Escapist EditorialsToys - A Fairy Tale about Drones, Surveillance, and EscapismEscapist Editorials - RSS 2.0
Toys, starring Robin Williams, hit theaters for six unimpressive weeks at the end of 1992. Originally written in 1978 by director/ writer Barry Levinson (known for Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam and others), it was marketed as a Christmas movie for kids. Toys bombed, partially due to the fact that the movie featured almost no children, and had very little to do with Christmas. Instead, viewers were presented with a disjointed, yet ambitious modern fairy tale that contained a strong anti-war message which seemed misplaced in the aftermath of both the Cold War and the Persian Gulf war. Certain themes, concepts and problems in Toys have become more relevant in recent decades, however they are buried deep in a brightly colored ball pit of insanity.
The film suffered from a lack of identity. It didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be, and therefore what kind of audience it wanted to have. In the effort to be different and unique, it estranged viewers. Risque jokes pop up now and then, standing out in awkward contrast to the bright and colorful backdrop of innocence. There are a number of song breaks woven throughout the mad tapestry that seem reminiscent of Miami Vice, but under the influence of peyote. Scenes go on for too long, characters are inconsistent, themes pop in and out with seemingly no rhyme or reason. There are people who love it, believe it or not. But it is a challenging film to sit through because it is so all over the place, so awkward, and so bizarre. One of the trailers does a good job of conveying the essence of the film, by having Robin Williams break the fourth wall and crack jokes in a meadow for two minutes.
Underneath all of that are certain ideas that seemed unlikely in 1992, but have become a part of everyday life in recent years. For starters, Toys predicted many aspects of modern day drone warfare. The antagonistic General Zevo, who inherits the toy factory, laments that since the end of the cold war the U.S. military has been struggling to maintain its sense of purpose. He envisions warfare of the future as being made up by small remote controlled vehicles that would be cheaper to produce than traditional planes and helicopters. These would be controlled through a videogame interface. This would create a physical and emotional barrier between the pilots and their targets. Zevo believed that such an approach would be the way of the future, and he ended up being exactly right. The MQ-1 Predator drone was first fitted with hellfire missiles in 1999, first used in combat in Afghanistan 2002, and remained in service until this July, when the Air Force replaced it with the bigger and better Reaper drone. President Obama cleared over 500 drone strikes during his time in office, compared to the 57 under George W Bush. Donald Trump wants to go a step further by authorizing the CIA and Pentagon to launch drone strikes without obtaining clearance from the White House.
Not only was General Zevo developing flying remote controlled bombers, he also had a number of toys built to spy on people in intimate circumstances. Jamie Fox made his hollywood debut in Toys playing one of the soldiers who were joking and drooling over live video feed of the love interest of the film taking her shirt off. Thanks to the efforts of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, the extent of wiretapping and surveillance practices on the general public has come to light. The world we live in now is one where any of our phone calls may be monitored, our smart tvs, game consoles, even Alexa can be used to spy on us. Not to mention closed circuit cameras are being used everywhere from shops to streetlights. And if you've ever sent a nude photo of yourself online, the NSA most likely has a copy of it, and it has been scrutinized. The situation as it exists now is an affront to the basic right of privacy. The more we surrender our rights the more our very environment will change. This is not the type of problem that will go away if it is ignored.
As General Zevo takes over the toy factory, the tone of the film begins to take a dark shift. In his farewell address, Dwight Eisenhower issued a warning to the American people about the growing influence and threatening nature of the military-industrial complex. General Zevo is the embodiment of that threat. At first he just repaints the walls of his office, from a colorful and peaceful scene to a black and white totalitarian scene. Then he asks for a portion of the factory to build his own toys. General Zevo slowly takes over more and more of the factory afterwards, blocking off his section with increasing security measures. Robin Williams' character, Leslie Zevo, doesn't like what's happening, but he also lacks the courage to confront the general and ask what he is doing in hiding. In one scene, Leslie is working with a group of fake vomit technicians and the very walls of their lab begin to close in on them. Segments that look like Tetris blocks push inwards, just a little at first, but grow closer and closer over time. Finally the group is forced to step up onto their work table in order to avoid being crushed.
When Leslie finally decides to do something about it, he sneaks into the cordoned off area and finds dozens of school kids playing what appear to be advanced videogames. These kids are piloting the drone fleet built by the general. They are blowing up cars and houses, racking up points for killing people, and having a great time doing it, because they think they're playing games. The question of who they could be bombing during peace time under the command of a retired military general is never addressed. A lot of weird things in the film are never addressed. Real drone pilots have set ups very similar to what the film depicts. Fortunately, the robot sea monster that gobbles up Robin Williams in the next scene is still, as far as I know, science fiction.
The factory itself is kind of a paradise of entertainment and distraction, very similar to the modern day internet and the numerous gadgets that help us navigate it. The rolling meadows that surround the factory resemble certain default screen savers.Toys also features a few scenes with virtual reality, which had none of the vector graphics limitations of what was available then, but rather showed high-res fully immersive experiences that are only now reaching the point of attainability. The main struggle between big brother and the rest of the factory is symbolic of how our gadgets can be used for good or they can be used against us. The VR app or device that lets you ride a simulated rollercoaster can also allow you to take virtual tours of museums and historic sites like Chernobyl. Smartphones can be used to watch cat videos, or to record and share instances of police violence, raising public awareness of the issue. The search engine that logs and shares your history with advertisers and government agencies can also help you find whatever rights and legal protections you still technically might have against such practices.
The movie ends after a battle of wind up toys against homicidal toys. It is a struggle of wills, a call to arms. Some moments are terrifying, and others are a bit silly just like the rest of the movie. At some point it just decides to stop. Is Toys an unsung work of genius that only gets better with time, or is it a trainwreck of storytelling that happened to get a few things right? Could it be both? One thing is certain, the movie is absolutely unique, and worth seeing at least once.
When not dissecting movies at least a decade old, Kevin Mooseles is writing the latest book in his epic zombie conspiracy book series The Resistance is Dead. Book 2, President Zombie, will be available on Kindle by late June. Book 1, The Outbreak, is available in all formats at Amazon. To hear his latest podcast appearance discussing State of Decay (a zombie game with suppressors!), head over to Literate Gamer.