The Wars of the End of the World

Last year with Prometheus, Ridley Scott delivered us an epic, ambitious and rambling story about space travellers of the not-so-distant future finding once and for all the origin and meaning of life on our planet. He may have failed to convince audiences around the world that his idea was not an overblown morality tale about the virtues of abortion in extreme circumstances, but by getting the movie made in the first place (at an outlay of around $130m), it was obvious that he had convinced a major Hollywood movie studio that serious science fiction was coming back. Not since the failure of The Matrix sequels in 2003 had Hollywood banked big on serious sci-fi, instead focusing their blockbuster budgets on superhero movies and book spinoffs. Someone in Hollywood changed their mind at the start of this decade however, and suddenly it was ok to spend over $100m on dark, depressing subject matter. Prometheus opened the floodgates, and this year saw six big, expensive, serious science fiction movies released. What is interesting is that all six dealt with basically the same scenario: the end of the world. To be more precise, these six can be divided into two groups: Pacific Rim, World War Z and Man of Steel were about humanity struggling with a force that was destroying the world, while the other three (Oblivion*, Elysium and After Earth) were set after an apocalypse had already occurred. All of these movies cost well over $100m to make, meaning that altogether the Hollywood film industry invested well over $1bn this year in convincing us that the world could end (or be saved) in one way or another. This is a lot of money, and it immediately begs the question: What can Hollywood teach us about the End of the World?

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Well, first of all, Hollywood is in California, and California is full of lefty hippies. Therefore it is no surprise that in all six (potential) Armageddon’s, the environment is the major concern. In Elysium, rich people have abandoned the Earth due to pollution, and live in a space station just outside the atmosphere. The Pacific Rim monsters start arriving because the Earth’s atmosphere is suddenly just the right level of polluted to support them. Brad Pitt and Will Smiths son narrate in stoic tones at the start of World War Z and After Earth, respectively, linking the nonsense that is about to follow to pollution from Chinese factories. The plot of Man of Steel has Superman being the only survivor of a planet that collapsed due to overuse of its natural resources. He arrives on Earth, and his presence attracts some of his friends, who want to do the same to Earth. In future movies, I imagine this Superman to act as kind of a conscience of planets in general, warning his weak humans whenever they are overdoing it. Oblivion is a bit of an outlier in my dataset, as civilisation is wiped out by an alien race who actually come to earth to live off its resources. The original story was written before the release of An Inconvenient Truth, therefore these aliens were not aware that stealing the resources of our planet would only be a stopgap solution to their survival at best.

Linked to the realisation of our effect on nature is the uneasy relationship that humanity has with science and technology, and the role these forces will play in our eventual downfall. The Pacific Rim robots are created using as much of the Earth’s resources as are available, to fight monsters that only appear due to over-industrialisation and pollution. In order to fight them, humanity has to engage in the biggest industrial projects of all time, and quickly, and I doubt that environmental emissions treaties were respected. The connected, globalised world is what originally causes the spread of a zombifying virus in World War Z. Man of Steel has guys from a different planet with all the technology and scientific knowledge in the universe, yet they are still assholes. Therefore Superman must use his and the whole worlds human spirit (I know, I know) to defeat them, rather than equalling their scientific prowess.

The three post-apocalyptic movies all have to deal with the fact that even though the world is practically uninhabitable, humanity could possibly still survive and thrive due to technological advancement in space travel and habitation. But could they forget what they have done to poor old Earth? There is a monster in After Earth that follows Will Smith and his son around as kind of a metaphor of this, but other than that, they are doing pretty well off-planet. The rich people in Elysium don’t care what happens on Earth as long as they don’t have to see it, while Tom Cruise as a drone engineer in Oblivion just wants to get off Earth as soon as possible. In both of these cases, they will of course soon be forced to remember what they have left behind.  So even in the post-apocalypse, with technology available to find a new place to live and build a new civilisation, it cannot mask the fact that we have destroyed our home.

Leaving the exodus of earth behind and focusing on the subgroup of movies about struggles to save it, there are breadcrumbs left by Hollywood scriptwriters about the best way to save the world. Once the Pacific Rim monsters started appearing out of the Pacific Ocean and attacking every country they cross, the world pooled their resources and (obviously) built giant robots together. In Man of Steel, Zod is attacking America and China at the same time, therefore unified action is necessary. Brad Pitt works for the UN in World War Z, for some reason. A common thread is immediately apparent. Initially there are international diplomacy issues, and in two of the movies, individual countries start building walls in order to isolate themselves from the issue, to no avail.  Once a threat is classed to be at a sufficiently apocalyptic level, all national rivalries are left to one side and the nations of the world team up to save it. This is achieved through the sharing of industrial and scientific resources, which together are the fruits of humanity, the totality of what our civilisation has contributed to the world. The pursuit of this advancement may have led to catastrophe, yet it can still be used for good, and possibly an escape from the planet if things don’t end well in the struggle.

So big, corporate American movies are telling us that our negligence of the environment will one day lead to a global catastrophe at best, and the only way to counter it is through sharing of scientific knowledge through international collaboration, possibly through the United Nations? It doesn’t sound like the corporate America we all know and love, but it is after all just lefty, hippy California. And in truth, all these messages have been hidden around explosions, giant robots and Superman. These marketable aspects meant that the six movies I talked about here made nearly $2.5bn at the worldwide box office. While much of this figure is a result of all these movies fooling people into thinking 3D is a worthwhile filmmaking technique and worthy of higher ticket prices, the return on the investment is impressive and conclusive proof that serious sci-fi sells. Science fiction is one of the most under-appreciated genres in both literature and cinema. Think Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Brazil. Science fiction gives a (screen)writer the power to deal with real, current issues, in familiar settings very similar to our own, albeit taken to extreme levels. If we keep doing this, we could end up with this and so forth. While many may argue that all of it is just explosions in space and excuses to kill monsters, there is nothing wrong with a large audience ($2.5bn worth) of people going home from the cinema every year with a subliminal message in the back of their minds that maybe global warming is real and bad, or that international cooperation may not be treason. To sum it up: it may be nonsense, but it’s not the worst nonsense there could be.

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On Extistentialism and Grand Theft Auto V

If you have no idea what GTA V is, skip to the end for a brief overview

Five minutes into the final (completely optional) triathlon mission in Grand Theft Auto V, everything started to make sense. I had been making my character swim across the biggest lake in the state, repeatedly pressing the X button on my control pad in order to make sure he kept up with the rest of his fellow triathlon competitors. I was only halfway across the lake, and there was still the cycling and running events to come. And all you do in all of those events is tap X and point in the direction you want to go.  It suddenly became clear what was really happening: I was being trolled, by the game designers. What they were saying to me was that if I wanted to completely finish this game, I had to be shown how sad and pathetic I was by completing this horrible ordeal. The game had indeed become an obsession for me, and I needed to complete it in order to get my life back. So I held on, and accepted my fate. The longer it went on, the more determined I was to win, for I never wanted to have to do it again. Neither my X button nor my onset of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my thumb could have taken that. Just over 25 minutes later, I narrowly overtook a competitor to take first prize. But at what cost? It didn’t matter, once it confirmed I had completed that part of the game, I went straight to doing the next thing on the list I needed for 100% completion. The game designers knew this, and that’s why they trolled me.

The GTA series gets a lot of news coverage due to its supposed effect on the degradation of society. You can steal cars, rob convenience stores, pick up prostitutes, and kill innocent people in countless ways. If you want. All that bad stuff is optional, you don’t have to do any of it. This is what the game designers would argue when such moral criticism arises, while also pointing to the fact that the universe they have created is an obvious satire of the world we live in. The first point isn’t convincing: if they didn’t want you to kill innocent people, they wouldn’t have made them so easy to run over with a car (complete with that squishy sound). The second point is very true: it is an epic satire. the game, based in the quasi-Los Angeles city of Los Santos, we use a social network called Life Invader while the budget smartphone is not a Droid, but a Drone.  Wherever you go in the game, there are people taking photos on smartphones and playing on iPads. You help the CIA rescue a rendition victim from the FBI, only to help torture him in the next mission. There is a gun shop called Ammu-Nation every few blocks, that allows serial mass-murderers like you buy guns 24 hours a day. When the police arrest you, they take your ammo, but not your guns. Because this may be a fictional city in America, but it is still America.

The main thing about GTA, as hinted at previously, is that you don’t actually have to do anything the game designers tell you to do: you can do whatever you want. From around the third mission, you can say goodbye to the story and indulge your nihilism as much as you want. Kill people, pick up prostitutes, kill her afterwards to regain the money you just paid for the service. Eventually the police will come after you, and you won’t always evade them. You will end up in hospital or jail, which are very expensive. You will end up robbing people just to fund your next hospital visit, drifting from petty crime to petty crime, each funding the next. A pitiful existence, no doubt, and it is similar to what would happen if you chose this path in real life. The only way to make real money is to get a real job, ie the actual game story. Completing missions and eventually robbing banks will get you millions. Only through structured work effort and careful planning can one climb the rungs of society and escape petty criminality in the GTA world. And again, this only brings the player to a certain level: completing all missions brings a basic payout of $20m. This is not even enough to afford the deed to the biggest cinema in Los Santos, should you wish to purchase it. Crime only brings you so far, which leads us to the in-game stock market, where the real money is made. Using money gained through crime to fund a stock portfolio is the only way to get to the pinnacle of success in GTA V, which is possibly the greatest piece of satire in the entire game. There are two paths: one leads to jail or hospital, and the other leads to Wall Street. I’m pretty sure this is the life lesson taught to more than one of the games writers by their parents.

In the game, you control three different characters and can change between the three of them at will. Franklin is a black car thief in his early 20’s, struggling to balance his ambition with his roots in LA gang culture. Michael is in his mid-40s, a retired bank robber living a life of luxury with his wife and two teenagers. Trevor is a white-trash, deranged psychopath who knew Michael many years before. In the main story, each has a character arc and are used to tell different parts of the story, and interconnect at various times. This is useful as a literary device to tell a grand story, however the three characters are really there to appeal to a different type of player. Franklin is there for the teenagers/kids who play the game, Michael is there for older gamers like me who accept that they are too old for this stuff, while Trevor is the id, a personification of successive Daily Mail hate campaigns and is there for all those “nihilists” who shouldn’t be playing GTA at all.

So as in a TV show with many characters, every player will have a favourite and want to spend more time with him. Obviously mine is Michael, the retiree who is currently going through a midlife crisis. He seeks self-actualisation, so he does yoga, he sees a therapist, he attempts to join a Scientology-esque cult (but becomes pissed off and kills everyone when they ask for too much money).  His wife leaves him at the end of Act 1 of the storyline, and the rest is about him picking up the pieces of his settled life, while killing people and robbing banks in the process. In all of this, the player is in control of Michael, attempting to get him through this midlife crisis of his, adrift in the sea of chaos that is the GTA universe of prostitutes and car theft. Of course, he gets his family back in the course of the narrative, but the self-actualisation process continues unabated.

In a movie about midlife crisis, it would end with him either dead, or looking out into the distance. In the game, you can conceivably play on with Michael in the GTA universe for as long as electricity and the PS3 system allows and you will still hear him question his current standing forever while robbing convenience stores and killing people, possibly with constantly updated dialogue via the internet. But of course, this is the game designers trolling me again, for they are really talking to me, about the virtues of being a 30 year old man seeking self-actualisation in the form of nihilistic video games where laws can be broken and civilised society is an abstraction. Video games are changing: GTA V entertains, it engages, it even has some emotive moments. However with people of my generation and above, there will always be this nagging doubt about how something is just not quite right about spending time indulging in this type of entertainment, unironically. GTA V is a parody of modern life, but it also satirises and parodies those who actually appreciate it, which is not something many TV shows, movies or even books could ever hope to accomplish. Based on this, games could yet be more than just mere nihilism.

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If you don’t know what GTA is:

Everyone reading this has at some point played a video game. What differentiates the GTA series from others is that rather than pushing players towards completing a detailed story, the game developers create an entire world for players to explore, and it is the players choice whether he or she completes the prepared storyline or just goes around exploring what is possible in this dense world. What is interesting, and controversial about this world however is that it is not some faraway planet or fictional past civilisation: the series bases its world on modern life, and in the case of GTA V the setting is Los Santos, which is Los Angeles by any other name. In Los Santos, the player steals cars, kills people, picks up prostitutes, robs convenience stores and then tries to escape the police attention gleaned from performing these acts. This isn’t easy, the police are smart and forceful, and often the player can end up getting killed (requiring an expensive trip to the hospital) or getting arrested.