Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2010

Monster Movie Bash

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Ever since the 1950s at least, science fiction and horror movies have served to make some social or political point either tilting to the left (The Day the Earth Stood Still) or right (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). That tendency continues unabated as three recent movies have provided commentary on contemporary society while scaring the bejesus out of you or at least striving to do so. In order of success, I refer you to the following.

Splice refers to gene-splicing and particularly the attempt of two molecular biologists to create new life forms based on a motley collection of animals, drawing from the strengths of each. Their initial specimen looks a bit like an oversized slug. The hope is that the new species will be mined for genetic material that can fight diseases such as Parkinson’s, etc.

The two biologists are a husband and wife team played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. The casting of Brody, an actor known for a-list productions like The Jacket and The Pianist , might indicate that this is no run of the mill monster movie. Brody and Polley are Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, who come across as the sort of people who live in Tribeca rather than suburban tract housing. As expressions of their hipness, Clive is seen at one point in a plaid suit that you can spot in a Madison Avenue boutique if you ever wander along that outpost of conspicuous consumption. On their bedroom wall there is an oversized oil painting based on Japanese manga (comic book) art. On the evening after they have made their gene-splicing breakthrough for a powerful bioengineering firm, they sit around trying to decide how big an apartment they can now afford. When they get their comeuppance, as will be inevitable from their scientific hubris, you can’t suppress a feeling that they had it coming.

Elsa is even more ambitious than her husband, not only in terms of commodity fetishism but in pushing the envelope in gene-splicing. She says that the ultimate product will not be based solely on animals but on a combination of human and animal. This will be a better guarantee of curing diseases, as well of course of securing fame and fortune.

The result of their latest experiment looks more or less like an even larger slug on legs. It turns out that this is a human embryo that is growing outside a mother’s womb. As it progresses rapidly to maturity, the end result is something that looks a lot like Mariel Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Manhattan except with a serpent like tail and ostrich like legs and an inability to speak. She has the intelligence of a human being, however, as well as the sex drive.

Previews might have led you to believe that Splice had something in common with Species, another monster movie that did scare the bejesus out of you even if it lacked the sophistication and kinky intelligence of Splice. The true inspiration for Splice is not the run-of-the-mill monster flick but the poignant 1935 Bride of Frankenstein which has the monster demanding of his maker that he find him a mate since he can no longer stand being lonely. When the husband and wife created their version of Frankenstein, they did not anticipate that her hormones would be raging not three weeks after they created her. The complications that this would lead to, however, have nothing in common with the average teen romance. This is instead hormones from hell.

While one might not expect a mainstream movie like this to examine the contradictions of genetic splicing in the fashion it deserves, one might hope that it might inspire others to penetrate to the heart of the matter in the way that my old friend Mark Jones once did:

A genetic engineer has created a mouse with ears that glow in the dark, by splicing firefly genes into mouse DNA.

More practically, transgenic pigs that freeze to death if left in the open because the human genes they’ve got don’t let them accumulate fat, already make our bacon. Coming soon: bespoke pig heart transplants in case the fat-free pig didn’t help us avoid coronaries. I have been reading up on genes and transgenic science, and how the media handle it all. The stories and images arrive by stealth in our unconcscious from inside the labs where evolution is being undone. They ought to make your hair stand on end (when the journal Nature broke the story of Dolly the cloned sheep — ‘More important than Darwin, Einstein and Copernicus together!’ — its graphic designers airbrushed one leg black, to make the thing look more cuddly. They forgot a cloned sheep whose ‘parent’ has four white legs can itself only have four white legs).

These images of biotech at work are mostly like that: not stark tekno, but homely flesh-tones: a bowl of rice, an ear of wheat, cheerful rodents made literally anthropomorphic, like the mouse with a human ear growing on its back. Oh, cute!

These images condition us to accept something more terrible than anything Himmler, Pol Pot or Mengele did. None of them managed to rob their victims of their humanity. We can feel pity and terror for the hollow-eyed, numbered prisoners of Tuol Sleng, but a mouse with luminous ears? You cannot pity the loss of something that was never there in the first place. This not a living thing, it is quasi-alive, it is just an agglomeration of high-spec cells which happens to move around and stare vacantly. Now, just as the first slaves were modeled on the first domesticated animals (hunter-gatherers do not enslave) so the first not-human humans, or bits of humans, will be modelled on the mice with the ears. Headless humans grown from our own nail parings for our own transplants. Androids like in Dick’s 60’s classic, the basis of Blade Runner.

Daybreakers is a vampire movie with a difference. In the distant future, the vampires have taken over the world and are harvesting the remaining human beings for blood who are attached to various tubes that provide just enough nourishment to keep them alive. It is a metaphor, of course, for industrial meat production and a barbed commentary on how ghastly the capitalist mode of food production is.

In the same way that bluefin tuna is becoming extinct today, human beings are dwindling down to a few so much so that blood is rationed to the vampires who often are forced to accept an animal substitute that leaves them unsatisfied. It is the difference, one supposes, between soyburgers and the real thing especially if you prefer your burger drippingly rare.

Ethan Hawke stars as Edward Dalton, a researcher like the yuppie couple in Spice whose job it is develop blood substitutes for the bioengineering mega-corporation he works for. Like everybody else in the company, including the villainous president Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), Dalton is a vampire. And like any other employee working in a large corporation, he doesn’t like his job very much and won’t drink human blood on principle. In fact becoming a vampire has not turned out to be everything it was billed to be. You might live forever but you can’t even look at a sunny sky when you get up in the morning. Also like other vampires, Dalton drives around during daytime in a special car that has those smoked-over windows like rap stars drive, but even more opaque.

Eventually Dalton hooks up with a band of human beings, including an ex-vampire (Willem Dafoe, of course) who has learned how to become a human being. Turning his back on his bloodthirsty tribe, like Jake Sulley in Avatar, Dalton leads a desperate mission to destroy the vampire world by turning them into human beings.

Someday Hollywood might make the vampire movie we really need, one in which the Dracula figure is a hedge fund manager or an oil company executive. This will be the fitting epigraph rolling across the screen in the opening credits:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

–Karl Marx, Capital V. 1

Edward Dalton’s renegade status, so much like Jake Sulley’s in Avatar, is once again a dominant plot element in another monster movie, not nearly as successful as the other two despite its overweening ambitions to say something important.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the Afrikaner supervisor of an ethnic cleansing project in Johannesburg, South Africa. The target, however, of the cops and military is not a group of undocumented workers from neighboring countries, a situation that occurs all too frequently today unfortunately in post-apartheid but class-divided South Africa. Instead it is thousands of space aliens who turned up one day out of the blue in a huge space ship hovering over the city. They are wrested from the ship and forced to live in a slum (district 9) where they are regarded as scum by their earthling neighbors, including black and colored South Africans. While it is true that backward attitudes prevail in much of South Africa today despite the victory against apartheid, there’s no suggestion in District 9 that xenophobia might be rooted in joblessness rather than in one’s genes. The general sense of District 9 is that the human race sucks. I admit to feeling this way from time to time, but would never make a movie along those lines, or write an article to that effect here.

District 9 is at its Hobbesian and misanthropic worst when it depicts a Nigerian gang in the same terms as Steven Seagal schlock. They operate as villainous stick figures who take advantage of the suffering space aliens who pay black market prices for the cat food their palate favors.

The first half hour or so of the movie is the most tedious, structured as a faux documentary following Wikus Van De Merwe on his rounds as he serves eviction notices to the space aliens, who are called prawns by the human beings because of their similar appearance to the marine life. They are going to be transported to a concentration camp outside of Johannesburg and any of them who refuse to sign the eviction order faces beatings or worse.

The movie only picks up when Wikus begins to turn into a prawn himself, the victim of some sort of mishap in one of their shacks that like so much in this movie remains unexplained. He then becomes a combination of Jake Sully in Avatar and Elliott in E.T who is determined to help the extraterrestrial return home.

Like E.T., the prawns are actually much smarter than the human beings who keep them in a virtual ghetto. They are capable of space flight and other advanced technologies. This, of course, does not square with their being so easily wrested from their space ship and forced to live in squalor, nor does it square with many scenes that depict them in anti-social behavior that is the stuff of all ghetto movies, including the unfortunate Precious.

I only decided to watch District 9 since it was now accessible from Netflix. If you sensibly avoided the price of admission for this confused and sorry movie, I can recommend renting it from Netflix where I promise you it will probably not be half as bad as Iron Man 2 or The A Team.


  1. Actually, I was thinking that so far as horror films go, a recent send-up of the Albert Fish case called The Gray Man was really outstanding. Also the original version of Shutter.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — June 15, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  2. Not a movie but a T.V. series with Dracula as the CEO of a multinational corporation. Dracula; the Series had A. Lucard as a billionaire entrepreneur. One episode had Dracula nearly die because he had polluted the one spring that could cure him of a vampire disease he has contracted.

    Not a overly serious series but it did have it’s moments.

    Comment by Natasha Yar-Routh — June 15, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  3. I thought District 9 was brilliant. Its politics are reasonably sharp and topical: the treatment of refugees, the mentality of racism are both brought up in a pretty biting and funny way in the pathetic person of Wikus van der Merwe. The Nigerian gang are much more than some scared racist stereotype of black barbarians: they function as a ghastly reflection of the essence of the (supposedly more sophisticated) eugenics-minded scientists in the weapons corporation. As such, they are more a clever narrative device than anything else. The fact they are black is probably a function of the film’s setting rather than any desire to portray all black people as nasty voodoo mafia.

    And the degenerating, drug addicted (well, catfood addicted…) aliens I thought were pretty good. They aren’t depicted much as actual characters, unfortunately. But I watched this straight after Avatar, and while I also liked that film in general, the noble savage stereotype of the aliens in it did get pretty boring. At least these aliens are more gritty.

    I think you got it wrong about the aliens being so much smarter or more developed than the humans. Certainly some are – like the one who is plotting to get the spaceship running again. You get the impression that the rest are just fairly helpless refugees or castaways without any special technical skills. Maybe they are just labourers in transit, who knows.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — June 16, 2010 @ 4:22 am

  4. Having seen District 9 a couple of times now, I’ve revised my previously high opinion of the film. There are just too many plot holes. Still, it’s a pleasure to see science fiction themes explored from an African perspective, and I’m hoping that someday there will be a “director’s cut” that will clear up some of the inconsistencies.

    Comment by John B. — June 16, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  5. Louis, the trick with the aliens are that they have a hive society and that the leadership on board the ship accidentally died. Their technology is also keyed to their biology, so you have to be of their species to get their equipment to work. Due to biological pressures “Christopher Johnson” (aka the intelligent alien) is becoming one of the hive “queens.” The MNU corporation (the ones who actually run District 9 and want to control the alien technology) is just another variation of the OCP firm from the “Robocop” movies or Weyland-Yutani from the “Alien” flicks, but in “District 9” you can read it as a critique of how these businesses have swooped down to profit off of South African misery.

    Comment by Strelnikov — June 17, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  6. Louis, the trick with the aliens are that they have a hive society and that the leadership on board the ship accidentally died.

    Really? I must have been in the bathroom when this scene took place.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  7. Strelnikov is exactly right on that.

    PS the clip you posted a while back of “The Human Centipede” was seriously creepy! I’ve been passing that one on to my friends.

    Comment by ish — June 17, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

  8. Readers might be interested in Canadian Sarah Polley’s politics, from wikipedia:

    “At the age of 12 (around 1991), Polley attended an awards ceremony while wearing a peace sign to protest the first Gulf War. Disney
    executives asked her to remove it, and she refused. This soured her relationship with Disney, and she left Road to Avonlea in 1994. Following the row with Disney, Polley dedicated more of her efforts to politics, becoming a prominent member of the New Democratic Party(an ostensibly social democratic party ) …

    In 1995, she lost two back teeth after being struck by a riot police officer during a protest against the Provincial Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris in Queen’s Park. She was subsequently involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. She has recently scaled back on her political activism.

    She was part of a group in 2001 which opposed the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas”

    Comment by meltr — June 18, 2010 @ 12:49 am

  9. I remember my initial reaction to Daybreakers being quite favorable. I read the blood harvesting more as a metaphor for fossil fuel dependence and it’s inevitable, catastrophic result if not curbed. The fat cats in charge pay lip service to finding an alternative and actually do want to find one, but not before they can squeeze every last drop of profit out of the status quo. They have access to all the blood they need and turn a blind eye as the rest of the world descends into chaos. The scene that really struck a chord with me was when the police marched/drug the “degenerated” vampires into the sunlight. This is an obvious parallel to the way our society wishes to push it’s “undesirables” out of sight. While not the best horror film I’ve seen, I was pleasantly surprised by it’s attempt at reinterpreting the vampire genre.
    As for District 9, I had more mixed feelings. I was entertained by some of the action and thought the effects were phenomenal. However, as soon as they appeared, I was uneasy about the Nigerians. The only thing that really separated them from the hooping hollering natives of early Hollywood was the lack of grass skirts and bone nose piercings. I tried to explain it away through the setting, (it is in Africa and so it’s not surprising that some villians would be black) but I was still wary. It may have been better if there had been more sympathetic black characters, but none really jump to mind. (Although I haven’t seen the film since it’s run in theaters, so I could be forgetting something). Also, I was disappointed by the lack of any solidarity between the aliens in the day to day slum life. I know that degenerate conditions lead to some degenerative people, but regardless of where you look, even the most deprived of surroundings, there are those willing to act unselfishly. Not that ghettos are pillars of virtue, but neither are they devoid of any humanity.
    I have yet to see Splice, but look forward to renting it when it is released on DVD.
    Also, thanks for the post on horror/sci-fi films. As a big fan of the genres it can get a little irritating when worthwhile films get written off simply because of the supposed limits of their genre. Some of the best satires have been and will continue to be horror films.

    Comment by Rob — June 20, 2010 @ 2:38 am


    Comment by Lenfosit88 — July 1, 2010 @ 5:18 am

  11. […] 0 Louis Proyect at The Unrepetant Marxist comments in a post called Monster Movie Bash: […]

    Pingback by The vampire movie we really need « Michael's Digest — August 26, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  12. Daybreakers- Surprisingly good movie. Only 98 minutes and to the point. Very interesting take on vampires that I have not seen yet. Nice post, check out my review when you can!

    Comment by CMrok93 — October 24, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

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