2018 was a rough year. It was the height of the Brexit controversy and two years into the Trump Presidency. It was also the year Await Further Instructions was released in England and Bird Box was released in America. Both films are hybrids of horror, science fiction, and thriller but functionally wrestle with the rising tide of nationalism around the world. They both center on themes of authority, persuasion, and vulnerability.
In Await Further Instructions the surname of the featured family is Milgram, referencing the famous experiment from 1961. In addition, the street the family lives on is Stanford Street, a reference to the Stanford Prison study from 1971. Both studies explored the interplay between power and obedience and unfortunately found that, given the right circumstances, we humans are easily persuaded to cross a myriad of ethical lines.
Await Further Instructions sets up an extreme example of these circumstances and then plays out the possibilities. The film centers around a dysfunctional family who have gathered together for the holidays. They wake up in the morning to find they are trapped in their house by a mysterious force. They are given instructions via text that appears on the living room television set. Stuck together in a frightening situation all of the family’s latent resentments, frustrations, and hidden fault lines erupt into explosive anger and eventually violence.
Await Further Instructions allows its characters to argue the way real people actually argue. No one ever gets to complete a sentence or thought and everything degenerates into yelling and shouting before anything is resolved. There are no trite Aaron Sorkin-style soliloquies that suddenly uplift and enlighten everyone. There is only the heated and ignorant butting of heads.
The family breaks into factions. Those who feel the safe course of action is to follow what the television says, and those who are not so sure. In an uncanny moment of prescience, a packet of syringes comes tumbling down the chimney with the demand that everyone vaccinates themselves. This of course starts a whole new round of conflict and screaming.
Both Putin and Trump used television and social media to great advantage. Just a few years ago, perhaps less than a decade ago, the way politicians cemented and maintained their power was through control. You had to control what is said, control what is known, control what people think in order to manipulate them. What Putin pioneered and what Trump stumbled upon was a new strategy. Barrage everyone with lies. Open, obvious falsehoods that could easily be disproven. Then accuse those who expose the lies as liars. The result is confusion and chaos. No one knows who to believe or who to trust. In such an atmosphere those in power have virtually free rein.
Even better than using confusion as a cover, confusion can be used to increase people’s desire for a leader. Not just any leader but a populist leader who distinguishes himself from the official politicians and promises stability. Frighten people and then offer yourself as a solution.
In Await Further Instructions the authority is the faceless text on a television screen. There is no opportunity to communicate with it, it is a one-way medium that demands submission. There are no specific threats but the stark authoritarian instructions are enough to inspire fearful obedience.
The anonymous text on the television mimics the text we have all become accustomed to on our phone screens. Many of the messages we receive are forwarded hundreds of times over before they reach us. The messages are free-floating packets of provocative information no longer attached or associated with their original author or context. Most of them are specifically designed to catch our eye and elicit a quick emotional response. This chaotic ether can easily create anxiety and the desire to find an authority to lead you through it.
Await Further Instructions addresses several forms of anxiety and authority. The last quarter of the film takes a turn toward religion. Worse than any politician, more power-mad than any dictator, more violent than any warlord is the self-described wrathful and jealous god of Abraham. The biblical god, much like Trump, is obsessed with being worshiped. It is not enough to follow his laws, you must praise him, sing to him, get down on your knees and worship him. In Await Further Instructions the mysterious presence commanding the household is equally obsessed with being worshiped. It repeats this command over and over. It seems almost childlike as if it is desperate for love and attention.
Near the end, the film seems to lose its way. It creates an interesting situation and lets it escalate to a fever pitch, but then doesn’t seem to know how to resolve it. It ends up resorting to conventional horror tropes, mostly Cronenbergian body horror. Perhaps Johnny Kevorkian, the director, felt he owed his horror movie audience some blood and guts, but the gore doesn’t add to the film it just seems pasted on like a last-minute bone thrown to the viewers.
Susanne Bier’s Birdbox is not as interesting as Await Further Instructions. Bird Box is formulaic, relatively predictable, and has a neat and tidy ending that takes the easy way out. Some reviews chastise Bird Box for being pro-Trump. Some reviewers claim that it stokes paranoia, and smacks of jingoism. John Malkovich’s character seems like a paranoid MAGA follower but instead of looking foolish his paranoia always turns out to be warranted. He constantly stokes everyone’s anxieties and predicts dire consequences if the group strays away from cold-hearted pragmatism.
In addition, the movie ends with our desperate heroine safe behind a wall where the invaders can’t get to her. I doubt that Bier meant for the film to support Trumpist ideology but it is not an entirely unreasonable interpretation.
The most interesting part of Bird Box is the fact that everyone ends up having to wear blindfolds. Do the blindfold refer to the blindness of Trump followers, or are they prophylactics against toxic Trump-era politics? They could be used to protect reality from intrusions like Fox News and Alex Jones or they could be there to keep reality at bay by sealing the wearer into blind obedience.
Either way Bird Box, just like Await Further Instructions, accidentally predicts the plague of covid. Everyone in Bird Box must wear a mask at all times or they will be contaminated. The fear of being infected and destroyed is similar to the fear of being overrun and losing your identity. Whether it is, foreigners or viruses, it makes little difference.
The essential ingredient in both films is fear. In a life-threatening situation, many of us will prioritize self-preservation over all else. Fear is the enemy of empathy and compassion and even morality. Self-interest makes ideas like democracy and social justice difficult if not impossible. Fear can cut the ties that bind us and in our isolation, we are far more vulnerable to the confident words of someone who promises to save us.
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