Better Dead than Red: Politics and Genre

By Daniel M. Kimmel

It's a presidential election year, and the theater, as always, is riveting. Whether you find it a comedy or tragedy depends on where you fall on the political spectrum, and perhaps won't finally be known until the morning of November 7. In the SF film tradition—and the related genres of horror and fantasy—political movies are a rarity. While dystopias about oppressive regimes or repressive societies are fairly common—think of movies such as Blade Runner, 1984, and Star Wars—rarely do we have to confront the political leadership that must administrate the day to day concerns of the state. In the few films where we meet the leaders, as opposed to their minions and enforcers, the issue of how their political system works is usually unimportant. Even for those obsessive Star Wars fans who can take us through the prequels and spell out how the future Emperor Palpatine manipulates Queen Amidala, do we really watch those movies for insights into senate deliberations, trade negotiations, or the desirability of a dictatorship? Science fiction movies rarely focus on how we select our leaders or the processes we employ, but when they do touch on politics and government, they can help us understand the power of the individual citizen to make a difference.

President Thomas J. Whitmore inspires the troops in Independence Day.

Political leaders are often featured in SF films about world-ending catastrophes and alien invasions. Who can forget President Thomas Beck (Morgan Freeman, Jr.) in Deep Impact or the unnamed President (Stanley Anderson) in Armageddon, trying to deal with the impending approach of a meteor hurtling towards the Earth? President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is facing bad poll numbers in Independence Day yet with the help of Roland Emmerich, Will Smith, and a lot of special effects, he saves humanity from an alien invasion. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) has it a little tougher in 2012 since the world is coming to an end and most of the world's population is going to perish. Meanwhile it's Vice President Raymond Becker (Kenneth Welsh) in The Day After Tomorrow who takes a skeptical view of global warming, not realizing he's paving the way for a new ice age.

Whether wise or foolish, these figures are there primarily to represent "authority." They can rally people, comfort them against the forthcoming apocalypse, or be part of the problem, yet the process of how they got into power in the first place isn't really at issue. Just as footage of then President Bill Clinton was combined with Jodie Foster and James Woods in Contact, the role of the president in these movies is to be "presidential" and make decisions. Other characters will blow up the meteor or build the giant arks or attack the mothership. The politics in play here are the politics of a crisis state. Our leaders become figureheads that represent the body politic as unified (or not!) against the forces that threaten our continued existence as a nation or a species.

Other genre movies play upon audience cynicism about politicians in order to create villains or for comedic effect. Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) is an anti-mutant bigot in the X-Men movies. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) imagines he can talk his way out of any situation in Mars Attacks! After the Martians destroy Congress he tells the American people, "I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain't bad." When he's confronted by the Martians he makes an impassioned speech about how Mars and Earth can work together and then shakes hands with the Martian leader—which detaches itself and impales him. Perhaps the most cynical take on politicians is in They Live, where Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers that aliens disguised as humans are running the Earth. In order to detect them, one must wear special glasses that reveal their (hideous) true selves and the true of their consumer advertising. In one scene he looks at a TV screen in which a political leader is giving a speech, and the pol turns out to be one of the aliens. Nada isn't at all surprised.

Sometimes the politicians are more ambiguous. President Merkin Muffley is one of three roles played by Peter Sellers in the classic apocalyptic satire Dr. Strangelove. Is Muffley an ineffective fool who denies that the U.S. is building a Doomsday device only to be told by the Russian ambassador, "Our source was the New York Times"? Or is he a man capable of decisive, necessary action such as when he informs an inebriated Russian premier that a mad general has launched an unauthorized attack on the Soviet Union? ("It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it.") What is clear is that he's at the mercy of advisors all too eager for World War III to get underway. Similarly, Woody Allen's Sleeper introduces a ruthless but incompetent dictatorship. Miles Monroe, played by Allen himself, is cryogenically frozen for 200 years before being awakened to join the rebellion against "the Leader" because as a man from the past his identity is unknown to the authorities. In the end, we learn that the Leader has been assassinated and all that has survived is his nose. To underline the dictatorship's absurdity and perhaps Allen's contempt for politicians more generally, doctors are planning to use the nose to clone a new version of the Leader. Miles heroically finishes the job by putting the nose in the path of a steamroller.

Potential assassins in The Parallax View are subjected to a video designed to confuse and dissociate traditional values. (NSFW)

Politics plays a larger role in what we might call "slipstream" movies. These are movies that avoid easy genre categorization, sharing most realist conventions with mainstream fare, but referencing technologies and elements that are more at home in speculative genres. One of the best known examples of this is The Manchurian Candidate, based on the novel by Richard Condon. In the 1962 film (it was remade in 2004) Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from the Korean War as a hero. It slowly emerges that he and his men were captured by the North Koreans and brainwashed, with Shaw having been turned into a sleeper assassin. Once his handlers reveal his trigger, the Queen of Diamonds, he must obey the orders he is given. The key order will come from none other than his mother (Angela Lansbury), and it will set off a situation that will put her new husband and rightwing blowhard Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in power while leaving her as the one pulling the strings. Released at the height of the Cold War—indeed, opening during the Cuban Missile Crisis—The Manchurian Candidate doesn't need aliens as stand-ins for the Communists. The real ones, in this case from China, will do very nicely. The notion that people could be programmed to become high-functioning but otherwise mindless automatons is SF, but there was just enough in the news and popular culture about brainwashing and psychological manipulation to keep the cognitive dissonance to a minimum. A decade later, after the nation was rocked by several political assassinations, Warren Beatty starred as the reporter Joe Frady in The Parallax View, where he attempts to unravel the web of conspiracies surrounding a series of high profile political assassinations. The investigation leads him to a corporation that screens for potential psychopaths and then subjects them to an elaborate training that includes videos designed to restructure their psychology to create the optimal assassins. Frady himself ends up as a patsy for the death of a senator, and is then shot and killed before he can be taken in for questioning. In both of these movies, our democracy is shown to be at the mercy of more sinister forces and their technologies. The forms and ideologies of government are downplayed in favor of a conspiratorial narrative of appearance versus reality, and the manipulation of that appearance by shadowy, powerful people. The Parallax View ends with a senate committee report stating that Frady acted alone, no further questions.

Against these cynical films that show American democracy at the mercy of non-democratic forces and technologies, David Cronenberg's adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone puts the power to change things back into the hands of a citizen. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a coma to discover he has new psychic powers and can read the future of people with whom he comes into contact. He soon meets the venal and self-serving Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a glad-handing candidate who—as Johnny discovers when they shake hands—will eventually become president and lead the world into a nuclear war. There's no way to explain this to people so that they will believe it, so instead he decides he must assassinate the candidate. When Johnny fires upon Senator Stillson, Stillson commits an act of jaw-dropping cowardice that destroys his political career and takes away his opportunity to start a nuclear war. (As an aside, Sheen would later go on to play the wise President Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, a television show so popular with SF fans that a panel at the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia discussed whether it should be considered "alternate history" and where, exactly, it diverged from our timeline.)

This focus on the power of ordinary citizens is carried out further in Starship Troopers, the satiric adaptation of Robert Heinlein's classic novel. Although the movie was criticized in some quarters for a lack of faithfulness to the book, it did keep one of the key elements of the story: in order to win the right to vote you must serve in the military. Only veterans have the franchise. The idea was that by putting your life on the line for the system, you demonstrated you had a stake in it and deserved to have a say. The negative corollary to this arrangement is that the state becomes a vehicle for the military, pushing its interests with elaborate propaganda (which the film models on Nazi Germany) that favors eternal war against the bugs. This conservative view of voting rights was taken to its logical and eerie extreme by Joe Dante in "Homecoming," an episode he did for the short-lived cable series Masters of Horror. Easily one of the most memorable episodes of the series, it begins with presidential speechwriter David Murch (Jon Tenney) defending the war in Iraq. He responds to a grieving mother who demands to know what her son died for by telling her he wishes her son could come back to life so that he could answer her questions directly. Murch's wish ironically comes true as dead soldiers start emerging from their graves. They don't seek brains on which to feast, but instead want the right to vote. Indeed, they've come back for the sole purpose of electing someone who will end the war.

Red Nightmare, a collaboration between Warner Brothers and the Department of Defense.

For Jerry Donovan (Jack Kelly), things like voting, attending meetings and doing your duty in the Reserves is a waste of time. That's before narrator Jack Webb sends him on a Twilight Zone-like journey in the incredible 1962 propaganda short Red Nightmare, made for the Defense Department by Warner Brothers. Jerry wakes up in a town taken over by the Communists. His teenage daughter volunteers for duty on a collective farm, his wife and young children turn against him, the local church has become a museum of Russian science. His show trial features accusations of subversion, deviation, and treason, but no details are provided. Jerry is given an opportunity to confess before being executed, waking up in time to realize he has to take his duties as an American citizen seriously.

While there are mainstream dramas that turn upon elections and campaigns, science fiction is more likely to focus either on situations where an omnipotent government can be defeated or must be succumbed to, such as Brazil, Children of Men, Fahrenheit 451, and many others. Or, less frequently, it shows what happens when we give up or don't care. Movies like Gattaca, Death Race 2000, and Minority Report show us societies where people unquestioningly accept new norms and pay the price for it. One film that took that idea to the limit was Idiocracy, a movie that essentially tells viewers that they're either part of the solution or they're part of the idiotic problem. Cpl. Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) wakes up 500 years in the future after the army enrolled him in a suspended animation experiment and promptly forgot about it. The stupid have inherited the Earth and modern technology is in its glitched-out death throes. When Bauers takes an IQ test he is declared the smartest man alive and put in charge of solving the problem of food shortages. He suggests irrigating the crops with water instead of sports drinks. It may be the ultimate example of use it or lose it, in this case referring to our brains.

Robocop was also satiric in intent, but much darker. Its near future society is one where some problems are deemed so intractable as to be beyond the ability of government to deal with them. In this case the Detroit authorities have given up trying to police the city and hired Omni Consumer Products to do it for them. A satire of business culture, it takes the idea that private enterprise always knows better and proceeds to show what happens to people when corporate infighting includes heavily armed robots. The characters care less about service than about marketing and profitability. Even the well-meaning president (Gordon Pinset) in Colossus: The Forbin Project thinks that we can farm out major responsibilities, like national defense, only to discover that the supercomputer tasked with the job has its own ideas.

Making movies about politics is a tricky thing, particularly in times like these when people are so divided, and science fiction does a better job dealing with general themes of government, citizenship, and technology rather than the nuts and bolts of a campaign or an election. More realist movies like Advise and Consent, Bob Roberts, or The Candidate can get us involved in the lives of fictitious politicians, but adding a touch of the fantastic or horrific is not always easy. The cult film Werewolf of Washington has a presidential press secretary turn into the title monster, but it's essentially a low-budget Watergate satire. The South African District 9 is probably the best example of an movie that is able to utilize SF tropes (in this case aliens and their advanced technologies) to level a critique against actual government. In this case South Africa's apartheid government, which reigned from 1948 until 1994, is criticized through an analogy between the segregation of aliens and the systematic oppression of blacks and Indians.

Of course, in a democracy, the primary mediating technology between us and our government is the process of voting. Despite the fact that voting is the primary means for citizens to exert influence over their government, there hasn't been a national turnout of more than 60% of the voting age population except in presidential elections, and then only barely. In fact, in non-presidential election years like 2006 and 2010, both of which saw one or both Congressional majorities change, turnout was less than 38%. Starship Troopers may have offended some with Heinlein's idea of restricting the franchise to veterans, but the franchise only works if you use it. As SF fans we like to think of ourselves as aware and forward thinking. This year, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, register, vote, and encourage your family and friends to do so too. If enough of us vote, perhaps we can ensure that our future crops won't be drowning in sports drinks.


This article was part of our 2012 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.


Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film critic whose reviews currently appear at Northshoremovies.net and the Sci-Fi Movie Page. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network, received the Cable Center Book Award and Jar Jar Binks Must Die . . . and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies was nominated for a Hugo. His first novel, Shh! It's a Secret, will be published in January.

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