Visions of a Sick World: Representations and Meanings of Disease in Millenarian Cinema


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Visions of a Sick World: Representations and Meanings of Disease in Millenarian Cinema

By Eric Cunningham, Department of History, Gonzaga University


Among the more common themes of millenarian films is the presence of disease as either a cause or symptom of world destruction. Taking the form of medical experiments gone awry, biological degeneration, pandemic, or plague, the problem of the “sick body” haunts humanity’s attempts to create a perfect world, and appears in movies as one of the more vivid reminders of the limitations of life in the historical world. A number of millenarian films have used the theme of sickness as a narrative convenience—V for Vendetta, War of the Worlds, I Am Legend, Children of Men, Cloverfield, Ever Since the World Ended, to name but a few, but few have explored the deeper meaning of human sickness from the aspect of human or historical transformation. This paper will analyze the way sickness has been used in films as a marker of world’s end in attempt to illuminate our understanding of the aesthetic, moral, and practical dimensions of sickness as a historical phenomenon.
At this gathering last year, I introduced a historical methodology of my own invention, a methodology that I call the “psychedelic paradigm” of history. Before embarking on the discussion of the films under consideration, I want to refresh the memories of those who were present last year as to the various features of this paradigm, and introduce it to those who were not present. The reason for this is to provide the mental context that will hopefully make my discussion of these films more intelligible. Without at least some introduction to what I like to call “psychedelic history,” what I discuss here may seem completely absurd—it may turn out to be absurd anyway, but I would like to demonstrate at the beginning that there is, quite literally a method to my madness.

The psychedelic paradigm, many elements of which I have adapted from the late ethno-botanist Terence McKenna (1943-2000), is a means of apprehending the historical world as a kind of multi-layered hallucination. Among the assumptions of this approach is the centrality of the motion picture as a mode of consciousness expression. McKenna maintained that the dominant theme of the twentieth century was a cultural preoccupation with the moving image, which occurred in three major forms: the dream, the motion picture, and the psychedelic hallucination. The dream, thanks to the techniques of modern psychoanalysis acquired new importance as a means of unlocking the individual and collective unconscious; the invention of film allowed us to create narrative through the projection of images that carried the human capacity to produce and reproduce meaning well beyond the confines of text; and the psychedelic hallucination gave us a means of obliterating three-dimensional reality while fully conscious, suggesting that the power to move decisively into a post-Newtonian, even post-historical reality was contained within the metabolic activity of the human organism.

As a historical methodology, the psychedelic paradigm seeks to make the historical world intelligible by focusing on the transformative power of the image, the drug, and the longings of the human consciousness to escape the confines of a historical world determined by absolute time and space. It “works” as a methodology by allowing the historian to read the past as the operation of three interacting dialectical relationships:

The first of these is the relationship between Logos and human consciousness in creating narrative meaning out of events through the evolution of language, not only spoken and written language, but the textual modalities of the visual arts and music as well. The second dialectal relationship is the metabolic relationship between the human body and the edible parts of the physical world. It is maintained that in their capacity to create novelty and bring about changes in consciousness, food and drugs are intimately connected to development of humanity in the historical world. Every edible substance from turnips to the psychedelic mushroom to the Eucharist has brought information from the mind of God into the brains and bodies of the human being. It only goes to reason to that even as our descent into the hell worlds of time and space was triggered by the eating of a plant, our return to Paradise should likely be similarly attended by the act of metabolizing the edible products of our planet—products which include not only foods but drugs and medicines of all kinds. The third dialectical relationship of psychedelic history is the historical process itself, which McKenna liked to describe as the conservation of novelty. In what was perhaps the most controversial and idiosyncratic piece of his own theory of history, McKenna argued that the entirety of human history could be mapped as a two-dimensional graph whose x-axis was time, and whose y-axis was novelty. Although it would take much too long to explain the particulars here, the condensed version is that all the events of history are fractally embedded in the very fabric of time and space—different times possess different novelty signatures, and the passage of time brings history ever closer to its zero point, which is the maximum value for novelty and the end of the historical world. The historical process is the eschatological determination of the world, and the end is reached through a mysterious but palpably real interoperation of drugs, images, and spiritual beckoning. From, the standpoint of psychedelic history films are very important—end of the world films are doubly important because these films are not depictions of the end of the world, they are the end of the world itself.

Because the psychedelic paradigm is a manifestly eschatological methodology, it offers to fulfill the speculations of post-modernists who have, for the last four or five decades, wondered what if anything lies beyond modern historical consciousness. The psychedelic paradigm says that what lies at the end of modernity is the end of history itself. The justification for this radical position is found in the proposition that History as we know it is an explicitly modern phenomenon. It is modernity’s own self-written narrative, a never-ending story in which closure is made impossible by its own assumption that material progress is never-ending. Because this assumption violates not only the laws of ecology, economics, but also the dictates of good aesthetics—we can’t forget that Aristotle told us that all epics have a beginning, a middle, and end—modernity can only be provisionally true and must find its closure in some kind of transcendence. Modernity, to the psychedelic historian, looks less like a triumphant narrative of progress than a demonic endless loop in which all forms of change are defined as improvement, even when the evidence suggests that the changes are detrimental. In this light, the end of modernity—and History itself, is not only inevitable, but desirable. It is that which constitutes all of humanity’s longings.

The psychedelic paradigm does not “hope” for world’s end, rather it points out that the end is already here, but acknowledges that History–like a motion picture—must play until the final reel reaches its conclusion. When we look at the History from this perspective we become aware of the fact that playing a movie from “beginning” to “end” is more a matter of convention than necessity—that the passage of time is only chronological in the “forward” direction because that is how we are programmed to watch it. Not only are we capable of watching it backwards, we also know how the end influences the various events in the earlier acts. What this means is that on the unconscious, subconscious, or transconscious level, the future is always dripping down into the present and giving us an indication of future possibilities, if not future realities.

The easy passage of image and reality from future to present, and from the subconscious to the conscious underscores the importance of art, particularly film in shaping conscious as well as the texture of the outcome of the historical process. The question of whether art influences reality or reality influences art is an unimportant question because they are mutually influential. Since the world is at once finished and in the process of becoming, it is of vital importance that the images we create reflect the kind of reality that provides the most satisfaction.

The abundance of millenarian, apocalyptic, and doomsday movies in the post world war II culture, specifically at the turn-of-the millennium reflects the reality that modern consciousness, as narrative, has reached an endpoint, and suggests that modern humanity is searching for some kind of vision of a satisfactory postmodern reality. The fact that most of these films are dystopias rather than utopias would indicate that the unfolding of the historical world is going to be traumatic on every imaginable level. Not having a real image of a satisfactory post-historical world, modern humanity lacks the means to bring it into existence. My personal judgment that we are growing ever closer to this moment is based on the shifts that have taken place inside the genre. In brief, the world ending disaster as depicted in film has moved from the domain of science fiction into the domain of everyday life. No longer does the destruction of the world-as-we-know-it come from alien ships, asteroids, or random ecological disasters—it comes from bad politics, bad science, and freak medicine—all of these things in combination, giving us an increasing sense that somehow managing the end is still in our control. This is either the great promise or the great peril of contemporary life—what we used to call acts of God will ultimately turn out to be things that were always in our power to avoid. The closer we get to the end, the more vivid becomes the reality that it is an end of our own making—and linking this to the theme of our discussion, transformation, the great challenge that issues forth from these films is to transform ourselves, while we can. Unfortunately, these films, almost invariably, leave us without any clues as to how to do that. The reason for this is that these movies are the products of a modern imagination that has, through its surrender to materialism, lost the ability to conjure up a picture of its own spiritual redemption. The best it can achieve is to effect some version of the “Hollywood ending” in which at least one of the protagonists can stride from the rubble of world destruction, child in hand, and continue to live a happy bourgeois life.

This essay will examine the shift in world destruction films from the standpoint of disease; not just the random occurrence of disease as has traditionally been depicted in the genre,1 but the management or better, mismanagement of disease by scientific researchers and political figures who attempt to reinforce the power of the intellectual and state apparatus by responding, usually in a fantastically inhumane way, to the outbreak of biological emergencies that they themselves have usually caused. The subgenre of the botched medical experiment, not by mad scientists, but by rational administrators shows us most clearly the degree to which an ostensibly out of control historical process may really be the fruits of bad decisions made by the elites of a world stuck in a flawed historical consciousness Each of the films under consideration provide an example of a sickness, or a cure that has been mismanaged and turned into either the justification for a radical expansion of state power or the complete breakdown of order that leads to mass misery and chaos. While each of these films treats the matter of sickness slightly differently, what they have in common is the theme that as humanity moves closer to creating a perfect totalitarian regime, disease keeps appearing as the last terrorist to be neutralized.

V for Vendetta (2005), directed by James McTeigue, tells the story of a mysterious terrorist who seeks to take down a British government that has become a police state run by the fascist “Norsefire” party. V, played by Hugo Weaving, is a flamboyantly and violently theatrical character who wears a Guy Fawkes mask, not only to conceal his identity but to hide the disfiguring scars that cover his entire body. The central plot is built around V’s public threat to destroy the buildings of Parliament on the 5th of November, and his training of Evey Hammond, played by Natalie Portman, as a kind of understudy in terrorism. The role played by medical experimentation in the creation of Britain’s totalitarian regime only becomes clear through flashbacks. On the surface, it appears that Norsefire came to power in the wake of a biological terrorist attack, specifically the dissemination of a virus that killed nearly 100,000 people. Out of fear, the British population elected the party’s fascist leader, Adam Sutler, who becomes High Chancellor. Sutler, played by John Hurt, of 1984 fame, used his emergency powers to imprison a variety of political “undesirables” (conspicuously including homosexuals and Muslims) in their efforts to restore good order. Norsefire was able to consolidate its power by offering, through its corporate arm, Viadoxin, a cure for the virus. We learn, though, that Norsefire had staged the attack to exploit the inevitable political chaos, and had actually engineered the virus, using political prisoners as lab rats. V, of course was among the subjects of the experiment, and, having acquired enhanced strength and agility through the experiments, destroyed the research lab, sustaining horrific burns in the ensuing fire. V’s vendetta upon an evil and corrupt government includes an attempt to enlighten the population by exposing its corruption as a well as a successful finale that brings the Parliament building crashing to the ground. No further mention is made of the virus.
Doomsday (2008), directed by Neil Marshall also depicts a United Kingdom thrown into turmoil by the presence of a deadly plague. The “Reaper” virus, which breaks out and rages through Scotland, leads the British government to build a massive, fortified border wall, saving England as the miserable quarantined inhabitants of Scotland, they believe, eventually die off. Among those rescued from the plague in the final days of the chaos are a young girl named Eden Sinclair, who grows up in England to become a hard-edged, and highly effective soldier. When news reaches the British government, nearly thirty years after the quarantine, that the Reaper virus has broken out in London, and that there are reports of virus survivors in Scotland, it decides that steps must be taken to find a cure. Maj. Sinclair is picked to lead a team of commandos and research physicians into Scotland to locate a certain Dr. Kane, played by Malcolm McDowell, who was known to be working on the virus years before. The team is given orders are not to return if they fail to find the cure. Embarking with a stern do-or-die attitude, the team is inserted into Scotland, where they find the survivors living in a state of savage, barbaric, cannibalistic, brutality. During a brief capture and imprisonment episode, one of the team’s doctors is roasted alive and eaten by a frenzied mob, but Sinclair escapes with a fellow prisoner, Cally, who like Sol, the barbaric leader of the surviving tribe is the grown child of the renowned Dr. Kane. Fleeing into the countryside on a steam locomotive, they find Kane ruling over a medieval kingdom. When Kane reveals that the survivors simply had a natural immunity to the virus, Sinclair arranges to deliver Cally (for the purpose of blood donation) to the British government, which is on the verge of collapse due to the rapid spread of the Reaper virus in London. With its elite members safely in quarantine, the government callously decides to let much of the population die off before announcing the imminent arrival of the cure.
I Am Legend (2007), directed by Francis Lawrence, is an adaptation of the 1971 Omega Man, which itself was based on the 1954 novelette I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It presents a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a successful cure for cancer mutates into a lethal strain of measles, wiping out 90% of the earth’s inhabitants. Robert Neville, an American army doctor played by Will Smith, is the apparently the only healthy survivor of the virus in all of New York. Living in stark isolation with only a German shepherd for company, Neville tries to find a cure for the virus as he ekes out his survival hunting deer on the streets of Manhattan. Complicating his quest to survive are the “Darkseekers,” packs of infected survivors who have mutated into savage, subterranean, nocturnal hunters. When one of his lab rats shows marks of improvement with his vaccine, Neville decides to try the cure on an infected human being. He captures a Darkseeker woman, and immediately finds himself at war with the skillful and ruthless hunters of her tribe. A skirmish with the Darkseekers results in his being overwhelmed and nearly killed by them, but he is miraculously rescued by a disease free woman, Anna, and her son Ethan, who show up just in time to ward off the Darkseekers with high-intensity lights, and carry him to safety. Anna, who is trying to maker her way to a reputed colony of survivors in Vermont, has been able to locate Neville from listening to his daily radio broadcasts to the world. In taking Neville home, she inadvertently shows the Darkseekers where Neville lives, and they attack his house before he has a chance to prepare the defenses properly. In the ensuing battle, Neville barricades himself in his basement behind a plexiglass barrier, and gives Anna a vial of the infected blood to take to the survivor’s colony for the purpose of making a new vaccine. He places her and the boy inside a concealed coal chute, and detonates a hand grenade, killing himself and the Darkseekers so that the woman and her son can make a clean escape. The film ends with Anna and Ethan arriving safely at the gates of the survivor’s compound.
Serenity (2005), directed by Joss Whedon, employs a slightly different version of the sickness motif. This new sci-fi cult classic takes place five hundred years in the future, and focuses on the activities of a privateer space ship called Serenity. The captain, Mal Reynolds, is a bitter veteran of a unit called the Browncoats, which had, some years before, fought in a losing war for independence against the oppressive Alliance interplanetary government. Having lost both freedom and faith, Reynolds leads a small crew that survives on the border planets of the galaxy, hiring themselves out for acts of smuggling, bank robbing, and general low level piracy. The film opens where Firefly, the very popular, but ultimately doomed television show upon which Serenity was based, leaves off—with a doctor, Simon Tam, and his psychic sister River embarked on the ship after Simon has rescued her from the Alliance’s mind control research lab. River is being pursued by an all-purpose government henchman known as the Operative, as Serenity attempts to locate Miranda, a planet that River mentioned to in a psychic trance, and seemingly holds the key to the Alliance’s interest in her. Complicating Serenity’s passage through the edge of the universe is the presence of savage, cannibalistic, and obscenely violent marauders called Reavers. In another trance, River is able to locate Miranda, and Serenity heads there, only to find its outer atmosphere patrolled by Reavers. Disguising Serenity as a Reaver ship, the crew sneaks into Miranda, finding on this very habitable “terra-formed” planet, a profusion of corpses that have seemingly died from non-violent causes. They are at a loss to understand the cause of these deaths until they come upon a holographic log that reveals that Miranda had been the subject of an Alliance medical experiment. According to the log, recorded in the final moments before Miranda became a ghost planet, the Alliance had diffused a chemical mist called G-23 Pax into the air of Miranda, which rendered 90% of its inhabitants peaceful, harmonious, and free of any instincts of aggression or violence. The holograph goes on to explain that the people of Miranda had eventually become so passive that they lost even the will to live, and simply gave up the ghost. The unexpected outcome of Pax was that the other 10% of the planet became insatiably violent and murderous, in other words, they became Reavers. With such hard evidence of the misdeeds of the alliance in hand, Reynolds takes the holograph out of Miranda with the intention of broadcasting it to the world. To cut through several interesting twists, and to make a long ending short, he succeeds not only in showing the holograph to the world, but in convincing the persistent Alliance Operative that he has been working for the wrong side. The film ends with Serenity, damaged but undaunted, heading off into new adventures,

Depicting the End of History:

In The Postmodern Condition (1969), Lyotard observed that a modern society finds itself in a postmodern condition when it loses faith in the meta-narratives that guide the unfolding of modern historical consciousness. When we are no longer so sure that freedom is all it’s cracked up to be—when we are no longer convinced that science will cure all of our ills—in short, when we stop believing in endless, unilinear material progress as the governing trajectory of historical process, we have, essentially moved into a postmodern reality. From the standpoint of the psychedelic, in which motion picture play such a determining, or perhaps just predictive role, the end of modernity coincides with the end of history itself. What then, does a psychedelic-historical reading of these films tell us?

First, it tells us that the world as we know it is over, and we should prepare for a dystopic reality of some sort. There are few post-historical cinematic visions that don’t portray catastrophe. Those futuristic movies that do portray a stable reality, AI and Bicentennial Man to toss out only two don’t really deal with the transformation of political, social, and technological reality, they merely put affluent middle class 20th century people in zippered suits with smart houses and rocket cars. The movies that really deal with the transformation of historical process have nothing to communicate other than the tragic fact that we are out of ideas. Unlike the films of the Y2K era, they no longer seek closure in the diabolus ex machina of the asteroid or evil alien attack. These tropes at least represented some hope that we wouldn’t destroy ourselves—we knew it was over, but we couldn’t believe it could be our fault. It would seem that such hope is diminishing, as we note the degree to which bad science and bad politics, and freedom run amok are the agents of the new visions of disaster.

It isn’t that the scientists are categorically evil. The Krippin virus of I Am Legend was created to cure cancer, not to create massive death and a remnant of Darkseekers. Neville himself is a good doctor, trying to find a cure for the virus even when there are no available people to cure. Dr. Kane of Doomsday was also at work on a virus, but after being sealed in with the rest of the doomed in Scotland, and surviving only due a natural immunity from the Reaper virus, he came to adopt the attitude that those who get to survive are merely naturally superior-an idea which makes a mockery of modern, value-free science. Kane of course abandons science and rejects modernity to take up the career as a retro-medieval king over a realm of those favored by nature. Who are the villains then? The politicians are, and not surprisingly, the dominant politicians of this genre seem to be filmic depictions of the Bush administration—it is apparently one of the last hopes, and I would submit, last delusions of the culture producing left that only right wing governments are incapable of totalitarianism. If I’ve gone stomping into a political minefield, I will now step out, but not before saying that by the terms of psychedelic theory, whenever we surrender our spiritual autonomy for the sake of material security to any groups of politicians, right or left, we’re going to get what we bargained for, which is to say a great deal of security. Security is what the totalitarian regimes of V for Vendetta and Serenity are trying to maintain, and they have no qualms at all about using mass murder as a means of quieting political, racial, or religious dissent.

We intuit somehow that big governments and the absolute power they wield are bad—in the movies, the consequences of giving our power to Big State are made vividly real. In the real world, we continue to bestow this power—should we think for a minute that we can avoid the fate we are constructing so concretely in our films? Films show us the concrete results of decisions already made.

The End?
Finally, what are we to make of the bifurcation of humanity depicted in these films? From what hideous corner of the collective subconscious do Reavers, Darkseekers, and the cannibal punks of post-plague Glasgow come berserking? Are they us? I Am Legend and Serenity tell us that some kind of biological mutation occurs as a result of the sickness in question, rendering the remnant indiscriminately bizarre, raging, bloodthirsty, and rapacious. The monster-humanoid of post-history is far worse than any human barbarian the human historical record has ever produced, and they are worse than evil in that their wickedness has no object other than the maintenance of a life not worth living. They are victims of the sickness. Doomsday fails to offer even this consolation. The surviving cannibal punks are simply vicious, and they live or die at the whim of the community’s only free subject, Sol, the rebellious son of King Kane, and the representation of evil incarnate. Sol doesn’t care about finding a cure for his people—he merely reigns over them, with terror and violence in an unfocused quest to satisfy his bizarre appetites. Kane is only marginally better, having rejected for his people the false promises of modernity as they take refuge in the ruins of a Scottish castle. In the “real” world of London, as these two visions of post-history are played out, the Reaper virus has reduced the central City to mayhem, and the only solution envisioned by the government is to let the surplus population die off and establish, with control of the vaccine, absolute authority in the aftermath. Are these the choices awaiting humanity? A willful turning back of the clock, punk cannibalism, or a police state?

None of these films show us a satisfactory society at the end—only the threshold of something that may become a society. Maj. Sinclair arrives back in Glasgow with the head of Sol, as the people cheer her victory over tyranny. Then what? Anna and Ethan make it to the survivors’ colony in Vermont as the steel gates open to let them in. Then what? The Houses of Parliament crumble to the ground as thousands of Londoners in Guy Fawkes masks cheer. Then what? Serenity flies off into space having exposed the evil of the Alliance. Then what? We don’t know what, because, as terrifying as it is to say, the vision of the happy future on earth is not part of our historical lexicon—but we do have the medical miracle of transhumanism.
The Transhuman Nightmare:
The theme of our conference if transformation, and we are looking at films that show how people have become transformed through awakening, or suffering, or aging—subjective transformations that take place against the backdrop of a world that, while full of surprises is essentially fixed in its own process and mostly indifferent to our activities. We love with the subjective transformation so much that we’ve worked hard through our science to make sure that the various transformations of the object world have been brought under our control. We can create hot air, we can create cool air, we can sail against the wind, fly against gravity, prevent teeth from falling out and babies from being born. It’s easy for us to forget that objective historical world itself is in wild transformation, and not always because of the effects of human ingenuity. It would be impossible for us to notice, without extraordinary insight, if it were true the most important Transformation of our world were taking place outside the realm of our senses—if, in other words, there were a real mystery afoot. The modern world hates mystery—our civilization has told us that there are no mysteries, there are only things that we haven’t figure out yet. There are thus, no unstoppable wars, no unrecoverable recessions, no incurable diseases—the great hope of Christian consciousness, of real substantial transformation, of a resurrection body to be acquired beyond the material world is not something the modern world can or will endorse as a potential future. Lacking the capacity to imagine a transformation from matter to spirit, our scientific project works toward the goal of transhuman evolution, in which the human biology and cybernetics become fused. As Ray Kurzweil explains in his arresting The Singularity is Near, the human organism is only years away from self-transcendence. According to the promises of transhumanism, people now living may have the opportunity to live forever. By integrating computer chips into the body and nanobots into the blood, technology will succeed creating a perpetually living organism that marks a step beyond humanity in the evolutionary process.

This is not the place to take up a detailed critique of the transhumant idea, but when we consider the idea in light of these particular films, it presents some new ways of thinking about sickness, not only as a part of the human condition, but as a part of the historical process as well. If the transhumanists are telling us that the cure to sickness is not death, but technology, then the future holds nothing but satisfaction—at least according to the definition of satisfaction as the abolition of death. If the dark images projected in the sick world apocalyptic genre of films are telling us that the attempt to abolish disease leads, somehow to hell on earth, it behooves us to watch carefully, and reconsider our options. Transhumanism will likely be modernity’s last card to play—it remains to be seen whether God will tolerate us remaking ourselves in some image better than His own, but if there is no loving creator God, as so many people would have us believe, we need to ask what really happens when we willfully allow that which we are to become some kind of a sub-species. When we watch Serenity, or Doomsday, or I Am Legend, our first thought is to imagine how sad and scary it would be to be the last “real” person left alone on a dangerous earth. The only thing more frightening than the prospect of a life spent having to barricade ourselves in at night from humans who have become prowling beasts is the contemplation of becoming one of the prowling beasts themselves.

As they show us the horrifying, but not implausible depictions of future life, I wonder if these films are not also urging us to come up with some better way of reckoning our experiences on earth than with the imaginary of modern historical process with its dubious promises of future satisfaction. Perhaps they are suggesting that in pursuing the great material aim of modern civilization, i.e., a disease free, trouble-free, risk free, pain-free world, we may wind up with no world, no life, and no future at all

1 Charles P. Mitchell, A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001), xi. Among Mitchell’s eight categories of apocalyptic films are “Germ Warfare and Pestilence,” and “Scientific Miscalculation.” The kind of medical incidents that take place in the films being discussed here might don’t necessarily constitute a middle category.

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