By Nick Schager
Serial killers are scary. So are mutant monsters. But in the collective American imagination, the terror they elicit is often no greater than that generated by malevolent corporate behemoths. Wielding stealthy political clout, recklessly tampering with genetics and technology, and casting morality aside in favor of profit, they’re the avaricious power structures that loom large over our public and private lives, covertly pulling strings from their ivory towers while commissioning dirty deeds to be furtively carried out in the shadows of the night. Fueling our Big Brother fears, corporations are usually portrayed as villainous, and have most vigorously thrived in science fiction, where contemporary anxieties about nefarious boardroom conduct can be largely, fancifully projected. Consequently, it’s not surprising that our list of the ten best fictional cinematic businesses turns out to be heavily skewed in that futuristic genre’s favor, with the lone truly upstanding company to make the cut coming courtesy of this summer’s marquee superhero, Batman.
“Blade Runner” (1982)
Putting the robotics achievements of “Short Circuit” and “Bicentennial Man” to shame, “Blade Runner”‘s Tyrell Corporation is a 2019 biocompany that manufactures replicants, a series of androids so lifelike that they’re only distinguishable from actual people by the retina-scrutinizing “Voight-Kampff Scale.” Sporting a monumental pyramid headquarters that reflects its titanic cradle-of-civilization aspirations, Tyrell aims to fundamentally reconfigure the societal order, its worker replicants designed to free mankind from distasteful, hazardous menial labor, and its sultry pleasure models intended to service it sexually. As far as God complexes go, Tyrell’s aim to splinter civilization into authentic and artificial castes is nothing shy of audacious. And, as is often the case with such endeavors, it’s also one fated for catastrophe, which ultimately comes via four Nexus-6 almost-humans who — through the development of a conscience, the ability to dream and, accordingly, a desire for an existence longer than their preprogrammed four-year lifespans — prove to be soulful machines which ably live up to Tyrell’s slogan: “More human than human.”
Springfield Nuclear Power Plant
“The Simpsons Movie” (2007)
Although generously allowing Homer to keep his job despite workplace naps, ceaseless donut consumption and the occasional threat of a meltdown, Springfield Nuclear Power Plant remains the veritable epitome of a morally bankrupt monopoly. The primary employer of Springfield, Montgomery Burns’ energy factory is as mismanaged as possible, boasting the type of horrid safety record that would make a supercriminal jealous. Its closets full of genuine skeletons and its infrastructure rife with leaks, the plant is a mass producer of pollution — most famously exemplified by “Blinky” the three-eyed fish of the TV episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish — which is why it’s ironic that in “The Simpsons Movie,” it’s the actions of Homer and not Mr. Burns’ Chernobyl-in-waiting enterprise that threatens to destroy the environment. Nonetheless, the specter of doom generated by Springfield Nuclear Power and its founder/CEO’s heartless conduct spreads far and wide, a deliciously evil testament to the destructive, immoral impact a business can have on its community. In a word: Eeeeexcellent.
International Genetic Technologies (InGen)
“Jurassic Park” (1993)
Is tampering with nature okay if it’s for the kids? “Jurassic Park”‘s InGen certainly believes so, or it wouldn’t have spent so much time, effort and cash on recreating living, breathing, rampaging dinosaurs for its island theme park. True, Richard Attenborough’s billionaire kook John Hammond seems a tad naÃ¯ve in thinking that resurrecting prehistoric creatures for entertainment purposes might be a safe endeavor, or, for that matter, a morally acceptable one. But really, can you blame a genius for recognizing that — with cable TV, videogames and the forthcoming Internet competing for the population’s attention — only something as outlandishly imprudent as ravenous T-Rexes and velociraptors might truly grab the public’s imagination? Admittedly, circumstances at InGen’s maiden Jurassic Park wound up slightly out of control, what with the insufficient safeguards in place to keep the beasts separated from the zoo-like attraction’s patrons. And yes, InGen’s mucking about with biogenetics does once again prove the foolishness, and wrongness, of trying to play God. But when it comes to satisfying our insatiable craving for leisure time diversions, is a lawyer being eaten on a toilet really that high a cost?
“Soylent Green” (1973)
The conglomerate that provided Charlton Heston with one of his most famous anguished cries (later parodied to perfection by “Saturday Night Live”‘s Phil Hartman), Soylent Corporation is the answer to 2022’s global overpopulation, widespread pollution and correlated food shortages. Sure, no one initially knows what Soylent’s food rations — which come in easy-to-identify colored variations like the new Soylent Green — are actually made out of, but when it costs an arm and a leg to procure a taste of rare meat or produce, who cares? Heston’s New York City detective, that’s who, once a murder investigation leads to a bombshell about the ingredients of Soylent’s functional provisions. Tapping into the same 1970s vein of corporate paranoia that would be further stoked by the following year’s contemporary-set “The Parallax View,” “Soylent Green” stands as a dystopian thriller as well as an early pro-green parable, albeit one in which the Soylent Corporation, despite its murderous tactics and cannibalistic business practices, comes off as relatively sympathetic — unless, of course, you’d rather have really, really hungry futurians eating dogs and cats.
The Parallax Corporation
“The Parallax View” (1974)
Milking the widespread distrust that had been fostered by the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the Pentagon Papers’ revelations about our country’s entry into Vietnam, Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” posits corporate skullduggery as the guiding force in American politics and society. The film charts Warren Beatty’s dissolute reporter as he looks into the murder of a presidential candidate, an inquiry that quickly leads him to the titular fascistic institution, which is recruiting sociopathic individuals to carry out targeted assassinations. “As American as Apple Pie,” reads the poster’s tagline, thereby making explicit the film’s viewpoint that corporations’ clandestine misconduct is simply business as usual. Unlike in many of its predecessors — including its most deliberate reference-point, the similarly mistrustful “The Manchurian Candidate” — such pessimism isn’t delivered through the distancing filter of science fiction fantasy, but injected directly into modern reality, with its brutally bleak, cynical view of industry, the government and social institutions combining to make it the quintessential post-Watergate thriller.
Omni Consumer Products (OCP)
A futuristic projection of ’80s capitalism distorted to ruthless extremes, “RoboCop”‘s Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is a monstrous multinational with ties to both commercial and military interests that launches the crime-fighting RoboCop venture. It’s a project that soon proves ironic, as the soulful cyborg Frankenstein they manufacture (from the spare parts of Peter Weller’s gunned-down officer) eventually finds himself pitted against his maker, an outfit whose hideousness is epitomized by its two power players: Ronny Cox’s amoral, take-no-prisoners exec and Miguel Ferrer’s cocky, coke-and-whores-loving hotshot. Funding criminal organizations with one hand and the police force on the other, and with a sizeable stake in military hardware development, OCP — despite the murderous glitches of its law enforcement ‘bot ED-209 — is the de facto ruler of future Detroit. What separates OCP from its ’60s and ’70s forbearers, however, is that its desire for absolute power is sought not simply via covert machinations but via Gordon Gecko-ish monopolistic economic tactics, as the corporation’s end goal is domination via the creation of a totally free market in which all public services are privatized and, thus, available for purchase.
Buy n’ Large
From consumer goods to space exploration, “WALLâ€¢E”‘s Buy n’ Large has the Earth covered — literally, in fact, as the deserted planet’s landscape is littered with billboard advertisements for its latest fast food items, as well as overrun by the unrecycled garbage created by its myriad products. A corporation so vast that, at its peak, it was the U.S. government, Buy n’ Large spearheads the human population’s exodus to the cosmos, coddling mankind to the point that, aboard starliners like the Axiom, people have mutated into mindless, obese sloths. A big-box retailer with untold financial clout and cultural influence, Buy n’ Large is a Wal-Mart opponent’s worst nightmare come to dreadful life, a juggernaut so consumed by unchecked profiteering that all other macro concerns — ecological, social, economic — become mere pesky hurdles to further revenue generation. Even more than its disregard for the global environment, however, what makes “WALLâ€¢E”‘s Big Brother so ominous is, ultimately, its wholesale success at appealing to mankind’s basest instincts (gluttony, indolence, greed) until those instincts become the accepted, devolutionary norm.
“The Terminator” (1984)
Cyberdyne began humbly, as just another one of California’s many manufacturing plants. It received the keys to the future, however, after a nearly indestructible, highly lethal cyborg was crushed in one of its hydraulic presses, providing the business with advanced computer chips that it used to manufacture sophisticated weapons technologies and, ultimately, the Skynet supercomputer system. In the “Terminator” franchise timeline, Skynet becomes sentient (on the sequel’s titular “Judgment Day”) and, in order to protect itself from being shut down, sparks global war, thus initiating a vicious, time travel-complicated battle between man and machines. Those machines include the original Schwarzenegger T-800 model, the even cooler Robert Patrick liquid metal T-1000 and the hotter but far less intimidating Kristanna Loken T-X, artificial creations that stand near the top of the cinematic evil-robot (and, in Schwarzenegger’s case, also the heroic-robot) heap, and which help make Cyberdyne — responsible for a worldwide holocaust and a protracted global conflict — one of the medium’s most shameful corporations.
Only briefly referenced in Ridley Scott’s original, Weyland-Yutani rose to notorious prominence in James Cameron’s first sequel, proving to be the corporate impetus for the intergalactic colonization program that brings mankind into contact with the acid-for-blood alien race. The figurative face of the devious business comes in the form of Paul Reiser’s sniveling lawyer Carter J. Burke, who in “Aliens” turns out to be perfectly comfortable sacrificing his honest, upright earthling compatriots to the vicious extraterrestrials, so long as doing so will help him obtain a space creature (preferably smuggled back home in one of the crew members’ bodies) that the company can then use for experimental military purposes. Burke’s ruthless, amoral devotion to profit at any cost — hidden, just barely, behind an easygoing “Hey, I’m one of you” faÃ§ade — epitomizes the firm that employs him. Its East-West name implying a global brand of avarice, Weyland-Yutani is big business as a rapacious, unscrupulous force content to accept human collateral damage in the interest of the bottom line.
“Batman Begins” (2005)
The multinational founded by Bruce Wayne’s ancestors, Wayne Enterprises (at times also known as WayneCorp) is the corporation that provides the erstwhile Batman with the billions necessary to fund both his daytime playboy lifestyle and nocturnal crimefighting escapades. Never defined as more than a boardroom front for his do-gooding in the original Tim Burton-initiated cinematic series, Wayne Enterprises assumed a more prominent role in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 “reboot,” which depicted it as the means by which Wayne’s father — through a Wayne Foundation municipal works initiative that constructed an elevated subway line throughout metropolitan Gotham — sought to revitalize the crumbling city. That the company’s Technologies division provides Bruce with advanced gadgets, gizmos and vehicles to combat villainy as the Caped Crusader makes it an indispensible agent of good. But more importantly, as an entity dedicated to curing social ills via economic and political channels, the firm proves to be not merely a subsidizer of Batman’s heroism, but also an out-in-the-open public extension of his vigilante altruism.
[Photos: “Blade Runner,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982; “The Simpsons Movie,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2007; “Jurassic Park,” Universal Pictures, 1993; “Soylent Green,” MGM, 1973; “The Parallax View,” Paramount Pictures, 1974; “RoboCop,” Orion Pictures Corporation, 1987; “WALLâ€¢E,” Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008; “The Terminator,” Orion Pictures Corporation, 1984; “Alien,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1979; “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005]