Occupy the Multiplex: Class Warfare in This Summer’s Movies

What's behind this recent spate of movies that examine scenes of class struggle?

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Moviegoers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Doesn’t the movie theater seem a little Marx-ish lately? Tales of class struggle abound this summer. At the current multiplex, you might choose from The Purge (about a future dystopia where class warfare breaks out on the one night of the year when crime goes unpunished), The East (about an agent who infiltrates a group of anticorporate saboteurs and comes to sympathize with their cause), Now You See Me (a group of magicians who stage Robin Hood–style robberies), The Bling Ring (a true story in which the haves steal from the have-mores) and This Is the End (in which Seth Rogen, James Franco, and other pampered stars — playing more fatuous versions of themselves — discover that wealth and fame offer no protection from the apocalypse and the pits of hell). They’ll be joined in August by Elysium, a futuristic sci-fi tale in which the wealthy elite live in a space station orbiting the earth while the poor live on the ruined planet below.

Conservative critics will find such fare to be par for the course in liberal Hollywood, but they’re a rarity. It’s certainly not typical to find films that mean to make you think, even for a moment or two, about class issues that our discourse usually avoids, especially during a summer movie season that’s typically about superheroes, aliens and zombies. Besides, Hollywood movies are typically about consumption, making viewers covet the protagonist’s lifestyle and serving as a de facto commercial for his or her favorite consumer goods. (Man of Steel has more than 100 global retail partners who’ve ponied up $160 million for Superman’s implied endorsement.)

Why, then, the sudden minitrend of class-struggle movies? The timing may not be a coincidence. It takes about two years for a film to go from conception to release. And nearly two years ago, in September 2011, the birth of the Occupy movement caught America’s attention and forced a national conversation about income inequality. The East, shot shortly after the fall 2011 protests, borrows the most from them in terms of rhetoric and theatrics, while the other films mostly couch their class conflict in metaphorical or allegorical terms that, nonetheless, will have viewers thinking about the huge gap that separates the 1% from the 99%.

Viewers who don’t want overt class politics with their popcorn needn’t worry. They can go see The Great Gatsby, which fawns and lingers over the characters’ flaunted wealth even as it chides them for their shallowness. And Adam Sandler and his fellow childhood-pals-made-good will be back in July’s Grown Ups 2 to celebrate their own wealth and privilege while mocking the bitter townies who never made it big. So, business as usual.