At first glance, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and Dreamworks Studio’s “Antz” could not be more diametrically opposed to each other in form and genre. One is a dark commentary on the vacuity of modern life, fraught with homoerotic subtext; the other is a brightly animated cartoon where the bad guy dies, the good guy gets the girl, and everybody lives happily ever after. I intentionally chose these two films, however, for their thematic similarity, to examine the recurring motif of striving for identity in a society of conveyer belt roles where the value of the individual is quickly depreciating toward extinction. By analyzing both films through a theological and Freudian lens, I intend to reveal the tension that has always existed between possessing the freedom of choice and submitting to an oppressive, delineating structure. “Antz” opens up with a disembodied voice announcing its anxieties.
As the camera penetrates layers of New York underground, the voice is revealed to belong to a lonely ant. He is in therapy. We soon learn that his name is “Z” and he is a disgruntled worker ant, airing his frustrations over working all his life and never quite feeling satisfied. One is expected, as an ant, to devote all his efforts toward the good of his colony and deal with his needs being ignored. This is a common grievance, felt among the spectrum of classes and races. Regardless of status, hardly anybody ever feels he is getting his. Before we have time to dismiss Z’s grouchiness as trivial angst, the camera pans out and introduces us to the “gung-ho super organism” of ant life. What we see is a hyper complex built by and on millions of bodies that link together to drive the meticulous engine that runs and perpetuates the system. It is impossible to make out any one creature from the swarm of activity. We see elevator pulleys marked with phrases like “Let’s Work” and “Conquer Idleness,” a chilly reference to the Nazi motto that likewise drove millions of human souls to a state of dejection reflected in the demeanor of the worker ants, as well as Ed Norton’s character from Fight Club.
We see ants producing their bundled babies for appraisal, where they are systematically (one might say, arbitrarily) assigned a role in the microcosm. Roles like “worker” and “soldier” are shouted out at random and these tiny cocoons, before even having a sense of their individuality—what Freud called recognition of self as separate from the mother (colony)—they are deprived of it. They are then designated a place in the hierarchy that will forever determine their value by output. This systematic allocation of significance by measure of the whole in turn leaves the individual feeling utterly insignificant (Brintall 303). This is the way of life and up until now it went largely unquestioned. As everybody will tell Z, one ant is meaningless. It is not about him it’s about “us, the team,” working endlessly to build and acquire more, and he would do best to content himself with it and be happy. Don’t think too much. Thinking leads to rogue individualism that puts the whole microcosm in jeopardy.
There appears to be no room for pleasure in this life. Even activities intended to relieve pressure and stress, such as dancing and drinking, are normalized, structured. Socializing too has its place, as the ants are transferred from one ghetto to the next. Ants dance in a group and any who desist are either bullied back into submission or removed entirely. If one may speak of computerized ants in a sexual nature, we can observe how the libidinal economy is so tightly controlled in their environment that all drive toward freedom and creativity is squelched. Inner desires have been buried under dirt and exhaustion and thus, if Freud was correct and our energy drive must be pointed somewhere, the eros is redirected toward work, ungratifying as it may be (Brintall 296).
It is transferred into idolizing the strength inherent in uniformity, as personified by the macho General Mandible, who’s face comes as close to sexual gratification as an ant’s could when glancing out at the swarming and sweating organism. Although pleasure is at odds with pain, when all prospects for it are denied, pain—the endurance of reality—becomes the only frontier where any pleasure can surface (Brintall 299). It is through pain that the Narrator in “Fight Club” asserts his identity, his masculinity and his divorce from the whole of society. He feels the punch, not the corporation he slaves for. That scar, that bruise, that burn is on his body and his alone. But this is later in the plot, which it makes little sense to spend time recapitulating, as you are most likely already familiar with it. Rather, I would like to isolate and review specific incidents to connect them with themes of religion and sociology. Though the repressive system of collectivism is not stated as overtly in black and white as in “Antz,” it is clear that the totalitarian regime in “Fight Club” is modern consumer culture.
Having returned home (after successfully realizing his alter-ego Tyler Durden) to find his apartment blown to pieces, the Narrator (who’s name is necessarily inconsequential) laments the loss of his beloved designer wardrobe and catalogue dining room set. What are we, asks Tyler? And the answer is infamous: we are consumers. Consumers who exhaust themselves to emptiness, working to fulfill a false dream, to acquire and acquire, believing each new possession will bring them closer to feeling complete. Human beings work to be the masters of their domain, a domain filled with the products of other human labor and frustrations of their own lack and inability to conquer it fully (Brintall 297). All creative energy and hope is transferred into consumerism, an oppressive system we ourselves helped create and perpetuate and thus permit it to establish mastery over us. And what are we told when we inevitably find ourselves feeling even more empty than where we started? To lighten up and not dwell on “it.”
What is this “it”? This is the “it” that keeps the Narrator up at night; the “it” that inspires Z to run away in search of freedom, in search of release; the “it” that leads both characters into the next stage of their development in their search for meaning and identity; the elusive “it” that excites the first blow and enables both the main characters to opt out of being just another avatar in the assembly line of human souls and go in search of something better, something else. For Z, it is a perfect utopia where insects can choose their own roles in life instead of being handled by the institution. For Tyler, it is a dystopia, perfect in its chaos and lack of oppressive structure. Each character makes a conscious choice to pursue a different course in life, meaning to demonstrate how individuality is a by-product of free will. But how free are human beings, really? Closer inspection reveals that neither character liberates himself from structure, and especially not from idolatry.
His focus simply shifts toward romanticizing a more bohemian lifestyle (or perhaps it is the audience’s focus that shifts). Although “Fight Club” is rarely referred to as romanticized. In his commentary about the film, director David Fincher talks about the meticulously sloppy care devoted to the film by exposing it to durations of harsh light, stretching contrast, and similar distortion techniques used to achieve the washed-out, deconstructed picture—a nod back to the film noir genre that characterized the inescapable dreariness and nihilism of the war-time era when life was so desperately devoid of all purpose or intrinsic value. But Tyler encourages us to send all our pre-constructed notions of value and purpose to hell, and face reality. The reality is that there is no greater meaning, no utopia “beyond the mast and across the river,” as swears Z, and that putting one’s faith in redemption or God is useless, seeing as how in all probability “God hates you.” It is not surprising he feels this way, given the direct correlation between God and the father. Both films are interlaced with the issue of fatherly abandonment.
When the scene first opens up on Z reclining in his therapist’s office cavity, we are subjected to the comical farce of an ant theorizing that his anxieties are most likely rooted in his childhood abandonment issues: his father crawled out on him when he was just a maggot. One cannot help but feel the cinematic hilarity of a tiny ant who’s immense feelings of inadequacy are not only mirrored by our own, but are actually in consensus with our estimation of an ant (and thus ourselves). In a similar exchange between the Narrator and Tyler Durden, the former recalls his father’s proclivity for fostering families all over and then walking out on them. To which Tyler, soaking nonchalantly in a tub in front of his ‘friend’, cogently replies the man is “setting up franchises,” as though the nurturing of children was nothing more than a simple business transaction.
So how can these “thirty year old boys” be expected to enter into, as Freud wrote, normal, heterosexual society when their lives have been devoid of the strong authority of the father? (Freud handout) After all, “Our fathers were our models for God,” points out Tyler, “If they left, what does that tell you about God?” But to abandon our search for the divine is impossible, for in religion there lie answers. With the help of religion we can extract meaning. We see the Narrator attending support groups for the terminally ill in an attempt to establish a connection and find meaning, once again with pain as the currency. By witnessing the pain of other people’s realities, he finds pleasure, he finds acceptance and release—and sleep. These groups are for him akin to communion, a place where pent-up energies can be redistributed. Whatever the grievance, whatever is lacking in this life, a spiritual gathering maintains the possibility for hope.
Religion thus becomes not just an outlet, a place where the eros can stir and the soul can come alive, but a way to compensate for the “longing for paternal protection,” the feeling of emptiness rooted early in childhood. Even as Tyler argues that religion is ineffectual, we realize that in a society where children’s mental and social development is outsourced to vacuous advertisements, those products and ads take the place of the father—and eventually God himself. As “Fight Club” evolves and membership in the bloody communion grows larger and larger, we see the film come full circle. What began as a search for meaning beyond identification with a repressive system of consumerism, swelled into its own macrocosm (not unlike institutionalized Atheism) fueled by identical and nameless, yet willful, automatons. They are still participating in a society that extinguishes rogue individuality, but they are doing so by choice.
Still, human beings need something to elevate and hold up as God, as the ideal. So they elevate Tyler Durden. They elevate fight club, the reality of owning your pain because pleasure is a blinding myth. Are human beings therefore truly free to make their own choices, is the abiding theological and sociological question. The task of determining the controlling force of society—religious collectivism, political collectivism, even anarchical collectivism—nags at our notion of free will. Of course in “Antz,” it being a kid’s film after all, the tyranny is embodied in one character. In “Fight Club” it is intentionally disembodied, in-your-face yet still invisible. “Our great war,” Tyler advocates, “is a spiritual war.” One might think if we just do away with consumerism, religion, any system, the subconscious would be free to express its most inner desires.
But we discover this is not so. There doesn’t seem to be any more meaning or truth in the Ikea catalogue than in the eventual culmination of Project Mayhem, which conspires for the destruction of all authority and material idols—what Freud would deem the death drive. Though the characters in “Fight Club” have been so disheartened by the lacking prospect of creativity and purpose, and now seek to destroy everything they’ve ever identified with, they are still not free. Perhaps it is only through losing oneself in God, in work, in different institutions, each with their own offerings of value, that one can seek out one’s unique identity. It is possible that the hope for something better—be it called enlightenment, utopia or deeper understanding—allows one to exercise free will in the pursuit of meaning and pleasure, if never finding either itself.
1. Anker, Roy M. “Narrative.”
2. “Antz.” (1998, dir. Eric Darnell)
3. Brintnall, Kent. “Psychoanalysis.”
4. “Fight Club.” (1999, dir. David Fincher)
5. Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents.”