Cultural artifacts from the age of fear
A few days ago, I was idly watching Predator 2 with the roommates. It’s an amazing cocktail of offensive racial stereotypes, bad acting, and ridiculous action sequences, plus Gary Busey and Bill Paxton.
Needless to say, we enjoyed every minute of it.
Here’s what got me thinking: The movie, filmed in 1990, bookends an era in which fear of crime absolutely pervades popular cinema. Predator 2 imagines near-future Los Angeles in the midst of a gang war between competing narco-traffickers (the gangsters’ overtly racialized personas merit another post entirely). The police are overwhelmed, the media are a bunch of siren-chasers, and urban violence is an ineradicable fact of life, on par with traffic congestion, pollution, and block parties.
I didn’t live through the 1970s and 80s, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the climate of that era. But from what I’ve read, fear of crime was an omnipresent political and social issue, and it’s amazing how bizarre some of these pop culture artifacts seem when removed from that context.
Kurt Russell in Escape from New York and Escape from LA. Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series. Sly Stallone in Cobra and later, Demolition Man. Robo Cop. To one extent or another, all of these movies paint an incredibly bleak picture of urban crime. Of particular note are blockbusters that anticipate uncontrollable future crime waves: Russell’s Snake Pliskin franchise imagines a world in which New York and Los Angeles are literally quarantined from the rest of the country. Things have gotten so bad in Demolition Man that a quasi-totalitarian regime takes power by the time the protagonist is resurrected from cryogenic stasis, several decades into the future. Robo Cop is probably the best example from this sub-genre: Future Detroit is about to hand over law enforcement to a private corporation because the city has become ungovernable.
One suspects that these over-the-top plot devices reflected real cultural and political fault lines. LA and New York may not have been on the verge of open gang warfare in the 1980s, but crime was substantially higher than it is now. Prominent criminologists were breathlessly predicting that the next generation, conditioned by an atmosphere of crime and violence, would become “super-predators,” destroying what was left of civil society in the process.
The stark reality is that crime rates went down and now we’re saddled with a system that incarcerates proportionately more people than any other country in the world. At least on this blog, we’re generally in agreement that criminal justice should be more humane, less punitive, and less focused on locking up non-violent offenders. But it’s easy to look at the current state of affairs and marvel at its insanity. Less easy is to empathize with the conditions that gave rise to such a profound overreaction in the first place. As weird as it sounds, movies like Predator 2 are a window into the cultural pathologies of a bygone era. And I, for one, am profoundly glad to have grown up without the likes of Robo Cop and Snake Pliskin as pop harbingers of a future awash in crime. It’s a genuine luxury to look back at these movies and laugh.