Mixed Messages: Meta-Travelling to a Time of Environmental Unconsciousness with Lightyear

This is not a proper movie review. Full disclosure: I am an absolute Toy Story Fan (all of them!) and I knew I’d love the new part of the franchise, the minute I saw the trailer. It came out this week and I took my daughter to watch it, determined to have a good time with a movie that I waited 27 years for. (My daughter is six years old, so maybe a tiny bit too young for an action packed Space-Flick, but she loved it too.) So, I am the worst person to criticize anything Buzz-ian, but I am definitely going to spoil the movie for you with the following, so if you (like me) have a soft spot for Pixar and Buzz, go see it and come back later to read this.

Lightyear lets you know right away that it is far removed from our present. Not because it is a movie about the future or the past or in a far-away universe (it’s kind of all that, too), but because it is a hyper-fictional story. The first shot – white text on black screen – goes something like this: “In 1995 a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear action-figure for his birthday. It was a character from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” (miss-quoting from memory here, but you get the gist). So this is more than a prequel. Lightyear is a movie that was originally the implicit precondition for a fictional boy’s action figure in a movie about toys who come alive when said boy is not looking. It was always ok not to have seen the movie, because the fact that there was an action-figure of a space ranger with expandable wings, blinking lights and tons of catch-phrases made it immediately clear why the cowboy doll, Woody, Andy’s first favorite toy, got jealous. Let’s face it, Buzz was MUCH cooler. (This is the nine-year old me speaking who saw Toy Story when it first came out and I am not to be debated on this.) The sequels revealed more about Buzz (there was an adversary, a backstory, all that kind of stuff but it always remained blissfully vague). Lightyear, thus, fills gaps that might not have needed filling. But, you know, there are a gazillion Marvel movies, so leave this one alone. Also, as much as I try to watch this as a movie I did not know I waited 27 years for (yes, I am probably going to repeat this number a lot, because it feels weird) without my media/cultural studies glasses on, I couldn’t and this has a lot to do with the weirdly awesome meta-set up of a movie that tells the story of a movie within a movie that was always only alluded to.

So why would I write about Lightyear on a blog about ecologies? Because it pretends so hard that it’s not about that at all. After all, this is a version of a movie that someone didn’t need to come up with because the pattern of movie-merch is so familiar that making up the merch is enough to tell a story about toys (and movie merch). So the prequel to a story that even in the fiction mostly existed so you can produce toys and Pixar (later Disney Pixar) can make movies that are higly self-referential. Oh boy, my head is already spinning from all the meta-levels and I work with stuff like that all the time…and I am not even getting into all the intricate levels of allusion and movie-references…

Anyway, I think – despite my love for all things Toy Story – this is a premium piece of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher) and in some ways so postmodern, it almost hurts. “Almost” meaning: it lets me know all these things right away, before even the first star-spangled sky-panorama. So what does it say? The movie says, “Hey Solvejg*, let’s watch this, like it’s 1995!” What a great ivitation, I would love to. Let’s play pretend…let’s ignore that there’s a heat wave, all kinds of crises, and that we really both know that we’re both too old to pretend we don’t know that Astronaut-flicks don’t work like that anymore. This movie, however, pretends that this is all possible – a suspension not only of disbelief but of context altogether – for old time’s sake, for the kid(s), not least for the kid in you. 

Or does it pretend? Does Lightyear really avoid signals to the present? It doesn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t be censored in many countries for two women kissing, it wouldn’t continue the diverse casting that Star Wars and many other franchises finally (!) implemented. But while it successfully stars a cast in which the white, male hero (with the voice of Captain America’s Chris Evans after all) seems so out of place, he has to work together with others (who still seem like a band of misfits) and get over himself. Which is, basically, the story of the 1995 Toy Story movie but with a much wider range of humans. And yet, despite all of this, the movie pretends that this is all easily solved and, this is where I come in, that you can still tell a story about humans colonizing a planet and the biggest problem being that the hero finally needs to learn how to be a team player. 

I am convinced, the movie really knows that this only works on the pact of playing pretend. That is, on the shared nostalgia of Pixar’s team finally doing that movie and me finally getting to watch it. But it seems, neither of us trusts nostalgia. Not even for two hours. Lightyear sends so many mixed messages and the whole thing is so meta that it leaves me wondering whether it wants me to know what it shows and so obviously NOT comments on the fact that it is, in the end, an even bigger comment? Do movies even work like that? Well, I am, as you can tell, confused and I think this confusion says something that is at least noteworthy in the context of (contemporary) ecological story-telling.

This is where the spoilers start. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Captain Buzz Lightyear and his commander, Alisha Hawthorne, go on a detour to a planet on which their board-computer detected life (whatever die-hard fans say about the movie, the AI running gags alone make it worth watching, so many easter eggs…). So they land smoothly, don’t notice that that alone is always a bad sign in a movie and go on exploring (wonderful teachable moment to short-cut your kid to genre-awareness btw, that is if you raise your kid this way ;). An eerie, yet beautiful (i.e. ”alien”) landscape of trees with redd-ish leaves and scarce undergrowth unfolds before them and captivates them enough so they don’t notice that plant-like tentacles begin to snake around their spaceship, which is full of cryo-sleeping scientists and more space rangers. Long story short, plants and insects reminiscent of almost the entirety of outer space horror (to name only a few: I thought of Spaceship Troopers; Alien; The Call of Cthulu and really doubted whether it was such a good idea to take my kid, but she’s much tougher than I am) attack, they need to flee, something goes wrong, they crash on the other side of a mountain ridge and have to make due on this planet until they’re able to restore the hyperspeed-crystal to fuel their spaceship and go home (which, I assume, is planet Earth, but i am pretty sure they never mention it – which, in itself is interesting). In order to do so, they can ‘mine this planet’s resources’ and that’s basically that.

The rest of the movie is about Buzz’ attempts at testing a hyperspeed crystal which literally brings him out of tune with (the) time(s). In a neat take on Einstein’s twin paradox, while Buzz feels he’s only leaving the planet for minutes, he’s actually gone for years. And while everyone has full lives and ages, he is stuck trying to undo a mistake that for him, makes all that happens on T’Kani prime worthless (of course he changes his mind in the course of the movie). 

While for me the first five minutes set off several alarm bells (monster plants; extractivism; trees in a wasteland), none of this is a problem ever again. Plant tentacles and giant bugs are really only a nuisance rather than a problem or – this is almost unthinkable in this context – lifeforms who might have a right to live on their own planet. Nope, you chop them, electrocute or shoot them and all is well enough. There are also no plants in the growing modular make-shift city or any mention of agriculture and although in the course of the movie the trees from the beginning sequence reappear without leaves, this is also not recognized in the movie. Which is strange, because apparently there is food, though apparently artificial (which is what Buzz’ stereotypical ‘astronaut food’ suggests) and different to terrestrial traditions. There is a lengthy discussion about ham sandwiches and whether you should put ham between two slices of bread or vice versa (obviously the latter, you gotta evolve somehow on a new planet) during which I could think of nothing else than where and how they’d get the ingredients without pigs or crops or vegetables? Well, they came from a vending machine. What’s more to ask?

It is this weird and, I suspect, intentional or at least collateral ignorance toward resource-use that puzzles me the most. Maybe because I could under no circumstances verify whether the math behind the time travel makes sense (I am, however, very proud to have recognized the twin paradox and roughly explained it to my daughter). More probably it is because I have trained myself to look for the ecological context of a given movie. And (I hope) it’s not just me. Decades of post-apocalyiptical wasteland and Roland-Emmerich-type disaster films, global warming narratives and debate (I hate calling it “debates”, because what is there to debate!?) and, for me at least, dozens of texts about anthropogenic transformations of global ecosystems do this.

So what about this movie? Is it another instance of denial? I don’t think it is. Maybe it is a type of benevolent escapism, an offer to hit pause for just a couple of others. Rarely have I felt so targeted as an audience. This movie offers two hours of respite in an air-conditioned theatre playing pretend during a literal and figurative heat wave. Yet, there are enough signals pointing to the fact that even for Buzz Lightyear “infinity…and beyond” isn’t easy to achieve anymore. Giving up on the crystal that could turn everything around and make it un-happen in favor of the people and the planet who are there, who have “a full life” in spite of everything is a message that goes beyond the simple “you got a friend in me” of the original movies. Maybe, just maybe, I wish Andy (and me) had seen this movie with its disturbing lack of answers to environmental crises, when we were ten years old. I stopped believing that one movie might have or will change anything. Still, that even the movie that gives itself a perfectly plausible excuse to not talk about the way we (humans with lots of training and technology) treat ‘our’ planet, cannot seem to look past the wreckage, is strangely hopeful in its pessimism. There might not be a way to turn everything around, but there’s life in the ruins.

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