Mexican Science Fiction, Part I: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

Days until the election: 199

Days until the Year 2033: 7687

Part of what goes into Mexico’s future is the stuff that is rooted firmly in the real world — business, politics, birth, death — which is why I cover selected issues related to the 2012 election.

Another part of what goes into Mexico’s future is the stuff that comes freely from our imaginations, the stuff we project onto the image of a future Mexico in our dreams and fantasies and nightmares. This is why I cover Mexican science fiction.

Science Fiction Into Science Fact

Having just made the distinction between the two, it’s worth remembering how often the stuff that comes from science fiction ends up dropping onto our heads in the real world as science fact.

Take H.G. Wells. In his various books he predicted a number of modern-day realities (or damned close analogies to them). See, for instance, here, here, here, and here. They include:

The Star Trek franchise is another good example of science-fiction becoming science-fact. For an excellent light-hearted look at Star Trek’s role, I enthusiastically recommend How William Shatner Changed the World (you can watch an excerpt online here) and you can find more information here, and here.

Star Trek’s contributions include:

  • the floppy disc
  • the iPad
  • the bluetooth headset
  • voice-recognition software and voice control
  • the flip-phone, building on Wells
  • the Tricorder (pretty much, see here (video link) for the present and here for the soon-to-be-present)
  • plasma screens
  • GPS

Mexican Science Fiction and the Movie 2033

So what about Mexican science fiction?

This is what I hope will be the first in an intermittent series of posts that deal with Mexico’s contribution to the genre, both in print and in film.

A few days ago I watched the film, 2033, directed by Francisco Laresgoiti from a screenplay by Jordi Mariscal.

I’ll let Cinema Liberated summarize the plot for you:

In the future Mexico City is renamed Villeparisio. The country has become a totalitarian regime. It pacifies it’s citizens with mind control drugs, mixed into the drink everyone consumes. In it lives Pablo (Claudio Lafarga), a well to do young man with a mother who is about to marry the government’s head of security. He has everything handed to him, yet he numbs himself with drugs and alcohol. Upon his grandfather’s death, he’s told his birth father is alive. His search for answers lead him to a religious movement working to overthrow the government.

I have affection for this film as a latter day example of the kind of well-meant dystopian science fiction I grew up on – like Logan’s Run and Silent Running. Like those films it is well-intended and also like them it is damned pretty — the effects and the cinematography are, if not spectacular, very well executed. But overall the film is far more interesting than it is good.

The Not-So-Good Stuff About 2033 — Warning, Spoilers Ahead

I’ll get to the interesting part in a moment — first let’s talk about the not-so-good stuff.

The story is more a mixed bag of scifi tropes than it is a story. It includes:

  • an evil oppressive regime
  • plucky rebels
  • a drug that makes people complacent
  • Blade Runner-style holo-billboards projected onto things
  • Children of Men type video news reports for exposition
  • a Star Wars-style attack on a virtually impregnable fortress of evil
  • Star Trek style doors that open in illogical ways in order to indicate that this is the future
  • a Star Wars-style shootout in a hallway where the bad soldiers inexplicably can’t kill the good guys despite the close range and all their training (although they do manage to wound the old guy in the leg, thus showing that their markmanship is better than that of storm troopers)
  • a Star-Wars-style escape down a convenient chute into what appears to be a convenient garbage container until it’s revealed to be an even-more-convenient garbage truck that leaves the evil facility without being inspected for stowaways
  • repression of religion
  • a tacked-on, unnecessary romance that begins suddenly, without explanation, and proceeds immediately to sexual consummation
  • a John Woo I-point-my-gun-at-you-while-you-point-yours-at-me confrontation that is badly executed (and whose outcome is supposed to surprise you but doesn’t)
  • a reverse Star Wars “I am your father” in which the son of one of the bad oppressors finds out his real dad was a leader of the rebels

The acting is not very good and the lead, Claudio Lafarga, may be the worst of the lot, which doesn’t exactly help give the film a dramatic centre. Many of the characters are stereotypes, especially the cackling villains.

The plot has difficulties too numerous to list, such as the moment when an undercover member of the rebels first reveals his true sympathies to the main character — a wealthy but metaphysically dissatisfied young man — ultimately enlisting his help. He does this without any indication that the young man will do anything other than immediately turn him in.

The religious theme is pretty heavy handed. The Catholic church is portrayed as an unqualified good and as the only force that can successfully oppose the evil empire rather than as the more nuanced, ambivalent force that it tends to be in real life. Because of this, the repression of religion represented in the film ends up coming across as an attack by the filmmakers on secularism and the separation of church and state, which will make some members of the audience squirm.

The religious issue also involves some symbolism and word-play that hits you over the head pretty hard. The young man just wants to find his father, but then he finds that the man who converts him (a priest) is referred to as father, and this man is the road to his ultimate Father. Get it, get it, huh, did you get it?

The spiritual triumphalism culminates in a speech by the rebel leader/priest who bellows “their god PEC [the evil leader] will die and our God will live forever!” It’s meant to be uplifting, but it just comes across as bellicose.

The Interesting Stuff About 2033

So what about this film is interesting? Actually, quite a bit.

Largely what I found interesting was watching it as a gringo living in Latin America (Brasil). My gringo reactions and my reactions as someone living in a region of the world that has very recently seen more than its share of repressive dictatorships, were different in some ways, and those differences held my attention more than the movie’s weak plot and bland acting did.

Thing One: The Reality of Totalitarianism

First of all there is the simple fact that the movie turns on the existence of a totalitarian state. It’s one thing to speculate about such things when you’re watching Equilibrium in Canada or reading 1984 in England. It’s another thing entirely to watch 2033 in a country where, within living memory, the government used torture and “disappearance” to quell its critics. Despite all its creakiness, 2033 is able to elicit an emotional reaction here that it never could if I were back in Toronto because stuff analogous to the repression in the movie happened right here, in this country, in this very city, and in all likelihood in my very neighbourhood.

This fact doesn’t make 2033 any better a film objectively speaking, but it does bring up an interesting thought: Latin America has a history that should allow it to make a significant and unique contribution to the literature and cinema of dystopianism. 2033 is not the movie to do it, but it alerted me to the fact in a visceral way that hadn’t happened before.

Thing Two: Good Church, Bad Church

Second, the role of the church in 2033 may be heavy-handed and shallow, but it also has a believability here that wouldn’t be the case in the countries that more frequently produce science fiction films, like the U.S.A. and the nations of the U.K.

It’s true that the church has had a role on the side of various oppressive regimes in this part of the world, frequently supporting the status quo even when the status quo was brutal, but it has also mitigated their effects and sometimes offered one of the only viable centres for opposition to state violence. The liberation theology that originated in Latin America in the 50s and 60s has had its ups and downs, but it’s a real force that has had a real effect.

Death squads in El Savdador didn’t murder Archbishop Óscar Romero for the heck of it, for instance. He was supposed to be another status quo-supporting clergyman. His appointment bitterly disappointed the left, because of his reputation as deeply conservative. But he experienced a transformation when a progressive priest, who was a friend of his, was murdered simply for working with the poor.

Romero was radicalized, and he was assassinated one day after giving a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s orders — which trumped those of their commanders — and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights.

Christianity, at certain times and in certain places, has been a genuine force against oppression in Latin America, which should add some nuance to our reading of 2033 and the role of the rebel priest.

In addition, the entire plot of the movie is built on the history of the Cristero War in Mexico (1926-1929), an uprising against a new secularism that had arisen and that had imposed severe legal limits on the power of the church. Protests against this change began peacefully, but eventually escalated into military confrontation.

Proponants of the separation of church and state (one the one hand) and adherents to the church (on the other) may have different views of the Cristero War even today, but it represents the actual working out of the relationship between religion and the state in Mexico and in that sense 2033 addresses an issue that viewers elsewhere might miss entirely.

Thing Three: Child of the Rebels

Finally, there is the fact that the main character is the child of a rebel who has been raised as a member of the ruling class. In the U.S. or Germany this might just seem like a plot device, and not a terribly credible or imaginative one. In Latin America, this aspect of the movie has a whole different meaning.

In Argentina, for instance, it is well known that children orphaned by political repression were then adopted by members of the ruling class. Laura Oren’s paper “Righting Child Custody Wrongs: the Children of the ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina” (14 Harvard Human Rights Journal 123-195 (2001)) documents the horrific facts in some detail. The abstract is below, but you can download the entire paper here: Righting Child Custody Wrongs, the Children of the Disappeared in Argentina [pdf].

Abstract: Between 1976 and 1983, the Argentine military dictatorship “disappeared” as many as 30,000 of their own people whom they perceived as subversive. At the same time, it is estimated that more than 450 young children of these disappeared were kidnapped by the regime and given or sold to childless military or police families, or otherwise wrongfully adopted by families whose knowledge of their origins ranged from innocence to willful ignorance, to guilt. An organization called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) organized to identify, locate, and demand the restoration of these children to their biological relatives. More than 20 years later, most of the children have never been located. But the clash of claims over the fate of these children in Argentine courts and politics has a lot to say to us about the difficulties inherent in righting child custody wrongs. In Argentina there were both legal and extra-legal resolutions of these “child custody wrongs.” Examination of particular cases that had contrasting outcomes illuminates the meaning of “the best interest of the child” within a full political context, with reference to substantive and procedural Argentine and international law, and by comparison to United States constitutional doctrine.

This phenomenon was also the subject of an Oscar-winning film, The Official Story, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1985.

Nor is this an issue of merely historical interest. Even now, while families continue to look for the children of missing parents, the children of wealthy families are driven to DNA testing to establish whether their parents were among the disappeared (also see this excellent article in the International Journal of Epidemiology). By 2002, genetic tests proved the identities of 59 children who had been kidnapped and adopted during the military rule (and 31 of the children were returned to their biological families).

In one famous 2010 case, the parentage issue has become a political football between a current administration and one of its media detractors and the children are the subject of an application for a court order that would force them to be tested.

So, to return to 2033, what might seem to one viewer as a contrived plot twist that simply reverses the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker “I am your father” plot point, may well carry real emotional heft for a viewer from the part of the world where I now live.

So 2033 has something of a double identity — it’s not a terribly good film, but it’s an interesting prism through which to look at the world.

If what you really want is a good dystopian future, watch The Matrix again (just the first one, obviously). Or if you want to stick to dystopian movies with cryptic titles made up of strings of characters rather than words, try THX1138, an excellent 1971 film from a pre-Star Wars George Lucas.

On the other hand, if you want to see the world through a different set of eyes, take what I’ve said into account and watch 2033. You can still laugh at the silly parts, but there may be more in it than you notice at first glance.

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This entry was posted in 2033, Archbishop Óscar Romero, art, Catholic church, Christianity, cinema, Claudio Lafarga, Cristero War, Francisco Laresgoiti, H.G. Wells, Jordi Mariscal, liberation theology, science fiction, Star Trek. Bookmark the permalink.

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