It's hardly news that life has got a lot worse for a lot of people since the financial crisis hit. Inequality is on the rise, and with it alienation from the worlds of business and politics, which carry on as if nothing has really changed. Many of us brood on the abyss – the sense that, in some large, inchoate way, we are nearing the end of life as we know it. Yet no cohesive vision of an alternative has emerged. We seem to be stuck.
The movies have not been slow to tap into this widespread sense of anxiety and even despair. Our screens have been filled with images of urban collapse and apocalyptic destruction, dystopian wastelands and zombie hordes. But, like Washington and Westminster, Hollywood has been better at scaring us with the threat of calamity than inspiring hope for the new.
Finally, however, the studio system has delivered a vision of a radical paradigm shift, a way out of the impasse. I'm talking, of course, about The Lego Movie – a 3D computer-animated family adventure based on a corporate toy range that turns out to be Hollywood's answer to the Occupy movement.
The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet, a conspicuously average member of the ultra-peppy Lego society: yellow head, curved hands, job in construction (what else?) and super-positive attitude. Everything is awesome until he is anointed by an underground resistance movement as the "Special" – the one person who can save the world from the secret scheming of its nefarious leader.
The film's exuberant, kid-friendly larks – Wild West! Robot pirates! Unicorn kittens! Batman! – are laced with satirical digs at surveillance culture, built-in obsolescence and police brutality, as well as inane positive thinking. Its opening sequences show a world in which a pliant, consumerist populace, mollified by overpriced coffee and dumb TV shows, is exploited by cynical leadership; political and corporate power are conflated in the villainous figure of "President Business" (Will Ferrell).
Most fascinating is President Business's masterplan and our heroes' response to it: he hopes to make the status quo a permanent reality by literally gluing everyone in place. A society doesn't get more stuck than that. Emmet, meanwhile, must learn to stop slavishly following "the instructions", improvise and think the unthinkable. The way forward is found in the hybrid, the mutant, the absurd – the different.
In other words, the crux of the drama is not whether the world will be saved or destroyed. It's whether "Do not touch" will triumph over "You can still change everything". It's that small shift – from staking everything on the preservation of the familiar to embracing the unknown – that makes The Lego Movie remarkable.
And this is where the comparison with Occupy comes in. The value of that movement wasn't in its ability to present a viable alternative model for the organisation of society. Clearly, it hasn't done that. Its value was in its insistence that it's worth exploring the options.
The Lego Movie does something similar. I'm not proposing it as a work of leftist agitprop – it remains, after all, a giant billboard for a multinational company – or suggesting it offers a viable blueprint for post-neoliberal civics. But, like Occupy, it asserts that it's OK – exciting, even – to consider how society could be structured differently. It invites us to imagine other worlds.
It's not really surprising, then, that the Hollywood logjam of spectacles of despair should be broken by a kids' movie. The Lego movie is a celebration of the untrammeled imagination, the urge to have fun jumbling ideas together and finding meaning in the mess, however unconventional. It's a quintessentially childlike sensibility, and one we could all use a bit more of.
"I know things seem bad right now but there is a way out of it," the movie insists. The fact that a sequel is already in the works suggests that Emmet and his pals will now be faced with a challenge far more formidable than ending the world: making a new one.
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