For too long, anthropology-flavored entertainment has existed in the compound shadow of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. The blunt truth of the matter is that when most people, professionals and lay alike, think of the discipline, their thoughts first turn to the pulpy relic-hunting rollicks of that iconic hero. With nothing against the terrifically entertaining Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, Indiana Jones is, frankly, a terrible ambassador for anthropology, his degree more a passport to exotic locales than integral to his exploits.
In honor of #NationalAnthropologyDay, here are some entertainments that strike at the discipline from different angles, and might even have something interesting to say.
Australian director Peter Weir is probably best known for his surreal takes on quotidian existence like The Truman Show and midnight-movie mainstay Picnic at Hanging Rock. He followed up the latter classic with psychological thriller The Last Wave (1977), one of the best films that actually brushes up against ethical and philosophical concerns in the practice of cultural anthropology. Centering on a public defender tasked with representing a group of Aboriginal men accused of murdering a compatriot, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself increasingly fascinated with the mythology of the tribe to which his clients belong. He devises a strategy to cite the victim’s purported powerful belief in magic, and thereby fear of a recent curse, as the clandestine true cause of death, thus exonerating his kinsmen. As he delves deeper into the case, strange events begin to infest his life, and a greater apocalyptic secret is revealed.
David Burton is not an anthropologist; indeed, there is only a brief, one-scene appearance of an anthropologist in this film. Nevertheless, as he plots his defense and is drawn ever deeper into the supernatural mystery underlying the case, Chamberlain’s Burton comes to exemplify many of the perennial issues that fascinate the discipline. For all his reflexive advocacy on behalf of his clients, his attempts to really understand what went through their minds the night of the murder, how much does David Burton believe the argument underpinning his “ritual” defense? Is he, in the paraphrased words of an interlocutor, just another wealthy, guilty liberal, flailing for a symbolic act of cross-cultural understanding while secretly pitying the primitives? Furthermore, as the story’s supernatural elements begin to unfold, David’s White Savior complex becomes even more literal. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say you’ll find plenty of interesting to chew on while watching this one.
In so many ways, Ken Russell’s 1980 body-horror thriller represents the quintessential anthropological fantasy. Adopted from a novel by legendary television writer Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States scoops out every corner of the disciplinary pop-memory by way of mid-20th century counterculture, weaving together new-age psychedelia, human evolution, and hair-brained academic inquiry with a mad-scientist panache that honors science fiction’s speculative roots.
While researching abnormal psychology, brilliant-but-troubled physiologist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) commandeers a disused isolation tank in his institution’s basement to conduct experiments with an obscure hallucinogen sourced from rural Mexico. An increasingly untethered program of self-experimentation alerts Jessup to the secret correspondence unlocked by the drug’s combination with sensory deprivation – he begins to “devolve” – display the phenotype of an ancient human species. It appears as though racial memory is at the root of this bizarre mash-up of indigenous Mexican ritual and high-tech experimentation – and it could change the world, if it doesn’t destroy him first.
Altered States is made in the spirit of much of the greatest science fiction – the ecstasy of scientific pursuit, and its costs, exist at the center of the conflict. However, in the film’s selection of anthropologists and related experts as the occupiers of the intrepid-scientist archetype, it manages to subvert genre expectations in interesting ways. Despite its scientific protagonists, including Jessup’s physical anthropologist wife and frequent foil Emily (Blair Brown), Altered States’ vision of Cambridge, Massachusetts feels less like a deep-space craft or secret underground laboratory and more like an actual scholarly community. These career academics act like real career academics, sparring with colleagues over margaritas at happy hours and lit joints at house parties, name-dropping potential collaborators and relevant papers in rapid-fire banter, and tinkering around outside the watchful eyes of the IRB. Regardless of what you think of the film’s science-fiction elements, the sympathetic, slice-of-life depiction of anthropologists and allied academics is truly a rare find.
Star Trek, as a media franchise, has enough examples of anthropology throughout its multi-series history to easily count as a single entry (and more) for the purposes of this list. From its origins as the Wagon Train to the Stars through its later incarnation as occupying imperial power, the colonial, anthropological eye has always been active in these sci-fi allegories of humans encountering the alien unknown. The Original Series’ Enterprise fielded a designated “A&A (archaeology & anthropology) officer” and the learned Jean-Luc Picard was well-known for his love of archaeology and decoding alien mythic systems.
But perhaps no single episode better encapsulates Trek’s abilities to creatively riff on the discipline than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifth-season episode “Darmok”, in which the crew is tasked with parsing an alien language previously thought unintelligible. Though handy 24th century translation technology allows vocabulary and syntax to pass unassailed, communication between the Enterprise and the Tamarians remains at loggerheads until the key revelation is made: the extraterrestrials lack a human-like sense of self, and make meaning exclusively through the metaphorical manipulation of their own mythology.
The mystery at the center of “Darmok” acts as both a trumped-up sci-fi illustration of how living languages can be pregnant with cultural meanings that escape mere syntax and grammar, but also evokes a sort of Levi-Straussian structuralism that outlines the thinking of the other as completely bounded (one might say hindered) by mythic frames. Regardless of the school of anthropological thought that the plot could be said to mimic, it’s delightful to watch the old sci-fi tradition of scientists solving a problem applied to aspects of culture and language.
Happy National Anthropology Day!