s no way I’ll ever believe they based their Hunters and Sandworms of Dune on his original notes! Could be wrong on that too, but I doubt it!

For more on these and other Dune related topics, check out these sites:
Hairy Ticks of Dune
Jacurutu – The Cast Out