Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Zombies, Aliens and Robots - Killing in the Name Of...

In the American world of entertainment, nothing beats violence.  Well, technically sex does, but while you'd NEVER allow your precocious pre-teen to watch to attractive people make love, you all happily share a bowl of popcorn on the couch watching heroes unleash heavy firepower on their designated villains.  And those villains are often killers and rapists, pedophiles and madmen, serial killers and terrorists - the lowest, most vile scum of the earth.  This is necessary, as we Americans don't like any moral ambiguity in the vicious bloodletting of our popular culture.

But when you think about it, some stories are about, well, stories.  They include gunfights, car chases and brutal hand to hand combat in order to make them more interesting, more exciting if you will.  But they are still, at the core, a story about policemen or soldiers or even frightened citizens doing the right thing, or at least doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Other stories, though, are somewhat less high-minded than even that.  They are about killing, the chatter of the assault rifle, the bangbangbang of a handgun in rapid fire, the cycling of the action, the clink of spent brass on asphalt, the cries of the mortally wounded.  In a straight line from Rambo to the Terminator to Falling Skies we sit impatiently through the brief homages to storytelling so we can get back to the gunfire and casualties.

But oddly, and somewhat surprisingly, we Americans find we have, at least collectively, a certain moral squeamishness when it comes to the massacre of large numbers of our fellow human beings for the purposes of entertainment.  Oh sure, we're more than happy with a final shootout between that detestable villain and the cops, or even a a denouement in the form of a serious firefight as might be found at the climax of "LA Confidential" or Season One of "Justified", but for our day-in and day-out viewing pleasure, as something we might enjoy after dinner on a school night, a large body count is something we have decided to claim we cannot abide.

Various solutions to this problem have been sought.  The original approach while having been around in one form or another for decades, reached its pinnacle of performance in the TeeVee series "The A Team".  Thousands of rounds expended on full auto, along with grenades and explosives, helicopter gunships on hot runs over the battlefield, with M-16s and Uzis spewing endless streams of hot brass - and yet, in the end, there were no casualties, no gruesome scenes of bodies frozen awkwardly in death, no screaming, bloodsoaked wounded, no tragic collateral damage from the massive volumes of randomly sprayed small arms fire.  This tradition of the firefight as performance art lives on even today with shows like "Burn Notice" where the majority of gunfights are staged for the benefit of frightening or fooling the bad guys - although it must be mentioned that when Michael Westin finds himself in a corner, he can and will take lives hard and fast, a redeeming characteristic of a show that often seems to be unsure if it aspires to be merely a cartoon or something much darker.

But the winning solution to this problem, this demand for large scale violence without the messy moral conundrums often associated with mass murder, has now become mainstream.  It's a simple fix really - just have the humans fight...well...NOT humans.  Aliens, robots, the undead, it turns out there are a surprising number of things that can fill in admirably for what would otherwise be a human enemy, and then can be gleefully killed in very large numbers, in various brutal ways, over and over again without causing the slightest ethical twinge.  Terminators, artificial digital humans in The Matrix, Cylons, aliens from "War of the Worlds" to "Falling Skies",  our producers and purveyors of cinematic entertainment can find an endless stream of near-humans for our benighted species to kill in large numbers, with every kind of weapon from Alice's Kukris to "Predator's" minigun.

It's possible that this observation helps us learn something important about human beings, or at least that particularly pampered and hate-filled sub-species known as Americans.  When confronted with the reality that our preferred form of entertainment was horrific, brutal and inhuman, we recoiled from the necessity that we seek other less nihilistic, more enlightened forms of entertainment, and instead dug deep into our creativity to create creatures that could stand in for other human beings when the time came for slaughter.  As intelligent and capable as we are as a species, we are still primitive, tribal, violent and warlike, and will actively resist allowing evolution to complete the process of making us into something more than we are today...


  1. Certainly our press and government have learned their lessons well. We don't torture, we use 'enhanced interrogation'.

    Our drones shoot Hellfire missiles at 'militants'. Sure, if you search hard enough, you could find that 14 out of 15 of the victims of our 'war on terror' turn out to be innocent men, woman, and children, but you won't find that fact by reading the 'liberal' N.Y.T. or Washington Post.

    "The table is tilted. The game is rigged."
    - George Carlin

  2. "Cowboys and Aliens and Zombies."

    Don't you fuckers steal my idea, this will make me rich.

  3. People get to kill lots of other people in videogames. It's harder to put a plot to unambiguous slaughter. Movie violence is an artistic problem in more of a technical sense than a thematic one.