The sky is falling How vampires, zombies, androids, and superheroes made America great for extremism

Peter Biskind

Book - 2018

Argues that popular culture laid the groundwork for the extremist politics that currently dominate the United States.

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  • Beyond the fringe: an introduction
  • Part I: Winter has come. Apocalypse now
  • Bleeding hearts
  • Doing the right thing
  • Part II: Who'll stop the rain? Gone fishin'
  • Coming apart
  • Draining the swamp
  • Part III: Breaking bad. The silence of the lambs
  • Beauty in the beast
  • License to kill
  • Part IV: Heaven can't wait. What a piece of work was man
  • Anywhere but here
  • No exit
  • Conclusion: The return of the center.
Review by New York Times Review

IT'S too soon for this book is the problem. Peter Biskind has previously explored pop culture and film history in fizzy, captivating works, including "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and "Down and Dirty Pictures." But those were written from hindsight - the eras he dissected had formed, plateaued and ebbed. Biskind illuminated facets of those eras that until his books came along had remained outside the light source of accepted opinion. He excelled at this task, peppering film analysis with gossip, empathy and playfulness. With "The Sky Is Falling," Biskind attempts the same feat. Except here he's trying to illuminate a multifaceted jewel that's still spinning in the air, nowhere near its apogee. America's current crisis of fracture and extremism can't be clearly explored through the lens of pop culture - especially if that lens is focused even more narrowly on superhero, fantasy, science fiction and apocalyptic horror. The range of vision is too myopic for the task. We're in the middle of an upheaval. The paranoid, extremist politics that Biskind wants to trace back to franchise and comic-book properties are far too chaotic and changeable to withstand his schematic dot-connecting. As I write this, in August 2018, our president may have just tweeted an admission to campaign collusion with Russia. The howling conspiracy-gibbon Alex Jones has had his presence wiped from YouUibe, Spotify, Facebook and Apple. By the time you read this, who knows what weirdness will have snapped loose and gone capering through the news cycle. Biskind's book is as shaky as a set of surveyor's tools in the middle of a hurricane. It's too soon. Right there, on Page 5 of the introduction, is a statement that will determine whether you'll agree to take the tour he's mapped out or scoff and pass on the journey: "As an agent of change, culture has often been treated shabbily, as no more than a secondary or even tertiary factor." Now, I happen to think that culture isn't getting a shabby treatment when it's seen in this light. Pop culture, in my opinion, has always been held in correct regard - as a reflection, not a catalyst, of larger social forces. If you also think of culture - and, more to the point of this book, pop culture - in the same way, then you're probably thinking "Pass." For those who agree to take it, the journey in "The Sky Is Falling" isn't as propulsive or as fun as in Biskind's other books. We're given 12 chapters divided into four sections. Each section describes iconic pop culture "shows" - Biskind's umbrella phrase for films and TV series - as expressions of a particular political worldview. After a while it feels like being led through plodding, 4/4 time dance steps. Here are analyses of the apocalypse and its aftermath through readings of "Avatar" and "The Walking Dead," of Batman and Captain America, as they reinforce centrist, liberal or conservative worldviews. Biskind, despite his journalistic élan, is not as sure-footed a guide through 21stcentury nerd culture as he was through the fascinating minefield of cocaine, conflict and creativity in "Easy Riders." It's alarming how many things he flat-out whiffs in these pages - and not just textual misreadings (of the failed "social experiment" at the end of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," for example, and of a crucial speech by the district attorney Harvey "Two-Face" Dent in the same film). There are glaring, misremembered details of scenes and plots, which force the reader to go back or, worse, muddle Biskind's larger argument. He mixes up dialogue from the first two "Terminator" films (the phrase "Hasta la vista, baby" is never uttered in the first). He gets the so-familiar-it'sreached-meme-level ending of the original "Planet of the Apes" film wrong (Charlton Heston does not dig in the sand to discover the spikes on the crown of the Statue of Liberty). On Page 32, he cites a "crop" of highprofile biblical epics that "flopped" - and then names only two ("Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings"). But 25 pages later he contradicts himself on the feebleness of Bible-centric box office when he details the blockbuster ratings - 100 million viewers - of the TV mini-series "The Bible," not to mention other highly successful faithbased works like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and the small-budget "God's Not Dead" and "War Room," to which he devotes a few paragraphs. He credits Christopher Nolan with "rebranding" Batman as the "Dark Knight," which in fact Bill Finger did in 1940. As a country and a culture, we aren't on the "other side" of the extremist upheaval we're seeing now. To bring flowers before the funeral's even started feels pointless. Or, as Biskind quotes Claire Danes, speaking about her series "Homeland": "It's hard for our show to compete with the screeching absurdity of what's happening." Biskind dares to compete with it, but loses. I'd love to see a man of his insights return for a rematch in, say, 10 years. Things should have calmed down by then. PATTON OSWALT is an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning writer and comedian.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 14, 2019]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) breathlessly excavates the last two decades of popular culture, hunting for clues about the rise of political extremism in America. According to the author, since 2000, "extremist shows" (Biskind's blanket term for both movies and television) have exploded in popularity, moving from the left- and right-wing fringes to the mainstream with their unabashed "Us vs. Them" themes. Biskind chronicles the exploits of revenge heroes and individualists such as 24's Jack Bauer, Batman, and Deadpool, who take justice into their own hands when institutions either fail or become corrupt. He then illustrates how movies such as The Blind Side (in which Sandra Bullock "plays a wealthy, obnoxious white evangelical") and the Left Behind book series have paralleled the infiltration of the government by religious fundamentalists, as, he argues, is evidenced by Vice President Pence's outspoken beliefs. He also threads in recurring commentary on James Cameron's Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, and writes that it "dramatically underlined the breakdown of postwar consensus.". It's an ambitious book, one that at times feels too caught up in explaining how shows qualify as "extreme" at the expense of making more robust analogies to today's political climate. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Kirkus Book Review

A movie is more than just a movie in this exploration of the symbiotic shifts of politics and popular culture.In a country that once prized pluralism and consensus, the center will no longer hold, as superheroes, zombies, and apocalyptic action flicks have pushed popular culture both toward the far left (Avatar) and the far right (Clint Eastwood). "Eastwood begat Reagan and Rambo, who came and went," writes Vanity Fair contributing editor Biskind (My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, 2013, etc.), "but the culture continued its rightward drift, arriving at Steve Bannon, who famously said, Darkness is good.' " The author shows how the standard tropes of popular narrativethe good guys vanquishing the bad guys who spread crime and chaoshave been subverted by both the left and the right. Biskind's analysis tends to reduce popular culture into ideological tracts, regardless of entertainment value, and to become mired in plot summaries. However, he convincingly demonstrates how movies and TV have softenedor hardenedaudiences toward an embrace of the extreme, past the point where reason, pragmatism, and conventional morality hold sway. Emphasizing attitudes on authority and on aliens, monsters, or anything that poses a threat to humanity by being different, the author maintains that today's blockbusters "have normalized the extremes so they have become the new mainstream.Reason and science are on the defensive, while behavior that was once beyond the palehas become the new norm as the public good is replaced by self-interest." Though the popular shifts help account for the rise of Donald Trump, Biskind shows how both parties invoked the apocalypse to appeal to voters inflamed by the endgame scenarios of popular culture. "No longer," he writes, "are we fighting for our way of life, or, as Superman put it, for truth, justice and the American way.' Now the stakes are considerably higher. We are fighting for life itself."Incisive analysis about "the power of culture to inflame our emotions" and render reasonable debate inert. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.