Weinstein Company / Everett Collection

The apocalypse will be televised

Between "The Purge: Anarchy" and œ"Snowpiercer," this summer's blockbusters spoke to a collective desire for revolution

September 14, 2014 6:00AM ET

On billboards across America you could see him: a guerrilla gorilla raising a machine gun above his head, the Golden Gate Bridge burning in the background, threatening to take over the planet in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Meanwhile, the summer’s critical darling was “Snowpiercer,” a political allegory about revolution on a post-climate-apocalypse forever-train.

The high stakes in the big-budget action cinema were clear this summer: Whether revolution or apocalypse, it’s for all the marbles. Gone are the innocent days of Harry, Hermione and Ronald; in their place sits the Mockingjay of Panem, her arrows stained with the blood of the governors who make her fight. Even the titles of today’s hit movies point to systemic change: “The Purge: Anarchy”; “Transformers 4, Age of Extinction.”

Or so it seems. “Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031, on a speeding train housing the last of the Earth’s inhabitants. Reduced to mere hundreds by climate experiments gone awry, all of humanity circles the frozen planet on a massive train that smashes through blocks of accumulated ice in now total tundra. Do they live in peace, harmony and togetherness? Of course not. Instead they reproduce a class society as a literal physical line, with the indigent in the caboose eating bugs and the wealthy in the front cars enjoying sushi and decadent dance parties.

When one man, Curtis (played by Chris Evans), decides that it is time for justice, he inspires a revolt in which a ragtag bunch of poor folk from the back start murdering their way forward. This plot movement reveals the entirety of society — our society — as a series of visually gorgeous spectacles, like a self-contained aquarium-sushi-restaurant carriage, and violent ideological indoctrinations, like the school carriage in which children repeat singsong myths about the train’s inventor. Society is thus rationally divided into different units of entertainment and control, fantastical car by fantastical car.

Ashes of old

As a political allegory, “Snowpiercer” hinges on the glorification of a white male leader, homophobic attitudes and a totally immaterial understanding of class. The film’s “working class” characters don’t actually work; they’re kept alive to maintain the morale of those in power, just as Curtis’ revolt is not only foreseen but intricately controlled by those at the front of the train. It is right-wing Lizard People paranoia — every action in the film, from the inspiring sacrifices made by Curtis’ fellow passengers to how many rebels die in each battle, was controlled and micromanaged by those in power — masquerading as populist leftism, but the mere fact that it mentions class and revolution had film critics in a tizzy.

Still, a postapocalyptic revolution is an important sign of the times. You can also see this allegory in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” another critical success.

“Dawn,” much like “Snowpiercer,” pictures a new world rising from the ashes of the old. In the film’s opening montage, a series of news stories, infographics and apocalyptic imagery explain that humanity collapsed as a result of a supervirus. But intercut among the talking heads and animations of ominous red lines spreading across a map are famous images from Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement and the London uprising of 2012. Newsreel imagery of riots and revolution has become a Hollywood stand-in for global collapse: Real riot footage stood in for the zombie apocalypse in “World War Z,” as total governmental overthrow in “GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra” and as a moment of pure unleashed chaos in last summer’s “The Purge.

This violence against poor black people in the films is a vulgar manifestation of America’s oppression of poor black communities.

The humans in “Dawn,” reduced again from billions to thousands — this time by a plague — are the hapless villains, huddled in a San Francisco fortress. When they demand that the first intelligent ape society let them use a hydroelectric dam that happens to lie beneath the simian city, they do so with violence and arrogance. But the movie won’t let our noble (white) humans be the villains so easily. It’s ultimately a scheming bonobo making an internal power play (not the ape murder and war preparations by the humans) that incites interhominid warfare.

This narrative is a variation on those old hyperracist Westerns — the goodly if misguided white settlers encounter a Native tribe divided between the militant and the kindhearted, and the militants, in an act of treachery, incite violence — with apes instead of Indians.

The film isn’t quite brave enough to admit that the apes are the story’s real heroes. Yet the audience’s sympathies lie clearly with the apes. Even though they are computer-generated and speaking mostly in growls and hoots, they remain more charismatic (and get way more screen time) than all the flesh-and-blood humans, save Gary Oldman. The film stops short of making the apes’ anti-colonial violence purely heroic — it’s more along the lines of tragically and misguidedly inevitable — but it also shows the humans’ counterviolence as despicable.

New founding fathers

“The Purge: Anarchy” is a far sharper political allegory than “Snowpiercer,” as evidenced by the references that protesters and supporters in Ferguson, Missouri, made to “The Purge” online and in flyers for solidarity marches. The premise of the “Purge” films is that, after some sort of constitutionalist revolution, the New Founding Fathers have successfully reduced crime, social unrest and unemployment through the purge, an annual one-night murderfest, during which all crime is legal and all emergency services are suspended. Every year, millions go out to “hunt” — to steal and rob but mostly to kill. The movies in the series take place during that night.

The series eviscerates the U.S. economic system by explaining how a night of free-for-all murder could lower unemployment. It understands that late capitalism produces massive surplus populations that, in an economy of much more labor-efficient production, massive global supply chains and a plateauing of consumer demand, cannot be employed at a rate sufficient to maintain broad middle-class wealth and social cohesion.

The first film staged the all-night lockdown of a suburban family in their massive home, but “The Purge: Anarchy” focuses on the urban center. While both films feature deranged yuppies with machetes, in the second film, the government, under the cover of the purge, is murdering poor people — sending troops into public housing projects and clearing them — because, as one state agent admits near the end, poor people aren’t killing each other enough to keep unemployment down. The state has to intervene.

This violence against poor predominantly black people in the films, in the name of order and economy, is just a vulgar manifestation of America’s oppression of poor black communities in the form of police violence and the prison industrial complex. If the country’s massive prison populations were counted in economic statistics, the already dismal growth and unemployment numbers look a lot worse. Inside, prisoners do what amounts to slave labor, working for less than a dollar an hour, most of which goes straight into prison commissaries. This is the coercive violence on which U.S. order is maintained — less dramatic, perhaps, but not totally different from in “The Purge.” It is no surprise, then, that communities protesting and rioting against police violence saw their reality reflected in the film.

Similarly, when a revolutionary army, clearly modeled on the Black Panther Party, emerges to fight back against the state’s hit squads and rescue the film’s protagonists from a group of obscenely wealthy sadists (who have kidnapped the protagonists and are hunting them for sport), they are clearly good guys. But while the film celebrates the organized revolutionaries, it depicts generalized disorder (chaos, rioting) as pure, state-condoned violence.

Impending apocalypse

In almost all of 2014’s summer blockbusters — “Transformers 4,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Edge of Tomorrow” — the stakes are nothing short of total annihilation of the human race. The apocalyptic has gone beyond trope and genre to become a Hollywood obsession.

On the one hand, as we can see in the trailers for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” or the marketing materials for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” these films appeal to our desire for revolution. On the other hand, these narratives suggest that revolution can be heroic only in a different world from ours — in Panem, during a purge, on an extinction-bound snow train. As such, these films stimulate and rechannel the desires for massive change, for revolution, even for system collapse, sating our hunger for it even while selling tickets to its spectacular imagining. The intention is clearly a cathartic purge of revolutionary desire.

But when Hollywood picks up symbols of revolt, it plays with fire. In Thailand, the new military dictatorship banned the rebellious three-fingered salute from “The Hunger Games,” which was being used on the streets of Bangkok as a secretive sign of resistance. Images from Ferguson rioting and protests were consistently compared to “The Purge,” and observers drew the connection between police violence, rioting and purging without irony. Teens name parties that turn into riots after “Project X,” a movie about a teenager throwing a party at his house while his parents are away that ends with a whole suburban block destroyed in riots.

There are energies and desires stronger than Hollywood’s ideological images. Hollywood tends to throw buckets of water on the fire, but every now and then, it turns out it has thrown a little lighter fluid instead.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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