This review contains spoilers.
1.10 Kill All Others
If it wasn’t already obvious, writer-director Dee Rees adapted Philip K. Dick’s The Hanging Stranger for the screen during the 2016 US presidential election. To dramatise that unsettling experience, she cannily plucked and rejigged elements from PKD’s chilling 1953 alien invasion tale.
In that story (spoilers ahead), a race of bug-like aliens is invading the world town-by-town, and replacing its people. The replacement happens in one fell swoop, so anybody temporarily inaccessible to the invaders—such as a man digging out his basement foundations, or doing admin inside a company vault—is missed out. Not wanting to leave any loose ends, the aliens have a system for identifying townspeople they’ve missed – they string up a body in the town square as bait, then wait to see who’s bothered by it. The bug-people walk past it unperturbed, but any remaining humans show their distress, leading the aliens right to them. It’s a neat scheme.
Up to a point, this is also a neat adaptation. The reason to revisit PKD’s stories today is surely to explore the new subtexts that different historical context brings, and that’s exactly what Rees, director of period race drama Mudbound has done. She’s used The Hanging Stranger to create an allegory that expresses the frustrations and horrors of our times.
In Rees’ story, the alien-invaders-as-brainwashing-replacements have been dropped. Instead, she depicts a world where we’ve willingly brainwashed ourselves. Through apathy and mindless consumerism, people have disconnected from the tangible. They’ve offered up their data to big tech, and opened the doors of their homes to invasive commercials that give new meaning to the phrase ‘pop-up ad’. They attempt to offset sadness with purchases, and ignore connections with real people in favour of personalised hologrammatic porn (which is also there to sell them products). So far, so recognisable.
Crucially, the people of 2054 amalgamated state MexUsCan have also disengaged from politics. Presented with a political system that more resembles a reality TV show than anything else (of fifty-two candidates who go through ‘the cull’, only one remains, on whom the population may cast their ‘yea-vote’ in a pantomime version of democracy with no actual choice), they mostly ignore it, yawn, and change the channel.
Not everybody though, has consumed themselves into a state of blissful ignorance. A few outliers, like factory worker Philbert Noyce (Better Call Saul’s Mel Rodriguez), have resisted the new-fangled tech and still pay attention to what’s going on in the world. Specifically, Noyce pays attention to The Candidate (a perfectly cast Vera Farmiga) inserting the instruction to “kill all others” into her national address.
Like the corpse hanging in the town square in PKD’s original story, the phrase “kill all others” is deliberately placed to draw out the non-compliant, un-brainwashed members of the populace. The vast majority either didn’t watch the speech, or brush it off and explain it away. People like Philbert kick up a fuss and lead the state right to them. They self-identify as trouble-makers and ‘purge themselves’, making society a supposedly safer place for their absence. In the final scene, the Candidate announces that the Kill All Others programme, deemed a great success in its Chicago trial run, will next be rolled out nation-wide.
There’s a great deal to enjoy about this story’s moulding of PKD’s premise, not least Rodriguez’s performance as Philbert, the last sane man in a world of madness. His frustration and bafflement at what he’s witnessing mirroring the emotions of many in the real world as the current US president stomped ever closer to the White House.
Beyond its emotional veracity though, the story starts to thin out. Race and class are left almost untouched, an odd choice for any discussion of otherness. The idea of government conspiracy to keep the population placid and pliable is a seductive but unsophisticated one. It all, The Candidate’s styling included, feels rather Hunger Games. Is everyone in power in on the conspiracy? Is there no organised resistance to this world of automated factories (another PKD nod), invasive ads and AI-driven transport? Would people really turn on their neighbours so callously and immediately? Are we all really that stupid?
This story’s extreme pessimism about the state of humanity is its most troubling aspect. We all like to think of ourselves as Philbert, the one true seer in a world of the blind. The reality is of course, much more complex and difficult to face. Our inner Philberts, the parts of us that nag away about all the wrongdoing we see around us, are often quelled and ignored as we change the channel or distract ourselves with the purchase of a new “thing-thing”.
As a critique of what’s going on right now, it’s heavy-handed and lacking in nuance. As a sci-fi protest with an urgent message of its own though,—wake up, engage, take responsibility, don’t willingly hand over your life to technology or politicians who want to exploit you—it works and works well.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Safe And Sound, here.