The Two Worst Words in Modern Blockbusters: “Military Applications”
Imagine the most inhospitable landscape in the entire universe. A desolate place of horror, pain, and misery. This is Planet Zero.
The first manned mission to this world is an unqualified disaster. One member of the away team apparently dies in gruesome and excruciating fashion. The expedition’s three survivors come back transformed into ghoulish monsters; their existence upon their return to Earth is ceaseless agony and existential horror. Planet Zero is almost as deadly as it is unpredictable.
So of course the U.S. military wants to turn it into a weapon.
Of the many, many (many [many]) things wrong with the new Fantastic Four reboot, this might be the most wrong; a plot based around members of our nation’s armed forces trying to control an obviously uncontrollable place and weaponize something that is obviously impossible to weaponize. Basically every moment between the Fantastic Four’s first journey to Planet Zero and their subsequent (and idiotic) return to fight Doctor Doom focuses on the government’s attempts to harness the dimension’s magical and mercurial green ooze for its own fiendish purposes. It’s a futile mission, but that doesn’t stop Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr. Allen and his stooges from trying — or other recent Hollywood blockbusters from recycling this same basic plot, where supposedly smart men do unbelievably dopey things in the name of greed and power. Increasingly, there are no more ominous or depressing words to hear in a summer movie than “military applications.”
The first and arguably worst example came in this summer’s biggest hit, Jurassic World, where InGen security chief Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) repeatedly tries to convince animal trainer/leather-vest enthusiast Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to let him use his pack of raptors as a weapon. Grady warns Hoskins that the raptors are moody and erratic; moments later, they prove him right by nearly eating a scientist who falls into their paddock. Hoskins is unswayed. Sure, these creatures are dangerous. But just think of the military applications!
Raptors are smart but they’re not that smart. They’re basically walking eating machines. Stick them on a battlefield and they’re going to devour everyone in sight regardless of race or political ideology. It doesn’t take an expert in ancient animal behavior to know raptor soldiers are the worst idea since John Hammond decided to clone dinosaurs in the first place. Still, Hoskins persists in his grand, imbecilic vision until Grady finally relents and lets the raptors loose. Guess what happens! They immediately turn their masters into a human tartare buffet. Whoopsie.
A similarly ill-advised plan forms the backbone of Marvel’s Ant-Man, where scheming tech CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) wants to turn his old mentor Hank Pym’s shrinking technology into a weapon that can be sold to the highest (and evilest) bidder. The potential for a tiny soldier, he claims, is enormous. An invisible warrior could sneak behind enemy lines, perform covert missions, and return home before our nation’s adversaries even detect his presence. Just think of the military applications!
Also: Just ignore all of the many blatant problems with this plan! Yes, Pym’s tech has its uses in the military arena. But it’s also toxic; so toxic, in fact, that Pym refuses to let his own daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) try it. Sure enough, Cross tests his version of Pym’s suit on himself and, as promised, unprotected exposure drives him mad — and quickly too, since he seems pretty lucid at the start of the film and turns bananapants bonkers in a matter of days. If the ultimate weapon destroys the guy who uses it after a couple hours, is it really the ultimate weapon?
The boobs who run the military-industrial complex in these blockbusters would say “Yes absolutely!” In Fantastic Four, it’s pretty clear from moment one on Planet Zero that the world is a military dead-end. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) discovers it innocently enough, when he invents a crude teleportation device as a science project. That gadget earns him admission into the Baxter Foundation, an elite think tank for young geniuses, where he teams with fellow prodigies Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) to perfect the teleporter.
Visiting Planet Zero once is logical; you can’t know what you’ll find there until you actually go. But, again, that first trip is an unmitigated catastrophe, with numerous human casualties and millions of dollars in property damage. Even an act as simple and seemingly benign as planting a flag in Zero’s dirt seems to split the planet’s crust in half. And while the place does contain some kind of energy, Doom touching it for half a second with one of his hands turns the entire surface into a molten caldera of pulsating death. Any sane human being with a middle-school education could see Planet Zero is not to be trifled with; that its power is beyond our comprehension and regulation. But (say it with me now) just think of the military applications!
The U.S. Armed Forces have provided the movies with memorable villains since time immemorial. The fear that those who’ve sworn to protect us might exploit our trust is a pervasive and resonant one, particularly in an era of rampant domestic spying. But properly exploiting that fear requires bad guys with at least a modicum of intelligence. One does not fear that which is evidently and excessively dumber than you are, and all of these “military applications” fetishists are titanic morons. Stupid villains make for stupid movies.
They also make for predictable ones. There isn’t a single moment in any of these films in which the drive for “military applications” doesn’t seem doomed to absolute and total failure. Who watches Vincent D’Onofrio argue in favor of raptor soldiers and goes “Yeah, that’s a plan that will definitely work!” Who looks at the giant deathtrap known as Planet Zero and thinks “Yup, this is for sure a place we should be sending more men! Despite its violent, unforgiving terrain, eventually we will send someone there who doesn’t spontaneously melt and/or turn into rocks!” There is no suspense in these attempts to wrangle godlike power, which means there’s no suspense in these movies period. At this point, the whole “military applications” premise is not just a cliché, it’s a tension-deflating cliché. Is there a place in the world of 2015 for Dr. Frankensteins and their mad science? Yes. But in order for a story of man’s folly to resonate, the folly (and the man) need to make at least a little sense. None of these military applications pass that baseline test.
Interestingly, all of these “military application” plots come from filmmakers with similar career trajectories and backgrounds in the world of independent cinema. Jurassic World was directed by Colin Trevorrow, who leapt from the tiny Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed into one of the biggest sequels of all time. Fantastic Four belongs to Josh Trank, who had just one prior movie to his name, the low-budget found-footage thriller Chronicle. And before Ant-Man became a Peyton Reed film it was supposed to be helmed by Edgar Wright, the beloved filmmaker behind cult hits like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
All of these directors had to navigate the murky waters of major studio tentpole filmmaking, and it’s possible to read their remarkably similar stories as allegories about their sometimes uncomfortable (or downright disastrous) transitions from pure artists to corporate ones. The heroes in these movies (i.e. the directors) believe science, experimentation, and intellectual pursuits (i.e. filmmaking) are their own reward. Their bosses or rivals in the military (i.e. the studios) are the ones who demand monetary results, and their meddling inevitably leads to the project’s downfall — creatively, if not financially.
As outright disasters go, Fantastic Four is an oddly prophetic one. Its onscreen story of idealists laid low by craven bureaucrats perfectly mirrors its offscreen drama. This is the ultimate cautionary tale of these movies. Mega-franchises could hold the key to enormous financial windfalls and Hollywood power beyond imagination. Or, if used excessively and irresponsibly, they could lead to the end of everything we know and hold dear, and the ruination of the very people who create them.