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Why Are Movie Humans So Mean?

Films like '10 Cloverfield Lane' appeal to the worst in human nature. But we're more than endless warring factions.

By Dorothy Woodend 25 Mar 2016 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Can't we all just get along? If you watch a lot of movies, the answer would seem to be a resounding no. The latest film to appeal to the worst in human nature is 10 Cloverfield Lane.

If you do not recall the original Cloverfield (Lord knows I didn't), let me remind you. The premise concerned a bunch of millennials interrupted mid-beer commercial by the arrival of interstellar guests. The party crashers destroy property values in Williamsburg, play 10-pins with the Statue of Liberty's head, and basically wreck up New York City. The young folks run around in circles and occasionally fall down, but never once put down their cell phones. Everything must be filmed at all times. Armageddon selfies for everyone!

This new edition to the Cloverfield universe takes place at the same moment in human history, when we discover that we are essentially boned. Alien shit-kickers from outer space are bad news, it seems, but even worse news is our fellow sapiens, who variously murder, dismember and manipulate each other. After a while, it feels that taking your chances with the aliens might be a better idea. But before we get to that point of despair with human nature, the narrative cables must be clamped to our ankles to drag us through the plot.

One such towline is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young would-be fashion designer who is in the midst of leaving her husband when the film begins. She packs her bags, removes her wedding ring, and hits the road. Or actually the road hits her. After her car is run off the highway, she wakes up to find herself the prisoner of a rather large weirdo named Harold (John Goodman), who claims that he saved her from alien annihilation and that she is now a permanent guest in his cozy little bunker for two. Or is it three? Cue the entrance of the bunker's third resident, a dim hayseed named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who claims he's there of his own volition. So there you have it. Three humans locked together, dread things overhead, and nothing to do but wait it out and play Monopoly. Personally, I would take aliens over playing Monopoly, but that's just me.

After this zippy little intro, you might expect the film to rush headlong into alien-zapping and wanton destruction, but you would be wrong. The film becomes a chamber piece as the merry trio settle in, cook dinner, and play board games to the poppy tunes on Harold's cool jukebox. But everything isn't all fun and games. Is Michelle just the innocent girl from next door, or is something darker lurking behind her big eyes? What about Emmett -- dunderheaded friend or super sneaky foe? And finally, is Harold more than just an ex-navy survivalist conspiracy theorist with a hair-trigger temper and a dead-eyed look? (Isn't that enough, one may ask?) Again, the answer would be another resounding no, but you'll have to stay to the increasingly bitter end to find out all the rest of the twisties and turnies.

Kill or be killed

Now, I love a good bunker film. In fact, films where people are forced to barricade themselves in from the outside world are among my favourite movies. Think George Romero's consumerist fantasia Dawn of the Dead, where the surviving humans go to the mall and do a bit of shopping while the world falls into zombie hell. There is something innately cozy about this scenario that harkens back to blanket forts of childhood. The inside and outside world carefully divided into inside = safe and outside = bad news. The central conceit of Cloverfield is that both sides are deadly. That is fine. But the thing I take issue with is the sourness with which this particular story is offered.

The premise of the film is that humans are largely a-holes. They will turn on each other when things get tough. No one in 10 Cloverfield Lane is particularly likeable from the outset, so it's hard to work up a lot of sympathy for the plight they're in. When the film's final violent conclusion kicks in, it's so gruesome and savage that I simply wanted to exit from the narrative and be somewhere else. I like cathartic movie violence as much as the next fellow, but about midway through the film I started to feel something different. It was more than just the unpleasantness of the story on offer. The same old saw of kill-or-be-killed -- that humans are essentially monstrous creatures who will cheerfully hack each other to shreds in white-knuckled competition for survival and supremacy felt weirdly and suddenly wrong.

If 10 Cloverfield Lane was the only film hawking this particular narrative, I wouldn't be too concerned, but sometimes it feels as if that's the only story available at the moment. Walking to the theatre, I noticed the posters for the upcoming Batman v Superman film. The image is two enormous male animals battering the living shit out of each other. And these two are supposed to be the good guys in our cartoon universe. Another upcoming Avengers film is also concerned with infighting. Civil war is a polite term for it, but what it boils down to is the old idea that humans are bad news.

But who exactly is telling us this story and why? If it is divide and conquer, who's really winning? Here's where the real world begins to seep into movies. Real violence is not fun or exciting; it is simply horrific. Going to see 10 Cloverfield Lane on the same day of the bombing in Brussels hammered this point home in a whole new way, but the feeling has been building for a while. This adversarial model may eventually destroy us. Whether it's Christians v. Muslims, or Captain America v. Iron Man. The thing that would divide people is serving someone's agenda, but it's probably not in the majority's best interests.

Sitting in the movie theatre, watching the film's characters batter and murder each other, some part of me began to revolt. We humans are more than endless warring factions. In fact, we're a strange combination of altruism and selfishness.

Seeking another humanity

If you would like some help in ascertaining the fundamental divide between generosity and competition, you can always read E.O. Wilson. The inestimable Wilson has spent a good portion of his career illustrating how the human condition is a constant negotiation between helping and hindering our fellow humans. Altruism-man v. Batman! But you see it everywhere. On a Greek island where ordinary folk pull drowning people from the sea, right next to suicide bombers in an airport. But the essential argument that Wilson makes is that we come down on the side of goodness more often than evil.  

The notion that films must be built around some central conflict is a narrative truism that everyone seems to simply accept. Except for the fact that it is really boring and worse, denigrating to the complexity we contain. If only there was another way, she plaintively asks. In this neo-Darwinian world of competition for dwindling resources, can we escape ourselves and the vast gaseous bags of ego and desire that surround us at all times? Without any help from ideology and/or faith, humans are increasingly left to figure out how to get along by themselves. Who will help us? Not Superman or Batman or even God-man?

It helps if you have some different models, especially of the cinematic variety to look to -- films that demonstrate another way of being in the world. They do exist, and not in a sentimental or overly simplified way either. It is a singular experience to see human goodness on screen, maybe because it doesn't show up that often in narrative films, especially those of the blockbuster variety. More often you find these stories inside nonfiction. A friend and colleague once described documentaries as "a cultural tool with the potential and power to replace the vanishing humanities of the previous century." I think he's right.

Inside the nonfiction world, you will find another reflection of what it means to be human. These films embody what kindness, curiosity and openness actually look like in the flesh. Watching them, some shy part of your self awakens. Maybe it is the gentle creature you once were, when you first entered the world, before suffering and pain grew a thick skin over your more tender nature. The process of watching such a film is like discovering a locked room inside your own brain, a bunker if you will, where you hid from the world. It is an ongoing struggle to get along with your own self, much less the rest of humanity. But watching a lot of documentaries can help. 

So, back to 10 Cloverfield Lane. Are we more than just vicious, suspicious, selfish creatures, with a self-serving agenda and an over-developed appetite for vengeance and violence? The answer is a resounding yes. But it is ever a battle. As E.O. Wilson writes: "The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us... The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be."  [Tyee]

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