Wednesday, 18 January 2012

#36 The Lynx Ark Advert: The Price of Survival


I’ll be honest with you, this week has not been the most productive of weeks and I haven’t found as much time to work on the blog as I should. But, skipping a week this soon into the new year would look bad. What I need is a really, really short apocalyptic movie- preferably one with an elaborate apocalypse survival strategy that I could pick apart. After all, we’ve seen the apocalyptic survival strategies of the super rich, the big society approach to apocalypse survival and ways for atheists to cope with a Biblical apocalypse. So a variation on that theme would be good.
Yep, this is exactly the sort of subtle symbolism I want to analyse
Fortunately, a certain group of creatives has seen fit to provide me with just that. Unfortunately, it’s in the form of an advert for a company I have a longstanding grudge against. See, back in 2003 this company unleashed an ad campaign under the slogan “Men’s sweat only attracts other men”. Despite a determined letter writing campaign on my behalf, they never issued a retraction to warn young gay and bisexual men that no, their BO is still massively off-putting, probably resulting in many disappointed, lonely and sweaty young men.

For this reason, I want to make sure that this review doesn’t inadvertently lead to this company getting a bunch of hits or an SEO keyword boost. So throughout this review I’m going to be linking to their site using a variety of insulting phrases, while never mentioning their brand name, or what they actually sell. Vengeance is a dish best served cold.

That said, here is that one minute long apocalyptic movie, as brought to you by the smell of your taint.

It’s a terrifying story. Regular readers will know that apocalyptic fiction is often used to show the darker side of human nature. Whether it’s the way that horrific events can bring out our worst instincts, or that in the end the biggest threats to our species aren’t apocalyptic catastrophes, but ourselves. This film, brought to us by the smell of a high school changing room, is the story of a psychopath’s mission to exploit the imminent apocalypse to create what can only be described as a floating hell for his passengers. Cleverly, the film resists the urge to show us this character’s dreadful comeuppance, instead simply leaving it implied.

Only the pure will survive
The film’s anti-hero is clearly a fan of Judeo-Christian imagery, building a kind of modern “Noah’s Ark”. However, the way these plans are executed hints at an extremely warped and disturbing world-view, on a par with the mad scientist in Human Centipede, or the killer from the Saw movies. He is a perfectly realised character, and even his tiniest actions show us his twisted vision of the world. Even an innocent act like carving a shape into a potato shows us his entire perception of womankind.
It's this. This is his perception of womankind.
As in the Bible, our anti-hero has his ship’s passengers, or maybe cargo is a better word, board the ship two by two.

This is the most obvious sign of the man’s sinister world view. Given that his passengers are entirely human women, and completely ignoring the implication that this man clearly sees women as animals, just what sort of “twos” is he dividing them up into? Nationality? Ethnic origin? The pairs we see have similar hairstyles and do appear to be paired up by race. This is in a situation that already has a very nasty whiff of eugenics about it. After all these are women with no visible disabilities, who fall within a very specific body-type and conform to a certain idea of beauty

But perhaps the most sinister aspect of his selection process is the question: Why does he need two of each type? In the original story, this was so the animals could breed. Since that’s biologically impossible here, the only possible conclusion is that the man needs a spare of each type... for some reason.
You know, in case one of his goths get broken...
Voyage of the damned
However, as is common in apocalypse fiction, you only realise the true horror of the situation once you begin to inspect the background. In Shaun of the Dead, the zombie apocalypse is happening right behind the protagonists for the whole first act. While playing Left 4 Dead, we only gather the true scope of the apocalypse when we see the constant presence of health warnings, barricades and abandoned military equipment.

In this film it is only when we look at the boat our protagonist is building that we realise just what a nightmarish future he is envisioning for the women who join him.

Perhaps our first clue is when we see the accommodation these women will be sleeping in. Except of course, at this point in the film we don’t know that this accommodation is built for women to sleep in. Going along with the Noah’s ark narrative, you might think that this boat is built for animals. If this is the case, it seems perfectly ordinary that the man is building them HUTCHES. Yes, the homogeneously shaped but ethnically diverse women will survive the coming end of the world, so long as they are willing to live in HUTCHES.

Okay, so maybe he wants to save as many women as possible and this is the most space-efficient way he can do it, and if he awards himself a little more luxury as captain, well, who can blame him? It’s his boat.
They get little curtains, what are you complaining about?
But as we see him build this boat, we get a horrifying glimpse of just what these women’s lives will be like. Aside from the hutches these women will sleep in, we see one other room.

Exercise bikes. There’re weights as well, but the exercise bikes are the focal point of the room. What are they there for?

I’ve got two theories. The most obvious theory is that, having gathered these prime physical specimens, he doesn’t want them to let themselves go when the floods come pouring in. There’s clearly not that much room on the boat, and the women are living in ACTUAL HUTCHES. But really, are they that likely to get fat? Given what we know about our main character so far, does he really seem like the sort to lay on massive feasts for these women?

No. The truth is far more sinister, and the clue is glimpsed in the very next shot.

We cut from the exercise bikes, to the record player. Taking its cues from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, in this film the women are expected to run the exercise bikes to generate the ship’s electricity.

Life for these women is going to be grim. Their days will be spent slogging away at the exercise bikes that will give you splinters in places where you do not want to have splinters, just to keep their overlord’s creature comforts running. Their nights are spent cooped up in an actual hutch, unless the Captain has decided that he wants to bed one of them for the night.

Because, putting it bluntly, this is a rape ship. We already know that this man sees women as nothing more than animals, and the only part of them he really sees is their orifices. The only reason any woman would sign up to be on this boat, the only reason why they could possibly all be queuing up while this man covers himself in what I can only assume is some sort of spray-on cooking oil, is that they know the world is going to end, and this boat is their only hope to survive. If you sleep with someone because the only alternative is death, that’s rape.

The future of our species
The film ends leaving us to ponder the future of this doomed vessel. It could very well mark the end of our entire species- a gene pool where everyone shares the same father is going to lead to all kinds of disorders later down the line.

And yet, there is hope. As we’ve already noted, this man sees women as nothing more than animals, less than animals really. The hutches have no doors, there’s no security, no real way of enforcing his dreadful regime. It’s as if this man not only has total contempt for women, but is actually incapable of conceiving of the idea that they might have any will of their own.

It is this fatal flaw that will lead to the women banding together to overthrow him. Then hopefully they’ll keel-haul the fucker.
Think of it as a sort of post-apocalyptic Amistad

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

#35 The Enemy/The Dead/The Fear: Zombie Apocalypse for Kids

It’s been a whole year since I first sat down and decided that the Internet needed to hear all of my opinions on zombie apocalypse fiction. Say, you know what I’ve not done for a few weeks? Given you my opinions on some zombie apocalypse fiction! Let’s do that today.

With that in mind, here’s my review of Charlie Higson’s Young Adult zombie series, The Enemy, The Dead and The Fear. (By the way, is it just me, or is there something vaguely patronising about the phrase "Young Adult"? Why doesn't Teenage Fiction do the job any more? I can't help feel it's more for the benefit of people in their 20s and 30s who still want to keep reading Harry Potter (and all power to them) than for the supposed intended audience of the books.)

Anyway, let’s start by talking about Lord of the Flies.

Lord of the Flies was a book I saw on my mum’s bookshelf as a kid but didn’t read because the cover was a decomposing pig’s head on a stick, and I was a sensitive child. Then at 13 we were made to study it in English, and fell in love with it.
Pictured: A children's book, clearly
I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid to read that book and realise that A: It was 100% spot on, and B: If I and my classmates ever ended up on a desert island I would probably get my head cracked open with a rock.

But there’s one thing that people always seem to miss about Lord of the Flies. It’s a science fiction story- a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. It’s definitely not a large part of the plot, in fact aside from one mention in the first chapter of the book, I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned again, but it’s definitely there.

Right at the beginning Piggy tells Ralph, “Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They’re all dead.”

It’s not referred to again, but it does cast the entire novel in a different light. Firstly, it means that for most of the novel the characters aren’t just kids without their grownups- they’re possibly the last surviving people on Earth. Secondly, it throws a different light on Ralph’s thoughts about the grownup world. Throughout the book Ralph remembers the adult world as a place of law, order and civilisation. Yet what we actually see of the adult world is a plane getting shot down, atom bombs being dropped, and the only actual adult we meet is a military officer. The wider world the characters of Lord of the Flies live in is, in the end, just a bigger version of the island.

Since then other writers have chosen to write similar stories and instead of stranding their children on a desert island (where sooner or later you apparently have to start dealing with smoke monsters and bizarrely multi-faith churches in parallel purgatory universes). A quicker and easier way to do it is to just wipe out all the grown-ups with a deadly virus.

One example of this was New Zealand’s series The Tribe, where the death of all adults meant that the survivors all decided to wear far more hair gel and facepaint. Actually, that’s probably pretty realistic. Another version of this plotline- and one a good deal closer to Charlie Higson’s series, was the Star Trek episode Miri, where the crew visits a planet identical to 1960s Earth, except that the grownups have all been infected with a deadly disease that fills them with homicidal rage.
This episode featured the most disturbing romantic subplot in Star Trek history, apart from the episode where the Enterprise carries a “cargo” of wives, or the one where the Enterprise-D has a cargo genetically designed to become every man’s fantasy, or the one where Scott Backula and his crew are given sex slaves as gifts... You know, looking back, there are a lot of "women as property" plots in Star Trek
In actual fact, it’s surprising that there aren’t more well known stories about all the adults getting wiped out. After all, it’s a well known truism used by everyone, from Charles Dickens to Roald Dahl to Jacqueline Wilson to J.K. Rowling, that you’ve got to kill the parents off if your child protagonist is going to do great and heroic things. It only makes sense that for a really dramatic story, all you need to do is kill off all the grownups on the planet.

It also plays in nicely to the wish-fulfilment/careful what you wish for aspect of the apocalypse genre. On the one hand, nobody will ever make you eat your greens again. On the other hand, you quickly learn exactly why your parents were so keen on doing laundry all the time.

Well, we’re almost eight hundred words into the blog post by now, so I should probably start telling you a bit about the books themselves.

In Charlie Higson’s series the grownups are most definitely The Enemy (Oooh, see what I did there?). Even where grownups seem to have avoided the symptoms of the plague, they aren’t to be trusted. There are even scenes where we are given the grownup/zombie point of view, which is usually a twisted parody of grownup thought, including a vicious hatred of kids that’s only a hairs width away from what is genuinely said by adults in a culture that just loves villainising its youth.

There are times when children reminisce about how kind and smart and super awesome their parents were, but those times are pretty much restricted to immediately before a child dies a horrifying death. Oh, and children dying horrifying deaths happens a lot.

One way in which Charlie Higson’s books differ from your usual zombie apocalypse fare (aside from the young protagonists) is the size of the cast. It’s huge, and on more than one occasion in the last three years I’ve been reading these books I’ve had to go to Google to remind myself which character is which (seriously guys, we’ve got an extensive and detailed wiki for Bones ( but not for this? What’s wrong with you?). The massive cast serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows Higson to kill off a lot of people. The cast is about 90% Red Shirts. What I’m saying is: Charlie Higson loves nothing more than murdering children. Often when writers enjoy murder, they’ll introduce lots of minor characters who are given just enough dialogue and description for you to distinguish them from the furniture, then quickly jog forward to the satisfyingly gory deaths (This is sometimes known as being a Mauve Shirt. In The Enemy series Anyone Can Die (That’s two links to TV Tropes- I’m really sorry if you’re reading this at work, and for the two hours of time you’ve just lost).

Aside from giving Higson plenty of zombie-fodder, the big cast also allows him to show a variety of different post-apocalyptic set-ups. Anyone who was reading this blog early enough to take part in our Zombie Drinking Game will be familiar with my theory that zombie apocalypse stories are nearly always about locking a bunch of people who hate each other in a room together. When it comes to The Enemy series this theory still stands. In fact the series reads pretty much as a tourist guide to London for the zombie apocalypse survivor. Over three books the survivors form communities holed up in Buckingham Palace, The Imperial War Museum, The Natural History Museum and the Houses of Parliament. I’m pretty sure this list will expand in future books, depending on which London landmarks Higson wants a behind the scenes tour of next.

Each of these landmarks serves as a testing ground for a different response to the apocalypse, with a cargo-cult style society being built around it. For some it’s parliamentary democracy, for others it’s a dictatorship, for others it’s simply having lots of big sticks to hit the grownups with. In each of these places, the same power struggles we see in all the standard zombie movies are still going on, alongside increasing paranoia and competition between the various encampments.

However, it’s got to be said- this series is not a sociological treatise on how to best rebuild the world. Nor is it trying to make any big statements about the relationship between kids and grownups. First and foremost, Higson is trying to write an adventure book. You can tell the writer is having his most fun when he is lovingly describing the various states of disrepair of the grownups as they stumble about a ruined London, or in the frenetic and extremely violent combat sequences. I think if this book has one thing it does really well, it’s that no punches are pulled here at all. Higson is writing a horror book, and giving his readers nightmares is what he is here for.