Surviving Doomsday: Of Wolves And Penguins

Note: plot spoilers contained herein.

As I try to redirect or just manage to do something else with my angst over what may happen on Election Day other than to obsessively check the red, blue, and yellow prediction maps, it occurs to me that it is worth revisiting two films released last year in the U.S. that could not speak more appropriately to the current state of affairs: The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016). These are two dystopian science-fiction films that either emerge from or predict the current political climate. Indeed, one wishes that the lamentable state of affairs in this election might have just been a science-fiction plot, or just a bad, postmodern melodrama, replete with villains with no virtuous character to rescue. But, instead, its sordid reality has a vast majority of Americans, myself included, agonizing over an all-too-real possibility that dystopia will no longer be the stuff of science-fiction. Might we all just be able to turn into lobsters, indeed.

My apocalyptic imagination is fueled by the possibility of a Donald Trump victory, but I understand that for other of my fellow citizens such an end-of-the-world scenario is conjured by the possibility of a Hillary Clinton win. I honestly cannot comprehend how anyone could vote for the monstrosity that is Trump, but I take it the sentiment is shared by those who see Clinton in a similar light. November 9th, we all know, will offer us only a partial and much compromised deliverance - no matter where we are on the political spectrum. This impasse brings me to revisit these two films because The Lobster and 10 Cloverfield Lane tell us that the truth is that there is no longer an outside to each of our perceived, horrific post-election landscapes, there is no place to which to comfortably escape.

10 Cloverfield Lane speaks to the bunker-like mentality into which we have increasingly plunged -- it doesn't matter whether the fear is spawned by the specter of foreign others or by our feeling aghast at our fellow citizens. During the elliptical and brief opening scenes, we learn that Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her fiancé. Then, while driving away in the dark of the night, just as she hears reports of an inexplicable power-surge, she is involved in a car crash. When she awakens, she is injured and chained to a pole on a wall in what looks like a barren cell. For the remainder of the film, a man who claims to have saved her from an apocalypse that we have not witnessed holds Michelle (and her audience) captive underground. Now wedded to Michelle's limited point-of-view, we are left sifting for clues that might reveal whether the creepy overlord of the bunker, Howard (John Goodman), is just paranoid or a man of great foresight? Is he the best paternal figure the claustrophobic limits of the bunker can provide or a psychopathic, homicidal maniac? It's an either/or scenario because, in this world, urgency has destroyed nuance. That's the danger of living in danger.

Howard may seem crazy but, as he himself puts it, "crazy is building your arc after the flood has already come!" It brings me to think that Michelle's predicament is only an amplified and fictionalized rendition of the reality that envelops those who will be voting for the first time this election, born only a few years before 9/11, after which the world outside the U.S. became (once again) an unknown, formless universe of enemy combatants ready to wipe us from the face of the Earth. In keeping with the genre's conventions, Michelle finally escapes the bunker, but we are surprised to find that the world is indeed in the midst of a devastating alien attack. At film's end, the suspense thriller is thus replaced by a horror film, a genre-shift that may become all too real a part of the daily lives of roughly forty-nine or so percent of Americans (if we believe the current polls).

Sci-fi films like this one announce that the days when it might have been possible to return to life before the conflict, and to a functional social-landscape, are long gone. As it turns out, Howard was both: a visionary and a psychopath. The ambivalence of the film is perfect: it does confirm Howard's doomsday imagination, but, since the film also ends with our heroine's Molotov-cocktail throwing determination (which brings down the scary alien ship), the film signals that the fight to re-establish workable social and political structures is only just beginning.

The Lobster's darkly comedic dystopia is a world where, again, the choices are polarized. Either you live in the normative world, ensconced in happy coupledom or you have one of two options: if you fail to find a partner in forty-five days you can be turned into an animal of your choice or you escape into the woods to live a life as a rebel outcast in perpetual fear of being hunted down by the very same singletons whose deed of capture is rewarded with a delay in their transformation. The catch: the community of rebels is sworn to eternal singlehood, couple-up and you are dead. Needless to say, we are back to a claustrophobic either/or scenario where all that reigns -- inside and outside of each social group -- is an oppressive, militant ideology. But despite their differences both worlds partake of a fundamental view of human connection: we can only relate to those who share our most trivial traits (they also share a propensity for sadism, a condition that in no small way arises from such trivializing, an observation from which we should take heed).

In this, The Lobster provides a biting critique of the banality to which dating sites like Tinder have plunged us into, a logic best expressed by the manager of the halfway house (a hotel) where the "loners" are provided a last chance at so-called normalcy: "you must choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd. Think about it." And thus, people are left to pair up with those who either have a limp, like them, or whose nose is prone to nosebleeds, like theirs -- or they can fake it 'till they make it. Yet, to get back to my present, election-doomsday theme, it's only a short step from there to think of how our two-party system keeps us in such straitjackets.

Alas, the hope that something could upturn this sad state of affairs is left to the possibility of true love and thus in the hands of two of our rebel protagonists, David (Colin Farrell) and a shortsighted woman (Rachel Weisz) who fall in love. She is punished for this act of transgression with blindness and so now, together, the lovers escape the rebel camp and return to the world of couples. As the story's logic requires, David must now gouge his eyes out. With knife and fork in hand, he retreats into a diner's bathroom where we linger for a few seconds of suspense as we brace ourselves to witness the awe-inspiring moment of watching the great power of love triumph. Here, the camera cuts away to where the short-sighted woman, now blind, sits alone in one of the diner's booths waiting for her beloved to return. We have seemingly been spared watching the gorey consequences of his committed act. But instead we linger as she sits motionless, and we linger just a little longer while she continues to wait, abandoned.

Love has either absconded the world, or we've been deemed too faint-of-heart to be able to sustain its power. This vision is the film's ultimate moment of gore. Indeed, at this point in history, rather than appear paranoid, The Lobster and 10 Clover Field Lane seem visionary.

How shall we come to find common ground across our differences in our coming, polarized, post-apocalyptic landscape? Or has this possibility absconded us? If so, then what kind of world lies ahead? One truly wishes our current reality could be just a brilliant, if bone-chilling, movie plot. It's not.