'Lockout': A Prison Break in Space, Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

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No, this Guy Pearce-starring shoot-'em-up doesn't have anything to say about correctional policy.

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Open Road

Perhaps the most quintessential moment of soulless genre tripe in Lockout , a movie filled wall to wall with soulless genre tripe, occurs around three quarters of the way through. Our generic heroine, Emily Warnock (Maggie Grace) has been captured by the desperate, sweaty, and generic escaped prisoners of MS-1, a maximum security prison in orbit around a near future earth. The generic loose-cannon/sex-offender/very-very-bad villain with very-very-bad teeth has been amusing himself killing generic hostages, forcing Emily to emote, which is painful for everyone. But despite that, the generic grizzled head bad guy rallies, and shoves a phone at Emily, demanding that she talk to her father who is (surprise!) the (generic) President of the United States. Emily is supposed to tell her dad to call off the assault on MS-1...but instead she screws up her face and bravely announces, "Everyone's dead here." Then, looking the baddies full in the face, she tells the muckety-muck of the free world to reduce MS-1 to ash.

So...did you catch that quintessential moment of genre soullessness?

There's a kind of purity to the film's amorality, a blank and drooling truthiness.

Well, I won't keep you in suspense any longer. It's that line, "Everyone's dead here," which actually means not that all human beings on the station have been killed -- because Emily's looking at a roomful of human beings with guns on her, after all. Rather, it means, loosely, "all the innocent people have been killed" -- or, more accurately, "all the good guys have been killed." The bad guys -- all those mother-rapers and father-stabbers, as Arlo Guthrie might put it -- are, definitionally, nobody. They have been cast out of the human family. Their fate is simply to leer and fester and then to be bloodily torn to shreds by some big daddy whose duty it is to restore order.

Emily, then, is essentially suggesting that the prison break be ended through the cold-blooded murder of every single prisoner in the station. This is something of a spiritual journey for her. When we first meet her, she's an idealistic reformer. She's come to MS-1 in the first place in order to investigate prison conditions. MS-1 puts all of its convicts in chemically-induced stasis. Emily represents a humanitarian NGO that is concerned that being drugged into a stupor for decades may adversely affect the prisoners. She's also worried that the prison may be using the convicts for illegal medical experiments. The stasis process is being considered for deep space exploration, and the prisoners make great guinea pigs.

It's hardly a spoiler to admit that, yes, Emily's Worst Fears are Realized: The government can't be trusted, and prolonged stasis is not good for you or your brain. What's impressive, though, is the film's utter refusal to generalize from this even a little bit. And when I say it refuses to generalize, I mean in any direction. You'd think, given the arc of the story, that Emily would be a classic liberal-till-she-was-mugged kind of character. She starts off, after all, as a do-gooder, then she's abused by a bunch of bad guys, and through her trauma (so the story should go) learns the joys of Eastwood-esque violence and contempt. But the truth is the film doesn't care enough to do character development. Emily's compassion early is as utterly beside the point as her bravery/ruthlessness later, and both are as utterly beside the point as her bone-dumb love-hate flirtation with her charmless, smartass rescuer Snow (Guy Pearce.) None of it connects to anything else; none of it has any political or moral or even narrative content. It's just there because something has to happen on screen between the very loud noises and the computer special effects, and muscled morons wise-cracking while pretty girls wisecrack back is the sort of thing you expect to spend your time paying attention to while you're waiting for the next supposedly adrenalin-churning moment of stimulation.

So, yes, this movie is vacuous. , There's a kind of purity to its amorality, a blank and drooling truthiness. I appreciate, for instance, the bland symmetry with which the film has decided that if the first daughter is not going to be black, then, by George, the prisoners shouldn't be black either. In the future, there are not, apparently, any racial dimensions to the justice system. Indeed, there are simply no dimensions to the justice system at all. MS-1 is not a towering symbol of government corruption and oppression; it's not a deserved punishment for the worst of the worst. Instead, it's merely a trope, which allows the name actors to express their compassion or resolve as the rudderless script moves them. Whether prisoners are mistreated or falsely imprisoned, whether they are driven to dementia or slaughtered outright, is a matter of complete indifference to Lockout. All it wants is a convenient warehoused population which can absorb its pity, its contempt, its loathing, and its occasional bursts of machine-gun fire and machismo.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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