by Megan Huang
Power Structures and its effects on Human Agency in the Sci-fi apocalypse
Sci-fi apocalyptic films in contemporary popular culture has been traditionally characterized by mutants, aliens, zombies, along with other extraterrestrial monsters. However, as we progress into the 20th century, these films have started to explore the role of power structures in shaping and influencing the actions and perceptions of individual characters in the sci-fi and technological apocalypses through the agency-structure dichotomy. Such a phenomenon has arisen due to the increasing attention given to influential works of social theorists like Anthony Giddens, as people try to understand and come to terms with how much of their actions are independent, and how much is influenced by power structures in society. Power structures are typically viewed as vehicles to enact directional change in society, by shaping individuals’ beliefs, values and societal norms to generate conformity and obedience of the population.
Therein lies a loss of human agency by individuals. Human agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to make independent decisions, unconstrained by power structures and other social forces in society. As power structures are forces that shape their perceptions and actions, they lose the power to make autonomous decisions as free people.
In the sci-fi zombie apocalyptic film Resident Evil (2002), the fictional Umbrella Corporation in Raccoon City is highlighted as a key power structure in influencing the actions of characters in the apocalypse. Umbrella Corporation is a leading genetic research firm that wields unprecedented economic, political and military influence in the scientific community and society itself, allowing it to garner great credibility and legitimacy. However, under its façade of nobility and scientific prominence, it actually functions as a sinister, exploitative and oppressive organization that promotes dangerous biological and chemical warfare, with evil aims of world domination, by enslaving and oppressing the human race.
In particular, the company has developed a virus known as the Tyrant virus (T-virus) in an underground facility, the Hive. When the virus is accidentally released and becomes airborne in the research facility, Umbrella Corporation commands and forces a team of individuals that work for the firm– Alice, Matt, Rain, and James – to go into the Hive and shut down the Artificial Intelligence system (Red Queen) that oversees its operations, despite the dangers of losing their lives during the course of the mission.
However, the theme of human agency and its intricacies with the ideas of dominance, oppression and enslavement in apocalyptic films is largely ignored by audiences, who perceive such films to be brainless action thrillers or mindless entertainment. The narrative of many apocalyptic films simply portrays the end products of characters’ thought processes, which usually involves the cold-blooded killing of monsters in the apocalypse. This further alienates the theme of the loss of human agency, and fails to explore how individuals are oppressed and subordinated by dominant, all-encompassing power structures in society, even in the chaotic post-apocalyptic world.
Therefore, we may come to ask: In what ways do power structures and entities control, oppress and dominate individuals that are affiliated to them, particularly in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world? This essay posits that because of the unchanging nature and influence of power structures in the apocalyptic world, humans are oppressed, enslaved and trapped by dominant overarching power structures in society because of their forced commitment to these totalitarian structures, causing a loss of human agency and independent decision-making powers in their actions, behaviors and thought processes.
Unchanging nature of power structures in the apocalypse, and the ability to oppress individual actors
Power structures in the apocalypse function in the same ways and retain the same working mechanisms in the apocalyptic world. Interestingly, the structures of organizations and institutions remain unchanged, allowing these organizations to function as a force for social order and stability, ironically retaining an order in the chaos of the apocalypse which should have been lost. In the same way, they are also able to perpetuate their power both before and after the outbreak of the apocalypse, to maintain and control individuals, forcing them to give up their agency.
As the narrative in Resident Evil describes, Umbrella Corporation was the “largest commercial entity” in the US at the turn of the 21st century, a company so powerful that its “financial and political influence” and prowess is “felt everywhere”, highlighting umbrella Corporation’s power as pervasive, all-encompassing and a dominant force in the fictional society of the film, before the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Furthermore, its power is retained and strengthened even in the post-apocalyptic world, as observed by the fact that it has captured and detained individuals who are employees of the organization and instructed them to be sent on a mission to go back into the Hive, showing the ability of power structures to thrive as mechanisms to convey information and instruction to individuals that they are forced to follow, causing them to be oppressed and enslaved.
Hence, even in a period of unprecedented disorder, instability and chaos, individuals find some semblance of stability in the fact that they have to constantly abide by the rules and regulations of power institutions and structures. Their bonds and affiliations to these organizations are not eroded even in a dystopian world, hence giving power structures the ability to influence individuals’ thinking, actions and behavior in the apocalypse, and by extension, oppress and enslave them to the organization.
Organizations and institutions are thus regarded as practices that are deeply rooted throughout changes in time and space, causing them to function as enduring structures that among members of a community or society. (Giddens, 1979, p.80) Hence, power structures, organizations and institutions are able to retain their power and wield their influence even in the face of chaos and disorder in the apocalypse, to get individuals to adhere to their demands.
The zombie thriller movie 28 Days Later provides another case of how power structures retain their dominance in the apocalypse, and their subsequent ability to command individuals in the organization and instill conformity and obedience. The survivors of the apocalypse are taken in by a provisional army in Manhattan, which is a semi-developed military power structure in a post-apocalyptic world. In exchange for providing characters with food and shelter, their unquestioning obedience is demanded by the military, who proceeds to oppress and control them by forcing them to carry out certain tasks, such as subjecting the girls in the film to gang rape by the soldiers. This shows power structures in the apocalyptic world retain the same kind of ability, as in the pre-apocalyptic world, to command individuals to adhere to authority.
External loyalties compounding Individual’s decision-making
External loyalties compound individuals’ decision-making powers and agency in the apocalypse. Individuals tied to these structures are forced to relinquish their agency, resulting in a loss of freedom to make independent decisions because they are accountable to higher authorities and powers in the organizations and institutions that they belong to. Their ties to these organizations necessitate them to be subordinate to higher authorities unquestioningly, and withhold important information or organizational secrets so as to maintain the flow of organizational activities, even if they may not want to do so. Hence, they are systematically oppressed and exploited by these power structures because of their affiliations to them.
In Resident Evil, the employees of Umbrella Corporation are dominated and oppressed by the organization, in a bid to keep them loyal and obedient to higher authorities and prevent them from divulging the secrets of the structure of the organization that could threaten its credibility and result in its collapse and breakdown. Alice wakes up in a lofty mansion at the start of the film with no recollection of her memories. The erasure of her memory was a deliberate act by Umbrella Corporation – a gas released in the Hive after the T-virus spread caused her amnesia. The fact that a man could tell Alice exactly that the memory loss should “last for maybe an hour” highlights the fact that the release of the gas and the removal of her memories was intentional, and she had no control over whether she could stop the process. Hence, Alice’s memory loss symbolizes the loss of her decision-making powers and agency. This idea is explained later in the film as we discover that Umbrella Corporation erased her memory to prevent her from finding out the location of the cure to the T-virus and by extension, prevent her from being able to make the decision to release it, thus protecting the company’s creations and illegal activities. In addition, the zombies in Resident Evil serves as a metaphor, a representation of the unquestioning masses being hideously transformed by the system of the organizational structure that they belong to (Umbrella Corporation) into mindless entities, showing their total loss of agency in determining what happens to them.
Through institutional analysis, Giddens refers to power structures as having the capacity to pursue strategic conduct, where they learn to understand rules and resources as “chronically reproduced features of social systems” (Giddens, 1979, p.80) Individuals are thus meant to naturally recognize these power structures as dominating and overwhelming entities, wielding authority to mobilize resources and design rules and regulations to ensure compliance and acquiescence of individuals. Therefore, organizations and institutions are seen as overbearing, inflexible structures that oppress individuals, forcing them to surrender their agency in the apocalypse or risk losing their affiliations and ties to the organizations that they belong to.
Tension between losing agency, and the almost-success of recapturing it
However, in certain instances, individuals may not be fully enslaved and restricted by the demands of power structures and authority in society. Characters shuttle between moments of possessing human agency and then losing it again, resulting in great tension between individuals who are enslaved by power structures and their almost-success of trying to break out of the clutches of these totalitarian organizations, before being ultimately contained again in apocalyptic films. A shift throughout Resident Evil shows the weakening, declining influence of Umbrella Corporation in its ability to control its members and staff, and force them to adhere to the organization. Hence, Umbrella Corporation is relegated from a dominant position of power to a subordinate position in relation to the characters in the film, who work for the organization. Alice finding the cure for the T-Virus represents a shift in the power dynamics in the film, where she is promoted to a position of power, as symbolized by how she is given the power to crush Umbrella Corporation and expose its unlawful activities, thereby destroying its operations. Alice is also given the autonomy to decide how she should use the antivirus that she has just obtained, showing how she begins to regain her agency and decision-making abilities. Hence, the firm is relegated to a position of subordination, where its operations are at her mercy.
However, the scene of Alice and Matt eventually being forcefully separated by Umbrella Corporation shows that they have ultimately been captured and contained by the system. Hence, Alice’s earlier almost-success at regaining her agency ultimately falters and subsides into failure, generating tension between almost-success and failure in the film. In addition, their struggle to reunite represents their near-loss of agency, as they are on the verge being subsumed by larger structures and systems, which is juxtaposed against the complete loss of agency of the zombies, to show the varying degrees of the loss of human agency in the film’s narrative.
In conclusion, individuals are dominated and oppressed by power structures in society in the face of the apocalypse, causing them to be enslaved and subordinated. While they experience moments where they have a taste of freedom and regain their agency, these instances are ultimately temporary and short-lived, before they fall back into the overbearing clutches of the power structures and organizations they are aligned to, generating great tension and frustration between losing human agency and the almost-success of regaining it. Hence, this highlights that ultimately, power structures are dominating entities in society that individuals cannot escape from no matter how hard they try.
Anthony Giddens, “Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis” (1979)
Danny Boyle (Director), Alex Garland (Writer). (2002). 28 Days Later [DNA Films, UK Film Council]. United Kingdom: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Paul W.S. Anderson (Producer). (2002). Resident Evil (Apocalypse) [Sony Entertainment]. Germany: Constantin Film