Monday, June 29, 2009

Peak Oil? You Wish! - When Hydrocarbons Attack

Unless you are an especially dedicated hobo, hippie, or hermit, you used a petroleum product today. It fuels cars, powers homes, and makes for some dandy plastic trinkets. The cold hard truth is that our civilization cannot survive without oil. If it all vaporized tomorrow, everything we have come to know, love, and take for granted would be completely proper fucked. That's not likely to happen, but unless we start cloning dinosaurs1 and sending them back in time to die in volcanoes, it will inevitably run out some day, resulting in chaos, war, famine, and other apocalyptic nastiness. To make matters worse, by the time any of that becomes the "near future" the environment may have already been ravaged beyond salvation by petroleum's combustive byproducts.

There is a lot of doom, gloom, and nervous hand wringing over the use of oil, as well as much vicious arguing between those who fear what will happen when we run out, those who fear what will happen if we don't run out soon enough, and those who fear what the first two groups will do to prevent their worrisome hypotheses. Not to mention the folks who make their livings either directly from oil, or by reassuring the nervous, motoring public that everything is hunky dory. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is obvious that the developed world is deeply conflicted about fossil fuels.

One thing that fiction of a fantastical nature is excellent at (besides being entertaining and totally awesome) is exploring society's unease and curiosity with various technologies and philosophies that, for one reason or another (primarily because they don't exist... yet), can't be experimented with directly. Cloning is an excellent example; as the technology creeps ever closer to reality, science fiction stories begin popping up in order to explore the murky, ethical depths.2 Considering the numerous issues of massive scale that petroleum raises, as well as its ancient, mysterious nature, it's surprising that there aren't more oil related sci-fi and horror tales. In the world of moving pictures, there are just barely enough to extrapolate a trend. Without further adieu, here they are:

PT Anderson's loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil! is not a horror film, despite the impression created by its sanguinary title and musical score, but it makes an excellent proxy for the much larger genre of "serious" oil films. (Syriana would probably be a better example, but I ain't seen it.) It follows Daniel Day Lewis as an indecorous oil tycoon with a gruff, sing-song, awesomely quotable way of talking. After discovering oil during a near death experience in his silver mine, he develops an insatiable lust for the challenges and rewards of slurping the black stuff out of the ground. As his supply grows, his already surly demeanor deteriorates into whiskey fueled madness, ultimately revealing that even his one selfless act was merely a pretense to further his ruthless professional goals.

The simple core of the film could have revolved around any period boom industry; there is no suggestion that the protagonist would have been a decent guy had he dealt in silver or tulips instead of the black blood of the earth. He's just a greedy dick. The petroleum industry, with its inherent dangers and geographic realities, merely colors the film with combustible unease.

How they stop it: DRAINAGE!!! and something about milkshakes.

Before it was the butt of winking Kevin Smith jokes, this Affleck saturated shit-fest was a novel by Dean Koontz (I don't know if that is a step up or down) in which an entire town is mysteriously wiped clean of all life. Mary Celeste scenes abound as people vanish from locked rooms and running cars without visible signs of struggle. Its up to Affleck, Rose McGowan, and Peter O'Toole (as a famous researcher called to the scene by the monster itself) to figure out what the heck is going on.

It turns out that the town has been attacked by a giant shoggoth like petroleum creature with the ability to create evil duplicates of any creatures it absorbs. (The titular 'phantoms') Among other historical mischief, it may have caused the Roanoke disappearances. Now it is hungry again, and as it absorbs the minds of terrified townsfolk, it develops human personality traits and becomes convinced that it is the devil. Lethal, unkillable, and kind of a jerk, Ben Affleck is the only one who can defeat it.

Shoggoths, the giant living construction blobs created by strange aeons ago by Earth's first masters, and evil oil monsters have a lot in common: they're very old, usually found underground, can mold their amorphous bodies into various usefull shapes, and will painfully dissolve/absorb people on sight. Also, I imagine they smell pretty raunchy.

How they stop it: First they manipulate its douchey new ego to buy themselves some time, then they unleash convenient petroleum eating bacteria on its formless ass equivalent.

One of the rare macguffin-creatures from the venerable X-files that is in anyway memorable, (excluding "monsters of the week" of course) the black oil was a mysterious black... um... oil like substance that hid away for millions of years in non-evil petroleum deposits before eventually escaping to become one of the many confusing puzzle pieces in the show's convoluted "mytharc" episodes.

I never paid enough as a pre-teen to figure out exactly what the hell was going on, but thanks to the nerdy magic of the wiki, I now know it as more than "the black stuff that got into Krycek's eyes and made him do stuff." An extraterrestrial virus known as Purity, the oil predates humans and possibly most other life on Earth. (Which I guess means its not really extraterrestrial.) It mostly keeps to itself, occasionally surfacing to infect cavemen or WWII bomber pilots, and more may have stopped by the planet in the Tunguska blast. Outside of a host it can merely ooze menacingly around, but once it infects a human, not only does the victims eyes get all gross, but it can control their actions and unleash lethal radiation on others.

Apparently it is a key element in the bad aliens' plan to enslave the human race. (I remember something about spreading it with bees in that awfully titled movie) Not only does it control its victims, but it appears to be just one stage in the life cycle of a more complex organism. Some victims, when exposed to intense heat, incubate clawed gray aliens that emerge chestburster style. (How come extraterrestrials have all evolved needlessly complex reproductive processes?)

How they stop it: Vaccines developed by the Soviet Union's equivalent to the evil shadow government.

Loosely3 based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, this installment of the consistently mediocre anthology series Masters of Horror follows ex-Boondock Saint Sean Patrick Flanery as the permanently constipated sheriff of a small town with dark secrets. As a child, his father once unexpectedly proclaimed that the 'damned thing' had found him. Papa then followed up his non-sequiter with a murderous rampage, offing his wife and crippling his son before the unseen 'thing' messily disembowels him.

Years later, the sheriff is living in the same house, constantly walking around like he has just 'taken one dry' (as the saying goes), and swiftly burning through his long suffering wife's last remaining patience. Then everyone in town starts going koo-koo for killing people. It turns out that their is a pool of malevolent oil underneath the region that is not only responsible for the hero's traumatic backstory, but also once wiped out an entire town that made the mistake of constructing an oil well. It appears to function like an extra mean version of the slime river in Ghostbusters 2.

People drift in and out of kill craziness, Ted Raimi shows up as a priest/red-shirt/psycho, and the sheriff manages to avoid killing his family long enough for them to flee town. He then proclaims that the oil wants him to 'dig it up' right before a whole mess of it bursts from the ground and swallows him. (I guess it changed its mind.)

How they stop it: Run away! What is it going to do, pump itself out of the ground, seal itself in barrels, then roll the barrels down hills to chase and crush people? (Actually that sounds kind of awesome.) Driving far away seems to do the trick, but in an ironic twist of fate, the survivors' car runs out of gasoline, allowing the evil oil to catch up with them.

The most overtly political of the angry petroleum micro-genre, Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter is a surprisingly decent Arctic survival thriller that oozes with apocalyptic dread and Lovcraftian "whoopsy I dug up an ancient and certain doom" moments. It derives plenty of suspense mileage out of the strange acid+base style chemistry between being heavily derivative of John Carpenter's The Thing and attempting subtlety.

Phantasm II's James LeGros and the never not awesome Ron Perlman star as the two sides of the Arctic drilling debate. (The film's major failing is that they never evolve into true meat & bone characters.) Stuck in an isolated outpost, they continually bicker about the best, safest, and most eco-friendly ways to get the drilling equipment across the inhospitable tundra.

Temperatures are up across the wasteland, causing problems with "ice road" construction, and to make matters worse, some unseen force is slowly driving the supporting cast out of their gourds. LeGros suspects sour gas is being released from the (former permafrost) by global warming, Perlman assumes it is a mere case of 'nerves,' and one of the more twitchy redshirts becomes convinced that it's the restless spirits of the ancient creatures constituting the oil beneath them.

Occam's razor be damned: it turns out that giant, pissed off, super caribou ghosts are running amok. The shit hits the fan, people begin dying mysteriously, and our heroes eventually have to get over their mutual animosity for the sake of basic winter survival.

How they stop it: Cap & Trade! -- Actually they don't. By the time anyone realizes that global warming has unleashed an army of ghostly mega caribou, it is already too late.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments if you've seen any other Evil Oil movies.

1. I am aware that fossil fuels mostly come from plant matter and phytoplankton, but as Soundgarden and the senescent Johnny Cash proved, it sounds way cooler to say "burning diesel, burning dinosaur bones" than "burning diesel, burning zooplankton mud."

2. No, this doesn't make The 6th Day an important film; it's just a part of a larger trend.

3. "Loosely" meaning that they have the same title.... and nothing else. How they went from a monster who can't be seen because its color is outside the visible spectrum of light to madness inducing petroleum is beyond me.

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