Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Total Recall and the neverending dream of liberation from oppression

I sometimes wonder whether people have noticed that many movies (as well as novels and short stories, which are not my concern here) thematise the fight for liberation from some or other dictatorial regime that oppresses people, often depicted as the working class. Just off the top of my head I can think of several: The Wachowski brothers’ (now brother and sister’s) The Matrix trilogy, Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, Andrew Niccol’s In Time (see my previous post), Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall of 1990 and the 2012 “remake” of Total Recall, directed by Len Wiseman – both of which were loosely based on Philip K Dick’s short story of 1966, “We can remember it for you wholesale”. (One could add James Cameron’s Avatar here, too, although there an “alien” people are the oppressed.)

In brief, the recent Total Recall depicts a world (2084) laid waste by chemical warfare, with only two areas still viable for habitation – the UFB (United Federation of Britain) and the Colony (Australia), from where workers travel through the earth’s core by means of The Fall, a gravity elevator, to work in the UFB factories. The protagonist is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker who is plagued by disturbing dreams. He visits a company, REKALL, which promises fulfilling artificial memories of a client’s choice, and is talked into choosing those of a secret agent by the proprietor.

Condensing mercilessly, he discovers that his present self is one directed by implanted memories, and that his “true” self is Carl Hauser, a highly skilled UFB secret operative who infiltrated the Colony’s resistance movement, but was persuaded by a woman, Melina (Jessica Biel), to change sides, before UFB agents captured him and pacified him with false memories. As may be expected, Quaid/Hauser and Melina eventually save the Colony, against overwhelming odds, from an invasion by UFB “synthetics” (robot soldiers) led by Cohaagen, UFB’s Chancellor, and with sufficient “action-scenes” to satisfy even the greatest action-junkie.

Leaving aside the irony, that the making of these films was motivated by profit, what they have in common, thematically speaking, is the struggle, on the part of some liberating agent or protagonist, to free the oppressed working class from an oppressive regime. Why would this be the case – that the myth of true liberation underpins so many of the popular films made for people’s entertainment?

I would suggest two possible answers. First, that the myth of liberation virtually has the status of a Jungian archetype in the human unconscious, thus shaping many narratives, some grounded in history – like those of gladiator Spartacus, who opposed the might of Rome for the liberation of slaves (see this post). The legend of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to sustain the poor, is supposed to be based on actual characters and events, too, but whether it is a mixture of history and fantasy or not, in either case it, too, is the expression of a deep longing for freedom from servitude.

The second, more interesting, answer is that – and I believe that this happens at a curiously intertwined conscious and unconscious level – the production of so many (stories and) movies that embody the social-political imaginary of “the good fight for freedom from political and economic servitude”, is motivated by the wish to provide a fictional substitute for real liberation, which ensures vicarious fulfilment and catharsis, while serving to perpetuate conditions of economic and political subordination.

To the extent that it is unconscious, it partly taps into the first answer, above, namely that the collective unconscious is endowed with an archetypal wish for freedom from oppression (think of its expression in religious texts such as the Christian Bible, where “freedom” acquires a supramundane meaning). Then, at a simultaneously unconscious and conscious niveau, it is driven by the need for catharsis – not quite in the Aristotelian sense of “being purged by (or from) pity and fear” by witnessing a character’s tragic suffering, but in a related sense, which has to do with the need to be given fictional relief from a sense of being hemmed in on all sides by sometimes suffocating laws, rules and regulations, which a mere individual cannot overcome, and by the endless struggle to survive.

Think of the following. In the context of the contemporary world, where, despite all the incessant talk of human rights, political and economic oppression is inseparably conjoined, it makes no sense to imagine that people could be “free” by simply deposing a tyrant of some sort. Those who believe that this is possible, haven’t learnt to “cut off the head of the king”, as Foucault put it graphically, that is, to stop thinking of power as something that resides in one person. If that was ever the case (and I’m not so sure it was; even powerful monarchs or emperors needed a support-network of advisors, vassals and the discursive vindication of their rule to have power at all), it certainly is not so now.

When the president of the US is said to have power, it is not because of the person he (or she) is, but because of the agency that the position of president bestows on this person. In a word: power, today, has to be conceived of as a function of an almost incomprehensibly complex system of political, military, social, technological, juridical, cultural and perhaps most important, discursive and economic relations. Hence it makes no sense to think of people being oppressed by one person, either – like power, oppression is systemic, too.

This is the reason why I claimed that stories of liberation, like those of Total Recall or The Matrix, are engendered by a curious mix of conscious and unconscious motives – consciousness where the reality of systemic oppression is concerned, and unconsciousness relating to the archetypal wish for liberation, on the one hand, and the need for a quasi-catharsis, on the other. The latter is needed for the short-lived illusion that freedom is indeed within one’s reach, which explains why members of audiences who have just seen Avatar, or In Time, or Total Recall, leave the theatre with a sense of exhilaration. Haven’t they just participated, through acts of identification, with the protagonists (Jake and Neytiri in Avatar, Quaid/Hauser and Melina in Total Recall, Will and Sylvia in In Time) in successfully liberating society from the unjustified oppression and exploitation by some or other group intent on their subordination (the humans in Avatar, the wealthy UFB in Total Recall, and the time-rich in In Time)?

It follows from this explanation, of course, that these liberation-narratives are symptoms of a deeply pessimistic realisation that “it ain’t gonna happen”, that the oppressive global system is too complex and too tight to overthrow. (The director’s cut of Total Recall even confirms this, where the ending suggests that Quaid/Hauser did not really manage to free the Colony, and that the entire narrative was techno-chemically induced while he was in the “artificial memory-chair” at Rekall.)

This is partly true, I believe; but only partly. Because while they serve the function of quasi-catharsis for audiences – and, on the other hand, ironically serve to entrench the system even further through the corporate profits they generate – they also, willy-nilly, keep the motif of freedom from oppression alive. And while this is the case, what some call a new, alternative globalisation movement can grow, finding inspiration in these narratives. For only a new “system” can replace the present one. Its contours are not clear yet, but that it is slowly taking shape, leaves no doubt in my mind. (Anyone interested in this should read Paul Hawken’s book, A Blessed Unrest (see this Thought Leader post and this one.)

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    • Charlie

      Interesting read. I suppose you could use the Arab Spring and what is happening in Egypt now as a good example about “cut off the head of the king”.

    • possum

      Terry Gilliam’s Brazil could fall into this category. He was forced to change the original ending to allow his hero to drive off into the sunset with the woman of his dreams, free at last. The original, utterly shocking ending was not so happy and yet far more memorable. What is better, a movie that makes us feel good for a day or two, or one that rings true, that we remember vividly for years to come?

    • Bert

      Charlie, Yes and No – The way the Arab Spring started, with a kind of radical democratic grouping and re-grouping every day without any identifiable leaders, was a very good start, because it ‘cut off the head of the king’, realizing that the structural dynamics of the group is where the gist of democracy lies – the moment there are leaders, they are co-opted by different interest groups, etc. But the way it has developed since then, with the implementation of representative democracy all over again (which is no longer working, because all so-called representatives, from the President to those below him/her, are corruptible), has simply been repeating the mistake of believing that power lies with the ‘king’ (president). Moreover, the president, Morsi, although ‘democratically elected’ was making clear moves towards another dictatorship, which subverts any democratic impulses.

    • proactive

      ….a great call for a Recall!

      At times we need to escape our harsh realities and explore the endless possibilities of our capable brains, our boundless imaginations, explorations and participation with our infinite universe. Beliefs in a better future keeps many alive, optimistic and happy- reducing stress, anxiety and creating better health!

      Scientists however warn eternally optimistic people to investigate their frontal lobes for malfunctioning! To throw all caution to the winds and e.g.: don’t save for retirement, ignore safe driving or sex or consistently vote for a bad party might end life on earth prematurely!

      Children are already educated through fables like the big bad wolf, the witch in Hansel and Gretel and that every princess will always find her prince and live happily ever after!

      Healthy optimism is expressing itself through various religions in beliefs of eternal bliss, a promise to exchange hell on earth with a better life after death or the wish to Father X-mas for a “Total Recall” from a “Rekall” government!

    • Albert Brenner

      Lovely posting Prof. What facinates me the most about these `liberation` movies is the way in which they clothe the ever-recurring memes sustaining religiosity in the moral garments of whatever `religion` is politically imbedded (in the movie).

      For example; in Neil Blomkamp`s latest film, Elysium, Matt Damon is the `Jesus` who gives his life in order to save the oppressed (asylum-seekers, in this case). Given that the `devil` is this film is the (`neo-con`) American Military Industrial Complex, one cannot help by smile wryly when thinking of Hillary Clinton`s 2013 bid.

      Be that as it may; in Django Unchained, it was Christoph Walz who gave his life (like `Jesus`) to, symbolically at least, save Afro-Americans from slavery.

      It is a fact that every new religion borrows heavily from its predecessor. For example, Human Rights are merely a man-centred copy of the 10 Commandments. Especially that rather obvious `human right to own property`… derived from `Thou shallt not steal`.

      Whatever the Marxist weather on that one; don`t you find it facinating that the vast majority of this `saving of humanity` is done by (heterosexual) Pale Males? It would certainly make for a rather facinating masters in Theology to trace all these `Jesuses` back to Plato`s ideal form/s.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      Would it be accurate to also refer to the quasi-catharsis you discuss as interpassivity, i.e., Pfaller/Zizek’s idea that we allow others/other media to experience on our behalf? It makes me think of films like Avatar that perform our response to the destruction of the natural world and indigenous cultures, leaving us free to do precisely nothing about this destruction. Zizek also uses the example of video recorders that allow us to record far more than we ever watch; in this instance the video recording process itself ‘experiences’ the content we’re recording (which makes me think of my own personal habit of downloading tons of films and music – far more than I’ll ever watch).

      Here’s an article where Zizek discusses the idea of interpassivity:

    • Bert

      Thanks for all the great comments!
      possum, thank you for that reference – I don’t know the movie, but will have to have a look.
      proactive, what you refer to may perhaps be called our ‘oneiric’ (dream-like) hankering after a better future, etc.
      Albert, what a creative suggestion, in the light of your musings on the saviour-motif in the films you list – I mean your idea of a master’s (or doctoral) dissertation on this, focusing on the gender-issue too. The possibilities abound. Think of Bigelow’s Strange Days, and the role played by Angela Basset in ‘support’ of the alienated detective figure – is it merely supportive, or does she actually break a lance for WOMAN as the indispensable agnmet of MAN’s ‘salvation’? Do you know Johnny Mnemonic? It is interesting that the Jesus figure in that apocalyptic ‘resistance-to-corporation-dictatorship-movie’ is one of the antagonists, and not a protagonist.
      Aragorn, there certainly seems to be a connection between interpassivity and what I had in mind. It helps clarify to me why it is not true catharsis, the way one experiences it through participative identification with a tragic hero(ine), and why it is perhaps something paradigmatic of the era in which we live. And Avatar is a good example – I recall how fired up audiences were (according to reports) when it was first screened – only to be assigned to the filing cabinet of ‘good’ movie-memories, or filed with other, similar narratives. Thanks for that link.

    • bewilderbeast

      I was saddened to read this:
      My friends
      Currently doesn’t have any friends.
      On the NMMU site!!!

    • http://http// Paul Whelan

      ‘Society’ is ‘real’ enough, universal and capable of acting with force and, if you like, ‘will’, as the musical chairs in Egypt and elsewhere demonstrates.

      It is still some jump to conclude that invests ‘society’ with reason or collective wisdom, much less that the group would act morally if left alone.

      As to what movies are ‘for’ – besides, as Bert points out, to make some money for the people who spent their time making them – perhaps they are meant to entertain, and people are never more entertained than when they see the good end happily and the bad unhappily. ‘That,’ as Wilde pointed out, ‘is what fiction means.’

    • Aragorn Eloff

      On a totally different subject, did anyone make the mistake of clicking through to Albert Brenner’s blog? It’s a staggering assortment of both crypto- and overtly racist garbage in sophist garb. The ‘how evil was apartheid’ post really gave me the creeps.

    • Albert Brenner

      @Aragorn Eloff

      Cry `racism`… and unleash the Inquisition of our Zeitgeist. Thank you, for honouring the spirit of the Enlightenment.

      Be that as it may; I am simply exercising my right to free speech on my blog – as you do on yours. Unlike most on thoughtleader, I see equal-outcome egalitarianism as the (moral) scourge of the 21st-century. My blog is simply a reflection of my rebellious stance. Please do not read it, if you find being in Zizek’s `Desert of the Real` too intimidating.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Movies which pay enough to buy a small country to the star and who have the primary goal of making a mint, putting out movies to make the ‘little guy’ feel like he has a chance?

      Wow – someone define ‘irony’

    • Garg Unzola

      If I wanted to read crap I’d read Zizek.

      As an aside, I wonder if the host of dystopia themes will eventually be tempered by some of the more utopic science fiction. Most of these are based on the idea that our mercantile mixed economy will eventually be replaced by a more anarcho-capitalist world.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Could it be that at birth there is a dynamic set up between the need to leave the womb (freedom) and the need for the comfort and security of womb (being part of the collective)? I think an interesting question as to why this continual hankering (the never ending dream) for “freedom” no matter the circumstance?

    • Chris Stevens

      May I interject and propose that the crucial mistake which these movies make is they conflate “the revealing of truth” (Heidegger) with freedom, eternal happiness, joy and the defeating of an evil force (transhumanism maybe??)

      This point is presented to us in the first Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo the option: know the horrific, nightmarish truth (Red pill) or choose to remain blissfully ignorant (Blue pill).

      May I further propose that truth is ambivalent, regardless of religious, perceptual or ideological discourses? The metaphor of ‘Theres to sides to a coin /every story’ is rather irritating in this regard and perhaps the coin itself is the truth or that somewhere within the ‘story’ the objective, unbiased truth may be found.