International SF: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033 (Mexico, 2009)

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: international speculative fiction–review of the Mexican movie 2033, both on its own terms and in its social context.Includes links to numerous points of reference in science fiction and in Latin American history.

Includes embedded video (a) trailer for 2033, (b) trailers for movies to which 2033 is compared, (c) news items and background material regarding social context.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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I love speculative fiction and I’m a dedicated internationalist, which makes it no surprise that I’m one of the editors at a magazine called International Speculative Fiction.

I have a particular interest in the SF of Mexico. In part that’s because I love the country, but it’s also partly due to the fact that I created a science fictional future Mexico as one of the settings for my novel Luck + Death at the Edge of the World.  After inventing a future for the country, it’s become impossible for me not to check out other people’s fictional futures for the same country.

So even though I don’t speak Spanish, I occasionally check out Mexican SF, mostly through film (because novels don’t generally come with subtitles).

2033, The Movie

A while back 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 (trailers below). In common with those films, 2033 is simultaneously well-intended and 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.

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Logan’s Run Trailer

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Silen Running Trailer

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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 futuristic 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 Imperial 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-style 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

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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, after all that, what about this film is interesting? Actually, quite a bit.

Largely what I found engaging was watching it as a gringo living in Latin America (Brazil). 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 places that more frequently produce science fiction films, like the U.S.A. and 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.

And on July 5, 2012, this particular element of Latin American reality reached a new stage as former Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted (with others) and sentenced to 50 years in prison for executing a systematic program of stealing children from people his government “disappeared” during his time in power.

As The Guardian newspaper reported:

Argentina took a giant leap forward in its struggle to come to terms with its bloody past during the 1976-83 dictatorship by condemning former dictator Jorge Videla to 50 years in prison for masterminding a plan for stealing the newborn children of political opponents and handing the babies over to be raised by “good” military families after killing their mothers.

The verdict on Thursday evening capped a 16-year trial during which hundreds of hours of testimony were heard proving that the kidnappings were not just collateral damage in the “civil war” between the military and leftwing guerrillas, as supporters of the dictatorship have claimed, but rather a deliberate policy put in place by the top leaders of the regime.

“The kidnapping of newly born babies is the last crime that former members of the military regime are willing to admit,” says British journalist Robert Cox, who was one of the main witnesses at the trial last year. As editor of the small English-community daily Buenos Aires Herald in the late 1970s, Cox was one of the only journalists in Argentina who dared report on the crimes committed by the military as they happened, including their kidnapping of infants. “It’s like the Nazis, what they did was so terrible they could never admit it,” Cox said in Buenos Aires upon hearing the verdict that his testimony helped bring about.

The reading of the verdict was followed by a huge crowd outside the Buenos Aires court who viewed the proceedings on giant video screens set up on the street in a carnival-like atmosphere organised by human rights groups with some of Argentina’s top rock bands playing to the assembled crowd after the verdict was heard.

A television report on the conviction is embedded below.

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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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2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “International SF: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033 (Mexico, 2009)

  1. L D

    The director of this movie, Jordi Mariscal, comes from an uber wealthy deeply conservative family in Mexico (the Servitje dynasty, as his mother is one of the daughters of Grupo Bimbo), That may explain a lot in terms of the anti-secularism and pro-religion views you allude to.

    • Thanks for the background.

      I didn’t know anything about Mariscal’s background when I wrote the post, but that seems sensible (based on my admittedly very limited familiarity with religious and class politics in Mexico). The Grupo Bimbo pedigree certainly puts him pretty high up the social ladder.

      I appreciate your taking time to comment.

      Nas

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