October 26, 2008 5 Comments
The recent films 28 Days Later, its sequel 28 Weeks Later, the “Firefly” film Serenity and I Am Legend with Will Smith all involve humans converted into frenzied murderous demons due to a man-made virus – usually a virus created with noble intentions. In Weeks and Legend, the hero(s) must give their lives to protect a “special” individual whose blood may hold the key to humanity’s salvation; in Serenity the sacrifices are (less convincingly) necessary so that truth can out. In all cases not only are the demons trying to stop the heroes, but the heroes are up against the establishment as well. Similar setups can be found in many recent films, good and bad, from Children of Men to Ultraviolet.
Why does this theme of the demon virus and the special savior keep popping up, and what are all these movies really about?
Seems to me most of them are about the failure of ‘liberalism’ (in the American sense), i.e. the failure of social democracy – and also, more surprisingly, a longing for monarchy.
A certain stripe of horror/disaster/apocalyptic/exploitation film serves to play upon some widespread yet unstated fear, a fear that cannot or does not find its expression via “respectable” outlets. It’s not politically correct to make a straightforward movie about the threat of commies, but who will object if you make Invasion of the Body Snatchers? ’70s teen slasher films were about the dangers of casual sex and free love: teens have sex, then get killed. The subtext, which could not be stated in progressive company but could be woven into a cheesy movie, being that teens who have sex are sluts and deserve what they get.
What happens in a demon-virus movie? Who are the monsters? The monsters are other people. And not just some evil or colluding subset of other people, either: basically, it’s all other people (except the protagonists). The message is pretty clear: people are monsters and will come after you and claw at you and not stop until they are dead. But, how did those people – regular, faceless people – all get to be monsters? Usually it’s like this: the government is working on some project, something that they think will do a lot of good (say, cure cancer), and something goes horribly wrong.
The well-intentioned government program ends up going awry and turning people into monsters.
This sounds like every far-right caricature of their view of every liberal government project, does it not?
This is not to say that the people who write and make these films are actually far-righties who have such a view of liberal government programs. Probably, most of the people involved in making these films (as with all films) are well to the left of the political spectrum and probably would not even recognize this subtext of their films. (Some of them, e.g. Serenity director Joss Whedon, probably even think the critique they are levelling is pro-left and anti-right.) Nevertheless, these films appear designed to tap into that fear, the fear that liberal social projects will inevitably backfire and have disastrous unintended consequences.
This brings us to the Solution in all these films. The Solution is miraculously finding the Special Savior whose very existence will save humanity. Usually, there is something special about his/her blood (“immunity to the virus”, for example). Once this is learned/exposited, the heroes spend the rest of the movie trying to keep the Special Savior alive, and may give up their lives in doing so. But it will be worth it, because the Special Savior – often, tellingly, his/her actual bloodline – is important.
This, of course, is a metaphor. The Special Savior is, essentially, royalty and must henceforth be treated as such. And why not? Since liberalism/socialism doesn’t work, it’s only natural to turn back to the most widespread pre-liberal system: monarchy. “Monarchy is what will save us”, these films seem to say, and their third acts are mostly concerned with the of one thing: a celebration and glorification of self-sacrifice for the sake of the new royalty.
One may object that the savior storyline is more obviously and straightforwardly just a Christ/messiah parallel, and that is clearly true. But let’s not forget what the messiah prophecy was about: it was about a special child who would be born, who would be a king to lead the Jews and save them. The fact that these movies make use of a messiah storyline buttresses my point that they are pro-monarchist, rather than refutes it. Particularly since it is the physical aspects of the messiah (the kid’s blood in 28 Weeks Later, the woman’s random ability to conceive in Children of Men, etc.) rather than any metaphysical claims to being born under a special sign or being the ‘son of God’. The stories here are far more close parallels of the monarchist aspects of the messiah prophecy than they are of the religious/metaphysical ones.
The cynic in me would say that these stories have their most natural appeal for disillusioned liberals, liberals who have (deep down) lost faith in the potential of their ‘progressive’ projects for doing good. Stripped of this faith, all that is left is the naked desire to be celebrated as nobility. As saviors. If not because of the great social projects they produce (which they now realize are doomed), simply because of who they are. Their “blood”, i.e. their intrinsic specialness.
Because just as the demon-virus storyline allows people to confront their fears of social projects gone wrong, the savior resolution allows them to indulge their fantasy of being saviors. Which is, after all, the central fantasy behind the appeal of ‘liberalism’, for so very many.