Reader Request: ‘Southland Tales,’ Renewable Energy, And The Draft

I know I’ve been a little remiss in working my way through your wonderful list of suggestions for me (which is, as always, open for additions), but I sat down to watch Richard Kelly’s trippy apocalyptic American fantasy Southland Tales this morning. I don’t know that I think the story Kelly’s telling in the movie works, but the world-building is really powerful, and refreshingly political.

The main reason I think the story doesn’t work, actually, is a political one. While much of the action is consumed with the potential manipulation of an upcoming presidential election, it’s not actually clear how the things that the characters are doing will influence the California voters we’ve told will be key, or what the differences between the two slates are. Similarly, I’d have liked to know more about the actual content of Proposition 69 and what impact it would have on civil liberties. It’s hard to feel tense about the world hanging by a thread when you don’t actually know what will happen if it snaps.

That said, I think there’s something really vital and radical about the idea of Fluid Karma, the magical renewable energy source that’s at the core of the much of the story. A lot of science fiction deals with the idea that we’ll so dramatically degrade the environment that we’ll endanger our own existence and have to come up with a solution, whether it’s going back in time to hit the reset button on humanity as in Terra Nova or safeguarding the first child to be born in years in Children of Men. But I think there’s also interesting work to be done in the interim stage, before things have gotten unliveably bad—sort of where we are now. What fascinated me about Fluid Karma was the idea that in the midst of environmental and more precisely, geopolitical (which is what it might take for us to actually do anything), resource strain, we might seize on what seems like a miracle solution without fully interrogating it. My inner regulatory nerd did a little dance for joy when a news anchor explained that Baron von Westphalen “refuses to release the environmental impact report from Utopia 3,” one of the Fluid Karma generators. And what if we pick something with deadly consequences? I’m not terribly worried that we’re going to open up rifts in time of space, but what if we pick something that makes environmental degredation a lot worse a lot more quickly?

Also, I think the movie does a nice job of creating a real atmosphere of horror around the draft. When Martin Kefauver, a young draftee, asks one of the major characters “You were in Iraq? Yo, how’d you get out, dog?” there’s a creepy implication that no one comes home from the war. Whether it’s because everyone dies there, or because tours are so protracted that people who end up in the military may literally be there forever, isn’t clear, but there’s a profound sense of dread about it. While we spend a lot of time in pop culture honoring the volunteers who fight our wars for us, I think we spend less time reckoning with how afraid most of us are of serving in combat, and this is a nice little twist on those repressed emotions.

I don’t think Southland Tales is perfect. While Sarah Michelle Gellar gives a nicely haunted if somewhat mannered performance, the movie’s critique of sexual norms doesn’t feel terribly sophisticated, though I wouldn’t mind seeing Kelly explore those thoughts in a movie that’s less crowded with other ideas that are more integral to the plot. And I’d like to see more of the impact of a government takeover of the internet. But I think the integration of graphic novelesque material into news coverage is visually striking, and the movie’s profound and relatable strangeness is compelling. “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted,” Krysta tells us at one point. I think that’s true, or at least that the pace of progress is speeding up, and that’s something we still have to reckon with.