The Times, They Are A Changing

Reoccurring themes in the films of the 1990s

Franklin J. Schaffner’s original 1968 film Planet Of The Apes explored many cultural concerns and social paranoia of the time. Schaffner’s film was a critique on the assumption that humanity was the most evolved life form and therefore had the right to experiment and butcher other animals at will. But there were also deeper messages and philosophies about the dangers of technology developing too rapidly, the supposedly inherent conflict between science and religion, and the suppression of knowledge to maintain social order.

With Tim Burton’s much anticipated re-make of the 60s classic about to be released, it will be curious to see what contemporary ideas and political issues he may explore. The concept of a human trapped in a world dominated by apes is highly suitable material for Burton whose previous films, especially Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Ed Wood, have examined the “freaks” and “outsiders” who do not conform to the status quo. But what other ideas have dominated recent films that may find their way into Burton’s Planet Of The Apes?

The Gulf War

Since the Vietnam War was televised into our homes, war has been revealed as a brutal dehumanising massacre fought by governments for economical gain. However although the American government still tries to glorify their involvement in armed conflict, recent films have portrayed the Gulf War as a chaotic and confused mess.

Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson 1997)

A spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer team up to “create” a war to distract the American public’s attention away from a presidential sex-scandal. Footage of conflict is created, myths are invented, and the public believes what is televised to them. The scenario is all too familiar, fuelling the suspicion that the Gulf War may not have been as honourable a cause as initially perceived.

Three Kings (David O. Russell 1999)

Starving Kuwaitis are confused by George Bush’s encouragement for them to rise up against Iraq, despite withholding support. The Iraq soldiers continue to brutally oppress the Kuwaitis out of fear of punishment from Saddam Hussein, while the Americans desperately try to follow irrelevant military protocol despite having no idea as to the reason for their involvement or what they are supposed to be doing.

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven 1997)

George Bush’s wet dream. Future America dominates the world and everybody is fit and beautiful. Citizenship can only be earned by joining the armed forces, which every kid desperately wants to do so they can fight the enemy, who are so obviously evil being great big carnivorous alien bugs! Pity that the Americans looked so much like Nazis.

Genetic Engineering

Developments in genetic technology have created ethical debate all over the world. While some see genetic engineering as an opportunity to increase food supplies and to benefit medical practises, there are those who may clone humans, make themselves immortal, enhance unborn babies, and try to resurrect Jesus or Hitler.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1993)

Seems like a good idea to create bigger vegetables? Ears on mice? More sheep? Well it seemed like a good idea to create a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs too, and look what happened there. There is a reason nature does not allow for such things, and while a gigantic banana may not seem like an immediate threat, one cannot say the same for Raptors or the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Goes to show the not only is genetic technology dangerous in the wrong hands, but it is also dangerous in stupid hands.

Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 1997)

Ripley is cloned back into life but with a fairly significant DNA change – she is now part alien. If the idea of cloning humans is not scary enough, then how about the idea of the military making humans better killers. Ripley’s discovery of the failed Ripley/alien hybrids also makes you wonder that for every successful Dolly The Sheep, what abominations were created that lived a short life of excruciating pain before being quietly disposed of?

Gattaca (Andrew Niccol 1997)

Simply being born with a genetic make-up that suggests the likelihood of an early death, condemns Vincent to the status of an In-valid who is denied the opportunities of the “designer people” born from test-tubes. Like other types of discrimination, “geneticism” has nothing to do with the measuring of a person’s abilities, however it is still a useful tool for creating a subservient lower class. Goes to show that science is never beyond political misuse.

Loss Of Reality And The Resulting Identity Crisis

Due to the rapid advancement of virtual reality technology and the ability of computer generated images to make the impossible a reality, there is a growing cultural paranoia that what we see and sense can no longer be guaranteed to be real. Combined with the knowledge of the ease with which the media can manipulate our perception, and a general Pre-Millennium Tension, a dominant theme of recent films has been “I think” no longer ensures “therefore I am”.

The Truman Show (Peter Weir 1998)

Unknown only to himself, Truman’s entire life is a constructed reality; he lives in a giant set, his friends and family are all actors, and the events of his life have been pre-scripted. Makes that “my life is a soap-opera/sit-com” feeling very unnerving.

The Matrix (Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski 1999)

More disturbing is the suggestion that our “something doesn’t seem right” sensation is because we are simply lifeless bodies in pods being fed artificial stimulations into our brain by evil computers. Worse still is that this virtual reality is probably preferable to actual reality.

Dark City (Alex Proyas 1998)

It simply keeps on getting worse. This time not only is our environment and reality false, but our memories and personality are being changed on a regular basis. The inhabitants of the city face the possibility of having no identity as everything they thought to be true was manufactured by aliens experimenting on them.

Fight Club (David Fincher 1999)

Ever suspected that your best friend was a bad influence? How about discovering that your best friend is actually the twisted side of your split personality that acts out your repressed desires for destruction and really dirty sex. Not only does Fight Club threaten our sense of identity, but also argues that underneath our middle-class consumerist life-style there is a tormented sea of disillusion, depression and anger at an existence that contradicts true happiness and fulfilment. But can we channel this aggression into something liberating by beating the crap out of each other and destroying things? Not really, as fascism and terrorism seem to result.

Oh well, there really doesn’t seem to be much hope at all. Maybe Burton’s Planet Of The Apes will offer something more uplifting about the state of the world. Otherwise I think I’ll stick to Disney films and repeats of Friends, as this is all getting way too depressing.

Originally appeared in Filmink Aug 2001, Vol 5.1

© Thomas Caldwell, 2001