Keanu Reeves clicks on the television, to be greeted with dire warnings of impending climate collapse. Antarctica is melting at a startling rate. The coming decades will be defined by death, disease, rampant flooding, rising seas, and widespread species extinction. “The date!” he demands. The talking head responds that a dramatic uptick in these trends will be visible by 2040. “I want a full restoration!” he shouts. “I want it all back!” Thus begins Reeves’s foray into an interplanetary conflict in which the very existence of life on Earth hangs in the balance. The film is Earth II, and while it is among the actor’s best, he almost certainly doesn’t know it exists. It is the latest project by the Anti-Banality Union (ABU), an anonymous collective of pro-Situationist filmmakers who slice up Hollywood popcorn films and reassemble them into new, feature-length narratives that lay bare some of the central preoccupations and contradictions of US mass culture.
ABU’s debut effort was the 2012 Unclear Holocaust, a staggering supercut of over fifty disaster movies. With unconcealed maniacal glee, Unclear Holocaust reveals the ritualistic grammar underlying the contemporary disaster film, splicing together common tropes — the idyllic opening, initial foreboding, scientists informing politicians, politicians and military leaders yelling at each other, the public learning the truth, panicked social degeneration, widespread havoc, and ultimately, heroic overcoming — as New York City is destroyed over and over again in almost every conceivable way. From the premise that every artistic creation, no matter how far fetched, is ultimately concerned with the historical moment that produced it, ABU traces the contours of decades of state governance predicated on violently managing one crisis after another, attendant to global capital in intractable turmoil.
It is common among film snobs to brand as “escapism” movies devoid of labyrinthine plots, overwrought bourgeois psychodrama, or tear-drenched torn-from-the-Times social issues du jour. But what a peculiar form of so-called escapism we find in the disaster film, in which viewers unwind in their off hours from work by cheering on mass death and destruction on a planetary scale, all the while grappling with the central anxieties of our era: ecological disaster, social collapse, and the ostensible impossibility of building a better world to replace this one! Not only do these films contain far more social substance than they are often credited for, the wellspring of their enduring appeal to supposedly mainstream audiences is anything but orthodox Americana.
In the chaotic aporia of the disaster film, nearly every taboo structuring daily life is flouted, as its monotony is detonated in great plumes of fire and smoke. Social roles are abolished, money becomes meaningless, items are appropriated on the basis of need, and life becomes an adventure in which every moment is pregnant with a depth of meaning we’d be lucky to wring from a decade of ordinary time. It’s hard to imagine that more than a few viewers of these films don’t consider such adventures at the end of the world, no matter how harrowing, to be preferable to their own lives. Meanwhile, structures like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, supposedly among America’s most cherished landmarks, are particularly susceptible to spectacular destruction. New York City, which imagines itself as the most coveted residence on Earth, is an audience favorite to see reduced to cinders, rubble, glaciers, or seafloor. In a notable episode from the genre’s salad days, the obliteration of the White House in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster Independence Day raised cheers in theaters across the US.
Attuned to the unspoken perversity of the Hollywood blockbuster, ABU plumbs its depths to explore what filmmakers, and the moviegoing public, are really dreaming about. To make sense of the grotesqueries one finds lurking behind the familiar faces of our celebrities-cum-gods, it is important to keep in mind that Hollywood is not something that is imposed on the world. Surely there are taboos in Hollywood attendant to the film’s capitalist form (just ask Danny Glover, who can’t find backing for a film on the Haitain Revolution.) But mainstream cinema nonetheless captures, in a form mediated through the capitalist market, not just the hopes and dreams of the people who directly create it, but also those of the great masses of people who are its intended consumers. And just as the advances of great social movements are soon emblazoned on the silver screen, the watered-down iterations of our collective unconsciousnesses that Hollywood serves back to us through this special type of commodity must face their day of reckoning in the box office. Simply put, if movies about our present society being smashed to pieces and replaced with a new one didn’t attract immense interest, they’d stop making them.
In 2013 I spoke with ABU around the release of their second feature, Police Mortality. It is the cop film to end all cop films — quite literally, as it ends with a mass police suicide. They described their methodology as an exploration of “Hollywood’s dream diary,” which reveal at once the repressed desires of filmmakers, and the pervasive appetites of the audiences who keep coming back for more. “We think that there’s a kernel of liberation in all of these Hollywood narratives,” they told me, “and the destruction of New York, and the police destroying themselves from within, are both maybe sublimated forms of revolution, or maybe ideas of revolution that insinuate themselves into Hollywood in these masked forms. So the idea that the world ends, whether it’s the world as a geological planetary reality, or the world as a social order, as in the police no longer being able to withstand its own contradictions, are both forms of wanting to see this world, or its present organization, end in some way.”
The most remarkable part of ABU’s films is also the most obvious: all of these images already exist. No matter how the collective recuts the canon, and sprinkles in a bit of real-world footage as seasoning, to contort their meaning as tending toward a liberated future, the component parts of this vision are readymade. In many cases these images have been viewed by hundreds of millions of people who have experienced them, on some unconscious level, as having occurred in reality. “We would argue that Hollywood has more or less completely occupied the collective unconscious and determined roughly the coordinates of the social imaginary,” ABU told me. “This is extremely clear in the prefiguration of events in movies like The Siege, where prior to 9/11, you see a more or less accurate prediction of the incarceration and vilification of the Muslim population of the US, as well as events like the [Occupy Wall Street] Brooklyn Bridge protest.” Films are, in short, a register of what is widely conceived to be socially possible at a given historical juncture. And sometimes these possibilities come to be.
Earth II, which premiers Saturday at New York City’s Spectacle Theater, is ABU’s most daring and technically astute composition to date. In the long-anticipated followup to their 2014 State of Emergence — a zombie film devoid of zombies, where human survivors erecting immense security infrastructures react to each other in horror — ABU returns to many of its pet themes and favorite movies. The viewer is treated to a generous dose of great masses of people engulfed in flames, cities reduced to rubble, cars hurled through the air. Earth II is, however, its own animal. The film explores the seemingly impossible desire that the terminal violence humanity has visited on Earth’s ecosystem can somehow be stopped and reversed. It plumbs the possibility of, in Reeves-as-Mnemonic’s words, a full restoration. (Spoilers ahead.)
Earth II’s central preoccupations are impending climate catastrophe, the authoritarian turn among nation states to manage the ensuing turbulence, and the potential that escape from our collapsing ecosystem could be the inheritance of a small elite who will simply leave the planet behind and start anew. Simultaneously, the film examines the potential power of resistance from below to the controlled demolition of life on Earth, and the violent determination of nation states, hopelessly wedded to the capitalist engine of global destruction, to clamp down, with no plan for life on Earth but pacification. Unfortunately, no matter how outlandish some of its source material may be, very little of this film falls outside present day political reality.
Whereas their previous films required a bit of imagination on the part of the viewer to follow as a coherent whole, Earth II spins a straightforward narrative from a dizzying variety of source material, sustaining an engaging narrative for the entirety of its 96-minute runtime. The film has a higher production quality than their previous efforts, as dozens of films with standardized hues and a masterful soundtrack flow seamlessly into one another. ABU is also assisted in this by the sheer volume of Hollywood films made by a handful of superstars, which enables the collective to carve out coherent characters for actors like Keanu Reeves, Matt Damon, and Will Smith, that bridge numerous roles over decades. Damon, for instance, appears in Earth II as the factory worker he portrayed in Hereafter, becomes ever more proletarianized via scenes from Elysium, and ultimately volunteers to be a test case for the human conquest of Mars, thanks to scenes from The Martian. In the meantime, his interest in space travel is developed by footage of Damon listening to the radio in bed, overdubbed with the words of Elon Musk.
Similarly, the shots of Reeves interrogating the TV news are taken from the 1995 cyberpunk action saga Johnny Mnemonic. Reeves will later reappear as Johnny Mnemonic, interspersed with footage of his roles from Chain Reaction, Point Break and The Matrix, as his political radicalization leads him deeper into an anarchist resistance movement peopled by the likes of Ving Rhames (The Surrogate), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation), Woody Harrelson (2012), Roddy Piper and Keith David (They Live), and the gang from Hackers.
Pursuing this shadowy movement is Will Smith, armed and angry in a stunning variety of roles (I am Legend, I Robot, Independence Day, Bad Boys, and Enemy of the State, to name a few) neatly spliced together under ABU’s scalpel. Waking to the ruling class catastrophe of anti-climate change protests, in a scene that combines Captain Steven Hillard’s introduction from Independence Day with footage of recent urban riots, Smith is tasked with pursuing eco-terrorists, black bloc anarchists, and anarcho-primitivists (thanks to a generous helping of The East and Transcendence). “This is some political bullshit!” he says at one point, “Call the mayor!” Across a number of roles, Smith’s melancholy belligerence animates the quintessential cop: ignorantly proud of his day-to-day work, proudly ignorant of the broader role he plays in society, and violently angry at the very thought of having to think about it.
The Will Smith of Earth II is only the ground-level agent of the state’s turn to authoritarianism in the face of ecological crisis. “When their enemies were at the gates,” the disembodied voice of The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent tells the film’s obligatory assembly of scientists, generals, and world leaders, “the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city.” Faced with an existential threat to life on Earth, heads of state don’t even pretend to be addressing the problem at its root, which would put them into conflict with capitalism itself. Thus limited, the state can only repress — first against the protesters, then the environment itself, as the president (Bill Pullman from Independence Day) orders a military attack on inclement weather. In case this last part sounds far-fetched, the reader should recall that President Trump actually suggested dropping nuclear weapons into hurricanes to disrupt their course — an idea seemingly taken from the Sharknado film franchise, in which Trump was initially cast to play the president, before refusing the role in order to become president in real life. You can’t make this shit up.
Of course the military’s assault on the environment fails to do anything but make things worse, as signs of doom amass and agitate the general public. All the while, private capital approaches the crisis as an opportunity for profit. “We need a new technology,” intones a scientist from Chain Reaction, continuing, to thunderous applause: “and this technology must be sold. It cannot be given away.” Unable to forsake capitalism, or defeat climate change like a military foe, the ruling class response becomes the abandonment of Earth itself for colonies on Mars. “We’re not meant to save the world,” intones a scientist from Interstellar, “we’re meant to leave it.” Even after arriving at this grim conclusion, the state struggles to keep it secret, in order to prevent mass upheaval. But resistance to the controlled demolition of Earth grows, fueled by catastrophic weather and exacerbated by whistleblowers like Jeff Goldblum (via Independence Day and Jurassic Park) who reveal the state’s plans, spurring popular uprising.
Unable to keep the planet’s grim fate a secret any longer, the president (now Morgan Freeman from Deep Impact) at last publicly acknowledges the coming extinction of human life on Earth, and declares martial law. “Our society will continue as normal,” he announces. “Work will go on. You will pay your bills.” Martial law, however, only escalates the rebellion. Meanwhile, cops and politicians express their disgust and incomprehension at people pushing from below to save the planet. Viewing images of rebellion on TV news, the president (this time Donald Moffat from Clear and Present Danger) asks: “Why?” before concluding at once: “Drugs.” He then orders a full military assault on the American people, which predictably enough, only makes the rebels more determined. Riots proliferate. A helicopter is taken down with a green laser pointer, echoing scenes from 2020. The bewildered president (Moffat again) spits: “They directly challenge the sovereign power of the United States.”
Partisans of revolt are soon joined by a perhaps unlikely ally: the planet Earth itself. “Like all living organisms,” explains a scientist from the 2019 Godzilla II, “the earth unleashed a fever to fight this infection.” Birds smash windows and attack humans. Elephants trample cars. Apes smash up scientific equipment. The state tries to call it a terrorist attack, but the chaos is everywhere. This of course doesn’t stop the cops and military from brutally cracking down on organized resistance. But the human rebellion has intensified along with the natural one. Will Smith is powerless in the face of rioting masses, drawn generously from Joker, amplifying the havoc of animals running wild, taken from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Jumanji. The brutality of the state’s crackdown only reveals its impotence in the face of a state of affairs it has long ceased to control.
The implacable unrest of the Earth and its people in open rebellion hastens the elites’ flight to Mars in their luxury carrier. But the human resistance sabotages their departure. When the cops try to intervene, the planet pushes back, represented by the road itself diverting a police car into the brush, where it is crushed by vines. At this, the retreating ruling class declares total war with Earth and its remaining citizens, melting the ice caps on purpose, vaporizing cities, and serving up a liberal dose of the disaster porn ABU delights in recutting. And just when it seems like the rich might get away, the resistance hackers’ plan bears fruit, and the Mars-bound craft explodes, killing everyone on board. Back on Earth, seemingly bombed back to the stone age, a lone human pacing a halcyon woods removes his smartphone, to find the message: “No Network.” Meanwhile, on Mars, the lone Matt Damon farms away, in anticipation of the settler society that will never arrive.
Lest the reader misunderstand, the political profundity of ABU’s efforts is only matched by the fun they have doing it, and much of their unconcealed joy is passed along to the viewer. Their films are labors of love by people who adore movies, perhaps especially the shitty ones. For example, an epic chase scene draws from Bad Boys and Enemy of the State to recast Will Smith as the pursuer, acting on the side of the state. Another scene juxtaposes Reeves-as-Neo’s harrowing escape from his office in the Matrix with shots of the hated boss William Lumbergh from Office Space, making the latter Reeves’ pursuer, as Christian Bale from Terminator Salvation provides the voice on the other end of his phone, and Danny Glover and Mel Gibson from Lethal Weapon watch him straddling the ledge outside his office window. Perhaps the funniest moment comes as an alarm clock wakes up Will Smith, armed with a handgun, three consecutive times, in nearly identical shots taken from three different films.
Ultimately, the strengths of Earth II are also its weaknesses. ABU’s fidelity to Hollywood tropes trap the film’s political imagination within the framework of what Slavoj Zizek has called “Hollywood Marxism”; while the contradictions of class society are explored with varying levels of intellectual depth, they only figure as signposts in a narrative destined to wrap up neatly at the end, allowing the viewer to experience the satisfaction of their overcoming, via simulation, before returning to normal life. And while viewing the destruction of hated emblems of capitalist society — to say nothing of its most culpable human custodians — might provide ABU’s viewers with a more rarefied variant of the adrenaline rush that these images intended in their original context, the conception of revolutionary overcoming as the simple destruction of existent society does not escape the sophomoric nihilism of Joker, from which ABU draws some key scenes of mass struggle in Earth II.
While it is fun and exciting to watch everything burn, presaging a return to some mythic state of planetary innocence, it is far more difficult, and still more necessary, to imagine revolutionary overcoming as a social process of creation, of repurposing infrastructure and human capacities to meet the basic needs of all. Above all, this means taking the ecological crisis head-on as the cause for global cooperation, especially to mitigate the uneven effects of environmental racism, instead of localized exercises in individual libidinal gratification. But in fairness to ABU, such images might be, as of yet, impossible to find. They have yet to be adequately forged in mass struggle, much less served up, in mediated form, on the silver screen. In the meantime, efforts like Earth II help to map the contours of the present with great diagnostic precision, and the mixture of levity and deathly earnestness necessary for surviving great disasters present and future, toward the waning possibility of a happy ending.