Syriana: See No Evil

Syriana is secretly an expose of the evil behind the oil industry that is posing as a thriller. It is based on former CIA officer, Robert Baer’s memoirs See No Evil. Syriana is a fast-paced, blink-and-your-miss-major-plot-details, horror film minus the demons, chainsaws and red corn syrup. The film is so dense that I am going to do something a little uncouth for this post and direct you to a Wikipedia article and a really cool web that shows the links between the characters. Normally when I write these posts, I summarize the parts of the narrative that relate to energy. I realized that there is almost no part of Syriana that is not crucial to the movie’s attempt at exposing the seedy underbelly of energy corporations and the federal government. If I summarized the entire film than this post would be extremely long. I do promise, however, to keep an eye on the Wikipedia article and write a summary of my own if it ever drops in quality.

The three major energy narrative characteristics that are found in this movie are corporate ruthlessness, political oppression and the life and energy equivalency.

Corporate Ruthlessness:

Connex looses the rights to the al-Subaai oil fields to the Chinese so they broker an illegal merger with Killen so that they can have Killen’s drilling rights in Kazakhstan. They hire a shady law firm to clear it up and no one is the wiser.

 

We see from the Wasim storyline that at the very least the Connex workers working on at the al-Subaai oil fields have no job security. When Connex loses the rights to drill, the workers are not only let go but also immediately kicked out of their homes. The two workers in this storyline are persuaded into becoming terrorists after taking shelter at a religious school.

Political Oppression:

Prince Nasir is responsible for Connex losing their oil rights in his Kingdom. He is going against his father’s pro-American policies, because he believes that they are holding the emirate’s economy back. He wants to use the profits from the oil industry to diversify the economy and introduce democratic reforms. Normally these words are bread and butter to U.S. politicians, except when it means that their energy interests are threatened. The American government puts pressure on the Emir and he inherits Nasir’s pro-American younger brother instead. The following conversation between Nasir and Woodman helps illustrate the difficult situation that many leaders of resource rich nations find themselves in when dealing with the energy needs of the western world:

Nasir: “My cousins aren’t bright enough to be anything more than finger puppets and my brother has faith only in his own cunning. What do you suppose they are up to, my brother and these American lawyers? Tell me. What are they thinking?”

Woodman: “What are they thinking? They’re thinking that it’s running out. It’s running out. And 90 percent of what’s left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression: Versailles, Suez, 1973, Gulf War I, Gulf War II. This is a fight to the death. So what are they thinking? Great. They’re thinking ‘keep playing. Keep buying yourself new toys. Keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room. But don’t invest in your infrastructure. Don’t build a real economy.’ So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry. And you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history.”

Nasir: “I studied at Oxford. I have a Ph.D. from Georgetown. I want to create a parliament. I want to give women the right to vote. I want an independent judiciary. I want to start a petroleum exchange in the Middle East, cut the speculators out of the business. Why are the major oil exchanges in London and New York, anyway? I’ll put all of our energy up for competitive bidding. I’ll run pipe through Iran to Europe, like you proposed. I’ll ship to China. Anything that achieves efficiency and maximizes profit. Profit, which I will then use to rebuild my country.”

Woodman: “Great. That’s exactly what you should do.”

Nasir: “Exactly. Except your president rings my father and says ‘I’ve got unemployment in Texas, Kansas, Washington state.’ One phone call later, we’re stealing out of our social programs in order to buy overpriced airplanes. We owed the Americans but we’ve repaid that debt. I accepted a Chinese bid, the highest bid. And suddenly, I’m a terrorist. I’m a godless communist. Dean Whiting, who represents not only these aggrieved royals and my brother but also Connex Oil. They’ve been pressuring my father to invalidate the Chinese contract. But they underestimate him. This is about his legacy to his people.

Life = Energy:

The CIA realizes that making his brother emir is not enough to keep Nasir quiet so they have him assassinated, and as a result, Connex gets their oil interests back. The price of energy is Nasir’s life (and his family’s lives too). The CIA knows this and they are willing to pay that price. They even lie to their assassin to get him to take the job.

All of this corruption is taking place and the characters know it. Many of them do not care and those that do, know that they are helpless against it, so they stay quiet. There is no nomadic element to this movie. There are a few examples of insurrection: Barnes’s attempt to warn Nasir and the attack on the tanker. These attempts are unsuccessful, however, and most of the characters simply accept the abuses they suffer.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, insurrection.

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Argo

Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. The motivation behind the November 4th raid on the United States embassy in Tehran is explained in the opening scene:

 

This is the Persian Empire, known today as Iran. For 2,500 years this land was ruled by a series of kings, known as shahs. In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democrat, as prime minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people. But in 1953, the U.S. and Great Britain engineered a coup d’état that deposed Mosaddegh and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The young Shah was known for opulence and excess. His wife was rumored to bathe in milk while the Shah had his lunches flown in by Concorde from Paris.  The people starved. The Shah kept power through his ruthless internal police: the SAVAK. An era of torture and fear began. He then began a campaign to westernize Iran, enraging a mostly traditional Shiite population. In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew the Shah. The exiled cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned to rule Iran. It descended into score-settling, death squads and chaos. Dying of cancer, the Shah was given asylum in the U.S.. The Iranian people took to the streets outside the U.S. embassy, demanding that the Shah be returned, tried and hanged.

During the raid, most of the embassy staff are taken hostage, however, six United States Americans, escaped to the home of the Canadian ambassador. The rest of the movie follows an undercover operation by the CIA to return these six to the United States.

The political leaders of the United States realize that installing a corrupt leader in Iran has put them in a tricky political situation:

Bates: “Those f**ks hit us; we can’t hit them back?”

Malick: “Mosaddegh, we did it to them first.”

Bates: “Think the Soviets would put up with this s***? They’d invade.”

Malick: “What did you expect? We helped the guy torture and de-ball an entire population.”

The Carter administration realizes that they cannot get their people back without releasing the Shah, which they cannot do because they will lose the trust of all of their other puppet leaders.

Butler: “No release until we expel the Shah.”

Titterton: “Well put him on a plan then, f**k him.”

Chief of Staff Jordan: “He’s half dead and he’s in chemo.”

Butler: “We took him in. He’s ours now.”

Titterton: “Great so we’ll take in any pr*** as long as he’s got cancer?”

Chief of Staff Jordan: “No, just the pr***s on our side. So all of our other pr***s on their pr*** thrones know when they get thrown out on a rail, they won’t get their f**king spleens taken out by some camel vet in Sinai.”

The hostages were released on January 20th 1981 after 444 days in captivity. The film illustrates an insurrection against political oppression, two common characteristics of an energy narrative, it just so happens that this narrative happens to be based in fact.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, insurrection.

Futurama: Bender’s Game. Makeup for Dogs, That’s Where the Money is.

This extra long special comments on how the market encourages corrupt practices for harvesting energy resources and the lack of research put into alternative energy.

The episode begins with the Planet Express crew running out of fuel while they are out on a mission. Fortunately, they are able to use Nibbler’s dark matter poop as fuel to get them to a dark matter fuel station.

Can you believe the price of dark matter? It would be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winners’ sperm. –Leela

Later in the episode we find out that the reason that dark matter prices are so high is because of a dark matter shortage. However, it becomes obvious that Mom, who controls the world’s only dark matter mine, is controlling the supply of dark matter so that she can increase the price. (Consumers often complain that today’s oil companies might be controlling the oil supply to drive up gasoline prices.)

Professor Farnsworth tells the crew that it was he who discovered a way to turn dark matter into starship fuel when he worked for Mom many years ago:

Back in those days [dark matter] was just a worthless inert curiosity and I was smashing it in a particle accelerator in an ill-conceived attempt to create a more durable harpsichord wax. But as Deepaz Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason…and thus against all probabilities it happened. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that all dark matter in the universe is linked in the form of a single, non-local metaparticle…so in one instant I transformed all dark matter everywhere into a new crystalline form, making it into the most potent fuel since primitive man first ignited mastodon flatulence to heat his cave. –Professor Farnsworth

Mom stole the Professor’s work and fired him, but he made sure to keep a failsafe in case Mom ever went out of control:

Professor Farnsworth: “You see in the instant the energy crystal was created, there also came into being an opposite crystal made of pure anti-backwards energy…if ever the two crystals should meet their wave functions would collapse like Raymond Burr’s trampoline once again rendering all dark matter inert and useless as fuel.”

Hermes: “But then we’ll have no fuel.”

Farnsworth: “Ah, but once we free society from dependence on Mom’s dark matter, scientists will finally care enough to develop cleaner alternative fuels.”

Fry: “Scientists like you.”

Farnsworth: “No not me. I’m too busy developing makeup for dogs. That’s where the money is.”

Unfortunately, Farnsworth has forgotten where he hid the anti-backwards crystal, but he eventually discovers that his son is using it as a 12-sided die in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Farnsworth and the crew travel to dark matter mine to use the newly found crystal in to neutralize the dark matter. The crew discovers that Mom’s mine is farm—Mom has captured all of the Nibblonians (Nibbler’s species) and has placed them in cages so that she can harvest their poop. This farm gives Mom an unlimited source of dark matter. Mom’s enslavement of the Nibblonians is similar to the treatment of other labor forces in energy narratives. The Nibblonians possess an energy resource and are held against their will and forced to labor to give that energy resource to Mom, who is the stronger force in this narrative. Strangely, there is no theme of life for energy exchange here. It does appear that the labor is in anyway fatal to the Nibblonians. However, the Nibblonians do rebel when they have the chance to, which is characteristic of an energy narrative.

After a long and complicated series of events the Professor is finally able to bring the two crystals together and so render all of the world’s dark matter inert. Farnsworth and the crew use the Nibblonians to pull the Planet Express ship home, calling it “Nibbler Power”. Hopefully, following this narrative earth’s scientists develop forms of alternative energy as Farnsworth suggests they will, that is, if it is more lucrative than makeup for dogs.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet. We could revolutionize modern science. We could use it to fuel the Empire. Or start a war…

The Doctor and Rose travel into humanity’s future and discover a space station that is sitting on top of an “impossible planet”. The planet is orbiting a black hole without falling in. The team of scientists in the space station discovered that a power source deep inside the planet is causing the planet to counteract the black hole’s gravity, in addition to creating a gravity funnel, which allows for a spaceship to safely travel to and land on the planet’s surface without being pulled into the black hole. The scientists are drilling down into the planet to learn about the energy source so that they could potentially harvest the source and use it to power the Human Empire.

Chief Science Officer: “We could revolutionize modern science.”

Chief Security Officer: “We could use it to fuel the Empire.”

Doctor: “Or start a war…”

 

The humans in this narrative intentionally put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to research and potentially harvest a power source, because this power source is potentially worth their lives. Here again, is an example of the life and energy equivalency in energy narratives. In addition to putting themselves in danger, the scientists are using a race called the Ood to do the drilling. According to the scientists, the Ood presented themselves to the humans and asked to serve them saying that that is their desired purpose in life. While, we never see the crew members abuse the Ood, they tend to treat them like cattle as a result of their convenient racism.

Of course, the power source is something much more dangerous that it appears. The humans discover that it can never be harvested and only some of them make it off the planet with their lives, which is more than can be said for the Ood.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, religious element, political oppression, convenient racism.

I Can’t Fight What I Am: Star Trek X: Nemesis

Energy use is not the primary focus of Nemesis. Its plot consists mostly of a megalomaniac obsessed with destroying the United Federation of Planets. However, the primary motivation for said megalomaniac is his history of abuse at the hands of the Romulans as he worked in the Reman dilithium mines. The treatment of the Reman minors is meant to parallel real life labor abuses by major energy corporations.

The film opens with the assassination of the Romulan senate after hearing a report from the Romulan military urging them to accept an alliance with one of their colonies, Remus. After the Praetor (the Romulan prime minster) refuses to accept the proposal of the military, a radioactive devise is detonated, killing everyone in the room. Just before the devise activates, the Praetor announces that Remus is not meeting their mining quotas. The film later explains that one of the primary exports of Remus is mined dilithium, which Remus is forced to deliver only to the Romulan Empire.

Starfleet informs Captain Picard that the new Romulan government has asked to parley with Starfleet. Picard expresses surprise that the new Praetor is a Reman named Shinzon, because according to Cdr. Data, Remans are considered an undesirable caste in the Romulan Empire. It is this convenient racism that causes the mistreatment of the Reman miners. Picard meets with Shinzon and discovers that he is a clone of Picard. Shinzon explains that he was meant to replace Picard and infiltrate Starfleet but the plan was abandoned when a new Romulan government took power. Shinzon was then sent to the dilithium mines on Remus because it was thought that no human could survive working in the dilithium mines let alone a child:

In those terrible depths lived only the damned. Together with the Reman slaves I was condemned to an existence of unceasing labor and starvation under the brutal heel of the Romulan gaurds. Only the very strongest had any hope of survival. –Shinzon.

Shinzon said that a male Reman took care of him and thus he became brothers with the Remans. Shinzon claims that the motivation behind everything that he has done was to liberate the Remans.

Of course, Shinzon is not as he seems and secretly wants to destroy the Federation, and the real reason he wanted to parley with the Enterprise is because his survival depends on an injection of Picard’s DNA, as the result of a defect in his cloning process. However, the reasons for Shinzon’s madness can be directly linked to his abuse at the hands of Romulans.

 

Clearly, in Nemesis the Romulans’ racism against the Remans was the cause of the abuse that created Shinzon. However, the linking racism to resource extraction is not the invention of science fiction. Racism is a theme in energy narratives from Star Trek to Munif’s Cities of Salt to The Hunger Games novels.  Therefore, I’d like to pose the question: “Are crimes against race inherit in today’s energy resource extraction? Does the desirability of the resource create a convenient racism or is racism an underlying condition that resource extractors take advantage of?” Are the Romulans racist against the Remans because the Remans have dilithium or are the Romulans using a racism that already exists to justify forcing the Remans to work to extract their dilithium?

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Okay, so the primary theme of The Undiscovered Country is not energy use, it’s race relations, BUT energy use does play a principle role in the narrative. The film opens with the destruction of the moon Praxis, which is the primary dilithium source for the Klingon Empire. According to Spock, the destruction of Praxis was caused by over-mining and insufficient safety precautions. The debris from Praxis is polluting the ozone of Kronos, the Klingon home planet, which will cause the oxygen to be depleted on Kronos in 50 years. This is an example of a stronger force (the Klingons) subjugating a weaker force (the environment,) and as is common with energy narratives, the environment seeks its revenge. Now with Praxis gone, the Klingons have neither the dilithium to fuel their ships nor the safety of their people.

The Klingons have been at war with the Federation for 70 years, though they are currently at an armistice. Spock says that the Klingons cannot both maintain their hostilities against the Federation and save their planet.  Thus, the Klingons have agreed to peace negotiations with the Federation.

The narrative also makes mention of a labor issue involving dilithium production. Kirk and McCoy are sentenced to a penal colony on Rura Penthe to mine dilithium for the Klingon Empire. Being sentenced to this penal colony is well known as being the same as an execution sentence. The prisoners are forced to work under extreme conditions and those who do not work are left to freeze outside the camp:

“Work well and you will be treated well. Work badly and you will die.”

Hard labor prison camps are just another form of convenient bigotry, like racism, to help find laborers that can be mistreated in order to ensure profit. In addition, The Undiscovered Country contains the same life and energy equivalency theme found in the episodes of Star Trek that I have written about thus far. The Klingons know that the conditions on Rura Penthe are so extreme that they will eventually kill the workers. Life pays for energy.