FLIP SIDE: Summer Movie Self-Hatred
There are movies that make you hate your own species, and several of them have been playing at your local theater this summer. Scary Movie and Me, Myself and Irene, for example, films so derisive of humanity that you would not want your pets to see them, lest they lose all respect for you and loud fart-producing life forms in general. But for a more thought-provoking critique of the human species, you cannot do better than Chicken Run and -- for reasons we'll get to in a minute -- The Perfect Storm. After seeing these, the attentive viewer will want to don a Kermit suit immediately and go through life trying to pass as an amphibian.
Chicken Run (best known for putting millions of American children off their McNuggets) may be the only movie in history in which there are no bad guys -- only a bad species, and it's ours. The setting is an English egg farm strongly resembling an avian Auschwitz and ruled over by the evil -- and we must note, thoroughly banal -- Mr. and Ms. Tweedy. Here the chickens attempt to lead a normal lower-middle-class British life -- knitting and gossiping -- -never mind that the Tweedys routinely butcher and eat any hen whose egg production falls below quota. The lone exception to the general complacency is the plucky -- ouch, block that adjective! -- hen Ginger, who sets about to organize a jail break.
The stakes rise precipitously when Ms. Tweedy decides to switch from eggs to the more profitable production of chicken pot pies and installs a huge, ghastly industrial device -- a gas chamber analog, one readily guesses -- for this purpose. Long story short, Ginger finally succeeds in enlisting her comrades in the construction of a giant chicken-shaped flying machine in which they escape, after many close calls, to a beautiful human-free chicken utopia. The children in the audience cheer wildly, while the adults wonder what in god's name they're going to get away with serving for dinner.
Moving along now to The Perfect Storm, we find a movie that begins in a deceptively pro-human vein. For the first half hour or more, humans are displayed at their most lovable -- swilling beer, fussing over their young, and preparing to spawn still more of their kind. In case the audience doesn't understand that it is supposed to care whether any of these bipeds ends up in Davy Jones's locker, the camera continually zooms in on couples embracing while the heavy-handed score soars to violin-drenched heights -- leading my companion, the cynical gay dermatologist, to mutter, "Bring on the damn storm already!" Mercifully, the prettiest of the humans -- George Clooney -- develops a sudden yen for swordfish and sets out with five other men to stalk and kill these innocent creatures of the deep. Too bad for Team Humanity though, no swordfish are to be found in their usual haunts, so our little boat full of actors is drawn farther and farther out onto the menacing gray autumnal sea.
Here the movie finally shows a little subtlety -- not bothering to spell out for us why swordfish are so hard to find. They've been fished out, is why. There's even a boycott on swordfish, which at $11 a pound is pretty easy to observe. After all, we're not talking fly-fishing here, but industrial-style fishing with massively long lines and scores of hooks attached to each. In the one gory and truly tragic scene, our men catch hundreds of these elegant creatures, beat them to death, and butcher them until the deck runs with blood.
To the clued-in viewer -- say, one who has recently seen Chicken Run -- the storm arrives as a kind of vengeance. It is not, unfortunately, a "perfect" storm, since the winds die down obligingly whenever our humans need to exchange some manly confidences. But it does finally come up with an impressive computer-generated 100-foot wave to swallow the boat. Only Mark Wahlberg makes it to the surface, where he bobs around improbably -- fully dressed, that is, in slicker and boots -- just long enough to send a telepathic message to his girlfriend, concluding with the violin-borne sentiment, "Love is all."
Yeah right, Markie -- tell that to the swordfish!
To put these summer movies in full ecological perspective, consider the "overkill hypothesis" that's been gaining ground among archeologists and paleobiologists. It turns out that wherever prehistoric humans wandered, there followed massive extinctions of your larger edible land animals.
In North America, the "blitzkrieg," as the scientists call it, took place about 13,000 years ago, apparently coincident with the arrival of the well-armed "Clovis man." Some argue that it was a human-borne microbe that did in the North American mastodons, camels, and giant sloths at this time. But recent evidence that human migrants to New Zealand extinguished the resident moas (about a dozen species of large, non-flying birds, of which the kiwi is the only survivor) 700 years ago by killing and eating them lends weight to the overkill hypothesis worldwide. From the point of view of all other terrestrial life, we are the piggies of the planet -- a hideous, death-dealing, global blight.
So what do you tell the children, assuming you've been thoughtless enough to bear any?
Well, you could tell them to ignore the PETA people, who have obviously managed to infiltrate Hollywood, and hew to the biblical line that all the other creatures were put here, by that big human-shaped Predator in the Sky, solely for human consumption.
Or you can tell them we've been bad, we humans -- very, very bad -- which is why we're having veggie-burgers for dinner again.