In a year where most of Hollywood was focused on escapism, 2008 was especially remarkable for its films that reflected the shifting tides of society in that year.
Hey folks, welcome back. Nerd Revolt is less than a year old, but it has seen some tumultuous times: protests all across the country, the Russia investigation, a potential Blue Wave, and more. But I can’t help remembering ten years ago, one of the most eventful years in our country’s history: the Great Recession, regarded as the worst global depression since the 1930s; the Iraq War entering its fifth year; and the 2008 election, which brought us Barack Obama, the first black president, and a moment promising Hope and Change.
That moment in history came with a bunch of movies, some that were critically-acclaimed and very successful, and others that were a little more obscure, that appeared to define the times. No, not define them – it articulated them. While much of Hollywood appeared to be set on escapism, such as with the first MCU movie Iron Man and with fantasy films like Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Hellboy II, here is a list of films that examined our society head-on, and which will one day be recognized for indicating the changes that were coming. Click through to check it out.
Let’s just jump right in with what is chronologically the first of these releases, on April 25th, 2008:
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
I was genuinely surprised at the time to find out Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was getting a sequel; I didn’t think it had been financially successful and to be honest, I didn’t think the original was that good. It follows our two stoner heroes from the original on a flight to Amsterdam, where they are mistaken for terrorists and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
This movie did more than poke fun at American xenophobia, racism, and paranoia: it really took on the subject as one of the main focal points of the story, and really made you stop and think about the assumptions we as Americans make about others – even our fellow Americans – and the general distrust we have for people who look “different.” Of course that has different connotations nowadays for reasons so obvious I shouldn’t even have to bother to explain, but as a teen growing up into college, it made me rethink my assumptions about the War on Terror, and how I just sort of went along with the societal narrative of moral and existential panic at the time.
In the same vein, I think the movie reflected a change in thinking as public opinion was beginning to sour on the Iraq War and the Bush doctrine, as we collectively realized what we were doing and saying about people, and that maybe we had gone a *little* nuts after all. This movie expressed the then-ongoing societal change, that Americans were finally rejecting Bush-era mores for a more progressive and inclusive society. Enough fear, onto the hope.
Released on May 9th, most people look at this movie and see one of the first of many Hollywood nostalgia cash-ins, which gradually became one of the most annoying trends of this decade. And let’s be honest: it bombed. Happily, the movie seems to be getting redeemed in recent years and may live on as a cult hit.
What strikes a chord in this film for me, and what makes it so important to understanding the year 2008, is the central conflict of the film between Speed Racer’s mom & pop auto building and racing shop versus the shadowy and corrupt mega-corporation, Royalton Industries. This conflict – and the theme of the family business versus the soulless corporation – resonates after a decade of economics based on excess and bubbles, when corporations and deregulation reigned supreme. And with the arrival of the 2007-2008 economic crash and the resulting Great Recession, distrust for corporations and capitalism is setting in again.
Thus Speed Racer was timed just right to capture a national mood focused on the plucky family business again. And I admit, I’m pretty taken in by it too, due to my own wariness of the sheen and power of ruthless, greedy, and ultimately shortsighted corporations. And it’s all done in an attractive, animesque style that nobody had seen before and hasn’t been replicated since. I would even strongly argue that this stylization is what’s missing from Hollywood’s other attempts at anime adaptations, and it’s a large part of how they get it wrong. More on this another time, maybe.
It came out on June 27th, and to me is arguably the most important movie in this whole list. It has it all: a robot love story, cutesy animation, a trashed environmental wasteland on Earth, a complacent spacefaring human civilization, and oh, so much more.
Before this movie, Pixar was certainly known for its talent at sneaking subversive messaging into its family films, such alternative energy in Monsters, Inc., and oceanic ecosystem preservation in Finding Nemo. But Wall·E pushes the envelope with an environmental crisis on Earth: people have trashed the place, and so the monopolistic corporation Buy ‘N’ Large, which basically serves as the world government in this hellish future, launches everyone into space to play golf and gorge on Slurpies until their robots clean up the mess they created.
People become fatter and more complacent due to instant gratification by their Buy ‘N’ Large overlords. In a particularly on the nose reference to political reality, the president of the corporation/world government advises captains to “stay the course,” because there is no solving the environmental crisis and people will be happier drifting through space for eternity anyway. To me, this movie really goes to show how fed up people were getting with the course the country had been set on by that time. Forget the recession and forget Iraq; this idea of ignoring our problems and focusing on how easy we have it at home was starting to look sick to people, I think. People were ready to take responsibility for themselves again.
The Dark Knight
The final film, on August 14th, showcased the talents of Christopher Nolan, and of course, Heath Ledger. I will be brief on this, because I’m sure people know where I’m going with this one: The Dark Knight is Nolan’s take on the War on Terror. The Joker is an unpredictable menace employed by crime bosses who don’t really understand his true nature, and Nolan was probably going for radical Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban and Al Qaeda on this one.
More to the point though is Batman’s response. He quickly finds he can’t rely on his traditional vigilante crime-fighting methods to beat this enemy. He’s going to have to break some of his long-standing rules to do it, and he does it with what basically boils down to domestic surveillance. Like America in 2008, Batman struggles with knowing that this is ultimately wrong but maybe it’s necessary . . . or maybe it goes to show he is as low as the enemy he’s trying to defeat. Ultimately, it’s the people of Gotham that defeat the Joker by being better than him. Batman just goes down to his level.
The Dark Knight took on new relevance in the year 2016, when the Joker was seen as a good analogy for understanding Donald Trump’s appeal to his base: unpredictable and not playing by the known rules of politics, and ultimately aimed at introducing anarchy into the established order. But that is a conversation for another time. Mainly, The Dark Knight expressed at the time that people had had enough of the War on Terror and the compromises it had forced them to make. They were ready to feel like the bastion of liberty again.
Of course there are others I could mention, movies that were far more on the nose: Milk, W., Frost/Nixon, and Swing Vote to name just a few. But that’s the beauty of a movie like Speed Racer or Wall·E: sometimes by wrapping up the message in escapism, you can really speak truth to power, because you can speak to a much wider audience. And stories like those really go to show that even if movies are a product of their particular time, the messages they carry truly are timeless.
Thank you for joining me this week, folks, I hope you enjoyed it. I will be away in parts unknown, so I will not be making a post next Friday. I’ll see you all next on October 5th.
Do you have any favorite movies of 2008 that seem like a product of their time? What do you think they say about that year? What about movies from other years that were really of their time? Share your thoughts in the comments section!