Lately, Hollywood seems to have become fixated with revolution. Films such as The Hunger Games series – the latest of which, Mockingjay Part 1, was released in November 2014 – Snowpiercer and Elysium (both 2013), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the rebooted Rise of the Planet of the Apes series and In Time (both 2011) all centre on uprising and unrest.
Why this turn to revolution? Is it Hollywood’s response to the discontent that has arisen since the financial crisis? Or is it a kind of tremor, a pre-echo of actual revolutionary activity to come? Self-declared ‘0.1 percenter’ and ‘proud and unapologetic capitalist’ Nick Hanauer fears that the latter is the case. In July 2014, in a widely discussed open letter to other members of the super-rich published in Politico magazine, Hanauer argued that current levels of inequality are unsustainable. In every other society in which wealth disparities have become so stark, the result has always been revolution. If something is not done – and Hanauer recommends ameliorative measures such as increasing the minimum wage – then, as he sees it, ‘the pitchforks are coming’. Hanauer’s remarks remind us of something that most of the super-rich have forgotten: the welfare state was not some generous concession by the ruling class, but a kind of insurance policy against revolution.
Hollywood’s new dystopias have tuned into Hanauer’s fears, providing stark visualizations of a class antagonism that is re-emerging into popular consciousness in the wake of Occupy. In The Hunger Games films, as well as in Elysium and Snowpiercer, class divisions are rendered in the way space is organized. In Elysium, the poor are condemned to remain on a despoiled and ruined Earth, while the rich luxuriate in a salubrious off-world community. In Snowpiercer, most of the human population has been wiped out by global warming, Earth has become uninhabitable and the remaining few survive by living inside a massive train. The poor are condemned to languish in the rear compartments – enduring cramped, squalid conditions and eating protein blocks made out of crushed insects – while the rich live at the front, enjoying gourmet food, nightclubs and high fashion. Panem, the society depicted in The Hunger Games series, is divided into 12 ‘Districts’, all of which are subordinate to the Capitol. The first film, in particular, played upon the contrast between the gaudy decadence of the Capitol, with its plentiful cuisine and garish fashions, and the grim austerity of the Districts, whose residents only have access to basic foods and must undertake hard manual labour.
We don’t look to science-fictional dystopias to provide a reliable mirror of contemporary society. Their value lies in hyperbolic excess, in their capacity to convert real political tensions into mythical terms and dream-like images. This is certainly the appeal of Snowpiercer: the sealed and stratified super-train that hurtles endlessly around the world, going nowhere, is an arresting image of capital. Yet the film’s blind spots tell us as much as its insights. On his blog, ‘Unemployed Negativity’, Jason Read pointed out that work is strangely absent in Snowpiercer. In a world in which almost the entire population – even though it only numbers in the hundreds – is surplus, the poor exist in a state of pure subjugation. Their labour is not required; their only role seems to be to occupy the bottom rung of the train’s rigid hierarchy. ‘As is so often the case in American popular culture, or even in the media,’ Read writes, ‘inequality is much more easy to imagine than exploitation. […] Thus, to butcher a phrase that has been quoted all too often, it is easier to imagine some dystopian tyranny than to come to grips with actually existing capitalism.’ The official ideology of the train, voiced by the character Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), is an inversion of the Neoliberal philosophy that governs our world. In her attempts to stave off revolution, Mason talks of the preordained position every individual should occupy: the ‘foot’ must not assume the place of the ‘head’. Neoliberalism has pushed the opposite message: there is no fixed social hierarchy; people are where they are as a result of their own efforts (or lack of them); class is a mirage, an excuse called upon by the feckless and the lazy to obfuscate their paucity of enterprise. Yet perhaps these two ‘errors’ touch upon deeper truths. For all the right’s obsession with work, the reality of contemporary capitalism is that employment is neither available nor necessary for much of the population. And Mason’s insistence that there is no possibility of social mobility – that the train is akin to a feudal society, made up of static blocs – is much closer to the reality of how contemporary capitalism functions than the fluidity and dynamism posited by Neoliberalism.
Both Snowpiercer and Mockingjay are ultimately (and predictably) ambivalent about revolution: in the former, revolt results in the eventual destruction of the train; in the latter, standard anxieties emerge that the revolution will recapitulate the brutality of the oppressors. Arguably, the most exhilarating moment in The Hunger Games series so far comes at the end of the second film, Catching Fire (2013), when the lead character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), suddenly finds herself at the centre of a revolt against the Capitol. With its emphasis on reality TV – the games themselves are a mixture of gladiatorial combat and a Big Brother-like show – The Hunger Games series puts a 21st-century spin on the role that the media plays in securing and maintaining power. Mockingjay is about the need for revolutionary propaganda, with Katniss uncomfortable in her role as the revolution’s most important media symbol. At a time when many would-be revolutionaries are fixated on direct action, The Hunger Games films remind us that political transformations crucially require indirect action. No revolution today can hope to succeed unless it seizes the means by which reality is manufactured and managed, in media and entertainment. Might these Hollywood revolutions end up performing their own kind of indirect action, registering and amplifying pre-revolutionary feeling, and creating a taste for real revolt?
Main image: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, 2014. Courtesy: Lionsgate; photograph: Murray Close
First published in Issue 168