Behold, the cool scenes from every science fiction movie ever made, all in one video. Well, not necessarily all of them; in fact, true geeks may noticed that some of their favorites might be lacking. However, I think you’ll agree, this is a pretty good sampling of a wide array of classic films. In fact, the creators merged footage from 100 movies here, a collection of classic and more recent sci-fi films, and set it all to music (Glitch Mob remix of “Monday,” by Nalepa). Enjoy!
Picking up where I left off last time, I thought I’d get into some examples of how dystopian fiction has influenced popular culture. And given all the feedback I got on my previous post, I also wanted to incorporate some suggested titles as well. But, just to be clear, I still haven’t read Hunger Games, so please don’t ask about it!
Alright, so last time, I mentioned just about every examples of dystopian literature I could find. From the earliest examples of Candide and Gulliver’s Travellers, onto the more modern interpretations of The Time Machine and We, and culminating with classics like BNW and 1984, I essentially ended before I could get into how these novels have had an influence on film and other media. In addition to inspiring the written words, these classics have inspired an entire culture of iconography, symbolism and motifs.
Not surprising, really. Every work of dystopian fiction and satire has sought to create images in the reader’s mind, using highly specific descriptions in order to paint a scene and inspire the right mood. Whenever these novels have been adapted to film, or directors were simply trying to convey similar themes, the task of properly conveying it all visually has always been a hefty one. The same is true for graphic novels and any other visual medium. So today, just for fun, and perhaps to complete my romp through the realm of this inspired genre, here are some examples of dystopia in modern media:
Granted, Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?, a dystopian story in some respects, but not in the same way that the movie was. Whereas the novel took place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (circa 2019) which is sparsely populated and where a living animal is seen as a status symbol. In the movie, the year and location are the same, but the setting is starkly different. Here, it is a stuffy, polluted, mega-city made up of massive skyscrapers and giant animated billboards, where the streets are dirty and packed with people who spoke a strange dialect known as Cityspeak (check out my post on Cityspeak for on that).
And what made it all so awesome, aside from the plot, was the attention to detail. Director Ridley Scott, the same man who brought us Aliens, brought his usual artistic touch and a team of first-grade set designers to the table. Overall, they produced some pretty awesome concepts, ones which are still being praised to this day. Here are just a few:
The Tyrell Corp. building, which was kind of the focal point of the movie. Early on, we get a birds-eye view of it as Detective Deckard Cain (Harrison Ford) is being flown there in a Spinner (flying car). Later on, the leader of the Replicant party, Roy Batty, travels there as well seeking answers to some of life’s most basic questions.
For starters, the building is clearly based on a the design of a Ziggurat, the breed of ancient Babylon temple that inspired such legends as the “Tower of Babel”, and which serves as a clear representation for the almost godlike power Tyrell wields. The interior design, with its large columns, soft lighting, candles, an owl (a possible reference to Athena’s owl) and the way Tyrell can block out the sun at will all serve to further illustrate this point. That scene near the end where is dressed in lavish white robes also seemed pretty symbolic, I’d say!
And for those who read 1984, there is a possible encoded reference to the four ministries as well- Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty – all of which were pyramid-like in design. Coincidence? Who knows? All that matter is when it comes to massive structures that harken back to ancient Egypt and Mesapotamia, the symbolic value is clear. Much like the civilizations that built them, these things stood for power and dominion, both over lesser subjects and the afterlife itself. They were the ruler’s way of achieving immortality by creating something that embodied their power and would stand the test of time. As Shelley said in his poem “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
And when it comes right down to it, this old-world kind of mentality, updated for the modern age, is indispensable to any dystopian story: Absolute power, wielded by the few over the many and represented in conspicuous and obvious ways! In many cases, it comes in the form of totalitarian governments (a la The Party) who runs things with an iron fist and build massive government buildings to remind everyone of who’s in charge. But in other cases, it takes the form or corporate dominance, where the wealthy rule society like feudal barons while the rest live like serfs. And much like their bureaucratic peers, they choose to lord this by building lavish buildings to themselves and covering themselves with ornate symbols!
Another trademark bit of dystopian set design were the massive skyscrapers, complete with giant video-billboards. No doubt, these too were designed to give the impression of the control corporations had over the people of LA in the future. As if regular sized billboards ads weren’t enough, (or televised, print, bench, flier, blimp, and radio ads) now it seemed that corporate monopolies were splastering their logo’s on screens the size of buildings!
And just to make it realistic, Ridley Scott and his designers were also sure to use logos that were already big in the early 80′s and seemed destined to get bigger – Atari, Coca Cola, Pan Am Air, Cuisinart, Bell System. But interestingly enough, all of these companies suffered heavy losses after the movie’s release. The phenomena came to be known as the “Blade Runner Curse”. Strange, one would think audiences began associating them with dark imagery or something
But personally, I think one of the most effective aspects of the movie’s look and feel came through in the construction of the streets. Here, Scott’s design team made sure that every shot was crammed full of people who whore plastic jumpers, dark glasses, cool headgear, and carried what looked like umbrellas with neon handles. Then came the street vendors who peddled food or exotic pets in the same neighborhoods, facades that were ashen grey in color, and all kinds of neon signs written in various languages. It painted quite the scene, one which can only be described by the words “Future Noire”.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, an old-time member of the comedy troupe Monty Python and director of such movies as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, Brazil was a rather humorous take on the classic 1984. In it, we are presented with a dystopian society that is ruled by a totalitarian regime, but which is buffoonish and incompetent rather than exacting and brutal.
In addition, the people in this world are also overly-dependent on machinery which is rather unreliable and poorly maintained. And last of all, there is the main character of Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who works in a mind-numbing government job, lives in a small apartment, and is having prescient dreams about a woman and a man in mask who is torturing him.
The movie shared many plot and thematic elements with 1984, but much of its genius comes through in the set design and direction. Given that the aim of the movie was to present a world in which the machinery is as undependable as the bureaucracy, Gilliam decided to go with a look that would call to mind the kind of over-the-top aesthetics of past sci-fi films. While everything was admittedly grey, dark, and shot in wide and tilted angles, there was also a sort of comic, retro feel to the whole thing. This helped to establish the central premise of the movie, in which incompetence and mind-drudging inefficiency were what was destroying humanity, not a specific agenda.
In addition, Gillian had much to say about artifice and vanity in this film. Lowry’s mother, who plays an important role in the plot, is obsessed with plastic surgery which she hopes will make her look younger. Towards the end of the movie, Lowry dreams that his mother is attending the funeral of a friend who died as a result of too many invasive procedures. And in what can only be described as an moment of oedipal confusion, his mother even looks like Jill, the much younger woman he has fallen in love with!
An interesting take on 1984 isn’t it? Rather than following a philosophy like the one espoused by O’Brien, where the Party wields absolute control over reality and people’s minds, want to eliminate all emotion except hatred, and has destroyed any activities that do not serve their interests, the totalitarian regime in Brazil is instead motivated by laziness and a desire to cover its own ass. Not being wrong literally means more to them than the lives of their citizens. What better commentary is there on a bureaucratized society?
Yes, the movie didn’t so well, and the script and plot were so simplistic that Stallone himself called it a “no-brainer”. But that doesn’t change the fact that the source material is actually one of the better graphic novels in existence, especially when it comes to depth and irony. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-too-distant future, the comics take place for the most part inside “Mega City One”, one of several megalopolis’s that have sprung up in the US after a nuclear war which left it and Soviet Union utterly devastated.
Within this city, just about everything is automated and unemployment is almost universal. Every city block contains over fifty-thousand people, amounting to a population of about 400 million people per city. Due to overcrowding, massive unemployment and uncontrollable violence, the leaders of this future society created a quasi-fascist justice system whereby individual “Street Judges” (policemen) were charged with dispensing judgement and punishment on site. This had a stabilizing effect on society, but the problems remain…
Automatically, one can see a few things at work here. For starters, there’s the Hobbesian idea of man in the state of nature; how because of nuclear war, life became “nasty, brutish and short” and a tyrannical system was needed to put things back in order. In addition, there’s the whole “who polices the police?” side of things, where audiences naturally fear that the judges will abuse their power or fight to the death to hang onto it.
And last, there is the very real sociological concept of the “megalopolis”, the Northeastern mega city running from Virginia to Maine which was originally coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann. In the course of the comic’s history, it is made clear that Mega City One was not actually designed, but grew out of natural urban sprawl that predated the nuclear war. It was only after the war that it became a self-contained place where automation, unemployment and chaos become so rampant.
Now one might also get the impression that this was all meant to illustrate some preachy, “we made a mistake” kind of message (which is in fact what happened in the movie). But in truth, these issues are presented with a fair degree of subtly and irony in the graphic novel.
Knowing full well how his audience would react to fascist symbols and ideology, John Wager (creator) presented readers with a story that is loaded with both. For starters, the Judge’s symbol is an eagle, which bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi black eagle. The Judge’s uniform is also highly ornate and calls to mind the classical imperial motifs of Centurions and Gladiators. And the fact that Dredd’s face is never seen can only be seen as highly indicative. He’s a faceless law-giver, much like Stormtroopers or the SS.
What’s more, the people who sport these symbols and preach these values are presented as heroes. Judge Dredd, for all intents and purposes, is a social fascist who is bereft of sentimentality, doubt or remorse over what he does. Unlike the other Judges, there’s no crime he won’t ignore, and he never stops for more than ten minutes at a time to rest in a sleep chamber, then he’s back on the job. He also has little sympathy for people who believe in enlightened reform or who criticize the Street Judges for their abuses of power.
The purpose of this always seemed to be for the sake of ironic social commentary. Rather than condemning the Judges and the system they represent (or endorsing them) we are meant to see how – under the right circumstances – something like this could very well happen!
You know, its movies like this that remind us all that there was a time that George Lucas had talent, when he cared about thing like plots and inspired story-telling, and not special effects and merchandizing. But I’ll leave my riffs about the Star Wars prequels for another day. Right now, I will admit that there is plenty about this directorial debut worth praising, and not the least of which was the faithful dystopian tone it struck.
Set in a dystopian future where the human race is required by law to take drugs that suppress emotion and sexual desires, are controlled by android police, and all inhabitants worship a godlike being known as OMM 0910, the story is clearly a commentary on how rationalization and automation threatened to destroy humanity. In addition, there are clear and obvious parallels to novels like We, Brave New World and 1984.
For example, the people in this future are all given designations instead of names, the state sanctioned religion is reminiscent of Big Brother, and the mandatory use of mind altering drugs calls to mind Soma. And of course, the stark, clinical portrayal of society in the future is very similar to descriptions of the One State and Oceania in We and 1984. And let’s not forget the scene were android police torture and abuse the main character? Tell me that didn’t come directly out of the scenes where Winston was languishing in the Ministry of Love!
And of course the overall moral of the story, that love is precious and will fight the odds against the forces of cold rationality, this too was practically lifted from Orwell’s and Zamyatin ‘s classics! This is not a criticism, mind you. If anything, Lucas demonstrated a keen ability to adopt freely from novels and franchises in a way that really worked. Much as he would do with Star Wars just a few years later, he seemed to know where to borrow from and how to put it all together!
Now this was one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Lucky for me, it also falls into the realm of dystopian fiction, hence I can talk about it here! In addition to taking place in an alternate universe, the setting is one which is quite dark and gritty. Set in the 1980′s, which is the same period in which it was written, the story is of an alternate reality where the existence of superheroes has caused history to diverge quite a bit from our own. Technically, superheroes have been in existence for many decades, which helps to give the story a real sense of historicity.
However, it was with the service of superheroes in actual wars and government programs that caused history to shift. Beginning with Doctor Manhattan’s intervention in Vietnam and culminating in the development of cheap, renewable energy by Ozymandias (with Manhattan’s help), the Cold War took an unexpected turn. Russia was systematically beaten back to the point where it was becoming desperate and nuclear war seemed inevitable. Meanwhile, society began to decay as war began to occupy more and more of society’s attention and the inner cities were neglected and left to rot.
Told for the point of view of Rorschach, a borderline social fascist with deep-seated issues, the darkness and impending sense of doom really come through! As he investigates the death of the Comedian, a fellow superhero who’s death incites the whole plot, we learn how both he, the Watchmen, and society came to be the way it is. His own tragic story, and that of the Comedians, serves to illustrate how the American Dream failed and cynicism and fear took over.
But of course, the point with dystopian stories is not just to speculate, but to make a point about the time in which it was written. Looked at from this angle, the Watchmen was really telling us about the real world of the 1980′s, a world which had come very far since the post-war era in terms of technological, social and cultural development. And like many other cultural commentaries, a sense of failure and betrayal is at work. What happened to the post-war dream? What happened to the American Dream? How did poverty, crime, licentiousness and cynicism become so rampant? From Rorschach point of view, the Cold War is largely to blame, but so is human nature. And given that he is such a dark and messed up character, I don’t think his opinions were meant to be taken too seriously!
V for Vendetta:
Yet another awesome graphic novel, and one which also inspired a hit movie adaptation. A piece of speculative fiction, this series was produced in the 1980′s and was set in a near-future dystopian England. Over the years, this series’ thematic elements and symbolism have been compared to 1984. However, in truth, the story has much more in common with The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (which should have made my list of dystopian literature, dammit!) In these two novels, especially the latter, a fascist regime takes power by appealing to the people’s sense of moral purity and a desire for order, and in the end the people got more than they bargained for!
But alas, the story in the comic book version involves nuclear war and the transformation of the UK into “lifeboat Britain”. Given that the movie was made in the early 2000′s, the story had to be updated somewhat. There, the focus shifted to terrorism and the exploitation of fear – echoes of The Handmaids Tale and “Loose Change” there, but I digress. After being passed over by the nuclear holocaust, Britain found itself being flooded with refugees and victims of the war. Bit by bit, authoritarian measures were put into place to deal with the crisis, until eventually, the fascist government of Norsefire took over, and that’s when the real changes happened!
They’re motto: “Strength Through Purity, Purity through Faith” pretty much sums it up! In addition to pushing a religious agenda, they were also very much concerned with purging British society or minorities and “undesirables”. A police state was put into place where a series of departments – the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Hands – were tasked with controlling and monitoring all aspects of society. The Eyes handled surveillance, the Ears listened to people’s by tapping their phones and bugging their homes, the Mouth disseminated propaganda, and the Hands investigated criminal activity. And of course all minorities, be they racial minorities, homosexuals, or just political dissidents, were sent to concentration camps where they were exterminated and experimented on.
Into all this enters the character of V, an anarchist revolutionary who is the product of one camp’s twisted experiments. As a result of their invasive procedures, he became an enigmatic genius/amnesiac with a serious chip on his shoulder who is now on a quest to pay the government back for its crimes. His famous disguise, the Guy Fawkes mask and robes of black and red, are as intrinsic to establishing his character as his monologues and affinity for blowing up government buildings!
Judging by the color scheme alone, one immediately can tell that this man is an anarchist by his use of the color black (or anarcho-syndicalist seeing as how he combines it with red). The mask is a further indication of this, given that Guy Fawkes was a radical who tried to blow up parliament because he believes any vestige of government to be anathema to freedom. So in the end, we can see that this a man who wants to bring down the system and is reaching into Britain’s forgotten past to resurrect the idea of civil liberty.
In contrast, Norsefire’s logo was pretty straightforward too. In the comic, Norsefire represented itself on its “motivational posters” with a set of white wings with a space in the middle that was in the shape of a cross, and behind it lay flames. This is obviously meant to conjure up images of religious propriety, or holy war, and of action, all of which are clear allusions to fascist and religious-right iconography. It was also meant, in my opinion, to call to mind Britain’s Action Party, a fascist political group that played a small but influential role in British political life during the 1970′s.
In any case, one can see several staples of dystopia at work in this series, hence why it earned a loyal following and garnered so much critical acclaim. In addition to the idea of a nuclear war breeding totalitarian regime in Britain (right out of 1984), of “Lifeboat Britain” giving rise to a fascist regime (which may have helped to inspire the novel Children of Men) and countless allusions to Nazism and how it really could take root in Britain – which calls to mind Orwell’s essay “England Your England” where he basically asserted that it couldn’t.
Wow, this sort of stuff makes me feel head-heavy and tired! It seems that when you get into a subject as rich as dystopian literature and its various offshoots, there’s no shortage of material! But I think I’ve learned something from all of this and it’s important that I get it right. So bear with me…
As I said in my last post, utopian literature predates dystopian by a couple centuries at least. And I also focused on the differences between the two, how utopian lit shows our failures by using a prefect society as a comparison while dystopian societies show the logical outcome of our most worrisome flaws. However, I’ve now come to think that the issue is far more complicated than all that. For starters, one can find elements of the former in the latter and vice-versa. What’s more, utopian novels and treatises were often loaded with irony, at times truncated themselves to make the point that perfect societies were not so perfect, or perhaps unattainable.
On the other hand, all dystopian novels take as their starting point the idea of a failed utopia. Whether it was a willful lie (as O’Brien revealed in 1984) or an attempt at perfection gone wrong, all dystopians arose out of attempt to create a “perfect society”. In the case of the classics written after the 18th century, the inspiration for this is clear. Beginning with the French Revolution, then the Russian, and countless other revolutions who’s aim was to radically transform society, it seemed that every attempt to create “real equality” and an “earthly paradise” was doomed to result in tyranny and abuse. Sometimes horribly so!
But the earlier utopian writers didn’t have these failed social experiments to point to. In their case, saying that utopias were unattainable would have had to have been purely philosophical. And examples abound! The very word Utopia, for example, is Greek for “no-place”. And the narrator of this book, the man who is an apparent specialist on this fabled society, is named Raphael Hythloday. This last name has a Greek root which loosely translates to “expert in nonsense”. Samuel Butler, another utopian writer, named his fictional society Erewhon, which is simply “Nowhere” written backwards. In addition, in his “perfect” society, people are punished for being sick and treated for criminal behavior, an inversion of the usual procedure!
I guess its like the dividing line between heaven and hell, or revelation and madness. Somehow, the line is fine, and one misstep can take you from one to the other in the blink of an eye! And, as with everything else, we carry these things with us and project them wherever we go. Well… that was deep! Stay tuned, I’m sure to have something more cheerful for next time!
While I’m riding this comic book turned movie high, I must mention one of the best comic books around and definitely one of the best installments in the Batman franchise ever. And while this comic has not yet been made into a movie per se, I do believe large tracts of it have been used to create The Dark Knight Rises. I am, of course, referring to The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
To be fair, I’m not exactly a comic expert, but even I’m not that big a fan of Miller’s work. He has obvious woman issues and is not the best illustrator, and large parts of this comic were lifted from The Watchmen. But hell, it worked! If you’re going to steal, steal big. And the concepts of outlawing superheroes, forcing others to work for the government, a dictator president and an escalated Cold War all worked quite well within a Batman context. And trust me when I say, Dark Knight Rises will use this stuff! Read the review and you’ll see what I mean…
Initially, the comic was the result of a collaboration between Miller and DC’s editor-director Dick Giordano (formerly the Batman group director). However, disagreements over deadlines forced Giordano to pull out, leaving Miller to complete the project alone. DC then published the full and final product in one volume with four parts which, despite its price, sold quite well.
The story opens on a near-future Gotham city where things have gone to hell due to the absence of the Batman. The reason for his retirement is simple: superheroes have been outlawed, except for Superman who now works for the government. We learn that this was part of the deal, where he became a military asset in order to spare his former comrades the indignity of going to prison. As with Watchmen, this has led to an escalation of the Cold War and the creation of a dictator president (in this case, its Reagan or a clear look-alike).
In any case, Bruce Wayne (aka. Batman) is struggling with being retired. By turning his back on his former profession, he feels like he’s betrayed the promise he made to his parents decades back. In addition, the situation is getting so bad that he feels he has nothing to lose by returning. This worsening situation is portrayed with an allegorical heat wave that has gripped the city and is only getting worse.
Enter into this Harvey Dent, the former DA turned Two-Face who has had corrective surgery (courtesy of Bruce Wayne) and who’s doctors now claim is recovered. However, these doctors soon have egg on their face when a masked terrorist seizes Gotham’s two main business towers, clearly meant to resemble the WTO’s twin towers (it should be noted that this comic was written several years before Sept.11th 2001), and threatens to detonate a bomb.
Batman is successful in stopping the terrorist, who is clearly Dent, and finds that the surgery has not had the desired effect. Rather than correcting his split personality, it has only deepened it, making his look one way but feel another. Dent is placed back into psychiatric care, and the public is divided over Batman’s return. The media, in the form of talking heads and news reports, play a large role in this comic. And for the most part, they have bad things to say about Batman, claiming that in spite of his actions, he ultimately attracts a more deranged breed of psychotics and criminals.
His return also puts Superman in an awkward position since he will now be forced to come to Gotham and arrest him. However, as he is still occupied with a US-Soviet standoff taking place on the fictitious island of Corto Maltese, Batman has some time. Which he spends moving onto his next targets, the Mutants gang. Seems these thugs have taken over the streets, are thieving and murdering, and are led by a massive, psychotic freak. Oh yeah, and they operate out of the city’s dump. When Batman confronts them, he gets into it with the boss, but things go awry. After all, the boss is a mutant, is hugely strong and powerful, nearly impervious to pain, and a lot younger than Batman.
After several rounds, Batman begins to lose ground against the titanic thug and has his arm broken and shoulder torn by his claws. He is on the verge of blacking out when a young girl (dressed as Robin) jumps in and takes down the boss with a crowbar. She helps Batman escapes and the police show up shortly thereafter to arrest the boss. Seems Batman has a new sidekick, and makes it back to the Batcave to recuperate. However, the mutant boss lets everyone know from custody that he defeated the Batman and that he will wreak further vengeance on Commissioner Gordon and anyone else who gets in his way.
Across town, the spineless mayor comes out of hiding and blames the escalation on Batman. He further claims that he will step in and put an end to things by speaking with the mutant’s leader. However, this meeting turns bad when the mutant leader decides to kills the Mayor. He is placed back in prison, but Batman soon arranges it so he can escape. He then confronts him again, this time in a mud pit in the middle of the dump where he plans to beat him by outsmarting him. He also makes sure that every member of the mutant gang is there to watch, because he knows their reign of terror will only end if they see their leader defeated firsthand.
This time around, the fight is still a tough slog, but Batman utilizes his experience and his environment to his advantage. The mud slows the boss down, he manages to partially blind him with his own blood and the mud, then paralyze his limps with a nerve pinch and a broken elbow. He then gets him down into the mud where he latches onto one his legs and breaks it, immobilizing him completely. He then pounds him senselessly into the mud while the mutants look on in horror and awe. The mutants are beat and the city is safe, except that people are now forming a new gang that wants to emulate the Batman (echoes of The Dark Knight here!). Just like in DK, Batman is not too enthused about their existence and begins cracking down on them. Meanwhile, at Arkham, a dispirited and anesthetized Joker sees Batman on the TV, and comes back to life! Seems Batman’s resurgence is attracting his old enemies…
Meanwhile, on Corto Maltese, Superman’s actions have prompted the Soviets to up the ante. They fire an ICBM at the island, but rather than being a nuke, its a massive EM missile. Superman diverts it to a desert where it explodes and harms no civilians, but he is almost killed in the blast. A interesting point, since we know that Superman draws his power from the sun, it seems reasonable that an uncontrolled blast of EM radiation would harm him. And of course, it does! Also, Gotham and every other city in the area is hit by a massive black out. Chaos ensues, and Batman must travel to the prisons and take control of all the gang members who are escaping. Since many are Batman wannabees, he manages to recruit them to restore some order to the streets. The power comes on shortly thereafter, and once again, the media and experts debate the events. Most condemn Batman’s latest actions, even though he has helped to save many lives.
But Batman has his own theories. Mainly, he blames Superman for selling out to the government, and sees the escalation with the Soviets as a direct result. During a conversation before Superman sets off, he tells Wayne (they use each others’ real names!) that he will have to go up against him if he persists. Wayne replies by saying that he no intention of going back into retirement, and that if it comes to a confrontation “may the best man win”. Superman is incredulous, but he has his answer!
Back in Gotham, the Joker is finding new ways to create mayhem. Having convinced the same crop of doctors that he’s cured, he goes on a talk show where he is confronted by a Dr. Ruth look-a-like. After some innane psychobabble, he kills Ruth with a poisoned kiss and unleashes his smilex gas into the theatre, killing everyone. He then runs to an amusement park where he is intercepted by Batman, and more mayhem ensues. Batman finally corners him in a sewer where they have their final fight! The Joker stabs him a few times in the stomach, and Batman manages to cripple him by breaking his neck. The Joker then finishes it, snapping what’s left of his neck and killing himself. He dies laughing…
Again, Batman narrowly escapes, and Superman recovers enough to return to Gotham. After some preparations, Batman is prepared for his final fight! Getting himself into some powered armor, assembling his usual arsenal of tools, and enlisting the help of Green Arrow, someone else who resents Superman. He’s also sure to pop a pill, who’s purpose is as yet unclear. Then, he picks the location for their fight, the very street corner where Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down. The fight goes to plan, with Batman managing to hurt Superman in a number of ways (he’s still recovering from the EM missile attack) and stalling him long enough for Green Arrow to fire off his special package! A kryptonite tipped arrow!
Naturally, Superman catches the arrow, but the tip then explodes into a million tiny particles which he then becomes poisoned with. Severely weakened, Batman puts his hands around Superman’s throat and delivers his last words to him. Essentially, he tells them he sold them out, that he could never understand that the world doesn’t make sense, that his ideological purity makes him a pawn, and that he beat him! But then, Batman suffers from what appears to be a heart attack and collapses. The police arrive to see Superman kneeling over his old friends body, guarding it even though they were locked in mortal combat not a moment before.
The comic then moves to Batman’s funeral. Things are just wrapping up when Superman notices something. A faint sound coming from the ground, and someone suspicious looking standing nearby, waiting. In short, what he hears is heartbeats, the suspicious figure is the new Robin girl, and she’s waiting with a shovel. Remember the pill Batman took? Turns out it was a designer drug that imitates the appearance of death (little Romeo and Juliet there, but okay). His case contained a hidden oxygen supply, and everything was timed so Robin could dig him up before it ran out. Superman looks at her and winks. He’s onto them, but has decided to let his friend go.
Once he’s emerged, we see Batman moving to a new location with the new Robin and a set of accolades. From there, they will rebuild, create a new Batcave and start fighting crime anew. The public thinks he’s dead, but his spirit will live on through a new generation of masked crime fighters. Yeah! Batman forever!
A possible downside to this comic was Miller’s frequent use of media types and talking heads to advance the story. While it is interesting – and effective when it comes to providing transitions and pacing – the way it constantly helps advance the plot and provide background can get a little tiring at times. By volume four its like, we get it, Batman is a controversial media topic, and the so-called experts are morons! That, plus the fact that Miller really seemed to want to stack public opinion against Batman in the story got a little heavy-handed at times.
Still, it did manage to give some depth and a certain social context to the story. Not to mention realism, seeing as how any vigilante, no matter how effective, would not fail to stir up resentment and fear amongst those in power. All throughout the novel, it is made painfully clear that authorities condemn Batman because they don’t want to appear condoning, regardless of how needed he really is. At the same time, those same people seem to want to think that former villains have been successfully rehabilitated, if for no other reason than because they want to believe their methods are effective.
And I said, this book did seem to be borrowing pretty heavily from The Watchmen. However, these elements were well suited to the Batman universe, and given the fact that Dr. Manhattan was openly compared to Superman, it wasn’t like the borrowing was all one way. What was also well executed was the reason for Superman’s employment by the government. Not only was he doing it to protect his friends; according to Batman, it had much to do with his naivete and idealistic outlook. The boy from Smallville just couldn’t help but take orders, it was what he was born to do. And when society and the government turned on them, he effectively sold them out by agreeing to do their bidding.
This last element was something I especially liked about this graphic novel, the it explored the differences between Batman, Superman, and pitted them against each other. Fans of DC comics couldn’t help but have a big fangasm, but it was also highly appropriate. Whereas Superman had always been the clean-cut, cardboard cut-out superhero, Batman was always the darker, grittier, more realistic one. And in both cases, this was presented in very real terms, showing the upside and downside of these traits. Whereas Superman is seen by Batman as a fool and sell-out, the complete flip-side of how others see him, Batman is portrayed as a sort of social fascist in addition to be being a brave vigilante. This dichotomy serves to elevate the content and makes everything feel more realistic.
The Dark Knight Returns, ladies and gentlemen. Read it, love it, then look for traces of it in The Dark Knight Rises. I’m telling ya, it’s in there. Look for it!
Sometime last week, I finally got my hands on the original graphic novel of V for Vendetta. I figured that since I was going to review this movie at some point, I ought to read the source material and treat it like all the other adaptations I’ve covered so far with this blog. Interestingly enough, the creative force being the graphic novel was none other than Alan Moore, the same man who created The Watchmen! While I’ve never been much of a comic book guy – which I admit is both treasonous and weird given my obvious geekhood! – I can honestly say that this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. Hell, it was guys like Moore with such creations as Watchmen and V that helped to establish the very concept of the graphic novel. While the dividing line between them and comic books is pretty fine, one can’t deny that guy’s like Moore combine a great deal of thought and inspiration to come up with these things, certainly no less than what typically goes into a high-end novel.
Not only that, but with The Watchmen, we got a story that was equal parts satire on the traditional subject matter of comics (superheroes) and the history of the 20th century. This is done in true sci-fi form, employing an alternate reality to show how the existence of a certain phenomena altered history, and using the differences to illustrate what took place in the real world. Embracing such things as generational change, feminism, war, civil rights, the decline of America, politics, nuclear holocaust, paranoia, UFO hysteria, and the American Dream, the scope and depth of this book was virtually undeniable. And when it came time to adapt it to the big screen, the same spirit came through pretty clear. There were naturally some weaknesses that emerged out of the monumental task of adapting the voluminous text to the big screen, and some complained about the changes, but in the end, it felt like a pretty faithful adaptation, and one that was overdue!
Zack Snyder must have seemed like the natural choice to shoot this epic, having directed 300 – another graphic novel adaptation – just three years before. The end result was an official release that left out various parts of the plot in order to cut down on run time, but still managed to be two and a half hours long. As expected, a directors cut and an “Ultimate Cut” were also released on DVD that contained much of the missing elements, and they run for approx. three and three a half hours respectively! That’s what you get when you try to adapt a classic to the big screen, I guess. In either case, the box office draw and DVD sales were through the roof, another result of a classic meeting the big screen!
Naturally, there were those who complained about the cinematic release, citing the things that were left out, the new ending which did away with the whole UFO theme, and what not. However, the thing that divided audience the most, ironically enough, was Snyder’s commitment and reverence of the original source material. While some praised him for his faithful adaptation, his biggest critics saw this is as a drawback, claiming that his commitment to the source material made the movie feel “stuffy” and “boring”. Some even found themselves falling in the middle, saying that they were impressed with the faithfulness of the adaptation, but unsure as to whether or not this made for a good movie. One thing was certain though, for fans of the graphic novel, the biggest source of contention was the changed ending! Squiddy or Manhattan, which was better? For those of you who read the novel, you know what I mean 😉 For those of you who don’t, read on!
The story opens on the murder of a superhero by the name of The Comedian. Whereas the novel only shows the aftermath of this, the movie gives us the full fight scene in order to open with a bang and get our attention. In any case, we begin the movie knowing that The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is dead, and his friend, fellow superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), is on the case! This latter superhero, named for the mask he wears, is one of the few superheros in this day and age who’s not working for the government or gone into retirement. He believes The Comedians death is part of plot to eliminate the Watchmen, as superheroes have been turned on by popular opinion and outlawed by the state. We also learn quickly that due to the historical presence of superheroes, the world has unfolded quite differently. Due to their efforts, America won the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon remained president since, the Cold War escalated and nuclear war now seems inevitable. Society has also gone to hell in a hand basket, but at least there are electrical cars!
So, fearing a plot against his former superhero friends, Rorschach seeks them out and tries to warn them. These include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), his wife and partner Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Most of them are retired, except for Dr. Manhattan who is doing nuclear research for the government (fitting since he’s a nuclear-powered, godlike man!) and Ozymandias who’s supersmarts have led him into the world of inventing and big business. Most of them are skeptical, until an assassination attempt against Ozymandias is narrowly averted. The movie then gravitates between filling in the characters back stories and the progress of the murder investigation in the present.
On the one hand, we see how The Watchmen, an organization of crime-fighting superheroes, evolved from the Minutemen, a similar group that was formed in the 1930’s in response to the rising tide of organized crime and gangsters. In showing the history of the Watchmen, we are made aware of how history unfolded differently since their own stories are so very intertwined with history. What is palatable in all this is the feeling of loss and betrayal that accurately portrays America in the 20th century. Much like in the novel, there is the pervasive sense of the “end of innocence” as we go from a rought but optimistic past through a series of shocks and upheavals, landing finally in a dark and gloomy present where annihilation seems inevitable. Most of this told from the point of view of Rorschach, a man who’s own cynicism reflects the mood of his age. His thoughts and findings, all of which he puts down in his journal (which will come up later), provide the narration. And I dare say Haley did a very good job portraying this dark, brooding superhero! The way Rorschach always said “Hrrrmmmm”, that I thought was done pretty well too.
In any case, Rorschach’s investigation soon leads him to a former villain named Moloch (Matt Frewer) whom he suspects because of him being a former enemy of The Comedian. However, his suspicions are allayed when he learns Moloch is dying of cancer. Interestingly enough, Moloch tells him that the Comedian showed up at his apartment shortly before he died, drunk off his ass and muttering something about how it was all a joke. This makes Rorschach even more curious, as he now believes the man was onto something that could shake even him. It’s been well established at this point that The Comedian was a real SOB, and that his alias is sort of an ironic joke. Like the Joker, his humor comes in a brutal, sardonic form, albeit somewhat less evil (only somewhat).
In any case, Rorschach soon finds himself framed when he returns to Moloch’s apartment, finds him dead, and that the police are upon him. He puts up a brave struggle, but the police soon have him and rip off his mask. They are suprised to find that this ass-kicking vigilante is actually a pretty puny man who wears lifts, but is a grizzled due nonetheless (Haley looked the part pretty well too!). While in jail, we get to hear some of Rorschach’s story as a shrink examines him, and the reasons for his cynicism and dark world-view quickly become clear. Seems Rorschach was the child of a prostitute who routinely beat him, until he ran away from home and began beating the shit out of bullies. In time, became a vigilante and donned a mask that looks exactly like a Rorschach diagram, dolling out justice to those who violated the law and/or his rigid moral code (which he clearly uses to compensate for his lack of moral values growing up). At first, he had limits, beating criminals up but never killing anyone. But then came the encounter that forever changed him, which he relates with brutal detail to the shrink while looking at (you guessed it!) Rorschach diagrams! I shant go into too much detial, suffice it to say that it involved a pedophile/murdered who’s crime demanded swift and severe retribution!
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan comes under fire during a televised interview. Seems some investigative reporter has turned up evidence that everyone he’s ever been in contact with is dead or dying of cancer. You see, Manhattan was created when a nuclear accident broke down ever cell in his body, only to later be recomposed out of pure energy. He can take whatever form he wishes, duplicate himself, teleport, vaporize his enemies, and so forth. However, it was assumed up until this point that his presence was benign and he was not a threat unless he wanted to be. When he learns this, he has a minor breakdown and teleports himself to Mars, wanting to break contact with humanity and spare anyone else the harm of being around him. His partner, Silk Specter II, has already moved out since his lack of humanity was driving a wedge between them. But when she hears of his departure, she is understandably upset. She has already moved in with former colleague and friend Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the two begin a sort of affair.
With Manhattan gone, the Soviet Union, which has been at a strategic disadvantage since Manhattan first started working for the US government, decides to take advantage of his departure and invades Afghanistan. The Doomsday Clock gets closer to midnight! Similarly, Silk Specter and Night Owl decide to come out of retirement because of the impending crises and do what they can to help people in need. Their affair has been abortive up to this point because they feel afraid and impotent with all that’s happened, but after saving several people from a burning building, they feel on fire and do it right in Nite Owl’s hovercraft! To Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen no less! They then break Rorschach out of jail, knowing that he was right about their being conspiracy at work. With The Comedian dead, an attempt on Ozymandias and the confrontation that made Manhattan leave Earth, it now seems evident that someone wants The Watchmen out of the way. After all that is done, Silk Specter decides to confront Manhattan, which she does after he comes for her and brings her to Mars. In the course of a tense discussion, he reveals to her that The Comedian was her father. Seems her mother, Silk Specter the first (played by Carla Gugino) slept with him in spite of his violent behavior towards her, and she was the result. She is, again, understandably upset, but still manages to convince Manhattan to come back and help them.
Together, Rorschach and Nite Owl go to Ozymandias’ office and unlock his files. In them, they find compelling evidence that he has been behind everything. The smoking gun comes when they see that The Comedian was working for him in the last while, and that his death was obviously to prevent him from telling the others what he had found out. They also figure out that he staged his own assassination attempt and sent a false reporter to tell Manhattan the cancer story, thus getting him out of the picture. They then travel to his Antarctic retreat where they know he’s still working on whatever pet project The Comedian died to protect. And here we get another change just like at the beginning (aka. the addition of a fight scene). In the comics, Ozymandias reveals his full plot to them and only tangles with Rorschach briefly. In the movie, there is an extended fight scene between Owl, Rorschach and Specter before he shows them what he’s really up to. And that’s where the biggest change of all comes into play: the big finish! But first, his motive!
Basically, Ozymandias explains that his plan was to unify the US and USSR and prevent a nuclear war by exploding the world’s largest energy reactors which he and Dr. Manhattan created. This will level several of the world’s major cities. Naturally, they try to stop him, but he explains that its too late and the reactors are already set. The energy signatures of the explosions are consistent with Manhattan’s, in part because the technology is based on the same forces that created him. Ergo, it is believed HE attacked Earth, most likely out of some anger-fueled breakdown that happened as a result of his breakdown. As noted already, this is not what happened in the novel, but more on that later…
Silk Specter and Manhattan have already shown up, and Ozymandias tries to kill Manhattan by luring him into some kind of nuclear de-compiler that is similar to the one that altered him in the first place. However, Manhattan proves immune to it and manages to finally subdue Ozymandias. He, however, turns on his many TV’s and shows him the reports which tell how the US and Soviet Union are standing down in the face of this new attack. They both seem to think Dr. Manhattan is attacking them now and are combining forces to defend against him. The others are angry, but Manhattan cannot argue with the logic and agrees to take on the role of the bad guy and go back into exile, this time permanently. Rorschach refuses to play along, him being a no-compromises kind of guy, and Manhattan is forced to vaporize him to maintain their little secret. Manhattan then says good-bye for the last time and leaves them for good. Nite Owl and Silk Specter leave too, vowing to keep fighting crime as New York rebuilds and build a future together.
The movie then ends with people from a right wing tabloid named the New Frontiersmen talking about there’s no news now that the Cold War has ended. But it seems that in their incoming mail, there’s a strange journal… It’s Rorschach’s, which he happened to mail to them just before he and Nite Owl departed for Antarctica. Remember how he recorded everything in there? Well, it seems like the secret might get out after all! The movie and comic both end on this scene, offering the reader/viewer an uncertain and possibly open ending.
First off, the new ending. As I’ve said twice now, the part where Ozymandias blew up the world’s major cities and blamed Manhattan was not what had happened in the original graphic novel. There, Ozymandias was working on perfecting matter teleportation, and it was this technology which he also used to try and destroy Dr. Manhattan. In any case, what he was teleporting was the body of a massive, genetically engineered bio-organism that looked very much like a massive alien squiddy into the heart of New York. Sounds weird, I know, but the result was that New Yorkers became convinced that an alien attack was underway. The organism died in the teleportation sequence, and only a few people were killed, but the point is they believed that an invasion attempt had failed, but more could be coming. THIS is what united the US and USSR, the prospect of an external threat that came from another species, not Doc Manhattan.
To be fair, I saw the reason for the changeover. The Squiddy concept was weird, but it played into the whole UFO paranoia that also existed in the latter half of the 20th century, as seen with Roswell and Area 51. The idea of playing that against Cold War rivalry made sense, it was just the execution that seemed a little weird. By putting Dr. Manhattan at the center of the conspiracy, Snyder was able to rework the plot quite effectively, but he did away with an essential element as a result. In addition, the recurring side-story about the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter which a patron is reading at a newstand, was also missing. However, Snyder was sure to include an animated adaptation of this portion of the novel onto the DVD.
The concept of the Doomsday Clock was also something that was changed, albeit in a faithful way. In the novel, the clock is not an actual object but a device that tells the reader before each chapter how close they are to the climax. But in order to keep it, Snyder adapted it into the movie as a set piece a media personality used to capture people’s fears about the impending nuclear war. Other than that, the only real changes had to do with action sequences which were included for obvious reasons. And they’re actually quite entertaining, being at once over the top and brutal. In a way, it kind of adds to the satire, combining superhero-like antics with bloody realism, which is essentially what the comic book is all about.
So what else was bang on…? Well, the feel was almost exactly the same. The movie’s intro, done to “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan was quite masterful at establishing the tone and giving the audience a quick glimpse of the back story. In fact, the entire soundtrack is faithful to the time period being depicted, giving it all a sense of historicism. The only flaw I saw in any of this was the scene where Nite Owl and The Comedian (in a flashback sequence) are shown cracking down on protesters during the late 70’s before superheroes were officially outlawed. After dispersing the crowd, Nite Owl turns to The Comedian and says “What happened to this country? What happened to the American Dream?” This was a bit obvious, and it was never done in the comic. For the most part, the movie captured this theme very well so I didn’t see why any of the characters needed to come right out and say it.
But overall, I felt that the movie was a faithful adaptation. In fact, I was impressed with how closely the movie followed the novel until the end. However, this does not mean that it could ever hold a candle to the original. This is not an attempt at snobbery on my part, it’s actually just how I feel about all adaptations. They are fun and serve their purpose, but can never really be expected to provide the same meaning or enjoyment as the original. In addition, reading is always more enjoyable, in my humble opinion, because the reader is able to stop, think, and interpret what they are taking in. In a movie, the entire process is transmissive, no room for interpretation until its all over, and the key jobs of visualization and imagining are done for you.
So… yeah! Watchmen, people! Read it, see it, decide for yourself. And know that the second you do, you too will have an opinion on the subject and demand that it be heard. Hell, you might even shout at a person or two for not sharing your beliefs. See, that’s the thing about geeks. We’re passionate about interesting but inconsequential things!
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (run-time kind of brings it down)