Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Critical Look at Race and Socio-politics in Two Dystopian Films: Blade Runner (1982) and In Time (2011)

Baccollini and Moylan (2003: 205) state that eutopian fiction expresses a unanimous aspiration for one particular improved system of living, while dystopian fiction contains a much worse vision of society than our current reality. In this case, the reader or audience is subject to acknowledging the narrator’s viewpoint as the most dependable. Two science fiction dystopian films made almost thirty years apart; Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Andrew Niccol’s In Time demonstrate how dystopian fiction creates a platform for us to think about our society’s systems and principles by displacing us from our current situation. This essay aims to discuss comparative social and racial issues in both films in relation to the concerns of their respective periods. 

Different, yet so similar. 

In the first section of Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx (1848) states, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” In socio-political terms, Marx would argue that by nature capitalism is at constant expansion and therefore has to regularly reform itself to create new markets. This expansion of human capacity for creation or destruction has accelerated during the last century thanks to technology. This is the closest to an analysis of individual alienation from a life separated from the immediate satisfaction of our desires and needs set by industrial capitalism. This alienation leads the masses to liberate themselves from capitalism. 

Karl Marx

As the film adaptation of a dystopian novel itself, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott presented on screen his own futuristic vision of Los Angeles. The story features humanoid replicants who have returned to earth from the off-world colonies, where they are outlawed. Dick himself being part of the counter culture wave wrote his novel during a time of race riots and the rise of corporate power in Los Angeles, which was the centre of cultural changes that was rapidly taking place during the 1960s and 1970s. Kerman (1997:16) states Scott’s depiction of 2019 Los Angeles is built on a mise-en-scene that is filled with imagery of an alien city, with the strikingly different layers of technology, lifestyles, ethnicities and fashion. This might have been the case back in the early 1980s following the huge influx of immigrants moving to the Californian city.

Los Angeles 2019 according to Ridley Scott

In Time is a more recent dystopian film. Made during the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests, it discusses current issues. The film’s thematic elements centralise on the issue of the ninety-nine percent versus the privileged one percent of America. Niccol’s vision of post early twenty-first century America is that of a highly materialistic and elitist society where time is literally money. The depiction of Niccol’s future America is different from Scott’s in the sense that society appears to be more uniformed. The film’s style has the elite class mostly dressed in fashionable designer labels, while the working class generally are in seasoned overalls or casual wear. Intriguingly enough, both styles are nowhere near to being futuristic but seem to be what people today would wear. The film attacks the capitalist class-based society by portraying the common man’s discontent with the discriminatory system that rewards the wealthy at the cost of the lower class. 

Plenty of metaphorical imagery in In Time for film studies students to watch out for!

In Blade Runner Scott deploys historical backdrops to evoke a world with differing social ranks that mistreats certain society members. Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters is modelled after an Aztec pyramid, which symbolises human sacrifice. This point at the corporation’s actions of discriminating and even killing replicants, which are not robots but merely genetically engineered human beings. Tyrell, being on top of the social hierarchy, seeks to be the total provider by providing for the common consumer’s endless desire. Boozer (1997:223) states Tyrell’s intention reflects that of the controllers of the corporate world, where consumers’ sense of needs are conditioned through marketing strategies. This naturally brings in the profit which ensures the corporate figure’s position on top of the capitalist system. While Tyrell lives in the 700 storey pyramid, Sebastian lives alone in a deserted building but says there is no house shortage. This is understandable since most eligible citizens would have migrated to the off-world colonies. However, all the city’s majestic skyscrapers seem to be brightly lit.  

The Tyrell Corporation HQ

This form of unreasonable social developments which are unavoidable under capitalism is what the Marxist concept of contradiction criticizes. Kerman (1997:17) states Scott’s vision of an underpopulated but crowded Los Angeles would have been relevant to the time the film was made. Squatter movements in European countries protested against empty but costly rental houses where the poor had no place to rent. Even today in New York homeless people live in deserted buildings which landlords cannot afford to run.  

The empty apartment building

In In Time, Niccol utilises explicit representations of our real world through elaborate costumes and sets as part of its mise-en-scene to convincingly portray a future where time is literally money.  Territories called time zones are separated according to wealth and class rank. The ghetto where the protagonist and his mother live in, Dayton, has industrial-like features. Actual square block industrial parts of downtown Los Angeles stood in for Dayton. Instead of a 99-Cents store there was a 99-Secounds store. Apart from the cheaply painted buildings, the yellowish tint of the Dayton scenes which highlights the bright sunshine there make it look like a US-Mexico border town. The affluent time zone of New Greenwich was shot in real wealthy areas of Los Angeles such as Century City, Beverly Hills and Malibu. Alongside the corporate buildings and Greek-Roman architecture, the blue tint of the New Greenwich scenes makes it look like an American major city, particularly New York where Wall Street is located.  Niccol also carried through this idea in the fashion department. He distinguished two different forms of fashion in the film; fast fashion with snaps and zippers for the poor, and slow fashion with luxurious buttons and gloves for the rich. 

A 99 Seconds store instead of a 99 Cents one!

A very subtle allegorical part of the movie is when Will is travelling from Dayton to New Greenwich; he discovers the price of each toll increases as he travels progressively across time zones. This symbolises the price of admission that is needed as we progress through each step of the social ladder. Another scene shows Rachel Salas, the protagonist’s mother having to choose between a bus ride that costs two hours and a walk that will literally take two hours. Crain (2011) refers this scene to Marx's theory of commodity exchange, which states that the time taken to make a commodity is, in theory, the basis of its value in the marketplace. For Marx, only socially-necessary labour time, which is the amount of time spent constructing a commodity, can be equally exchanged for money in the way the film refers to it. 

The poor in In Time are reduced to nothing more than slaves.

In terms of the socio-political issues portrayed in both films, the directors appear to evaluate capitalism in a Marxist perspective. Desser (1997:111) states that in Marxist terms, a group’s control over the means of production also has strong relations to power. This is portrayed by Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. Marxism claims the worker’s only capital in the modern economy is his labour power, and capitalists seeks to utilize this for their own profit at the cheapest rate possible, in return of sustenance for the worker to persist. This is also predicted in In Time where an unequal exchange of labour for capital has resulted in the elite one percent staying immortal, while the ninety-nine percent working class is reduced to an economic suppression that is borderline feudalist slavery. 

The elite one percent can afford anything.

It is typical for Hollywood directors to cast white actors to visibly unmark their attempts to wrest with issues of race. Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles is that of an ethnically diverse city where whites have become the minority. It is almost as if the main characters are the only whites in the city. It can be assumed that whites have move to the prosperous off-world colonies while leaving the dying Earth for the inferior minorities to occupy. This makes Blade Runner racially subversive and multifaceted. It is almost obvious that the film is about the mistreatment of the African American community as there is near-complete absence of blacks in the city. Kermen (1997:22) states that the film is Scott’s comment on a second-class generation is a political statement.

Most white folks have migrated to the off world colonies, leaving the dying Earth for the low class Others.

The replicants have been made to fill in for the position of African Americans as the discriminated Others. The term ‘skinjobs,’ which is the replicant equivalent of the 'n' word, is used to code replicants as blacks. The parallels between the treatment of replicants and of African Americans show this corresponds to America’s black history relating to its black slaves. In order to symbolize the discriminated black community, each replicant possess physically and sexually superior qualities that tie in with the myth of the oversexed and physically stronger black. The short-tempered and unintelligent Leon represents the popular stereotype of the violence capable of the uneducated black male. Zhora and Pris represent the sexually provocative black sex workers.  Roy is the revolutionary John Brown and Malcolm X type of figurehead. Rachael is the Oreo-type, one who has successfully gained equality by passing as white, or human in this case. 

Rachel, the Oreo figure

Given the near-extinction of Jews by totalitarianism, Desser (1997:114) states Scott’s decision for the change of name from the Jewish Rosen to Tyrell was clearly to avoid the stereotype of the greedy Jewish industrialist since the Jew is the perfect icon of liberal-humanist ideology. Portraying the film’s antagonist as Jew like the source novel would be an act of approving of this offensive stereotype. 

Occupy Wall Street was filled with anti-Semitic sentiments.

Los Angeles has always been a melting pot for various ethnicities. With all the neon billboards and street hawkers of various Asian languages, Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles appears to look more like Singapore then an American metropolis. The film was made during the rise of Asian economies such as Japan, the Four Asian Tigers and the Tiger Cub Economies. Scott may be playing with a xenophobic audience’s nightmare of an oriental America. Deckard is a regular at a Sushi bar where he is well adept at using chopsticks. The eye designer is Chew, a Chinese. The owner of the Electron microscope who identifies the snake scale is Cambodian. In the ghetto, children who speak a foreign language are seen playing on top of Deckard’s car. A group of cyclists pass by Roy and Leon, which could be a reference to the Chinese who always travel on cycle.

LA in 2019 looks more like Singapore or Hong Kong than an American city!

In Time also explores the theme of a master and slave race. This is framed within the outlook of the time it was made, where certain races are categorised as the masters, while the rest are slaves. There were considerable anti-Semitism conspiracy theories influencing Occupy Wall Street protestors, where many claimed the minority Jewish bankers who allegedly run banks and the Federal Reserve were responsible for the financial crisis.  This issue is played out in the form of the film’s main antagonist, Philippe Weis, a wealthy time-loaning businessman living a luxurious live by setting high interest rates in the ghetto and has collected millions of years at the price of the poor. Weis, which can sometimes be spelt as Weiss, happens to be a common Jewish name. However, ‘Weiss’ also translates into ‘white’ in German. The film makers could be attacking Wall Street Jews, or the elite white. Another anti-Semitic undertone can be seen in the heartless bus driver who refuses Rachael Salas a ride despite knowing she would die. With his distinctly sharp nose, the driver resembles a stereotypical Jew. This could also be read as an towards Jewish businessmen who increase prices to their own convenience and cause problems to the lower class. 

Phillip Weis, the filthy rich vampire-like money lender.

Though the protagonist Will Salas appears to be white, his surname suggests he could be part Hispanic, symbolising the hardship experienced by the lower class Latinos of America. The Minuteman is a gang of thieves whose leader, Fortis has a British accent.  The real minuteman are members of the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps is a volunteer group, whose name is derived from the militiamen who fought in the American Revolution, dedicated to preventing illegal crossings of the United States-Mexico border. Fortis and his gang only prey on the poor minorities in Dayton and avoid upper class time zones. This could be a possible satire on the stereotypical posh Caucasian agents of the American ruling class. 

Minuteman... the Mexican-looking Dayton... coincidence much?

Both films mainly examine anti-Semitism in American society by either observably avoiding the topic altogether or embracing it consciously. Blade Runner appears to get round it as Desser (1997:114) states the subtle then-notorious anti-Semitism of Jewish tycoons from the source novel was no longer relevant in the late 20th century when the film was made. In Time however seems to be against alleged pro-Zionist Wall Street Jews. As racist sentiments of the minority Jews of Americans running the country’s economy, the film’s main antagonist with a Jewish name is part of the minority elite who controls the working class’ lives. Both films also explore a master and slave race, framed with the idea that the masters posses endless amounts of wealth while slaves are subject to severe discrimination. Territories are separated strictly based on wealth which depends on one’s race. In Time has the deprived Dayton and the affluent New Greenwich, while Blade Runner has the majestically tall Tyrell Corp pyramid and the street-level ghettos. 

Is the nose a cry from Niccol to read between the lines?

Science fiction’s lack of overt political content allows it to become an appropriate platform for cultural analysis since this allows the presence of such themes to become significant in the genre. Dystopian fears about dark futures are not un-contextualized fears about the future itself, but about the ways in which the future will fit and function within the political and social realities of the present. Stylistically, both films are different, but they discuss similar themes relating to the times they were made. A close reading of these films shows a steady outline of social and racial coding that make the dystopian science fiction genre a significantly powerful commentary on American socio-political and race relations.

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