Waterworld was castigated on its 1995 release for the inordinate escalation of its budget, but the failure of Kevin Reynolds’ film could equally stand for a larger state of disquiet, a recognition that conditions were becoming unsustainable as the new century drew near. Waterworld was a testament to the hubris of the industry, but equally of the foreboding that haunted the second half of the 1990s — what came to be known as pre-millennial tension. Just as it became clear that bloated star vehicles of this kind no longer resonated with audiences, Western societies feared that the compact struck at the end of the Cold War could not guarantee a global order of stability, prosperity and co-operation. Films of this period like Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) began to enact a death drive which found its fulfilment in the carnage of the War on Terror. The star was replaced by exogenous shocks or forces of nature, a catastrophic centerpiece which imperils the mediated flow of consumer interaction. Like the earthlings who welcome the arrival of the alien invaders in Independence Day, part of us revels in this conflagration of custom, seeing an opportunity to reshape the contours of reality.
Waterworld constitutes an autocritique — the production’s well publicized material excesses provide a form of unconscious self-condemnation; it replicates the conditions of societal profligacy which herald the aquatic dystopia that is so lavishly rendered. The film’s extremes seep into any reading of it; process becomes indistinguishable from product. Waterworld luxuriates in its extravagance while peddling a softcore environmentalism. In this way, it perfectly replicates the condition of Liberal paralysis — decrying the problems yet facilitating the causes. Waterworld is simultaneously of and beyond the monument to destruction it has erected. As the film’s nameless “Mariner,” Kevin Costner is emblematic of our relationship to decay. By this point, he feels like a harbinger of doom, the last of his kind, the figure who will usher in the death of the star-driven era of production. The world dies with him as he gets lost in the concept. In Waterworld, the polar ice caps have melted and created an anarcho-capitalist realm in which self-interested parties fight over dwindling resources. Capitalism necessitates an endless quest for frontiers. This one is a hydro-punk war of all against all, terrorized by warlords like The Deacon, (Dennis Hopper), who promises progress, abundance and destiny to his flock, if they keep rowing toward the fabled “dry land” that is just over the horizon.
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The Deacon represents the remnants of the old culture — his world is extractive, macho, bellicose; for him, “dry land is the mother lode,” the next frontier to exploit. Costner’s Mariner distinguishes himself by transcending his humanity; he is a sui generis creature who has adapted to his conditions — he has developed functioning gills, and can descend to the sunken cities to salvage the dirt and detritus that have become currency and relics. The Mariner is beyond appeals to politics or faith. He is a counter-hegemonic figure who will not be a part of The Deacon’s expansionist designs. He is the epitome of the libertarian superman, the rugged individualist who survives on his wits, building Rube Goldberg contraptions which place him at a competitive advantage. But this leaves the Mariner incapable of settling when the opportunity arises; when dry land is finally reached, he is compelled to set sail again. The Mariner has been conditioned to be permanently adrift, so firmly habituated to the ruthless logic of the sea that the stability of terra firma feels alien. By nurturing the side of himself that is self-driven, the Mariner will never know the comforts of a community. In this regard, he is a decidedly 21st-century figure. He can only fathom the currents of upheaval, instability and competition.
In 12 Monkeys, a deadly virus kills five billion people in 1996. This is another self-created frontier of human struggle. The survivors are left to live underground, surrendering the surface world to the animals. Nature has reasserted control of the metropolis, echoing J.G. Ballard’s Hello America (1981) in its abandonment. The subterranean world is the byzantine dystopia of Brazil (1985) in crisis mode. It is a ramshackle version of the prison envisioned in The Matrix (1999); there is a feeling of haste and accumulation to its stacked cages, there is no grand architecture of control, merely a brutal contingency. Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosen to “volunteer” for a mission to travel back in time to 1990, and warn people of the impending cataclysm. But on arriving in 1990, Cole is assumed to be insane, his warnings are dismissed as the utterances of a paranoid schizophrenic, and he is committed to a mental hospital. 12 Monkeys plays with the idea that the designation of madness is a matter of consent, that to tread beyond the bounds of acceptable projection is to be deemed “mentally divergent.” Terry Gilliam’s extrapolation on Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) puts forth the notion that we exist in a shared delusion; we are prey to a mind virus that is transmitted within a closed, self-referential universe through collective psychic effort, and will be transmuted into wisdom. The elevated television that churns out a curated world of wants to the gathered mental patients makes clear that those who are unwilling to engage with the prevailing delusion constitute a surplus population, and will be pathologized, narcotized and criminalized for its preservation.
The Army of the Twelve Monkeys — led by Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of famed virologist Leland Goines (Christopher Plummer) — is a rupture to the dulling surface of the delusion. This animal rights collective is the presentiment that stalks the 90s: that the new ideological settlement cannot hold. But the challenge of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is purely performative, representing a politics of affect that characterized 90s activism (it is interesting to recollect that immediately after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, there was speculation that anti-globalization activists could have been behind it). In 12 Monkeys, the borders of political threat have expanded to such an extent that these “ineffectual liberal jerkoffs” who are “playing revolutionaries” are believed capable of killing five billion people. Their aesthetic production is taken at face value, their delusion is validated by the collective imagination. The spectacle of activism serves to obscure where the real threat resides: in the minds of those with the means and influence to bend reality to their will. Be it Karl Rove or Elon Musk, this is where the mutation of consensus thought takes place, where the virus becomes a virulent strain. Everyone else is left to play out their roles in this reality, doomed to relive the scene in increments, to luxuriate in a dream of individual agency, plagued by the knowledge that “the movie never changes,” only our relation to what is replayed.
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Disaster capitalism makes scavengers of us all. Just as the virus in 12 Monkeys creates its own hierarchy — whose role it is to recast conditions to their favor — the world of Tank Girl presents us with another rapacious spirit seeking to claw back the surfeit of the old world. The film’s villain, Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), the head of the Water and Power Corporation (WP), seeks to monopolize the remaining water on a planet that is the obverse of Waterworld after a comet strikes it in 2033: a desert where “water is life, water is power.” As the film’s eponymous heroine (Lorri Petty) explains it, ‘”The World is screwed… no celebrities, no cable TV, no water.” This dislocation from the culture industry creates a system of sacred artefacts — troll dolls, Etch A Sketch, clips from MGM musicals — which enshrines nostalgia as the default cultural mode. The future has been foreclosed, and all that remains is the blending of old codes; historical context is lost as everything is bundled into a jumble of signifiers. A counterculture of sorts rises in opposition to WP’s designs, drawing on riot grrrl, grunge and slacker tropes — scenes and movements which have all been subject to corporate capture, their reduction to symbols which once represented defiance, but are now a function of marketing finesse.
The true heirs to this outré status in Tank Girl are the rippers — kangaroo-like hybrid creatures who were created as part of a failed government experiment; they are described as a “demonic army of bloodthirsty, human-eating, purse-snatching mutant creatures.” They are the mythic other; it is agreed that they are beyond civilized values, and must be swept aside in the interest of conquest and concentration. WP wants to displace the rippers from their land and steal the last source of water they don’t own, but the rippers use guerilla tactics which have echoes of the Viet Cong in their utilization of the terrain against the enemy. It is an insurgency which Tank Girl ends up joining when her commune is raided for siphoning water, she is sent to toil in what amounts to a WP fulfilment center, and she escapes with Jet Girl (Naomi Watts), a diffident engineer. Tank Girl was too willfully offbeat to entice a mass audience — the world perhaps wasn’t ready for such an aggressive female lead at that point — but it contained elements which were emerging out of the optimism engendered by the so-called “end of history.”
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These elements swirl around Waterworld and 12 Monkeys, too. There was an unease in the air, and it was manifesting across the spectrum of entertainment. Whether from the polar ice caps, a deadly virus or a comet, the feeling that the 21st century had fresh horrors in store was gathering cogency. There was a sense that the brokering of a New World Order would have unintended consequences, that industrial society would create increasingly damaging externalities in the pursuit of endless growth, that our global structures would crumble under the weight of their own contradictions. The culture began to tilt away from triumphalism toward a suspicion that this would not be the era of international accord that had been promulgated in the West’s first flush of victory. Waterworld, 12 Monkeys and Tank Girl posit that when a civilization collapses, many of its customs will be upheld through authoritarian means, shorn of any patina of justice or equity that may have been affirmed through the sanctioning of the democratic event. Whatever assets are left, their ownership will be guaranteed at the barrel of a gun.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.