Thursday, July 21, 2011

I had a pretentious title for the blog post on the price of gold I was going to write, but not for this one. Oh well.

On the weekend I saw this half-decade’s answer to ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’.  The children did not like it much. Sample dialogue:

Daughter of Clam: Isn’t he wearing a sentient creature?

Son of Clam: I don’t want to think about it.

Son-of-Clam-who-is-admittedly-rather-critical-in-general gave it an interim rating of 7/20, downgraded to 2/10 by the conclusion. He said it had instilled a strong fear of food which he expected to persist for some time. Though it appeared to be gone by dinner.

‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ is straight science fiction in the classical mould in a way that ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ was not. It follows the standard recipe of postulating a scientific or technological advance and exploring the logical dramatic consequences of that advance. In this case the advance is in carbon capture technology, in the form a machine that can convert water (and carbon dioxide) into food. (I added carbon dioxide there, when I mentally converted the lead character’s explanation of how the machine worked into real science. It was MUCH easier to do than mentally editing out Jar-Jar Binks from ‘Carry On Up the Naboo’, or whatever that film was called). The machine escapes, as they do, ending up floating high in the atmosphere and drawing energy from lightning and stuff to create food.  It then wreaks havoc when it is exploited by a greedy government, creating planet-wide destructive weather patterns that are almost as unbelievable as the ones in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’.  The Hero Scientist saves the day. I should say that the film also featured a sensible Heroine Scientist, as a steadying force on the rather ditsy Hero Scientist, who starts out pretending to be dumber than she is to conceal her inner nerdiness. In a neat twist on an ancient trope, she is first seen to be beautiful when she puts on glasses and ties her hair back.

I thought it was interesting – and very encouraging, for us wannabe Hero Scientists who *may* be working on giant robots with laser eyes as we speak – that the Hero Scientist was lauded as a Hero at the end, despite being the one whose actions, er, destroyed the city. I had recently noticed this unbelievable outcome appear in an even more extreme form, in ‘Megamind’.  I am humbly thankful for this ‘get out of jail free’ card for Hero Scientists in popular culture, so many years after the invention of the atom bomb. 

What really struck me was the picture of government in the film. ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was a sympathetic portrait of the Bush/Cheney administration, whose faintly disguised analogues were shown as heroic, if clueless, but government in ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ has no redeeming features. The film is set in a town where the collapse of the sardine fishing industry has left the economy in ruins. The Mayor, in a picture perfect illustration of how unimaginative government is when it tries to think outside the box, spends the annual budget of the town on a sardine-themed amusement park. This initial demonstration of fiscal profligacy is then reinforced many times over on a metaphorical level. The Mayor enthusiastically scoffs the food that comes from the sky, snatching cheeseburgers from old ladies in the aftermath of the original rain of food, and is seen to get fatter and fatter and fatter as the movie progresses. He makes more and more extreme demands on the machine that are the proximate cause of it breaking down and wreaking havoc. All the NPC inhabitants of the town happily go along with Mayor’s excesses, and he effortlessly resists all attempts by the Hero Scientist to get him to moderate his behaviour.  

The Mayor explicitly sets himself up as a father figure for the Hero Scientist when he is trying to get him to do what he wants, in an obvious reference to the usurpation by the welfare state of functions traditionally performed by the family. An even clearer reference to the infantilisation of society at the hands of an ever-expanding paternalistic government is the Mayor’s golden boy, a former child actor featured on the tins of sardines once produced in the town, who still goes around in a nappy. In the end the Mayor leaves the town in the lurch as it is about to be destroyed, escaping on a raft made of a giant toasted cheese sandwich. He is unable to stop himself from eating it as well, and in the very last scene we see him going under. 

Productivity increases are made possible by science; the response of government to these productivity increases is to bloat uncontrollably. This is the core message of the film, made with no subtlety whatsoever. 

So I kind of liked ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ despite the fact that it made me afraid of food too.

Today is the 7th anniversary of this blog.

Because I too am infected with the self-referential spirit of the age, I intend to revisit my posts exactly seven years on, if they are at all interesting, and comment on them. The first one was not (at all interesting), so I shan’t bother today.

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