A week is a long time in politics, Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, and it has been a long, long week. President Trump has made good – for a certain value of “good” – on a number of campaign promises that, honestly, we never thought would come to pass – the border wall with Mexico is the least of them, frankly. It’s getting weird out there, folks, and it’s apt to get weirder. Holy heck, this is only week one.
But you know what’s really strange? All of this seems familiar. If you know your way around the dark future sci-fi movies of the ’80s and ’90s, armed guards on the wall and public enemies lists are old hat. Corporate oligarchies and media manipulation? Hoary old tropes. While we hesitate to lightly throw around the “f” word that rhymes with “mascist”, the notion of an America, or even a world, united under an, ahem, “strong” leader is not an alien concept – although it’s a concept that sometimes has aliens in it. So, if you want an idea of what the next four years holds, don’t look to the nightly news or even 1984 – just queue up these classics and gaze into the pop culture crystal ball.
5. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
Directed by Paul Michael “Starsky” Glaser and adapted from a book Stephen King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, The Running Man sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cop framed for a massacre and forced to compete in a deadly TV game show. Notable for its portrayal of America as a police state, its bread and circuses themes that predate The Hunger Games by a couple decades, and the fact that the villain (Richard Dawkins) is a sleazy TV show host. Bonus points for actually being set in 2017.
4. Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)
In yet another future US police state (that’s a recurring theme here), Kurt Russell’s iconic tough guy, Snake Plissken is pressganged into rescuing the President (Donald Pleasance) from the island of Manhattan, now a maximum security prison. The inferior sequel, 1996’s Escape From L.A., is actually more prescient than its forebear, depicted a country in the grip of Cliff Robertson’s evangelical fundamentalist Prez, and set a Los Angeles that ha be turned into a dumping ground for immigrants and political undesirables. Which, we admit, hasn’t happened yet. But give it a couple weeks.
3. The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013)
A new classic! After far-right political party, The New Founding Fathers, seize control of America, the 28th Amendment to the constitution institutes the titular annual 12 hour orgy of violence, wherein all crime is legal and the haves take to streets to brutally murder the have-nots. What began as a handy hook on which to hand a siege-horror film has leaned into the political implications of its premise with the sequels The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016). Fun fact: according to the series canon, the first Purge took place in 2017. Another fun fact: Donald Trump’s electoral campaign, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., just applied to trademark the phrase “Keep America Great”, first used in Election Year, for his anticipated 2020 re-election bid.
2. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Narrowly missing out on the number one slot, this blackly satirical sci-fi actioner sees an honest cop (Peter Weller) transformed into a robotic enforcer after he’s gunned down by eeeeevil crims led by the great Kurtwood Smith. When it came out, Robocop seemed too cartoony to be taken as a serious piece of futurology. Now? Where do you want to begin: the crass, ever-present TV, the corrupt blending of business and political interests, the massive disparity between wealthy corporate predators and the bleak, crime-ridden streets of, of all places, Detroit? These days Robocop looks less like a European provocateur’s lampooning of American excess, and more like a documentary from 20 minutes into the future.
1. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
A two-fer for the great John Carpenter. Created as a response to Reaganomics (and not, as certain awful scumbags would have you believe, the Jews), They Live sees Rowdy Roddy Piper’s everyman find out that camouflaged capitalist aliens are responsible for all the woes of the world. Being a pragmatic sort, he picks up a shotgun and does what needs to be done. A dud on initial release, They Live has grown from cult classic to bonafide cultural icon, inspiring artists like Shepard Fairey, countless memes, and, like almost all Carpenter films, rumours of a remake. But why is it so prevalent? The synth-mesiter put it best himself in 2015 when he said, “It’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction. The same problem — unrestrained capitalism — still exists… the ‘80s never ended. The mentality that the ‘80s bred is really alive and well — that’s the part that’s so bad. Nothing is to built to last. Everything is built to make profit.”