Last week saw the release of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a mammoth, morally dubious super-hero saga whose dramatic arc rests on questions of sacrificing mankind in order to save it.
And now we have cult filmmaker Alex Proyas’ blockbuster science fiction thriller Knowing — out next Friday — a picture that veers into apocalyptic dread and alien paranoia but in its subtext, is really offering a shocking solution to our planet’s myriad of cultural, economical and environmental problems.
It’s a classic case of using fantasy to cloak sophisticated musings on reality.
Since cinema started, periods of social, political and, yes, financial stress have caused some of the most profound and thoughtful genre movies to come crawling out of the ether, offering both glossy escape from reality and hard stares directly into it.
This was true in the 1920s in Germany, when the battered post-First World War youth culture gave birth to the nightmarish films of the expressionist movement, which led to the Great Depression sparked advent of earthy, gothic horror films in the U.S.
The 1950s saw a McCarthy paranoia fuelled populace wither under an onslaught of allegorical alien invasion thrillers, while in the early 1970s, as the news spat out violent images of Vietnam, people gravitated toward mind-bending techno-shockers that showed mankind at its morally lowest.
And now, as North America struggles to dig itself out from under a seemingly unyielding economic crisis and with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to rack up casualties, multiplexes are being besieged by a new wave of anxious, dark and ultimately fascinating films, pictures that offer a bleak world view coupled with elements of the supernatural and metaphysical.
“What I’ve always liked about the fantasy, horror and science fiction genres is that it heightens the background noise of the characters,” says Proyas — who also directed Dark City and The Crow — about the genre he chiefly toils in.
“It gives people them an extreme version of the real world to see how people react in it. But no matter how strange events can get, it’s always about the humanity. Sometimes you really have to look deeply for it, but it’s always there, driving the story.”
Film is, and always will be a mirror and though the heavy shadow of recession looms large, some comfort lies in the promise that because of this, Hollywood might continue releasing lavish entertainments that actually challenge and confront us.