You probably woke up as I did to horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. This, while Americans in Puerto Rico starve and drink muddy creek water in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as our president rages like a puffed up toddler insulting the mayor of San Juan, taunting the leader of North Korea, then boasting about his machismo on Twitter. Yes, acting out on Twitter. As the incompetent puppet in the White House tries to shame and humiliate Americans who kneel in protest, his fixation on stroking his own stupid ego is clearly the only thing that matters to him. There he was, pretending that he wants to heal the nation that he has deliberately torn apart, standing in front of a painting of George Washington. Sea levels are rising. Ice sheets are melting. Population growth is accelerating. Coral reefs are dying or already dead — and once dead they’re never coming back. We don’t know exactly what catastrophe is coming next, but we know there seems to be no limit to how bad things can get. As the most destructive invasive species the planet has ever known, we humans have put ourselves on the path to destruction with no way out except to invest in efforts to get off the planet altogether. That’s the plan for the rich folks anyway. That’s the plan of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer who believe that there is no way to avoid the coming apocalypse.
As usual, though, the one thing humans can lay on the table that sometimes helps justify our existence is our drive and ability to create meaningful art. Or as the aliens tell Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”
Not all the films in this year’s Best Picture race are about the way we have dealt with crisis in the past, though many of them are, like Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water. Some seem like prescient omens about the apocalypse, the end of everything, humanity’s last gasp. Some of them deal with the terrible awful through humor, others with satiric or surreal absurdity, and still others pass through the glass darkly. What seems clear is that many of these films hover just beyond the fringe of what audiences expect, and perhaps are not quite what people are ready to face, or think they need, in a time when news channels erupt with tragedy every day. Still, when there are these many films that reflect the facets of our anxieties, it’s hard not to notice them.
Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is about a lot of things that we rarely see in movies. It takes place in a future where science has found a way limit our carbon footprint significantly by reducing the size of our feet. Shrinking us down so small that we could fit in the palm of our own hands. It’s funny for a while to watch what it might be like to be half the size of Barbie and Ken, but eventually the tone shifts. Turns out that in the small world, just like the big world, there are two sorts of lifestyles. One for the very well off and one for everyone else. The film deals with questions of personal choice to pursue our own selfish needs versus helping others as a way to get through life. Though it’s true that the film will generate the most heat for the brilliant Hong Chau’s portrayal of a Vietnamese refugee, the message of the movie is a showcase for other vital elements. Its message is simple but always bears repeating: take care of other people because when it comes down to it, that’s really the only thing of value that matters. Downsizing has found a unique way to make us hear echoes of mankind’s road towards our own destruction. Those routes are many, though here Payne wants to dissect our rapid to path to overpopulation. The idea is that consumerism is at the root of the problem: how to reapportion the world’s resources so that people can buy more shit — since we’re almost at the point where the shit we buy threatens to bury us. The tiny world in Downsizing bluntly depicts our ongoing need to want more than the planet can supply, and it shows us what a difference just one person can make if we chose to share some of the over-abundance of shit on one side with those who struggle to find the bare essentials on the other.
Blade Runner 2049
The first reviews for Blade Runner 2049 are so off the charts great, one wonders if this may indeed be one of the rare sci-fi films that can make the jump to Best Picture. It only needs to be listed on ballots as the favorite film of the year by about 200 members to keep it in the running — that doesn’t seem like too big of a feat considering that few other films seen this year will be as jaw-dropping to behold as this one. I have a few go-to critics that I’ll be watching carefully to see what their take is. But unless too many Oscar voters decide that they can’t abide how the plot appears to shift in ways that don’t jibe with their feelings about its legendary predecessor, it seems to me like this might just land in the race.
Here is a film that you really can’t watch without bearing in mind the bleak future for the planet. For one thing, in this all-too likely scenario, by 2049 the planet will have been rendered virtually inhabitable, as it was in Pixar’s brilliant Wall-E. Unlike Downsizing, there is no fantastical scientific solution that can save us from ourselves. Humans have no choice but to abandon Earth and move to a new place we can ruin. Again, as Ridley Scott’s 1982 original drove home with such cruel poignancy, what the Blade Runner saga continues to do best is force us to reckon with our inevitable co-existence with artificial life of all kinds: holograms, robots, AI, chirpy cell-phone assistants, and other computerized reflections of our own brilliance, and with it reflections of our own flaws. Artificial lifeforms that know so much about us that they envy our humanity (and concurrently know so little that they think we will ever allow then to become our equals) is the through line between these two variations on Phillip K. Dick’s theme. But above all, there is no doubt that both films frame a condemnation of the human race for allowing things to go to hell as far as they have, and stand as as an indictment of our collective inhumanity towards other living things, replicants or otherwise.
Denis Villeneuve’s film is unlike anything anyone will see this year, even if the plot is familiar. This version of the future does not offer glib promises that we can fix ourselves. If anything, it makes a great case that we’ll simply be replaced. Imagine a planet populated by robots that would not need to pillage and drain the planet’s resources to survive. Inevitably, the lens gets pointed back at us — an out-of-control species that the planet simply can’t sustain.
Among other harsh indictments against the human race in films this year, probably the most elegantly beautiful, deeply moving, and perhaps even life-changing is Joon-ho Bong’s Okja. It’s likely that one reason this movie hasn’t become a bigger deal in the awards conversation is that most of us don’t want to face what our appetite for meat has done to innocent animals, done to the planet. No one wants to even go there with factory farming and yet these inhumane slaughterhouses proliferate where unimaginable torture is inflicted on other creatures to feed our callous appetites. This film does sort of what Downsizing does in that it offers up an absurd solution: grow genetically altered ginormous pigs to feed more people. The illusion sold to the populace in the film is that they’re growing them on farms, happily; the reality is that they’re churning super-pigs through a circular hell of institutionalized carnage. Most movies about our future — Downsizing, or Blade Runner — do not approach the touchy issue of what we do to animals, but a few this year have confronted it head on. What we do to other living things with whom we share this planet determines who we are as a species. It’s a continuing blight on our own image of who we are that we can do this without addressing it, without confronting it, without doing more to try to end it. There has to be a better way. Okja is a film as beautiful as it is true: all mammals feel the same love for each other as we humans do. They bond with their offspring the same way we do. They bond with each other the same way we do. So why would we think it was okay to do what we do to them so that Little Johnny can have his artery-clogging dollop of buttered bacon ice cream at Sea World? Okja is at times a hard film to watch for animal lovers. But it is a film so powerful it might change the way you see yourself, your footprint in the world.
Like Snowpiercer, another film that depicted a world where people have to start eating each other to survive the apocalypse, and where income inequality rules what’s left of the human race, Okja does offer some hope for the future, as long as there are brave people who are willing to fight against the system.
Darren Aronofky’s wildly brilliant expressionist cinema is the most searing indictment of humanity out of all of these. He comes right out and says it: we humans are evil. Whatever bounties of life have been granted to us, we destroy with our greed, our gluttony, our wars, our enslavement of other people and animals, our reckless trashing of our own habitat, our inability to take care of our perfect home. Some saw religion, some saw Aronofsky’s own personal relationships, or his relationship with his art — but once you see mother! as an allegorical representation of the destruction of the natural world at the hands of humans who become zealots, you can’t unsee it. As we barrel towards an apocalypse of our own making, these fears vibrate through this artist’s canvas. And as hard to watch and ugly as it often is, we are reminded that even now we have the ability to communicate powerful messages through art. While mother! might not be about specifically about climate change or overpopulation or the merciless slaughter of trillions of animals every year to feed our species, it is most certainly about the great flaw in our collective identity: our inability to care for each other or our own world, and how so many of us use religion to justify that destruction.
War for the Planet of the Apes
War for the Planet of the Apes is not the kind of movie most popcorn-moviegoers would expect it to be. It goes far darker than almost any summer blockbuster dares to venture in depicting a tragedy about primate survivors in a world wrecked by humans. It’s truly scary and scarily true that one of the ways we humans might be wiped out is by a super bug that will move too fast, infect too many people, and for which there are no antibiotics left in that can effectively fight it. Here, apes who have evolved to become our equals are put into savage confinement that echoes concentration camps, leaving no room for doubt about what we’ve done as humans to every other living thing on the planet. Was there ever any doubt? The bad humans will have to die out and the good ones will have to reproduce for the world in this film to improve, which might be the only plot line that makes sense for the next Planet of the Apes movie. You can’t watch this film without thinking about the impressive rise and tragic fall of humans — a once great species undone by its own arrogance. Sure, our demise may be still a long way off. But when that day does come, Apes makes a pretty good case for our stepping aside and letting another species to take over for a while. While the original franchise was really more about our fear of an intelligent species overtaking us (along with uneasy racial undercurrents of the 1960s and early 1970s), now the fear has shifted to the imminent danger of how casually we might destroy ourselves.
Beatriz at Dinner
Like all of the films here, how a viewer relates to this film will depend on where they sit, judgment-wise, at the trial of humanity’s crimes. Beatriz at Dinner is certainly not a perfect film, but perhaps more than some of the others (through merit of its literate script) it nails the hypocrisy of people who believe they are doing good things and people who know they aren’t and don’t care. It is a dead-on examination of our modern human condition — or, rather, a specifically American condition — that, if we’re being honest, most people simply aren’t ready to face. Maybe someday this film will be dragged out, dusted off, get reassessed, and be fully appreciated. Every time I watch that TV ad for Harvoni Hep C treatment, showing hundreds people launching flaming sky lanterns into the night, I think of Beatriz at Dinner which ends with well-meaning folks doing just that — never mind the forest fires they may start, the roofs of houses they could set ablaze, the birds who might suffer heart attacks at the sight of this inferno that oblivious humans have unleashed. Their bliss is all that matters. On the other hand, if you see too much, if you know too much, if you feel too much, it’s hard to live at all. To live is to take because to live is to require resources, food, electricity, water, WiFi.
Each of these films hold up a mirror to our own self-destructive impulses, and that could explain why none of them are particularly at the top of anyone’s list for Best Picture. In fact, it will be a miracle if many or any of them end up in the Best Picture race. We all feel so much more comfortable with celebrating a past that we can understand, back when heroes were clear and well-defined, and could solve problems instead of creating them. It’s much harder to watch the chaos of our everyday reckless excess.