Children: the accoutrements of the Last Men.
Legend: Theo’s drug abuse is par for the course, but Neville’s is deviant and leads to a brush with death. The former provides social commentary, the latter a dose of morality.
Children: A deportation bus travels through a Homeland Security checkpoint.
Bexhill refugee camp in the distance.
Anamorphic gaze of Abu Ghraib.
Recreated Hamas funeral demonstration.
Anti-Iraq War collage in Jasper’s house.
Legend's New York City three years after the outbreak — panoramic shot
New York City three years after the outbreak — street level shot.
Cars in Children are not being sold to the audience.
Neville uses the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier as a driving range.
Neville picks corn in Central Park.
In the future, militants will occupy Cincinnati.
Billboard for XM Satellite Radio, which has since merged with Sirius Satellite Radio.
Legend even includes fake viral marketing. Although Warner Bros., which released Legend, has no plans to release a Batman/Superman movie on May 15, 2010, they own the rights to both superheroes.
Satirical advertisements in Children criticize the “sterile hedonism” of the Last Men.
The fact that Legend is a Christian allegory does not make it inimical to a leftist understanding of catastrophe and the cultural representations catastrophe inspires. An apocalyptic film need not be an opiate for the masses. Read exclusively as a Christian allegory, Legend merely develops one strain of the scrambled allegorical code of its cinematic predecessor, The Omega Man (1971). Where Charlton Heston performs Christ part-time in The Omega Man, Will Smith plays Christ from alpha to omega.
Legend should be of concern for leftists not because of its religiosity per se, but for its marriage of fundamentalist Christianity with neoconservatism.[open endnotes in new window] David Harvey argues that neoconservatives seek “social control through construction of a climate of consent around a coherent set of moral values,” “order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests,” and “an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers” (Harvey 2005: 84, 82). Legend constructs a climate of consent around a coherent set of moral values (“Light up the darkness”), and the film’s fundamentalism assures its viewers that providence orders the world, including its external and internal dangers.
The Last Men on Earth
Neoconservatives concern themselves with consent, order, and morality to counteract the chaos created by neoliberalism, today’s political doctrine of unfettered capitalism. The confluence of Christianity and neoconservatism cannot be properly understood without reference to neoliberalism as a political economic ideology. As David Harvey writes, neoconservatives
Because neoconservatism cannot be divorced from neoliberalism, we must address Children’s and Legend’s divergent responses to late capitalism before exploring how the two films culturally imagine our current political constellation. In this section, I argue that Children contests the neoliberal ideology that Legend upholds.
Ostensibly, Children and Legend say very little about contemporary capitalism. Since the catastrophes in each film are not economic in origin, a straightforward Marxist allegory is not possible. Christological allegories aside, we simply do not know who or what is ultimately responsible for jump starting the end of the world. The characters in Children discuss possible theories about what caused the infertility but none are verified. The culprit of the mutated virus in Legend is also unclear. Even as Legend depicts the plague as a biblical flood redux, it suggests that humans are at fault for tampering with Nature/God’s creation. If humanity is culpable, did the government or the private sector fund the genetic modification of the measles virus? Each film withholds whether its disaster’s etiology is natural or artificial, corporate or national, collective or individual.
Yet, in this indirect treatment of the origin of a mega-disaster lies the key to each film’s “political unconscious.” That is to say, the capitalist world-economy operates as the absent cause that structures these two science fiction films. The disaster scenario, whether it be mass infertility or a mutated virus, displaces or stands in for neoliberal late capitalism. As Fredric Jameson writes,
In a distorted manner, the cataclysmic violence of Children and Legend expresses a fantasmatic response to living in the “real” historical world that produced these two films. The disaster scenario, to put it succinctly, harbors the films’ ideological commitments.
The imagined worlds of Children and Legend represent two very different fantasmatic/ ideological responses to living in the “real world” of unfettered capitalism. Children criticizes the “sterile hedonism” of late capitalist consumers who live in a society ruled strictly by the pleasure principle. The film is not “about infertility as a biological problem,” as Žižek writes:
The Bell’s whiskey that Theo drinks, the “Strawberry Cough” that Jasper smokes, and the masterpieces that Theo’s wealthy cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) collects represent the trivial daily pleasures of the Last Men. The government-issued Quietus suicide kit serves as the greater dose of poison “at the end for a pleasant death.” In such a world, cynicism replaces belief in large, consequential projects as Theo, “the rebel with a lost cause,” demonstrates:
Universal infertility could be blamed for creating an environment conducive to cynicism because it functions as a deterministic force beyond anyone’s control. However, Theo exhibits a cynicism towards the world before “the infertility thing happened,” the world of late capitalism. When Theo questions how Nigel manages to collect art when not even “one sad fuck” will be around to look at it in one hundred years, Nigel’s response epitomizes how cynicism functions as an ideology that buttresses capitalism: “I just don’t think about it.” Children depicts the Nigels of the world not as the victims of a natural disaster, but as the perpetrators of a manmade one.
Mise-en-scène plays a crucial role in depicting capitalism as the absent cause of Children’s disaster-world. Cuarón explains his technique:
The blending of characters and environment is a highly ambivalent technique, politically speaking. Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser experimented with treating people with the same import as objects in their fiction, but in an ideological way that naturalized late nineteenth-century capitalist reification. Cuarón uses this technique to ensure that the ultimate truth of his film will be social and not naturalistic or psychological. The meaning of Children cannot be reduced to the redemption of a self-medicated bureaucrat. Rather, Cuarón focuses a critical eye on “real world” social crises by foregrounding Children’s background. In its backdrops, the film achieves a kind of slow motion montage-effect: by yoking together images of seemingly disconnected crises over the course of 109 minutes (images of globalization, immigration, inequity, environmental degradation, permanent states of emergency, politics of fear, surveillance society, terrorism, and ghettoes), Cuarón argues for their dialectical relationship. Crises that appear as disjointed liberal talking points turn into a web of related issues tied to a larger problem: capital.
Children’s systemic analysis would not be as effective if these social crises were treated forthrightly. In direct treatments of disaster — like the documentary “The Possibility of Hope,” a bonus feature from the DVD version of Children that “examines how society may be headed toward the ill-fated world represented in the film” — the presentation fails miserably (the message gets lost, the audience’s interest wanes, the argument triggers familiar ideological antagonists who dismiss it out of hand, etc.). This failure explains why, for Žižek, the art of the film lies in
Anamorphic images, like Children’s shots of the oppressive social dimension, appear distorted; only an unconventional view of them yields their accurate form and meaning. Children compels us to look awry to perceive not just the characters’ implication in this oppressive social dimension but our own.
An example of Cuarón’s anamorphic technique occurs when Theo, Kee, and Miriam “break into prison” so they can reach the coast to rendezvous with the Human Project ship. When they arrive at the city-sized internment camp of Bexhill on a UK Homeland Security bus, it stops at a checkpoint. Through the bus windows we see detained Arab men being tortured in poses reminiscent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. If the camera left the bus at this point to focus on the infamous hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib, the effect would be propagandistic. Instead, Cuarón distances the oppressive “real world” social dimension by placing it in the background. The abused foreigners glimpsed through the windows operate as historical context, as a history of the present where today’s divisions persist in a future dystopian England. Now, and in this imagined future, “more developed countries” neutralize the perceived and real threats of “less developed countries” in order to acquire and secure resources for their wealthy economies. As Cuarón states,
Cuarón achieves a future of the present through the cumulative effect of foregrounded backgrounds like the reenactment of Abu Ghraib. Strategically placed homeland security signs, a recreated Hamas funeral demonstration, and paraphernalia against the Iraq War and the Bush and Blair administrations create a mise-en-scène of the War on Terror. Over the course of the film, these images link together to provide a coherent narrative of globalization and its discontents.
Legend begins with panoramic and bird’s-eye-view shots to establish that New York City was abandoned in a hurry and has since fallen into disrepair. A music-less soundtrack of animal calls suggests that whoever lives here no longer makes their home in a concrete jungle but a real one. A roaring red car streaks down an empty street interrupting the tranquility of the post-apocalyptic landscape. The potential for the scene to initiate a critical dialectic between environment and character quickly dissolves into a car commercial. Lawrence intersperses a series of close-ups of Neville and his German Shepherd co-star, Sam, with ones of the car, which we discover is not just any automobile but Ford’s Shelby Cobra Mustang GT500. Neville and Sam (short for Samantha but also recalls “Uncle Sam”) use the red sports car to hunt deer. The film dedicates minutes of screen time to the car accelerating, making tire-squealing turns, spinning out gracefully, and stopping on a dime.
Close-ups consume the scene of their unsuccessful hunt, precisely the shots which Cuarón avoids so he can emphasize social environment. Like Children, Legend blends its characters into an environment, but this environment is not the “real” post-9/11 world but the pure fantasy space of neoliberal capitalism. Since Neville lives in a megalopolis full of commodities and bereft of people, he enjoys the fruits of capital without incurring debt. He lives in a world of pure surplus enjoyment. His duties to find a cure and broadcast to potential survivors aside, Neville spends his days partaking in the leisure activities of an outdoorsman — he hunts, fishes, golfs, and plays with his dog. In addition, he finds time to work out, watch old television shows, listen to Bob Marley on his iPod, “rent” videos, and rescue famous paintings (just like Nigel). In nearly every respect, Neville’s life fits the bill of Nietzsche’s Last Men.
In addition to indulging the fantasies of late capitalist consumers, Legend targets its audience with “anamorphic advertising.” Lawrence replaces Cuarón’s background commentary on forced migrations and terrorism — newspaper clips that read, “Refugees Blamed for Increase in Terror Attacks” and “Immigrants Protest Against Government New Racist Policies” — with identifiable storefronts, billboards, and products. The “hyper-commercialization” of Hollywood is not a new phenomenon. Product placements, tie-ins, merchandising, and cross-promotions have proliferated in the age of media conglomeration to the point where younger generations no longer experience them as baleful, let alone disruptive. That the Shelby Mustang is clearly the choice of the post-apocalyptic sportsman — along with the Ford Explorer and Escape Hybrid — will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this latest version of the culture industry.
Nonetheless, Children makes Legend’s participation in these dubious marketing trends look egregious. Brandchannel.com lists thirty-two corporate brands that appear in Legend (on average, a new one every three minutes) while Children features “almost zero brands” (Sauer 2007: unpaginated). Beyond the quantity of ads lies an issue of quality. Where Children harnesses the political potentials of anamorphosis — especially in scenes where anamorphic advertisements of invented products ironize the consumerism of late capitalism — Legend exploits the same artful techniques to peddle products and promote corporate brand recognition. Most disturbing of all, Lawrence uses anamorphosis to naturalize the corporate structure of neoliberal capitalism. Signs of multinational corporations litter the backgrounds of Legend. A mega-disaster has destroyed the signs’ referents within the film's diegesis, but their spectral presence sends the subliminal message to an early twenty-first century audience that corporate capitalism is all but indestructible. The first few minutes of Legend where Neville’s Shelby zips past strategically placed advertisements for XM Satellite Radio, Staples, and Hyatt, assure us that the world is more likely to end before capitalism does.
One final indication that Legend cuts ties with reality in order to enact a consumerist fantasy stems from what Popular Mechanics calls the “junk science” of the film. Popular Mechanics’ assistant editor Erin McCarthy consulted
Pointing out the scientific inconsistencies of a film does not meet the criteria most moviegoers take to the theater, nor will it prove to be an ideological indicator in many cases. But as with Legend’s prevalent product placements, its “junk science” is symptomatic of a larger ideological problem. New York City would be in worse condition due to water and fire damage, and Neville would run into problems with powering his home that the film glosses over. Disbelief could be suspended if these vital infrastructural issues had not been ignored precisely because Neville exists in the fantasy space of a consumer and not a producer. In one representative scene, he harvests ears of corn in Central Park. That the corn is ripe is no accident. Legend cannot represent how the things Neville consumes were produced because labor does not exist in the consumerist fantasyland of the Last Men. Everything Neville needs or wants is simply there for the picking.
Legend creates a capitalist utopia by immersing its protagonist in a world that defies the laws of physics, a playground of consumer goods that hides the labor power of its construction and sustenance (and the problems that would inevitably plague its sole survivor). The film’s “anamorphic advertising” weaves its consuming public into this fantasy world to naturalize neoliberalism as if to say, “the world as we know it will never end, and we will always feel fine.”
Where Legend celebrates the Last Men and their late capitalist utopia, Children critiques their narcissism, cynicism, and classism (as soon will become apparent), by depicting their world — our world — as dystopian. With the dreamworld of wealth comes the catastrophe of crimes against humanity in the guise of free markets, illegal immigration, homeland security, and the War on Terror — all of the specious policies which Cuarón catalogues in his backdrops, the very same policies that Naomi Klein argues bankroll the well-orchestrated “disaster-capitalism complex.”