Movies that Fear the Future: Before We Vanish, Antiviral and Mindhack
There is a spectrum for how humans think of the future. At one end are the people who look forward to new advancements, such as Mars colonies and widely available sex robots. At the other end is the Unabomber and others that would readily return to the technological dark ages if given the chance. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle: excited about what might be, yet wary of what we might do with it. There's been a rash of recent movies also teetering on that spectrum, trying to parse out what comes next by attempting to walk between completely fatalistic and blindly idealistic.
Some of this fear of the future comes from an external element. Depending on where you draw the lines, external elements can range from other people or society – such as the fear of military attacks or armed revolt – or even further out into the reaches of the unknown. Are we talking aliens? Yes, we most definitely are.
Alien invasion movies seem to be ever present in the cinematic world. Their delivery changes from generation to generation to encapsulate whatever fear and anxiety will be the most impactful. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob appealed to audiences living during the age of Mccarthyism, while John Carpenter’s The Thing and They Live spoke to the fear of hidden threats among us in a heyday of conspiracy. Now our global state of tension and mounting environmental issues gives birth to a quieter, more emotionally rooted invasion movie, just like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Before We Vanish (2017).
Before We Vanish centers around three aliens in human bodies who have been sent to earth to understand humanity in order to overtake it. They gather “conceptions” from human minds, the actual concept of a term thereby robbing whomever they took it from of their understanding of the term. The three aliens are initially working separately with human guides, who only half believe what’s going on at first, but commingle their knowledge once they meet face to face. According to the aliens, they don’t “take” (the word they use for concept-stealing) from guides so it’s through the interactions with other people that the guides witness the ritual and begin to understand what’s happening.
Small mentions of the fate of humanity regardless of the invasion crop up throughout the movie. One character makes a comment of how we only have about a hundred years left anyway so what difference does it make if aliens take over. Two of the aliens who are most cavalier towards the extinction of humans both ended up in teenage bodies, funnily enough, while the third, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), is disguised as a full adult. Shinji becomes intrigued by humanity and connected to his human form’s wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). As his guide, Narumi witnesses him taking from her sister, her boss, and strangers but not from her. As the invasion moves closer, Narumi begs him to take one single concept from her: love. She tells him that he can’t truly understand humanity without it. Shinji is overwhelmed by the feeling, and due to the commingling of the alien minds and knowledge, the invasion is abruptly called off. There is a mildly happy ending where we see humanity fixing itself together, undercut by the sadness shared between Shinji and Narumi who has now lost the concept of love permanently. Before We Vanish sees an unremovable moral core inside us, but also fears what might be lost to save it.
Of course, a more pressing future fear is the fear of technology and the effect it’s having on our minds. Cyberpunk indie film Mindhack: #savetheworld (2017) focuses on the search for our consciousness and how technology could help us find the spark that created life. Mason (Chris Mason) is a hacker who is trying to save the world. He also happens to talk to a Tyler Durden-esque mental projection named Finn (Scott Mechlowicz) who seems to have figured out living better than the brain he’s residing in. After Mason successfully makes a digital map of his brain, a glowing orb appears above his head. Finn touches it in spite of Mason’s clear objections, and what follows is pretty much that episode of Futurama where Bender becomes human punctuated by some sharp, philosophical musings about sensations, our minds, and the nature of pleasure.
The fear in Mindhack is centralized on the corruptibility of our identities and how technology is only as morally sound as the person wielding it. Enter cyberpunk-tastic villain Eden (Faran Tahir), who is more interested in controlling and destroying than he is in saving. In his hands, technology is immediately weaponized – quite literally in the case of his favorite, palm-centered doohickey – and he represents the future that technophobes predict. On the other hand (pun half-intended), Mason’s goal is to rewire the collective brain of humanity. Manic pixie dream girl character (hey, gotta call ‘em like I sees ‘em) Sawyer (Spencer Locke) rightly argues that this would be robbing people of free will, a charge Mason violently rejects. It’s not so simple a picture of technology where altruistic actions are unquestioned goodness. In Mindhack, the fear settles on both sides to remind us that the best of intentions can also be horrific.
Ultimately, Before We Vanish and Mindhack are optimistic. They both see promise in humanity and our resilience; our ability to fight for survival in creative ways. That is not the case with Antiviral (2012), a movie that builds a grotesque future filled with obsession and overstimulation.
Caleb Landry Jones stars as Syd March, a salesman of celebrity diseases in sterile looking world that isn’t too far removed from the current day. What are celebrity diseases, you ask? It’s diseases that have been carried by the hottest celebs of the day, including Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), an outrageously popular movie star and one of Syd’s clinics best sellers. People pay to be injected with the same pathogen that infected the very body of their favorite celebrity. Gross, sure, but not even the sickest part of this movie.
In a perhaps slightly too-on-the-nose metaphor (but legit my favorite part of the movie) steaks are grown from the muscle cells of celebrities. Available for purchase and consumption, people eagerly devour slabs of human tissue because it is linked to someone they admire. This obsessive consumption for the lives and troubles of others is laid out bare when Hannah Geist reportedly dies and aggressive crowds form outside markets demanding the last pieces of her. The never ending, invasive news reports continue on around the masses, feeding but not satiating the hunger.
What Antiviral fears is not humanity’s extinction but our continued path towards instant gratification. Our mass destruction won't come out of the hands of technology or aliens, but our own pettiness. The movie rails against paparazzi culture and how bizarre it is that we should want the most intimate details of a perfect stranger’s life.
The future will undoubtedly have terrible moments. Plenty of situations are going to get worse, and a good number will get better. That’s not to say that these things will perfectly balance each other out, but rather that seeing the future at either extreme on the spectrum isn’t giving the future enough credit. To embrace everything with open arms dismisses the very real concern that even the best of intentions can have horrible repercussions. To fear indiscriminately ignores the improvements we take advantage of every day. Falling somewhere in the middle gives you reason to look towards the future with enough anxiety to really enjoy a good “fear the future” movie while still staving off that mental breakdown. Save that mess for the real end of the world.