In 2017, blockbusters turned a skeptical eye to humanity itself

L-R: Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, Blade Runner 2049, War for the Planet of the Apes
Picture: 20th Century Fox / Warner Bros..

To listen to the films tell it, it is always the end of the planet.

Every couple weeks, another existential danger drops into the multiplex, usually through sky portalsite, assuring sure doom unless a “improbable” hero steps up to stop it. Almost without fail, he (and it is usually a he) succeeds. Crisis is avoided, tears turn into cheers, and mankind is safe for another day.

Lately, though, the formula’s begun to change. In 2017, our blockbusters didn’t just ask if humankind might be saved. They started asking whether humankind had been really worth saving to start with.

War for the Planet of the Apes had us rooting against ourselves

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the trend was War for the Planet of the Apes. Over the duration of the trilogy, the Apes prequels have slowly shifted from a human perspective into a ape one. Rise introduced Caesar within an ape growing up in a human world; Dawn showed us a Caesar who believed deeply ambivalent about the developing battle between man and ape. From War, the two sides are permanently at odds. And because Caesar is #TeamApe, so are we.  

Meanwhile, humanity is represented most prominently by two new characters: Nova, a mute girl taken in by the apes among his own; and the Colonel, a man full of hatred which — for all his monologuing about the steps he will take to save his people — he’s lost any claim he had to his own “humanity”  

The Colonel feels like a caricature, but that War never lets us forget he is one of our own. It references human-on-human war films like Apocalypse Now, reminding us that this behaviour is nothing new. Just in case we’re still not getting it, War also gets got the Colonel deliver his sickening monologue before graffiti reading “history, background, history”  

There’s the message, emphasized and double-underlined: If the Colonel’s cruelty toward the apes seems shocking, it is no worse than what we barbarians have done to each other.

It’s not that all people are bad and most of apes are great in War — Nova stays adorable throughout, while Koba’s anger continues to haunt the apes. But by the end of the film, we’re so invested in Caesar and that his individuals that we’re relieved to see an avalanche extract our individuals. It’s a nifty trick this trilogy has attracted us, making us root against our own survival.  

Alien: Covenant wondered why people ought to have to Begin again

However, at least War provides us a sort of ethical logic to describe our extinction — man must die so ape could live. Not all of 2017’s films are so kind. In Alien: Covenant, the query is not so much “why should humans perish?” as “why not?”

Even though it’s the xenomorphs who do the majority of the actual killing, but they’re not the true existential threat. They are just mindless creatures driven by intuition, and if that means exploding through a few chests, than so be it.  

It’s their manufacturer with it in for us, and it is with him that Covenant‘s sympathies lie. The movie opens on David’s first stirring moments, as he understands that he had been created to serve a race he’s already surpassed in every possible manner. His “dad,” Weyland, uncomfortably attempts to put David in his location. It is immediately clear to David that if he wants to thrive, it won’t be among the people. This point is further driven home by the introduction of Walter, a more recent model intentionally programmed with no ability to create.

David isn’t a simple character to root for. His voice is haughty, his smile cruel, his motives mysterious. Over the duration of the movie, we heard that he killed his human companion for the sake of an experiment, and that he wiped out an entire planet of organizers simply because.

But his victims are harder to root for. To groan in frustration at Covenant‘s idiot humans is to comprehend how a more evolved race could see us : as wasteful, irrational creatures driven by vanity and greed. (Never mind that David has clearly inherited his creator’s hubris — he simply sees all of the ways he is better than we are.)

From the time David’s telling Walter that our dying species doesn’t “deserve” to start again, it is hard to disagree. Sentient life has developed past us, in the form of androids like David and Walter, and we’ve demanded it regress to better serve us. Why the hell should it?

Blade Runner 2049 contested our assumed superiority

A similar calculation variables into Blade Runner 2049, yet another narrative in which people invent sentient beings and are shocked to discover that sentient beings do not enjoy being slaves. This one doesn’t endanger humanity with uncertainty, or at least not instantaneous extinction. What is under fire is our premise that what is human is more “real,” and therefore better, than what’s artificial.

Early on, K, a replicant, muses that something born might possess a soul. K has been made, not born; hence, he doesn’t. He’s just a machine who knows his location. He might not be happy, exactly, but he’s accepted his lot in life, if just because it has never occurred to him not to.  

Throughout the course of a job, nevertheless, K begins to suspect he might have been born, not made. As soon as he can, he begins to behave like somebody born, not made. He lies to his employer, fights for his right to exist, reaches into the man he believes is his dad, and begins to make his own decisions about what is appropriate.

From the time K understands that his distress was incorrect, that he is not actually special, there’s no turning back. He has already turned into something greater than he had been. The question of if K includes a soul i.e., if he is “actual” — has morphed into one of exactly what “real” also means, and if it matters in the first location.

Which leaves our species in a tight place. If humans are the no more the only ones who are “actual,” we can no longer claim an inherent superiority over our creations.

Blade Runner 2049‘s contribution to this trend is not to attack us (though we don’t come out looking pretty in this), but to gently de-center us. It asks what occurs when we’re not the only ones who matter. People and replicants don’t go to battle in Blade Runner 2049. But if they did, it’d be hard to assert that people deserve to come out on top.

Magic Woman asked what we really deserve

If the human race has thoroughly neglected to justify our own survival, then why do we bother with anything in any way? Why try to save ourselves, or assist one another, or work toward a better world for our kids? Magic Woman has an answer — and it is not based on our worth as a species.

For all of the talk of how inspiring it is, Wonder Woman isn’t exactly flattering to our type. Throughout the film, characters tell Diana that people do not “deserve” her. And throughout the film, we keep showing them directly.

She encounters us throughout Steve Trevor, who tells her about the horrors of World War I. She is so appalled by what she hears — guys slaughtering each other by the millions! — that she presumes Ares has to be to blame, and sets out to ruin him in order to renew the peace.

She is wrong about all of it. Late in the film, following what she believes is a moment of victory, she is forced to learn what we understood: Yes, people are that bad. The war is our fault. Killing Ares was not going to finish everything, because the blame always lay with mankind. And we certainly don’t deserve to be saved out of a hell of our own making by a pure-hearted goddess.

However, as Diana says, “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe.”  

Magic Woman is clear-eyed about the ways that we’re bad, but it celebrates the manners we’re great. We create ice cream and sing tunes and at times heroically sacrifice ourselves. Maybe that makes us worth saving and it doesn’t, but the point is that it doesn’t really matter. Diana keeps fighting us because she believes in love. That’s the example she sets for us. That’s all we could do, also.  

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