Genocidal Organ makes no sense

[Another old post that I want to put up before it gets too old… I wrote this before I got into the habit of taking screenshots, so no pictures. I think the writing also feels strained and unclear, but I’m glad to observe my own improvement over time there]

Or at least, it makes very little sense…

Spoiler-Free Impressions

Let’s start with the good: Genocidal Organ, the 2017 animated movie based on a 2007 novel by the pseudonymed science fiction writer “Project Itoh”, demonstrates a marvelous imagination with excellent visuals to match. Though the prevailing grey and brown color palette isn’t exactly pretty to look at, it expertly contributes to the bleak tone of its distopian science fiction future.

But overall? Don’t bother.

Genocidal Organ’s is too ambitious. The narrative is convoluted and its points vague. Even the basic plot felt incomprehensible as it jolted around between long dialogues with no apparent relevance to previous events before jumping straight into the next topic with little transition. Meanwhile, apart from the villain John Paul, none of the characters have any meat to them — primarily because half of the cast are super soldiers with emotional suppression nanobot conditioning (what a mouthful, technobabble strikes again). At two hours, Genocidal Organ is too long to hold interest but also too short to sufficiently explore its excessive multitude of themes. Basically it — well, it makes no sense.

Spoiler Discussion Below:

Genocidal Organ tries to tackle far too many ideas. Our literary super-soldier protagonist Clavis engages in dialogues touching on a variety of topics including: atheism, hell, war, imperialism, internationalism, the War on Terrorism, consumerism, surveillance society, alternate reality technology, PTSD, military dehumanization, the costs of freedom, first world complacency, poverty, ethnic conflict, child soldiers, nuclear war, consciousness, self-identity, private military companies, genocide, and football concussion injuries (seriously!).

Those themes are not random. I imagine you could choose any set of two or three and produce a thoughtful movie exploring connections between them. But even with it’s two-hour runtime, Genocidal Organ simply does not have time to explore its excess of ideas with sufficient depth. Each concept receives two or three scenes of exceptionally vague dialogue at best or a single line and unhelpful name-drop at worst (Gah-doh! Cough-kah! Sorry, I have a modernist-post-modernist cold).

Worse, the sheer number of themes in the film inevitably begin to conflict with each other. One of the worst examples occurs during Clavis’s final monologue (he has many…) at the end of the film. He says “War as a spectacle is always necessary. We need to know a war is happening somewhere. Especially if it’s a miserable war somewhere we have no connection to. You see, only by knowing and witnessing that can we define ourselves.”

Taken alone, this little speech perhaps alludes to the first-world viewing itself as superior because of its stability and prosperity relative to the third world. It must witness suffering elsewhere to feel good about itself — and distract itself from its own problems. Though the statement is maybe a little broad, it at least makes an identifiable point.

However, when watching the ending, I exclaimed “I’m sorry, what?” Placed in the full context of the film, Clavis’s monologue baffled me. The ideas expressed in the quote contradict Genocidal Organ’s consistent theme of first-world consumeristic complacency, by which the film hammers the point that rich countries ignore the suffering of poorer countries to enjoy their wealth in blissful ignorance. This isn’t a simple matter of characters disagreeing: Clavis, Williams, Lucie and John Paul — a mix of protagonists and antagonists — all said something to that effect. Williams delivered the most memorable line in defence of complacency, saying: “You bet I’ll protect the world where I order jalapeño pizza and pay with my ID, where I throw away half my Big Mac because I’m full!” 

So which is it? Do wealthy countries ignore suffering so that they can stuff themselves with Big Macs without a care, as argued throughout the whole movie, or do they find a need to observe it to sneer at the less fortunate, as Clavis claims at the end? Does the first world somehow manage to do both through some Orwellian contradiction? If so, how? Those would be interesting questions to explore in a film, but before I could finish asking them, the credits were already rolling. Clavis’s character revelation comes out of no where and, already out of time, has no where to go.

Despite the bizarre inconsistency in the theme of complacency, it at least benefits from several separate discussions throughout the film. Other themes suddenly surface in a single dialogue, with little connection to the broader narrative, and then disappear just as quickly.

Clavis’s meeting with a military psychologist is exemplary. In the preceding scene, Clavis’s commanding officer abruptly ends a briefing on an operation in New India with the line “I need you to start getting tactical counseling tomorrow.” We then immediately cut to the psychologist’s office. Why does Clavis need this counseling? Because of the PTSD problem in his super soldier conditioning? Because he will need to kill children? What does tactical even mean here? Is he going to receive combat advice?

None of that, apparently. The counselor begins a psycho-babble monologue with a contrived metaphor about how many people makes a crowd, leading into a series of exceedingly vague statements about consciousness and the self. He says “How many modules must exist to form the ‘self?’ How many modules must unite to form ‘consciousness?’ Human thoughts and actions are formed by a vast system of modules in the brain.” Clavis later thinks to himself “The counselor asks questions. I don’t know what function these questions have.” Yeah me too, buddy. I have no idea what is going on. How exactly does this aside about consciousness connect to the rest of the narrative, let alone previously established themes like complacency?

For a film released in 2017, Genocidal Organ feels oddly dated. This is not really the film’s fault: in the decade since the publication of the original novel in 2007, the world has changed in unexpected ways (understatement of the century…). The entire story assumes a post-9/11 American perspective and pulls it off exceptionally well for a foreign work. Clavis’s opening monologue perfectly captures the post-9/11 spirit: “The day New York’s twin towers were lost, something inside us changed. The scope of our freedoms shrank in order for us to fight terror, and although the pendulum did swing back a little, the trauma of losing our peers meant that public sentiment never changed course.” His mood still held strong as late as 2007.

However, “never” is an awfully strong word and Genocidal Organ fails to anticipate the public backlashes against anti-terrorism policies following war fatigue in Iraq and Afghanistan and, later, the Snowden and Wikileaks releases. The pendulum swung back, and it swung back hard.

Though 9/11 marked the beginning of an era (or perhaps framed differently, the end of the era of American post-Cold War exuberance), the 9/11 spirit has gradually faded from American consciousness, with War on Terror itself becoming a frequent target of ridicule. Following the collapse of ISIS as a faux “state” in Syria, the terrorism threat has yielded to more traditional international rivalries with countries like North Korea (nuclear), Russia (Ukraine/Syria, election tampering), and China (trade). In 2017, the post-9/11 world was too recent to appeal to nostalgia but also too long ago to feel relevant to the current American political discourse.

More importantly though, the focus on the post-9/11 era seems to again contradict the movie’s most central theme of first world, consumeristic complacency. Isn’t the War on Terror the exact opposite of complacency? Wasn’t the United States complacent before 9/11?

The adventurism, and in more cynical eyes, naked imperialism, of American foreign intervention after 9/11 severely harmed the nation’s international prestige. Even America’s closest allies like France and Germany accused the United States of being too proactive. The movie offers a good metaphor comparing freedom to money: just a person exchanges labor for money to buy other things, a nation can choose to exchange the freedom of privacy for the freedom from terror. However, it cannot extend this metaphor to complacency. Does freedom from terror cause complacency or is it the result of overzealous policing? I would categorize a nation with lax policing as complacent, not one with paranoidly strict security measures. 

This awkward contradiction appears elsewhere, like in the absolutely perfect anime-recreation of an American football game, complete with a concussion injury. The film seems to imply that the characters are complacent to the suffering of the players, just as the first world is complacent to the poverty of the third world. However, everyone, including the announcers on TV, seems clearly aware of the problem and even express some concern about the safety of the players. If they are aware and care, are they really complacent?

Other bits of dialogue seem to suggest that awareness is sufficient, like a short discussion about a secret, unethical dolphin harvesting program or Williams’ preference to leave his family ignorant to the world’s troubles. However, the film fails to tackle (heh) this nuance because it moves too-quickly on to other themes, in this particular instance Clavis’s war trauma and PTSD manifesting itself in his dreams. 

On that note, Genocidal Organ greatest flaw is its poorly defined characters. Clavis performs whatever role the plot requires of him, regardless of context. He is a super soldier conditioned by nanomachines to have flat-lined emotions… …but then he’s also a thoughtful, affable student of literature. Together with Williams, he becomes oddly sarcastic and emotive for a supposedly emotionless killing machine. He belongs to Special Operations as his “day job,” but also does side gigs as a spy to put those “amateurs” at the CIA to shame. He feels few qualms killing impoverished child-soldiers despite expressing a strong sense of justice regarding global inequality. Meanwhile, his love interest, the Czech linguist Lucie, only exists to create a romantic triangle subplot to give Clavis some personal stake in John Paul’s global conflicts. Clavis is, in short, a mess.

For his part, John Paul at least represents an interesting villain with an understandable, if insane, motive. John Paul subscribes to a twisted version of Malthusian economics by which population growth and resource scarcity inevitably put the first and third world countries in conflict. His solution is to lead the third world into genocidal internal conflicts, thus protecting the West from terrorism. As he puts it, “I’ll keep them busy killing their own people. I won’t let them lay a finger on our world.”

His method is the “grammar of genocide,” a primordial instinct in humans to kill when they hear certain grammatical structures. Though a ridiculous concept in the real world, in a sci-fi action movie the grammar of genocide serves its purpose as a unique macguffin to drive the plot. However, we only really learn about these motives and methods in the movie’s final scenes, which feel like a final exposition dump more than a clear resolution to the movie’s conflict. Other mysteries, like the John Paul’s connection to the private military company Eugene and Krupps and the Senate Majority Leader receive no development after their introduction.

As a final note, I’ve put together this analysis by reading the script several times and wasting hours of downtime at work. When actually experiencing the movie, most of this flew over my head. The narrative is so disjointed, so full of vague monologuing, and so focused on useless techno-babble, psycho-babble, and name-dropping that putting together any sort of thematic analysis during a first viewing is impossible. When I first finished the movie, I had no commentary because I simply didn’t understand what had even happened. I had an impression of John Paul as a sort of corrupted Malthusian and the concept of complacency reappeared frequently enough that I recognized it as important, but the movie was so broad and contradictory that I had nothing solid to consider.

Basically, Genocidal Organ makes no sense.

Watch clips of the excellent extended action scene in India and the marvelous imagining of virtual and augmented reality technologies in the near future. If the themes seem interesting, maybe pick up the book. But leave the rest of the movie alone. It has too much to say in too little time, and as a result ends up saying very little.

5 thoughts on “Genocidal Organ makes no sense

  1. I haven’t seen the film. The link shows the sort of CGI camera movement that leaves me physically sick, so that I didn’t even finish the clip. I’m not going to watch this for that reason alone, so it’s a bit of a comfort to hear I’m not missing much.

    “A grammar of Genoiced?” – “Well, it’s like this… [abstract explanation]” – “I don’t get it.” – “I could give you an example, but one of us wouldn’t survive.”

    Ridiculous is an understatement. Even if you buy Chomskyan deep grammar stuff, and I don’t.

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    1. Yeah… it “makes no sense” (plus, the movie saves the grammatical reveal for near the end, meaning it makes even less sense!). I think it works well enough for a sci-fi premise though (as silly as it sounds) because there has been real academic work on the ways hateful rhetoric on social media has contributed to genocide in Burma. But then the movie shows its age again… it doesn’t really consider that social media angle. It’s stuck a decade behind the times — released in 2017 when the global order that the movie tries criticizes is threatened by populism rather than terrorism like back in 2007. It’s crazy that just 10 years feels out of date but eh, the world has changed. Maybe making the villain a modern social media saboteur could have improved the sci-fi plausibility. But then the movie has bigger problems anyway with its maddening lack of focus so I’m not sure that that edit would have saved it.

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  2. Rhetoric having an effect on social dynamics is rather different from claiming that there’s a primordial instinct to react murderously towards grammar. What that is saying:

    Example: Take a person who never learned language (e.g. was a feral child). Say to them two sentences that differ only in grammar, say “It is true that developing dolphins exceeds the tomato-stretching limit,” and “That developing dolphins exceeds the tomato-stretching limit is true.” If the distinguishing grammatical feature triggers the primordial instinct, the person should be fine if you say one sentence and fly into a murderous rage if you say the other.

    Well, some creative writing students do fly into a murderous rage if they encounter the passive voice, but that’s definitely acquired behaviour and not a primordial instinct… or is it?

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    1. I just mean to say that the movie failed in too many more fundamental areas (like clear plotting…) than its ridiculous super-villain’s devious grammatical superweapon, which only really factors at the very end anyway. The writers could have replaced the “grammar of genocide” with something more plausible and relevant to 2017, but the movie would still make no sense. Of course its technically ridiculous to linguistic science, but it an movie full of so much other nonsense, that specific bit of nonsense only attracted a shrug from me.

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