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The plots thicken

By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 11, 2009

Before concluding from these films that the nation is slouching inevitably toward a rose-colored Reich of Obama-ist socialism, however, take note of the other conspiratorial cartels on screen these days. Such as the anti-religious, ruthlessly humanist Illuminati in Ron Howard's Angels & Demons. (Or are they the bad guys? My lips are sealed.) Or the corrupted and debased superheroes in the nightmare alternative universe of Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen. In both cases, misguided übermenschen take their benevolent ideals to regrettable extremes. Maybe these films suggest a healthy skepticism of well-meaning but inhuman utopianism.

Mostly though, perhaps reflecting our recent disillusionment with Wall Street and big business in general, the bad guys lately have been bankers, financiers, and representatives of corporations — see the last James Bond film (Marc Forster's Quantum ofSolace), Tom Tykwer's The International, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, and Steven Soderbergh's upcoming The Informant!

Still, these mundane manifestations of the invisible forces of darkness — significantly, the latter two films are black comedies — pale before the more apocalyptic science fiction and fantasy versions. The evil corporation has appeared in such movies before: in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) (his "Untitled Alien Prequel," the fifth film in the series, is scheduled for 2011) and in his Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner (1982), in Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987), and in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) — to mention some of the more significant examples.

In each of these films, an all-encompassing conglomerate achieves its nihilist goals by literally alienating labor. In Scott's Alien, for example, unwitting humans serve as hosts to an invincibly lethal extraterrestrial so that "the company" can capture it and exploit it for weapons systems. In all five "evil corporation" movies mentioned above, human beings are simulated by mechanical reproductions. And in The Terminator, the human attributes of the corporation have vanished altogether; the machines — in short, the whole malevolent, inanimate universe — have taken over.

True, McG's Terminator Salvation, a half-hearted, half-baked attempt to sustain the franchise, nearly killed off the concept altogether. But more vital — and lower budgeted — variations of the premise have taken its place. Duncan Jones's recent Moon blends the dystopic, paranoid visions of conspiratorial artificial intelligence depicted in 2001 and Blade Runner into a fable that, ironically, vindicates hope and faith in humanity, not to mention in independent filmmaking. Likewise, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 splices together the paranoid conspiracies of such disparate films as Alien, Steven Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters, and David Cronenberg's Videodrome into an unlikely but convincing dream of peace and brotherhood overcoming inhumanity.

In contrast with these first-rate films, there are the kiddy conspiracy movies. To be fair, I kind of liked G-Force, which was otherwise reviled by critics and pretty much shunned at the box office, if only because of the seeming ingenuousness of its anti-corporate subtext. As with the Terminator series, the machines here are themselves the culprits; they are small, useless, and overpriced appliances that turn en masse against their feckless owners, who must be rescued by the guinea-pig commandos of the title. Don't knock it; the film could be read as a broadside against mindless consumerism and provides a much-needed lesson for the brainwashed tykes watching it.

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Related: Review: 2012, Review: Waiting For Armageddon, Is there 'hope' in Hollywood?, More more >
  Topics: Features , Barack Obama, Entertainment, Siegfried Kracauer,  More more >
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