|Bugs, Robots, and the Childhood Promise of Tomorrow|
May 1, 2022 / Aaron Boehmer
Kids’ movies show us that a life without capitalism is possible.
Children wipe their chalk-covered hands on their scraped-up knees. The swing set cries for oil. Parents watch their kids on a blanket nearby as Goldfish crackers go stale in their wicker basket. It’s nice outside. It smells like fresh grass. The children run to the big yellow slide, kicking woodchips up to the clouds as they go.
We observe them as we watch A Bug’s Life on a projector in the park. It’s autumn, or maybe it’s spring. No matter the season, nostalgia ripens the air. As we bear witness, we imagine a new world, one that will be vibrant and filled with the bliss of a colorful playground.
If it’s winter and too cold to be outside, we take our projector indoors. We watch Robots on the couch instead. Like a kid in a candy store, we throw M&M’s, pretzels, and loads of butter into our popcorn. Licking our fingers clean, we fantasize about tomorrow.
How sweet does this sound? It’s a shame that that sweetness is not reality. Oh, but it could be!
A Bug’s Life and Robots are two of my favorite kids’ movies. Not because they are sweet. Quite the opposite, actually. What they could lead to is sweet: a promising tomorrow.
A Bug’s Life is about an ant named Flik. He’s an inventor, but always messes things up for his “Ant Island” colony. Every summer, the ants are forced to give a portion of the food they collect to a group of grasshoppers.
With his latest invention, Flik ruins the food supply set aside for the grasshoppers. Because of this, Hopper (the grasshopper overlord) threatens to annihilate the ants unless they collect twice the amount of food (so rude). Exiled by his colony, Flik goes on a mission to take down the grasshoppers and save his community (OMG, yay, go Flik).
Robots is set in a world of sentient androids. The main character, Rodney Copperbottom, hopes to work for his idol, Bigweld, one day. Bigweld is known as the head of Bigweld Industries, a company that makes spare parts for the robots of “Robot City” (a city for robots, I presume).
But Bigweld was recently ousted from his own company by Phineas T. Ratchet, a Jeff Bezos-ian scoundrel who plans to force all robots to pay for expensive upgrades and outmodes anyone that doesn’t have the means to cover the cost (like, not cool). With the help of friends he meets along the way, Rodney makes plans to defeat Ratchet (OMG, yay, go Rodney, too).
Aside from the obvious creative genius of naming a movie about a bug’s life, A Bug’s Life, and a movie about robots, Robots, there are concepts within both of these films that shouldn’t be ignored.
Past the colorful animation, they aren’t happy-go-lucky fairy tales. They are Gothic (yes, with a big “G”), displaying the gory and vicious underbelly of societies built on exploitation and money.
When I hear the ring of Gothic bells, names like Franz Kafka and Mary Shelley come to mind. I invite you to see how Metamorphosis and its dark limbs wrap A Bug’s Life in a playful embrace. Let me show you how Robots dances under a Romantic moon named Frankenstein.
My dearest comrades, let us recognize that in these childhood tales, and in our own world, capital is the horseman of the bourgeoisie. Its brutish steed stomps the proletariat into a nasty vat of oil: poverty.
Rest assured, the fate of the bourgeois grasshoppers and robots is no different than that of Victor Frankenstein himself. Capitalism, in all its hubris, incubates the very means to its own destruction.
STUPID & SPINELESS
In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa woke up one day to find himself transformed into a human-sized bug. It was a physical manifestation of what he had always felt. Gregor was his boss’s pitiful creature. He was stupid and spineless.
As a literal ant, Flik was similar to Gregor ––– anatomically and metaphorically. Flik had dreamed of innovation and creativity. He wanted to come up with new ways to harvest food, but socio-economic pressure crushed the great wonders of his imagination. He was a Kafkaesque creature.
Every summer, Flik and his community were forced to give food to the grasshoppers, which meant the ants had no time or resources to change their ways. They were like robots, programmed for production and blocked from expressing themselves.
The food that the ants produced wasn’t theirs, nor the labor they put into it. It was the property of the bourgeoisie.
Oh, how Gregor’s boss and the animated grasshoppers oinked like the capitalist pigs of our world!
Labor and industry isolate real-life workers from their human nature, making them feel foreign to the very products they create (Karl Marx’s theory of alienation). Capitalism conditions workers to feel like bugs (ants to be exact).
But something about ants is that when there’s one, there’s an army.
A Bug’s Life explained the importance of working-class mobilization in a single scene. Hopper, the grasshopper dictator, espoused to his minions that forcing ants to harvest their food was never about the food, but about control.
Inadvertently, the grasshopper revealed the great power of the working class.
So long as the ants were kept in line, the grasshoppers could sit in their penthouses and drink champagne (or whatever bourgeois insects do). But if the grasshoppers let just one ant stand up against them, then they all might rise. They’d outnumber the grasshoppers 100 to one.
Bosses and capitalists see workers as bugs ––– smashable, spineless, and stupid. But that very spinelessness and stupidity is a guise for greater proletariat power. Because the truth is, puny ants are only puny when they are left unaware of their abilities and their strength in numbers.
By the movie’s end, the ants became conscious of their strength, seized the means of production, toppled the reign of dictator Hopper, and reclaimed their sovereignty.
A Bug’s Life teaches us to be like the worker ants, not in the sense of adhering to capitalism, but to emulate their prowess to glitch and malfunction in their protocols. Like the ants, we should all have the nerve to challenge the wretched machine that plays God.
Victor Frankenstein thought he was God—if God was a rabid wolf cloaked in the mangled wool of a sheep.
Victor had the largest of egos, so grand and drenched in arrogance that Elon Musk begins to look humble. Not really, no one could make Elon Musk look humble.
Self-centeredness and a hunger for power, power, and more power ran the gears in Victor’s mind. Hopper was just like Victor, as was Phineas T. Ratchet in Robots.
In Frankenstein, Victor dug up dead bodies. He snatched people’s hands, limbs, feet, and faces, piecing them together to manufacture his wet dream: a creation that he could control and would pray to him.
What an accursed creator!
In Robots, Ratchet took control of Bigweld Industries and used the corporation to dismember working-class bodies. He exploited their parts to produce upgrades for the rich. Like Victor, he looked to create idealized beings born from corpses, all for his own glory.
Fear not, though! We know that, like how the Monster destroyed Victor, the working-class robots ––– led by a charismatic Rodney Copperbottom ––– tore down Ratchet’s manipulative conquest.
Similar to the ending of A Bug’s Life, Robots left us with scenes of celebration. Rodney and his band of comrades took control of Ratchet’s regime and made spare parts free to all. (OMG, yay, communism!)
The movie shows us that workers deserve to control the means of production, for they don’t bathe in Victor’s putrid stench. They don’t foam at the mouth for material gain like a wild dog.
When the working class seizes power, a fresh foundation is poured. Once the cement settles and solidifies, the strong bones of a new society are built: one where every robot has access to new parts and no bug is above another.
A NOSTALGIC FUTURE
As the credits roll, we finish our popcorn. When we take out the DVD, we see that the fictional worlds of human-like bugs and sentient robots aren’t all that different from our own.
A Bug’s Life and Robots show us that we can imagine a world that isn’t hinged together by capital. We can think up a new way of doing things that doesn’t call us spineless and stupid for wanting better and doesn’t allow for accursed creators.
We can begin a new life without capitalism and its many pollutants. In this era, the air will be fresh. It will smell like autumn or spring. And we will stop fantasizing about tomorrow because tomorrow will be today. Oh, and how sweet it would be! ■
by: Aaron Boehmer
layout: Melanie Huynh
photographer: Anastasia McCants
stylist: Saturn Tejada & Ella Claret
hmua: Jordan Busarello, Zimei Chen
models: Angel Quinn, Chantha Le, Maliabo Diamba
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.