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[MAJOR SPOILERS for Bioshock and Incredibles to follow]
[This post has been updated to respond to comments left on the blog. Please see update at the bottom.]
On Thanksgiving Day, NBC broadcast the network premiere of "The Incredibles," allowing me to watch the film in HD - a pretty great experience since there's currently no other way to do so. I love the film, but every time I watch it, its overriding themes always bother me. Coincidentally, I also recently played and beat the wonderful "Bioshock," by Irrational Games, which is what led me to write this post.
Intentional or not , both of them derive strong inspirations from Ayn Rand's work. But where "Bioshock" illustrates the downfall of objectivism, "The Incredibles" spends most of its running time advocating it, to an extent that's fairly shocking for a mainstream film. This article will explore the similarities between the two works, but I will spend the bulk of the time interpreting their take on Rand's philosophies.
First, a quick tour of objectivism: Rand's philosophy, made evident in books like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged essentially boils down to the notion that humans are self-interested and should be allowed to pursue their own happiness. In her own words,
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.Those that are smarter, more talented, or just plain better should be allowed to pursue their own interests without interference from government, religion, or anyone/anything else. The societal consequences of this are, of course, unfettered laissez-faire capitalism. This, coincidentally, is the exact same principle that Andrew Ryan (whose name is a play on Rand's name), one of the main characters from Bioshock, lives by. The following clip from the game should give you a pretty good summary of it, while also demonstrating how awesome the game is:
Click here for the clip
In Bioshock, Ryan perfects the notion of objectivism in his underwater city but when scientists came up with plasmids and the devious Fontaine - more word play on Rand's The Fountainhead - cornered the market on them, things went horribly awry. Although we know that Ryan continued to have faith in free market capitalism ("Just design a better product!"), ultimately human nature took over. The power of plasmids was too hard to resist. And some, like Ryan and Fontaine, just became addicted to power:
click here for the clip
While Bioshock shows us the promise of objectivism, with its beautiful underwater city loaded with brilliant scientists and artists, it also shows us its downfall. What Ken Levine, the game's writer, seems to be saying is that human nature is incompatible with Rand's vision of the heroic person and that objectivism, noble and promising as it may be, is doomed to failure. Ugly, dystopian, freaky, frightening failure.
On the other hand, consider "The Incredibles."
In the opening scene of "The Incredibles," Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal building jumper, who in turns sues the daylights out of him. The "Supers" are then all forced into hiding by the government and the old-school film depicting the incident shows how they have now become everyday people:
Consider this piece of narration from the above section:
The supers will be granted amnesty from responsibility for past actions, in exchange for the promise to never again resume hero work. Where are they now? They are living among us. Average citizens, average heroes. Quietly and anonymously continuing to make the world a better place.The world in the film is one that clearly glorifies normality and same-ness. And that fact is intended to frustrate the audience, especially given the acrobatics we've just witnessed in the opening scene. We want to see these super heroes doing what they love to do, what they were born to do. And we hate that it's been taken away from them.
Speaking of which, there is a clear delineation between the supers and "normals." The character Incrediboy/Syndrome/Buddy, played deliciously by Jason Lee, is one of the latter, and his affections for hero work are repeatedly rebuffed by Mr. Incredible. In the opening scene, Incredible heartlessly ejects him from his car after Incrediboy tries to tag along:
Mr. Incredible doesn't mind working with cohorts like Frozone and Elastigirl, but Incrediboy seems to be out of the running simply because he wasn't born with superpowers. Forget the fact that he has worked immensely hard and has single-handedly engineered incredible technology; in the opening scene, he is depicted as annoying, foolish, and almost responsible for destroying a train full of innocent bystanders:
The primary problem with Incrediboy is that he's not one of the "chosen" ones, he's not "incredible." And therefore, he shouldn't hinder the efforts of those that are "incredible." Of course, i can't continue without mentioning the (in)famous scene in which Mr. Incredible laments mediocrity:
Bob: It's not a graduation. He's moving from the fourth grade to
the fifth grade. It's psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate
mediocrity but if someone is genuinely exceptional...
Helen: This is not about you, Bob. This is about Dash.
Bob: You want to do something for Dash? Then let him actually
compete. Let him go out for sports!
Helen: You know why we can't do that...
Bob: Because he'd be great!
Mediocrity should not be celebrated, Bob seems to be saying. Greatness should be. And greatness, in the realm of the movie, means having superpowers. Weren't born with them? Too bad, even if you have an intelligence that can only be described as monstrously large (e.g. Syndrome).
By the end of the film, Syndrome has transformed into an evil menace and the Incredibles are cheered for thwarting his plan, and eventually, for killing him. The message of the film seems clear: Those that hinder greatness will be destroyed. In the end, greatness reveals itself and triumphs over mediocrity. Pretty heady stuff, and actually a pretty horrifying message for a children's film.
Except for one last thing.
In the final scene, Dash is seen actually taking up sports, while his family cheers him on from the bleachers. But they don't tell him to use his gifts to their fullest extent. Instead, they scream at him to do just well enough to come in second place:
It's actually a poignant scene and funny scene. But what are we to take from all this? This last scene seems to confuse "the message" of the movie and it's not entirely clear what Brad Bird is trying to communicate here. Perhaps he is saying that everyone can co-exist peacefully, that being "incredible" isn't all that important, and that it's not necessarily exclusive of normality. If this is true, then I think it's a positive message, but certainly a contrast from the 1 hour and 45 minutes that have come before.
Although Bird has often stated that he didn't intend any of the Rand-ian parallels, they are often sometimes embedded even within the visuals of the film, such as during the climax when Mr. Incredible takes a pose that looks a heck of a lot like Atlas Shrugged:
Whether or not they were intentional, the parallels and messages are fairly clear.
My law professor once called "The Incredibles" a "Republican movie." There are those that are incredible, there are those that aren't incredible, and that's just the way life is. You have to just have "it" in you (i.e. in the "Republican" analogy, "it" would be wealth, power, or an overriding desire for those things) and if you don't, you're looked down upon. When I first heard him, I didn't really know what the hell he was talking about. But now, I think I've come to terms with it.
"Bioshock" and "The Incredibles" show two visions of objectivism. "Bioshock" glorifies this vision before burning it to the ground, and quite rapidly at that. "The Incredibles," on the other hand," simply glorifies it. Yet regardless of what these works have to say, they remain some of my favorites of all time, and I hope they will be for you too.
So what do you think?
Next Friday: The Objectivist Implications of Ratatouille
Update (11:00pm, 12/10/07): There's been lots of great discussion going on in the comment section, so I thought I should take some time to respond. I think that responding to Brock's points will help answer some challenges that you guys have posed to my theories.
As others have mentioned, Incrediboy was out of the running because he was a child without the training or skills to survive Hero work. Mr. Incredible said the exact same thing about his own children.I don't recall when Mr. Incredible said this about his own children, but in any event, Incrediboy was not Bob's child, and therefore, he wouldnt' have felt as protective over him. I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that Incrediboy could have been trained over time, in a Batman-and-Robin situation. Certainly that would have been preferable to rejecting a potential apprentice outright.
In the scene where Incrediboy's help is rejected, he hasn't done any of the times you've mentioned. If you're going to discuss movies, you NEED to keep your timelines straight.Sorry, Brock. YOU need to get your timelines straight. In the opening scene, Incrediboy has already developed rocket shoes that allow him to fly...technology that we don't yet have today (in the real world). He definitely showed promise and when he shows up years later with zero-point energy, it's not a complete surprise because we've already seen his brilliance demonstrated at such a young age.
Brock said (I'm cutting and pasting his responses into one whole one):
I would have thought that 'the problem' with Incrediboy/Syndrome was that he was a psychotic murder. The message I got was: "Those who build giant killer-robots, murder people, and try to destroy whole cities, will be opposed by good people who have the power to do so." The other lesson I got was: "Just because someone was mean to you as a kid is no excuse for building giant killer-robots, murdering people, or trying to destroy whole cities."What you don't fully take into account here is that the REASON Syndrome became a psychotic murderer was partially a result of his rejection by Mr. Incredible at the beginning. I don't disagree with you that he was a psychotic murderer (and should have been held to account for his actions) but if Incredible had said "Hey kid, you clearly are brilliant and have a lot of potential, despite your lack of super powers. I would like to train you as my successor," we can imagine the movie having a much different ending. It also would have been a much less exciting movie.
My problem is with Mr. Incredible's reason for not accepting Incrediboy, and I think it was primarily a result of his not having superpowers (and secondarily as a result of other reasons, e.g. he was annoying, he was young, he was inexperienced, etc.)
One last thing to consider before moving on from Syndrome. Consider this passage of dialogue from the film:
Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did itThis last line is delivered ominously, and with scary music in the background to boot. The director is indicating to the audience that they should fear Syndrome's vision of the future, a future in which there is nothing remarkable about anyone, a future in which everyone can be super. And ultimately, for a children's movie, I think that's a shame. Despite his hyper-intelligence, at this point in the film Syndrome still represents mediocrity, sameness, and the status quo, which (as I've tried to point out) is what the film rails against.
without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics.
I'll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone's ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone's super...no one will be.
Shifting gears to Bioshock: As for the notion that Andrew Ryan didn't truly exemplify Rand-ian ideals, I think user Edgeman says it best, when he's quoting user Brackhar:
"There's a large hole in your analysis regarding Bioshock though. In the end Rapture didn't collapse under the weight of its Randian ideals, but instead because Andrew Ryan betrayed those principles."For those that have read and taken my thoughts seriously, thank you. I have tried to do the same for yours. Even if you didn't agree, I hope you at least found the post thought-provoking. If more comments come in, I'll do another update (or if you feel your comment didn't get a fair shake, feel free to e-mail me and I'll try to write up a response).
I was thinking, isn't this EXACTLY why Randian ideals always fail, and wasn't this the point the writer made about it. In my personal opinion, if you really think it through, pretty much ANY form of government would work perfectly fine if human beings weren't so...human. Randian philosophy fails exactly for this reason. It fails to see reality beyond the naive ideals, and fails to see that human beings are greedy and selfish.
Thanks for reading!
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