2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Children of Men and I Am Legend :
the disaster-capitalism complex hits Hollywood
by Kirk Boyle
"Our culture of calamity has critical implications for the emergence of the disaster-security state and the consolidation of corporate power in the age of globalization." — Kevin Rozario
Like many of the critics who praised Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men for being one of the best films of 2006, I found the film a topical post-apocalyptic treatise on a variety of contemporary political problems, from the “War on Terror” to environmental degradation. However, I did not fully grasp Children’s political significance until I viewed another dystopian science fiction film released the following year, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend. The formal similarities of these two films accentuate a stark contrast in how each represents a world shaped by the Anglo-American neoconservative movement. Legend propagandizes for what Children condemns — the neoconservative combination of religious and market fundamentalism with an aggressive foreign policy, a political economic agenda that journalist and activist Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
A comparative analysis of Children and Legend provides a glimpse into the political stakes of cultural representations of neoconservatism. To discern these stakes, I read Children through the lens of Legend’s ideological intentions — religious, economic, and geopolitical. The first section examines the metaphysics of each film. Characteristic of neoconservative ideology, Legend offers the moral palliatives of Christianity to allay and even justify the dubious workings of disaster capitalism. Despite its religious allusions, Children presents amaterialist worldview not ordained by the heavens. In the second and third sections, I contrast Legend’s utopian fantasy of late capitalism with Children’s dystopian vision. Although “green zone” and “red zone” refer to fortified and unsecured areas of Baghdad, these terms resonate with meanings that exceed military objectives in Iraq. Legend favorably depicts the winners of neoliberalization — those gated in the globe’s green zones — while Children identifies with those suffering in the red zones, the majority of the world’s population who are losing out in an age of unfettered capitalism. I conclude my comparative analysis by drawing on the work of two prominent social theorists whose intellectual interests dovetail with Cuarón’s aesthetic concerns, Klein and Slavoj Žižek, a cultural critic of postmodernity. I use their work to illustrate how Children and Legend represent political space in diametrically opposed ways.[open endnotes in new window]
The Alpha and Omega Man
Children takes place in London in 2027, eighteen years after a pandemic of infertility renders humankind unable to produce offspring. In the face of impending extinction, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a white, middle-aged bureaucrat, helps Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a black, inexplicably pregnant refugee, rendezvous with the Tomorrow, a ship belonging to the Human Project. Although Theo cannot be sure that the Human Project exists, he gives up his life to escort Kee and her newborn to be rescued by this group of the world’s “brightest minds” and “wise men doctors” working on a cure in the Azores.
Set in New York in 2012, I Am Legend takes place three years after 90% of the world’s population dies due to the lethal mutation of a genetically-engineered virus. The virus, which initially cured cancer, transforms another 9% of the population into “dark seekers,” vampiric zombies who then “killed and fed on” the 1% with immunity (about twelve million people). Only one middle-aged man has supposedly survived the double-catastrophe of plague and monster invasion, Robert Neville (Will Smith), an African American Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. army and virologist, who spends his days at “Ground Zero” searching for a cure. When Neville produces a vaccine, he sacrifices himself so that two other recently discovered survivors, Anna (Alice Braga) and a young boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan), can escape with it to a survivor’s colony in Bethel, Vermont.
Both films are thus set in major Western cities in the near future with main characters who pay the ultimate price hoping to reverse the catastrophic effects of a pandemic that (incidentally) struck in 2009. In a genre prone to religious allegory like end-of-times science fiction, these sacrifices carry Christ-like significance. Released on Christmas Day in the United States, Children doubles as a nativity story with Theo playing Joseph to Kee’s Mary after she reveals her pregnancy to him in a barn. Kee’s baby Dylan, like Christ, provides hope of a redeemed future for mankind, while the resistance movement that spearheads Kee’s flight to the coast fittingly calls itself the “Fishes.” The stigmata wounds Theo suffers — his cut foot and gunshot wound in the side — signify that he also plays Christ. The extra-diegetic effect of John Tavener’s accompaniment music, “Fragments of a Prayer,” bolsters a religious reading of Children by supplying a spiritual gravity to key moments throughout the film.
I problematize reading Children as a religious allegory at the end of this section. For now, I turn to Legend (also released during the Christmas season) to raise the political implications of its Christ figure. Legend’s final fifteen minutes quilt together the film’s scrambled Christian allusions (a New York permanently decorated for Christmas, Neville’s hanging on the third day of the film, a cross dangling from the rearview mirror of Anna’s SUV, etc.), and assure the film’s status as Christian allegory. In the penultimate scene when the dark seekers attack, Neville, Anna, and Ethan convert a walled-in space of his lab into a panic room. Neville typically uses this enclosure to secure infected subjects that he has captured for his vaccination tests. When the three of them enter, to their surprise they discover that his latest “human trial” has succeeded. As the leader of the dark seekers unremittingly rams his body into the enclosure’s heavy glass doors, Neville tries to reason with him. Neville pleads:
"Stop, stop, stop. Look, I can save you. I can save — I can help you. You are sick, and I can help you…I can fix this. I can save everybody…Let me save you! Let me save you!"
Neville’s use of the word “save” instead of “heal” or “cure” represents a slip from medical to ecclesiastical discourse. “Everybody” literally refers to the victims infected with the Krippen Virus (KV), but as a double entendre means mankind in general. If read metaphorically, Neville’s plea implies that everyone, including the dark seekers, are Christian sinners in need of salvation.
I find the shift in addressee from “you” to “everybody” all the more striking because of Neville’s consistent treatment of the dark seekers as wholly other. For example, earlier in the film, Neville records an audio “behavioral note”:
"An infected male exposed himself to sunlight today. Now it’s possible decreased brain function or growing scarcity of food is causing them to...ignore their basic survival instincts. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent."
If Neville believes that the infected are no longer human, that they are different from humans not by degree but by kind, to put it in evolutionary terms, then he would not use the all-inclusive “everybody” to refer to his attackers. He would continue to use the objective pronoun “you,” which clearly differentiates the infected from the immune. The abrupt pronoun change announces a discursive shift in his rhetoric from science to religion.
Such nitpicky attention to linguistic detail might be insignificant in and of itself; however, the next scene indicates that Christ may very well return as a military scientist. As the “irrational” leader of the dark seekers continues battering the doors, Neville draws a vial of blood from the cured subject, shuffles Anna and Ethan into a coal chute, and gives her the vial. He says, “Anna, I think this is why you’re here.” She asks, “What are you doing?” He responds, “I’m listening.” In prior arguments between the two, Neville denies that there is a survivor’s colony (“There’s no survivor’s colony. There’s no safe zone.”), and he rejects that God is responsible for the outbreak of KV (“God didn’t do this, Anna. We did.”). The line “I’m listening” concedes to Anna that she has been right about the etiology of the plague and the existence of a colony. The key scene occurs right before the dark seekers attack:
"Anna: Come with us, Neville…to the colony.
Neville: There’s no colony, Anna. Everything just fell apart. There was no evacuation plan…
Anna: You’re wrong. There is a colony. I know, okay?
Neville: How do you know, Anna?
Anna: I just know.
Neville: How? I said, how do you know? How could you know?
Anna: God told me. He has a plan.
Neville: God told you?
Neville: The God?
Anna: Yes…I know how this sounds…
Neville: It sounds crazy.
Anna: But something told me to turn on the radio. Something told me to come here.
Neville: My voice on the radio told you to come here, Anna.
Anna: You were trying to kill yourself last night, right?
Neville: Anna —
Anna: And I got here just in time to save your life. You think it’s just a coincidence?
Neville: Stop…just stop.
Anna: He must have sent me here for a reason. The world is quieter now. We just have to listen. If we listen, we can hear God’s plan.
Neville: God’s plan?
When Neville hands Anna the vaccinated blood in the coal chute and tells her, “I’m listening,” he confirms that “the God” directed her to listen to his radio broadcast, remain at the seaport to save him, and take the cure to the survivor’s colony. In other words, he believes that he, too, has a role in God’s plan, a teleology that up to this point was revealed to Anna alone. When Neville “listens,” he accepts that he must sacrifice himself for the future of humanity. Accordingly, he pulls the pin of a grenade and runs at the dark seekers, transforming himself from skeptical scientist to savior-cum-suicide bomber.
The film uses butterfly imagery to “objectively” buttress Anna’s “crazy” belief that divine reason undergirds all events, however coincidental they may appear to the theologically tone-deaf. Neville only converts after witnessing cracks in the glass doors form the shape of a butterfly, an image that leads him to recall his deceased child Marley’s (Willow Smith) words, “Look Daddy, a butterfly.” When he turns to Anna and Ethan, he spies a butterfly tattoo on her neck. This coincidental appearance of butterflies brings to mind a series of them throughout the film, especially the butterfly spray-painted on a tank from the opening sequence that reads, “God Still Loves Us.”
The repeated image of the butterfly may well refer to the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory, a branch of physics devoted to studying the minutia of causal relations within nonlinear dynamical systems (“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”). Where films like Red (1994) and Run Lola Run (1998) appropriate chaos theory to tell stories about characters caught in intricate webs of causation, Legend deploys the “butterfly effect” to insist that the apparently random events surrounding Neville’s life are divinely determined. The film incorporates a modern worldview based on contingency, but within a premodern teleology, much like a creationist museum diorama exhibits animatronic dinosaurs living side-by-side with Adam and Eve.
By combining religion “with the latest findings of science,” Legend exhibits one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism. As Žižek points out,
“For fundamentalists, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge” (Žižek 2006b: 117).
Because fundamentalists regard their beliefs as knowledge, they can justify any act, however horrific, as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, the fundamentalist conflation of belief with positivistic knowledge imperils the status of belief (an ironic inversion of the traditional fear that science undermines religion). Without beliefs in Enlightenment principles like universal human rights, the benefits of knowledge — clean water, health services, modern technologies, disaster mitigation — evade members of so-called “less developed countries,” whose rights we are no longer able to recognize. Without belief in these rights, we act as if we know these people are not fully “human” (just like Neville dehumanizes his test subjects and, as we shall see, the British government treats refugees in Children).
A skeptic might contest that the butterflies are a figment of Neville’s imagination, not fundamentalist “proof” of divine providence. Anna may believe and Neville may convert, but they could also be delusional. The coda that follows Neville’s fade-to-white sacrificial explosion, however, confirms that a Christian teleology based on fundamentalist “knowledge” structures the world of Legend.
In this coda scene, Anna and Ethan drive through a picture perfect autumn landscape, replete with blue skies and colorful foliage, until they arrive in Bethel (“House of God”) where they discover the survivor’s colony. Because our previous knowledge of the colony’s existence comes solely from Anna’s divination, its actual existence means that we are witnessing a prophecy realized. Tellingly, the point of view passes from Neville to Anna in this scene, shifting from the subjectivity of a skeptic to the objectivity of a fundamentalist. Anna, the audience is asked to believe, is not a traumatized survivor suffering from supernatural delusions; God has truly spoken to her and sent Neville, as Christ, to die for her.
As if the brute reality of the colony’s existence were not confirmation enough, Anna’s narration drives home the point that contingency has no place in the world of Legend:
"In 2009, a deadly virus burned through our civilization, pushing humankind to the edge of extinction. Dr. Robert Neville dedicated his life to the discovery of a cure, and the restoration of humanity. On September 9th, 2012 at approximately 8:49 p.m., he discovered that cure. And at 8:52 he gave his life to defend it. We are his legacy. This is his legend."
Anna’s closing remarks sound like a military eulogy (a point I address later), but they also act as gospel, retroactively codifying Neville’s life as Christological. Like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix (1999), Neville fulfills his role as chosen one to restore humanity to its prelapsarian state. In true romantic fashion, the salvation of an individual doubles as the salvation of humanity. All survivors, infected and immune alike, become part of Neville’s story as he transfigures into the primordial father figure of “reborn” humankind. Anna, Ethan, and the rest of civilization owe him their existence; they are his legacy.
The debt implicit within the lines, “We are his legacy. This is his legend,” becomes clear in Anna’s last line, which serves as the film’s final word. After a cut to black, Anna stage whispers, “Light up the darkness.” With a total absence of referents on the screen, this line can only be interpreted as an injunction addressed to the audience. Not only are Anna, Ethan, and the rest of civilization within the film Neville’s legacy, we the moviegoers are, too. To pay our metaphysical debt to Neville, we must “light up the darkness.” In other words, Anna commands us to convert non-believing “dark seekers” to Christianity. Her disembodied voice delivers the inverse message of Sofía’s (Penélope Cruz) opening line in Alejandro Amenabár’s film Abre los ojos (1997). The theologically-laden “light up the darkness” inverts the Enlightenment imagery of “open your eyes.”
To each film’s credit, Legend and Children stage a discussion of the antagonism between the worldviews of antiquity and modernity. Children’s response to this discussion implies a significantly different ideological commitment than the fundamentalist one found in Legend. Although infused with religious themes, Children defends the secular principles of the Enlightenment. Two scenes from the DVD chapter titled “Faith and Chance” show how Children’s treatment of Christianity contrasts with Legend’s.
A line by Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo’s aging hippie friend and retired political cartoonist, precedes the first scene. Jasper proclaims,
“Kee, your baby is the miracle the whole world’s been waiting for. Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.”
Jasper likens Kee’s baby to Jesus, and the Eastern religious peace offering works to denote a theological meaning to his proclamation. The next scene, in which Theo questions Kee about her pregnancy, juxtaposes this religious setup.
"Theo: Who’s the father?
Kee: Whiffet. I’m a virgin.
Kee: Cha, be wicked, eh?
Theo: Yeah, it would.
Kee: Fuck knows. I don’t know most of the wankers’ names."
This scene ironizes a religious allegorical reading of the film, and it thwarts the temptation to draw parallels between Kee and Theo’s adventure and the nativity. More importantly, it depicts the film’s protagonist succumbing to this exact temptation. A slight beat follows Kee’s false declaration of virginity in which Theo considers her baby as immaculately conceived. After he says, “Sorry,” Kee laughs and points at him to signal that he has fallen for her prank. Her child may be a miracle, but Dylan is certainly not the second coming.
The jocular atmosphere of this scene conceals a serious point about Theo’s belief structure and its relation to the film’s ontology. Theo’s character has a trajectory that opposes Neville’s. Whereas Neville moves from disbelief to faith in a plan God has laid out for him, Theo develops from gullible believer to existential hero, to someone who courageously acts without any metaphysical guarantees. Like Neville, Theo believes but he anchors his “faith” in this world and not the next. He takes responsibility for helping Kee reach a human project spearheaded by a group of scientists. Theo’s belief in his duty to Kee, her baby, and humanity is thus ultimately self-imposed.
Theo and Kee’s secular belief rejects the dualistic ontology proffered by Legend, in which acts in this world are ultimately dictated by another. Instead, Children supports a monistic ontology (“the world is all that is the case”). Although monistic, the film’s conception of being is not naturalistic — where humans, like everything else in the universe, are determined by cosmic forces beyond their control (the environment, the laws of physics, genetics, etc.) — but dialectical: Theo et al. do not choose the context within which they must act, but their actions shape the trajectory of history.
The scene that follows Kee’s practical joke confirms the dialectical nature of the film’s ontology. While smoking pot, Jasper waxes philosophical on the “mythical cosmic battle between faith and chance” to Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former midwife and Kee’s caretaker.
"Jasper: So, you’ve got faith over here, right, and chance over there.
Miriam: Like yin and yang.
Jasper: Sort of.
Miriam: Or Shiva and Shakti.
Jasper: Lennon and McCartney. <laughter>
Kee: Look, Julian and Theo. <Kee indicates a photograph>
Jasper: Yeah, there you go. Julian and Theo met among a million protestors in a rally by chance. But they were there because of what they believed in in the first place, their faith. They wanted to change the world. And their faith kept them together. But by chance, Dylan was born…Their faith put in praxis…
Miriam: Praxis? What happened?
Jasper: Chance. He was their sweet little dream. He had little hands, little legs, little feet. Little lungs. And in 2008, along came the flu pandemic. And then, by chance, he was gone.
Miriam: Oh, Jesus.
Jasper: You see, Theo’s faith lost out to chance. So, why bother if life’s going to make its own choices?
Miriam: Oh, boy. That’s terrible. But, you know, everything happens for a reason.
Jasper: That I don’t know. But Theo and Julian would always bring Dylan. He loved it here."
This scene demonstrates a crucial difference in the two primary characters' belief systems. Miriam is New Ageist. She meditates, prays in a mix of creeds like an omnist, and believes in a universe guided by conflicting binary forces (like premodern cosmologies which pit a masculine against a feminine principle). As an aged hippie, Jasper and his supposed witnessing of a UFO — a story Miriam shows extreme interest in hearing — does not appear to offer much of an alternative. Yet, Jasper distances himself from Miriam’s fundamentalist “knowledge” by joking (equating the profane couple Lennon and McCartney with the sacred couple Shiva and Shakti) and, more importantly, by responding to Miriam’s teleological belief that “everything happens for a reason” with skepticism. (That “everything happens for a reason” is the same teleological belief that structures the world of Legend.) Indeed, it would be a mistake to read Jasper’s discourse on faith and chance in the mythical, cosmic terms that he uses to introduce it. In the above scene, Jasper affirms a dialectical ontology that is at odds with Christian, New Ageist, and naturalistic worldviews.
Jasper supports a dialectical ontology by giving Dylan the paradoxical status of an object of both faith and chance. Theo and Julian’s child operates as a chance event and the outcome of “their faith put into praxis.” Contingency rules his conception as Julian’s pregnancy is unplanned. Faith enters when Theo and Julian retroactively take responsibility for him, when they make him “their sweet little dream.” According to Jasper, faith involves taking responsibility for contingent events, not affirming some divine plan. Likewise, Theo and Julian meeting among a throng of protestors is a chance event, but their reason for being at the rally and for becoming a couple is governed by something more than chance, by their belief that they can change the world. As Marx famously explained:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 2000: 329).
Acting to change contingent circumstances forms the basis of a dialectical ontology, of which Children exemplifies and Legend lacks. While Theo struggles under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past, Neville saves the world under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from “the God.”
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. 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
“in no way depart from the neoliberal agenda of construction or restoration of a dominant class power” (Harvey 2005: 83).
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,
“all the cataclysmic violence of the science-fiction narrative — the toppling buildings, the monsters rising out of Tokyo Bay, the state of siege or martial law — is but a pretext, which serves to divert the mind from its deepest operations and fantasies, and to motivate those fantasies themselves” (Jameson 1988: 15).
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 infertility Cuarón’s film is about was diagnosed long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he perceived how Western civilization is moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment: unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another: 'A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ — say the Last Men, and they blink.'" (Žižek 2006c: unpaginated)
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:
"Even if [the Human Project] discovered the cure for infertility, it doesn’t matter. Too late. The world went to shit. You know what? It was too late before the infertility thing happened, for fuck’s sake. "
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:
"We used the cameras in the same principle as in Y Tu Mamá [También]...we decided social environment is as important as character, so you don't favor one over the other. That means going loose and wide. The camera doesn’t do close-ups. Rather than make tension between the character and the environment, you make the character blend in with the environment." (Busack 2007: unpaginated)
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
“the paradox of anamorphosis: if you look at the thing too directly, the oppressive social dimension, you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background” (Žižek 2006a: unpaginated).
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,
“We didn’t want to do a future that was about the future — but about the present” (“Interview” 2006: unpaginated).
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
“experts in the fields of structural engineering, virology, and wildlife to determine what could happen — and what certainly won’t happen” regarding Legend’s portrait of the future (McCarthy 2007: 1).
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.”
I Am Conservative-Corporatist
In The Shock Doctrine, Klein claims that the neoliberal era ushered in a “capitalist Reformation” that doubled as a counterrevolution to Keynesianism and Third World developmentalism (Klein 2007b: 53). Like Harvey, she views neoliberalism as a theory of political economic practices that seek to restore class power through deregulation, privatization, and cuts to social spending, a free-market trinity bent on redistributing wealth as much as generating it. Put into practice, neoliberalization morphs into corporatism, a vast collusion between Big Government and Big Business to transfer public wealth to private hands while an ever-widening chasm opens up between “the dazzling rich and the disposable poor” (Klein 2007b: 15). The recent $700 billion financial bailout of banks by the U.S. government provides a clear example of this collusion.
Klein charts how the rise of corporatism spawned a disaster-capitalism complex that at once extends and supersedes the military-industrial (-congressional) complex President Eisenhower diagnosed in his 1961 farewell address. With the emergence of the disaster-capitalism complex, the latent “creative destruction” that fueled the engines of capital since its inception surges to the surface to become the recognized modus operandi of the economy. Today, crisis opportunism entwines superprofits with megadisasters to the point where
“all conflict- and disaster-related functions (waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating traumatized soldiers) can be performed by corporations at a profit” (Klein 2007c: 50).
Although “disaster capitalism” has been part of neoliberal policy for over three decades, it did not develop into a full-scale complex until after 9/11 with the War on Terror. As Klein writes,
“Although the state goal was fighting terrorism, the effect was the creation of the disaster capitalism complex — a full-fledged new economy in homeland security, privatized war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatized security state, both at home and abroad” (Klein 2007b: 299).
Under the auspice of fighting terrorism, the disaster-capitalism complex insidiously developed into a fully articulated state-within-a-state, a corporate shadow-state, that carries out the normal functions of a nation-state but at a heftier price.
While the disaster-capitalism complex is not unprecedented — the fear was always that the military-industrial complex would wage wars for strictly monetary reasons — its emergence represents a new phase in globalization. Klein points out,
“For decades, the conventional wisdom was that generalized mayhem was a drain on the global economy. Individual shocks and crises could be harnessed as leverage to force open new markets, of course, but after the initial shock had done its work, relative peace and stability were required for sustained economic growth” (Klein 2007b: 423).
The disaster-capitalism complex upturns this belief in political stability by thriving “in conditions of low-intensity grinding conflict” (Klein 2007b: 441). Worldwide wars on terrorism provide the perfect ruse for the disaster-capitalism complex, where
“the point is to create ‘security’ inside fortress states bolstered by endless low-level conflict outside their walls” (Klein 2007b: 441).
The next logical leap is to expand the market of the disaster-capitalism complex from war-torn and disaster-struck countries to everyday civilian life. Instead of building green zones to protect military operations, residential green zones are being built to shelter those who can afford them.
Klein envisions the endgame of this burgeoning complex as “a collective future of disaster apartheid” where the super-rich reside in the gated green zones of hyperserviced states completely segregated from the ultra-poor surplus people who struggle to survive in the red zones of failed states (Klein 2007c: 54). In this future corporatist dystopia, the world will be partitioned into the armored suburbs of contract, or stand-alone, cities on one side of the fence and a post-apocalyptic no-man’s-land of FEMA-villes on the other.
All of this is to say that Klein prophesizes the world Cuarón creates in Children. More accurately, Cuarón imagines Klein’s “collective future of disaster apartheid” by transposing the conflicts of recent history in places like Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia, and Northern Ireland — his admitted references — to 2027 England. As Hurricane Katrina exposed a disaster apartheid already at work within the U.S., Children confirms that the future is now.
In one poignant scene, a Bentley chauffeurs Theo into the inner circle to see Nigel about obtaining transit papers. As “The Court of the Crimson King” plays, the car passes through Admiralty Arch, which is guarded by a troop of soldiers, two gates, two tanks, and a sentry tower. Inside The Mall, Theo witnesses the absurdity of the Household Calvary Mounted Regiment parading down the street, and the Band of the Scots Guard performing “The Spirit of Pageantry” as the wealthy stroll through St. James’s Park with their pet zebras, poodles, and camels. After driving through another guarded checkpoint outside of the Ark of Art (Battersea Power Station), the Bentley drops off Theo inside where he must walk through a metal detector.
Nigel lives tucked away in this fortress for the super-rich with Picasso’s Guernica decorating the wall, attendants who serve multiple-course meals, and wine, pills, and video games at hand. This is “England as a Green Zone, a comfort zone,” as Cuarón puts it.
“[T]he characters feel they’re lucky to live there, but there’s a big percentage of outsiders waiting to get in” (Busack 2007: unpaginated).
In Children the state rounds up these outsiders and deports them to cordoned off areas on the opposite side of the green zone’s walls and fences. The crowded, chaotic, and grimy streets of Bexhill provide the film’s red zones. Here “the other half lives” in slums comprised of makeshift dwellings and ramshackle buildings as roadside garbage and corpses burn alike. Here the Fishes stage the “Uprising,” an insurrection against the state, which reveals that red zones often double as rubble-filled war zones when tensions erupt.
Children artfully illustrates the dialectical disparities between green and red zones that Klein theorizes, but only after Legend was released could the ideological stakes of filmic representations of the disaster-capitalism complex be grasped in their entirety. In the interests of detailing Legend’s allegiance to neoliberalism in the previous section, I ignored one important element of the film: the imminent threat posed by the dark seekers. These vampiric zombies represent the sole impediment to Neville’s consumerist freedom. When the sun sets, Neville must barricade himself in his Washington Square townhouse to prevent his becoming their next meal. In the first lockdown scene, Neville fastens a crossbar security lock on his front door and shuts seven windows outfitted with retractable steel doors. The montage-quick succession of this lockdown repeats later in the film as rolling steel doors and shutters close on another five windows. In this latter scene, we also witness the elaborate defense system Neville has installed in case of an emergency. Powerful lights form a perimeter around his fortress home to deter the photophobic vampires. Parked cars rigged with remote-controlled explosives provide a last line of defense.
Essentially, Legend and Children represent the two faces of the disaster-capitalism complex but from opposing perspectives. Children’s red zone population of “fugees” and illegal immigrants mutate into Legend’s feral dark seekers, and its green zone population of ministers (Nigel) and bureaucrats (Theo) become Greenwich Village’s resident military scientist. These character transformations entail a shift in the audience’s empathy and point of identification. While the progression of Theo and Kee’s journey leads the audience to empathize with the plight of those barred from a privatized security state, the hellbent dark seekers who threaten Neville elicit empathy for his imperiled one-man gated community. While Children invites us to identify with those who are critical of the disaster-capitalism complex, Legend solicits the opposite allegiance with those orchestrating it.
The conflicting character loyalties in Children and Legend can be explained by their opposing conceptions of political space. To understand the films’ diametrical conceptions of political space, I refer to Žižek’s often cited example from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology of the spatial arrangement of buildings in the village of the Winnebago tribe. When asked to map their village, the Winnebago’s two sub-groups draw the ground-plan as a circle:
"...but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first sub-group (let us call it 'conservative-corporatist') perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second ('revolutionary-antagonistic') sub-group perceives his/her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier....The central point of Lévi-Strauss is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer’s group-belonging: the very splitting into the two 'relative' perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant — not the objective, 'actual' disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to 'internalize,' to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole." (Žižek 2007: unpaginated)
Žižek reads Lévi-Strauss’ story of the Winnebago tribe as an allegory of the difference between conservative and radical politics. Contrary to the typical social scientific understanding that locates Right and Left on two sides of a political spectrum, Žižek argues that the Right and Left view the political field in mutually exclusive ways. As he puts it, a Leftist and a Rightist
“not only occupy different places within the political space, each of them perceives differently the very disposition of the political space — a Leftist as the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism, a Rightist as the organic unity of a Community disturbed only by foreign intruders” (Žižek 2007: unpaginated).
Leftists recognize an inherent imbalance in social relations (the map of a circle divided by an “invisible frontier”), which eludes Rightists who symbolically efface this imbalance (the map of two concentric circles). (As President George W. Bush said about his 2003 tax cut plan, “I understand the politics of economic stimulus. Some would like to turn this into class warfare. That’s not how I think.”)
Instead of acknowledging what Leftists call the “class struggle,” Rightists displace the fundamental antagonism inherent within society to an antagonism between homeland and foreign intruder. Instead of the “invisible frontier” of the class struggle, Rightists perceive a “visible frontier” that divides society from an extrinsic agent who threatens to compromise the integrity of the organic community — Jews for fascists, blacks for white supremacists, Communists for U.S. cold warriors, “Welfare Queens” for Reaganites, terrorists and illegal immigrants for neoconservatives.
I contend that Legend and Children conceive of political space in an analogous way to the two sub-groups of the Winnebago tribe. Where the conservative-corporatist Legend imagines a harmonious society vulnerable to external enemies, the revolutionary-antagonistic Children depicts a society at odds with itself, one internally divided by an “invisible frontier.” In Legend, Neville barricades himself within his townhouse. Encircling his green zone fortress is a Manhattan-sized red zone of abandoned buildings, each potentially occupied by vicious monsters who jeopardize his otherwise unbridled consumerism. In Children, “only Britain soldiers on” by viciously excluding foreigners. Children’s red zoners are not blood-sucking vampires, but refugees who suffer from a serious imbalance in social relations. They are homo sacer, Giorgio Agamben’s term for those whom the state refuses to recognize as political subjects. By detaining them in internment camps, the state strips them of their rights and reduces them to their biological existence (what Agamben calls “bare life”).
The different antagonisms each film envisions imply divergent solutions. In Children, salvation lies outside the green zones with those who do not enjoy capital returns and whose very exclusion makes possible the surplus enjoyment of the privileged. In Legend, when Neville gives his life to restore humanity, he becomes the source of salvation. These are two different species of salvation. In one, the underclasses and those class traitors who conspire with them save humanity. In the other, a military man saves humanity with the aid of an ethnic woman’s faith. Anna’s closing military-style eulogy praises Neville because “he gave his life to defend it,” “it” being an indefinite pronoun that refers to the cure but also brings to mind instances when the phrase applies to “country” or “nation.” Neville dies in the line of duty, a hero defending the homeland from infidels.
The ideological implications of Neville’s patriotism were not lost on one reviewer, Bob Mondello from NPR’s All Things Considered. In his rather gracious review, “I Am Legend a One-Man American Metaphor,” Mondello reads Lawrence’s film within the context of the fall 2007 season of “War-on-Terrorism, Rendition-for-Lambs-In-the-Valley-of-Elah movies”:
"I mean, it’s still a sci-fi blockbuster, but take a look at that plot: Western medicine takes a virus (a bad thing) and manipulates it so that it can fight cancer (a worse thing). Sort of like Western military forces arming jihadists (which they regard as a bad thing) so that they’ll fight communists (which they regard as a worse thing). And then the built-up virus — the bad thing — mutates into something much worse than the cancer, and it turns on its creators. And this starts where? That’s right: In New York, which everyone in the movie keeps calling Ground Zero. And some poor schmoe who didn’t start the problem has to try to fix it. But even if he comes up with a cure, a way to make the nasty infected guys human again, they’re just going to keep coming [as Neville echoes, 'They’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop.'], banging their heads against plate glass, destroying the civilized world and — here’s the kicker — either killing everyone they come into contact with or converting them into monsters just like themselves. And the only solution is to shoot them dead — or withdraw behind metal walls, into a fortress-like homeland. And that’s not working." (Mondello 2007: unpaginated)
While I concur with Mondello’s general political reading of the film, I find his characterization of Neville as a “poor schmoe” suspect. Neville is not poor in any sense of the term, nor does Lawrence depict him as a schmoe. In one scene, Neville opens his refrigerator to provide the audience with an anamorphic gaze at a Time magazine cover graced by his picture. The caption reads, “Savior, Soldier, Scientist.” Although Neville has appended a question mark, the shot establishes his place in a neoconservative movement that mollifies the detrimental effects of its disaster-capitalism complex by appealing to fundamentalist “knowledge.” In addition, the shot invites the audience to share in the mythos surrounding Neville’s (and Smith’s) public celebrity: surely a military man (and star Hollywood actor) who works in good faith can save us from the forces of evil.
I also question Mondello’s claim that according to the film, fortressing the homeland fails as a viable policy for combating “Islamo-fascist” dark seekers. Although the terrorists successfully invade Neville’s home, the walled-in fortress town that is the survivor’s colony seems impenetrable. When Anna and Ethan reach its steel gates, a scanner system confirms that they are not infected, i.e. illegal immigrants. The gates open to two armed soldiers guarding an idyllic Small Town, U.S.A. The bells of a traditional white-steepled Protestant church ring while the stars and bars wave in the wind. A bird’s-eye shot reveals that this privatized security state is a self-sustaining farm powered by wind turbines.
The linked images of soldiers, church, flag, defense walls, farm, and green technology provide a perfect dialectical image of the neoconservative utopian vision. In Bethel, apparent contradictions are reconciled. Under God, one nation lives indivisible, with liberty and justice for green zone residents only. A fundamentalist moral order integrates the latest scientific discoveries of the eco revolution. And dark seekers the world over are miraculously cured by a Eucharistic vaccine (and, of course, by the liberal democracy and free market capitalism spreading across the globe).
The 2008 DVD release of Legend confirmed the existence of an alternate ending in which Neville peacefully returns the uncured female test subject to the male leader of the dark seekers before safely escaping Manhattan with Anna and Ethan. In this ending, Neville apologizes for abducting the female test subject (and perhaps for attempting to “save” her), the butterfly imagery is profaned (the male leader uses it to identify his partner), and Bethel remains an off-screen hope instead of a reality. This nonviolent ending utterly alters the politics of the theatrical release. Instead of a suicide bomber’s sacrifice based on fundamentalist “knowledge” that leaves no room for belief in the human rights of the dark seekers, the alternative ending proposes a diplomatic resolution to the antagonism between two equal families. Although this ending is also ideological, it does not support the neoconservative agenda of stimulating the disaster-capitalism complex through aggressive foreign policy acts like preemptive wars.
The disparity between Legend’s endings may tempt conspiracy theorists to speculate that an apparatchik in the Bush administration hijacked the film in post-production and instructed Warner Brothers to produce a “why we fight” conclusion for theaters. Klein suggests a more banal but no less evil explanation when she raises the specter of a disaster-capitalism-culture industry complex :
"The homeland-security sector is also becoming increasingly integrated with media corporations, a development that has Orwellian implications….The creeping expansion of the disaster-capitalism complex into the media may prove to be a new kind of corporate synergy, one building on the vertical integration that became so popular in the Nineties. It certainly makes sound business sense. The more panicked our societies become, convinced that there are terrorists lurking in every mosque, the higher the news ratings soar, the more biometric IDs and liquid-explosive-detection devices the complex sells, and the more high-tech fences it builds. If the dream of the open, borderless 'small planet' was the ticket to profits during the Clinton years, the nightmare of the menacing, fortressed Western continents, under siege from jihadists and illegal immigrants, plays the same role in the new millennium." (Klein 2007c: 58)
The culture industry, Klein warns, is evolving. Beyond selling us products or even consumerism itself, films like Legend now push corporatism, that unholy “mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations,” which the neoconservative moment appropriates Christianity to help sanctify (Klein 2007b: 86). Legend may fail to induce panic or nightmares because its CGI villains are unconvincing (a popular criticism). Nevertheless, it delivers verbatim the chilling neoconservative agenda of a neoliberal utopia of unfettered disaster capitalism justified by the fundamentalist “knowledge” of an apocalyptic Christian teleology.
Legend and Children herald a new phase in disaster films, one related to what Gill Branston, in his reading of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), calls “issue event blockbusters.” Instead of exploring the representability of a hot button political issue like climate change, however, Legend and Children operate as political allegories of the Anglo-American neoconservative moment. If, as Ian Buchanan writes, “all texts are political allegories, symbolically working through and provisionally resolving a variety of social and cultural anxieties,” then these two films do so with the social and cultural anxieties provoked by the disaster-capitalism complex (Buchanan 2006: 61). It is no exaggeration to say that Legend and Children could not resolve these anxieties more differently.
Žižek applauds as a “solution” the floating boat at the end of Children, which he reads as a metaphor for cutting one’s roots. Reminiscent of all emancipatory struggles, the boat represents the utopian moment of separation from an oppressive social dimension. Children’s unmoored boat contrasts with Bethel, the literal shining city upon a hillin Legend. Children posits utopia as the desire for a radically different social order and the foray into the abyss to create it rather than a realized harmonious social order whose antagonistic sources have been eradicated.
Although the utopian moment is important, we should not forget to register the discipline, collective effort, and individual sacrifices that set the stage for this utopian moment. The foreground story of Children tells the story of a motley crew whose rejection of the unacceptable state of the present — its draconian immigration policies, xenophobic border controls, unwarranted military campaigns, inter- and intra-generational inequities, ecological deterioration, etc. — unites them to carry out the trying and sometimes dangerous work of bringing about an indeterminate, yet radically other future.
One scene in Children, in particular, represents the patient work of revolution. The scene titled “Reasonable Accommodations” on the DVD version takes us into a house of revolutionary-antagonists. A gypsy woman named Marichka (Oana Pellea) — a variation of “Marina,” Russian for “sea” — leads Kee and Theo to a former bank whose residents now include an elderly Georgian couple. The couple feeds Theo and Kee and provides them a much needed respite in their apartment decorated with Byzantine icons of Christ and busts of Lenin. The elderly woman sings to Kee’s baby and presents her with a swan sculpted from an orange. Sirdjan (Faruk Pruti), a middle-aged man from the Balkans, gifts Theo a much-needed pair of shoes, procures a boat for them to meet the Human Project, and later dies helping them get to shore. Here, in the ironic setting of a former English bank now occupied by an aged couple from the former Soviet Union, the Russian Revolution sprouts to life like a weed through the cracks of capitalism’s foundation. This is an image of Jesus the Left can live with, a Christ worth imitating — one who perseveres in working for reasonable accommodations for all.
“I adore his films and felt that the future he created for Children was very close to the present I was seeing in disaster zones” (Klein 2007a: unpaginated).
Žižek likewise sees in the future depicted by Children the present “ideological despair of late capitalism” (Žižek 2006a: unpaginated). Cuarón included both of them in the bonus features of the DVD of Children. He also created a short film to promote Klein’s book, which can be viewed at:
2. This reading was not lost on Christians. See, for instance, Todd Hertz’s review:
3. The virus is named after Dr. Alice Krippen (uncredited Emma Thompson), whose cure for cancer — a genetically re-engineered measles virus — mutates into the lethal strain that wreaks havoc on the planet. Krippen is the German word for “cribs” or “mangers,” and carries connotations of the Nativity Scene. In the allegorical structure of Legend, the Krippen Virus quite literally sets the scene for Christ’s second coming.
“My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting on all a.m. frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at midday, when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there...if anyone is out there...I can provide food, I can provide shelter, I can provide security. If there’s anybody out there...anybody...please. You are not alone.”
Neville’s equanimous broadcast, with its echoes of Psalm 18:2 and John 16:32, contrasts strikingly with Vincent Price’s existential loneliness in the first filmic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s book, The Last Man on Earth (1964):
“This is Robert Morgan. If somebody can hear me, answer me. For God’s sake, ANSWER ME. This is KOKW calling. KOKW calling! Answer me!”
While Morgan desperately desires “somebody,” Neville can console and care for “anybody.”
If Neville is indeed Christ, as I believe he is in the world of Legend, when Anna listens to his radio broadcast, she literally hears the voice of God. When Neville denies that God told her to find him, he says,
“My voice on the radio told you to come here, Anna.”
At this point in the film, Neville is simply unaware of his divinity. Later when his sacrifice turns him into Christ, his final act retroactively acknowledges that it was he, the God, who broadcast his plan to Anna. Anna’s faith is so strengthened by the apocalyptic event of the plague — she can hear God better in the now quieter world — that she comes to H/him.
5. The necessity of Neville’s sacrifice should not go unquestioned. Why does Neville not throw the grenade and duck into the chute with Anna and Ethan? Why does he have to become a suicide bomber in order to defeat the dark seekers?
6. http://godstilllovesus.org is a viral marketing site created by Time Warner to promote Legend. The site contains a photography contest in which entrants submit pictures that display the “God Still Loves Us” logo in various settings. One grand prize winner receives a MacBook Pro 15", which is significant because Apple’s products are predominantly placed in the film. The site also contains message boards on theological and philosophical issues and a newsfeed to stories on current events with specific emphasis on disasters. That religion is not immune to the viral logic of capitalism is nothing new, but the way in which Time Warner uses religious belief to peddle its cinematic product significantly contrasts with the absence of cross-marketing promotions in NBC Universal’s Children. No corresponding “The Human Project Lives” website exists. If one were created for commercial purposes, would it not contradict the meaning of the Human Project within the worldview of the film?
7. Perhaps the “butterfly effect” also accounts for Anna’s connection to Brazil. At the time of the outbreak, she was evacuated from São Paulo aboard a Red Cross ship. Could her “flight” have set in motion the events of the film? A less speculative reading of Anna involves the film’s creators and its intended audience. The fantastic gaze of (predominantly white) Western Christians projects onto Anna, a devout Latino woman from Brazil, the status of “true believer,” or “subject supposed to believe.” As Žižek explains,
“There are some beliefs, the most fundamental ones, which are from the very outset ‘decentered,’ beliefs of the Other….From the very outset, the speaking subject displaces his belief onto the big Other…from the very beginning, the subject refers to some decentered other to whom he imputes this belief” (Žižek 2002: unpaginated).
Žižek cites the role that children and “ordinary working people” play as stand-ins of the big Other for parents and Communist intellectuals, respectively. To this list I would add the Catholic Latino Other to whom white, Western Christians impute their spiritual belief. A white American Anna (played by someone like Jennifer Aniston) would be ridiculous precisely because she would not have fit within the fantasy frame of the film.
[7b] Further evidence that butterflies signify the divine providence of fundamentalist “knowledge” (and the incorporation of a premodern teleology within the modern world) can be found in Francis Lawrence’s most recent project, the television series Kings on NBC, which imagines the contemporary United States as a monarchial society called Gilboa. A butterfly on the kingdom’s orange flag symbolizes God’s supposed anointment of King Silas (Ian McShane). In Silas’ story, which he repeats verbatim, a swarm of Monarch butterflies landed on his head in the shape of a “living crown” to signal his divine right to rule. We do not know if this moment actually occurred or if it is a myth meant to keep the people enthralled to their leader, until we witness the butterflies crowning a young soldier named David Shepherd (Chris Egan). Their presence indicates the real existence of a metaphysical realm that guides the events of the world in a predetermined fashion—the exact same role that butterflies play in Legend. (No wonder Kings retells the Old Testament story of Kind David’s ascension.) That Lawrence uses butterflies in Kings as he did in Legend cannot be a coincidence.
8. Notably, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” plays during the credits, giving a specific meaning to the lyrics: “…We’ve got to fulfill the book.” Neville also tells Anna about Marley’s “virologist idea” to “cure racism and hate…by injecting music and love into people’s lives.” Neville’s view of racism as a religious and moral problem contrasts with Children’s representation of its political and economic roots.
9. As Christian allegories, Legend and Children star black religious figures. Because of class differences between Neville and Kee, only the latter treats race progressively. Legend uses Neville, an affluent African American from Manhattan, to make a religious and nationalistic appeal to Americans from all races to unite against a common enemy. Children uses Kee, a Third World refugee, to argue that the struggle for emancipation begins with the wretched of the earth.
10. The ideological move here would have been to make Kee, the black illegal immigrant, the “true believer,” just as Legend figures Anna. To repeat the thought experiment of f.7: Would Theo believe, even for an instant, in the immaculate conception of a white and well-off Kee?
11. One possible objection to the claim that Children rejects metaphysics involves the animals in the film. In the tradition of fairytales, the animals take a supernatural liking to Theo and seem to operate as helpers for the heroes to reach their destination. For example, dogs seem to intentionally increase the volume of their barking to cover the noise of Kee’s labor pangs. I argue that the film’s animal scenes, along with its nods to religious allegory, are ludic pastiches of archaic literary forms.
12. Jasper seems to slip into mythical discourse when he states that Dylan’s birth was inevitable because “he loved it here.” Does Jasper not affirm that replayed in all possible universes, Dylan — right down to the random genetic recombinations that formed his singularity — would be born? Granted Jasper’s New Age flirtations, he does seem to contradict himself here. However, we could read “Dylan” in the sentence “Theo and Julian would always bring Dylan” as an open signifier, one not pinned to a specific individual per se, but one representative of a general idea, a signifier that stands for their belief in changing the world incarnate.
“he’s shown the stamina of the last man on Earth. ‘I’ve been declared dead in this campaign on five or six occasions. I won’t refer to a recent movie I saw, but I think I am legend,’ [McCain] told reporters, referring to the film in which Will Smith stars as the last man on Earth” (Ramer 2008: unpaginated).
McCain’s reference to this particular piece of pop culture should not be treated as incidental, but as a calculated political move geared to rally Christians to support his neoconservative candidacy.
14. Arlen Parsa discusses several of the political references of the film in her blog, The Daily Background, which can be accessed at:
15. Since, in many respects, cars represent the world of commodities at large, the contrast between Children’s depiction of automobiles and Legend’s is not incidental. The Fiats and Renaults of the former are not the concept cars on display in standard fare futuristic films like I, Robot (2004). They are old, boxy, covered in grime, and often fail to work properly, i.e. they are not a fantasy being sold to the audience. The only car that looks like it has just been driven off the showroom floor is a Bentley Arnage R that escorts Theo into the Ark of Arts to see Nigel. Close-ups of this car emphasize class differences between those in the inner and outer circles.
16. Several critics point to the video rental store scene as one of the highlights of the film. For them, Neville’s interaction with mannequins recalls Tom Hanks’ performance as Noland in Cast Away (2000) when he paints a face on a volleyball and talks to it to stave off loneliness. From a cultural studies perspective, I am less interested in the existential dread of a lone survivor than I am in how Neville procures a modicum of normality by sustaining an everyday experience of consumer society. Instead of transferring the DVDs he desires en masse, he visits the store each day to exchange videos to maintain the illusion that he is only renting.
17. The titles of online articles that discuss Legend’s advertising encapsulate its hypercommercial subtext: “I Am Legendary Product Placement,” “I Am Legend; Ford is Legend,” “GT500 Stars in I Am Legend.”
18. For examples of Children’s ironic “anamorphic advertising,” see the YouTube video, “Children of Men: Advertising From The Future” at:
19. “Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together. Today they are moments when we are hurled further apart, when we lurch into a radically segregated future where some of us will fall off the map and others ascend to a parallel privatized state, one equipped with well-paved highways and skyways, safe bridges, boutique charter schools, fast-lane airport terminals, and deluxe subways” (Klein 2007c: 50).
20. In one draft of the script available online, Mark Protosevich’s description of Neville’s “turn-of-the-century house” unwittingly demonstrates the “class warfare” aspect of gated green zones. Although the house looks normal from without, “normal it is not”: “Every window and door has been bricked and cemented shut....security cameras jut out at odd angles, pointing at every corner of the surrounding landscape.” In addition, two fences constructed of wood beams, telephone poles, metal sheets, iron staffs, sharp wooden spikes, and barbed and razor wire outline the perimeter. A crude, three foot deep moat adds a royal touch. The full description can be found at
21. The alternate ending can be viewed at:
24. Maurice Yacowar provided the first formalist taxonomy of the disaster genre. See Yacowar, Maurice (1986) “The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre.” Film Genre Reader. ed. Grant, Barry Keith. Austin: University of Texas, 217-235. Yacowar’s study lists eight basic types of disaster films: natural attack, the ship of fools, the city fails, the monster, survival, war, historical, and the comic. Although Children and Legend borrow elements from some of these genres, neither film could be classifed as one of these types. However, as responses to the contemporary political constellation, they reflect one of the conventions Yacowar highlights: “Often the disasters have a contemporary significance” (Yacowar 2001: 231). For a more recent study of the disaster genre, see Keane, Stephen (2001) Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Wallflower.
25. It bears mentioning here that Children’s foreground story carefully draws a line between terroristic resistance and “something else.” That "something else" may entail a recognition of the mutual problem of neoliberal capitalism, an acknowledgment of political stakes, the willingness to die for an indeterminate cause, leftist politics. At the very least, Children argues for a purely formal gesture of united resistance, something in the vein of Jameson’s cautious call for “anti-anti-utopianism.” Children poses the question: Can terrorism ever be an effective form of resistance, or does it always devolve into hysterical provocation where the terrorists get caught up in a zero-sum “war game” of mutual destruction with the state they oppose? The fine line is best represented by the difference between Julian, whose true allegiance as a “mirror” is to the clandestine Human Project, and the rest of the Fishes, whose prime motive — from its idealistic to ignorantly dangerous ranks — is the suicidal Uprising.
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