What can the the apocalyptic Sci-Fi of the Seventies teach us during the COVID-19 crisis?
As a child of the sixties and a life-long SF fan, I grew up with all the dystopian worlds that the movies and TV put in front of me. The main threat in the SF of the sixties changed from the avatars of communism and nuclear war of the previous decade to nature itself, as the earth seemingly fought back against human overpopulation and environmental pollution. Regrettably, these warnings went unheeded.
Now with Coronavirus we find ourselves actually living through one of those scenarios, which has revealed particularly in western neo-liberal and capitalist countries that the system upon which our society is based is simply not up to the task.
As we all hunker down in our virtual bunkers and trawl through our movie collections or streaming services, is there anything these movies can still teach us?
The Omega Man (1971) opens with Charlton Heston driving through an entirely deserted and abandoned Los Angeles, the only other sign of life being a hooded figure glimpsed in a window upon which he immediately opens fire. The whole scene is designed to be unsettling, hammered home further when he crashes the car whilst trying to avoid an overturned security truck. Money blows in the wind, gold bullion is strewn across the road — with the first desiccated corpses that we see. Heston makes no attempt to pick up the money or gold, both things now having absolutely no value.
When he goes to steal a replacement car, he angrily rips a calendar off the wall of the showroom — the plague that decimated the population started in March… 1975.
Heston’s character, Robert Neville, believes he is the only person left alive and unharmed by the plague. He was a military scientist transferring the only sample of a new vaccine by helicopter when it crashed, as the pilot and then he succumbed to the disease. Crawling from the wreckage, he immunised himself with the last surviving dose. He isn’t the only survivor however, as he shares the city with a community of people mutated by the disease who call themselves The Family. They have been psychologically as well as physically affected, embracing the iconoclastic anti-science philosophy of their leader, Matthias, a former TV news anchor, played by Anthony Zerbe. We see him in flashbacks reporting a biological weapon developed by the US government in response to a Soviet/Chinese ‘border war’. There was an accident and the entire population were infected. In the montage there are announcements telling people to stay indoors, hospitals filled with casualties unable to cope — these scenes are now actual reality for us.
Whilst out scavenging and reconnoitring he sees a young woman, Lisa, played by Rosalind Cash. She runs away and after he convinces himself that she was a hallucination, he continues his mission and is captured by The Family rescued at the last minute by Lisa and Dutch (Paul Koslo). They are part of a small community of children and young adults who have a natural resistance to the disease, who live outside the city.
Using his own blood, he develops and tests a cure, which works, curing Lisa’s younger brother. He then decides to abandon the city with his new family, talking about the creation of a new utopia in a part of the country where no-one had ever been before. Just as they are making the final preparations to leave, the boy goes back to The Family and tells them that Neville has developed an effective cure — which Matthias completely rejects with horror. “You mean — go back to the way we were before?” They murder the boy, and with the help of Lisa who has now ‘turned’, they get into Neville’s fortified apartment, destroy it and his equipment. He escapes but in the ensuing fight he ends up leaning across the centrepiece of a fountain, as if crucified, bleeding out the life-giving blood into a fountain. (Movie trivia — it’s the same fountain and apartment block we see in the Friends opening credits.)
Neville’s offered redemption is rejected, his utopian dreams shattered. He is an unwanted messiah. The collapse of society is complete, but whilst the way of life of The Family has changed, being reduced to nocturnal scavengers, they have also become a mutually-supporting community. In contrast, prior to his encounter with Lisa, Neville is only supported in his isolation by his ‘science, gadgets and gimmicks’, his only social contact being repeatedly watching the Woodstock! movie and talking to a bust of Caesar.
Zerbe plays Matthias as an intelligent, sympathetic though single-minded leader of his people. Matthias debates Heston’s character as an equal, he isn’t a mindless zombie, nor is he a Jim Jones/Charles Manson cult messiah. We see The Family earlier in the film as they conduct a book burning, and Neville laments the destruction of the galleries, museums and libraries of the city. Whilst it evokes images of fascist and other totalitarian regimes, this bonfire of the vanities is also directed at art. The artworks in Neville’s apartment are also deliberately destroyed in the final scene, as all vestiges of the previous culture have to be expunged. But in the character of Matthias, we see from flashbacks that these actions are the extreme expressions of the condemnation of society, science and culture he broadcast on his TV show as the plague took its toll. As well as being an actual threat, Neville seems to represent for Matthias the very hierarchy, inequality, uncontrolled science and profligate waste that he blames for their suffering.
Whilst The Family lament what they have lost, they also celebrate the little that they now have and believe a return to the previous order would be worse. Neville is asked more than once why he simply didn’t head for the hills where he wouldn’t have this constant battle. He remained there by choice, quite deliberately, resolutely saying that he wouldn’t allow them to force him out. But it seems that Heston was also fighting a war against The Family, keeping a campaign diary, collecting intel, conducting raids — an asymmetric war, as he had all the bombs, guns and technology and they had to fight back were rudimentary bows and spears. Matthias paints him as the killer, asking how many of his people Neville had killed just on that day.
Are there lessons to be learnt from this? Coronavirus even in its worst-case scenario won’t decimate the population. However, it does threaten, and some would say, has already irrevocably changed our society. Capitalism is on the verge of total collapse. Western governments have sought to protect the economic system as the priority, even over human life, most starkly in the UK where the ‘herd immunity’ policy first adopted by the Tory government acknowledged that thousands would die. This ‘collateral damage’ was seen as unavoidable to limit capital losses. The Johnson’s government struggles with socialist policies, but in securing incomes its priorities remain the rich, big business, banks and property owners, once more abandoning the poor, disabled and homeless, and unexpectedly for the first time, the self-employed.
The very principles at the heart of capitalism and privilege have been exposed as never before. Even in the midst of a global crisis, with a virus that is indiscriminate about who it infects or kills, class divides and hierarchies remain, but now people are questioning the privilege of fame and wealth, demanding equality in a way as never before. Some people are already saying that society cannot and must not go back to the way it was, and that there will be a reckoning for the corruption and twisted political ideology that contributed to this crisis.
At the same time, communities, charities, trade unions and faith groups have come together in mutual support, looking to the needs of those most vulnerable, trying to reverse decades of inner-city alienation. Such movements, the relationships that will be created and this common motivation will not just disappear once the crisis is over.
Are we becoming The Family?
We don’t have a Matthias figurehead, and the iconoclastic actions are most unlikely to unfold as people’s appreciation of their culture and art deepens, these being their only source of relief from months of practical house arrest. But it would seem that the answer to isolation has been greater mutual association. Social media and the internet have enabled what would have been imagined forty years ago as some form of shared consciousness or even telepathy. Would the writers of The Omega Man see us as mutants?
If we are The Family, who is Neville?
In the UK we’ve seen one billionaire after another come to the taxpayer with their hands out, when they are at the same time laying off their staff or retaining them on unpaid leave. In the main, the tory government has responded, and the general aid packages announced so far have all been directed at big business and not at the poor or individual workers or even shopkeepers. Some have even continued to make dividend and bonus payments after receiving specific industry-wide bailouts. This level of greed has appalled people and rightly so — but it also seems to be angering the demographic that would usually support centre-right and right-wing governments. Social media campaigns have been started to organise boycotts, and some companies have been forced by the level of public outrage to change their behaviour. There is growing public demand for a guaranteed universal basic income, not just during the crisis, but from this point forward.
Boris Johnson’s public persona of the ‘loveable clown’ with his dishevelled appearance and de-combed hair is now becoming a liability. He comes across increasingly as incompetent and completely out of his death and uncaring, giving contradictory and conflicting advice, being evidently poorly briefed and prepared, and unable to answer the questions that even the Tory press are posing. The government’s policy has completely reversed in the space of a week, as they realised the full horror of their original plans, and as #BoristheButcher trended on Twitter. It now turns out that far from their science-led approach, the latest restrictions on businesses and public gatherings were only instigated when the French Prime Minister Macron threatened to close the British-French border.
Whilst we are supposed to identify with Neville, and as our isolation at home in some respects begins to resemble his, perhaps in these times we should identify more closely with Matthias and his followers. Whilst the plague we face was not created by uncontrolled ‘Frankenstein science’, our inability to properly face and combat it is due to the elitist, neo-liberal and right-wing capitalist economic structures and austerity policies that have degraded our health and social care, and the very nature of our communities. The conceits upon which our capitalist society has been based now lay sprawled across the fountain, as Neville did, exposed as never before. Neville isn’t a superman, he isn’t immortal, and without his gimmicks he is just an ordinary man. The utopia he promised is fake, and the cure he offered doesn’t represent progress or change — and in rejecting it, Matthias refuses to go back to the status quo, acknowledging the inherent evil at its core.