– By J. W. Fox –
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck joined forces once again, this time to create a dystopian drama about inequality, climate change, and corporations. The aptly named Incorporated premiered on Syfy to generally positive reviews. No stranger to social science fiction, it is obvious why Matt Damon came on board as executive producer. The question for me was whether the show is an innovative and entertaining new scifi drama, or just another piece of political propaganda.
Politically-motivated science fiction has not done well in recent years. You don’t need to look any farther than Matt Damon’s recent movie Elysium. The highly-touted film boasted a dynamite cast, a big production budget, and some timely themes but fell flat on its face, earning less than $100 million in the US. While the critics and Hollywood elites loved it, the audience rejected it with some abysmally low ratings and scathing reviews. There are a few explanations but it seems the most problematic factor for the movie was its objective. It was clearly intended to convey a politically controversial message. Americans just aren’t interested in paying good money to watch propaganda.
If Incorporated intends to do more of the same for Matt Damon, there is little reason to expect different results.
Corporations Acting Corporationy
Best place to start is with the title: Incorporated. The pilot episode presents a world dominated by powerful multinational corps in the late 21st century. Governments collapsed due to climate change and economic depression. Only the Fortune 500 behemoths survived. The wealthy corporate executives build paradise on Earth and call it the Green Zone. It is a beautiful place with all the best new gadgets and luxuries. The rest of the world live in slums called the Red Zone. The contrast of the two zones is clear. The image above is just one provocative look at this unjust inequality.
The evil corporation is an old cliché in science fiction. The scenery and world-building depicted in the pilot episode suggest strong influence from Blade Runner, Resident Evil, and RoboCop. Glass and steel skyscrapers adorned with gawdy corporate logos dominate the cityscape. Men and women in matching suits walk into sterile, colorless lobbies and sit in identical cube offices stretching upward to the sky. Naturally, they continue to suck the Earth dry of resources, abuse and neglect the common folk, and engage in Machiavellian style intrigue in the executive offices and boardrooms.
There’s also paramilitary units clad in black armor, a security chief (played by Dennis Haysbert) engaged in CIA-style interrogation and torture, and references to protections of seeds as if they are intellectual property (an obvious nod to the Monsanto controversies). It’s all been done before, and so far the show hasn’t presented any kind of new spin on this trope.
What is the Difference Between a Corporation and a Fascist Dictatorship?
The corporation depicted in the pilot episode is Spiga Biotech. Elizabeth (played by Julia Ormond) seems to be the CEO and a ruthless ruler over her corporate realm. When an employee is caught trying to sneak proprietary secrets out of the building, he is tortured in a place called the quiet room. There are armed soldiers throughout the building conducting searches and patrolling hallways. All of it felt more like a totalitarian police state than a corporate HQ. It is analogous to a communist or fascist dictatorship, where the only thing that matters is the state, or in this case, the company.
In these types of corporate dictatorship stories, I always ask myself: are these really corporations or is that just their word for government? A good place to start is to simply lay out the difference between a state and a corporation. Using basic Wikipedia-style definitions, the distinction is obvious. A state is a political entity with a monopoly on the use of deadly force. It exercises legal or de facto control over the population living within its jurisdiction. A corporation is a business or economic unit whose purpose is to engage in commercial activity to the financial benefit of its owners. Employees and vendors benefit through wages paid out of corporate revenue.
A corporation has limited legal protections for its owners, is able to own capital, and can engage in certain activities. All this is possible because the state grants the corporation these legal protections and rights. It is the unholy alliance with the state (big government) that allows corporations to operate with impunity, bending or sometimes breaking laws, harming people and the environment for profit. Without the state, a corporation cannot exist or thrive. If the state collapses, as described in the show’s prologue, then Spiga Biotech isn’t really a corporation anymore. It is a new fascist dictatorship. It has become the government.
It Could Happen
Dystopias strike a nerve when people feel that these dark futures could happen. The future depicted in Incorporated could happen, and arguably has happened already. Throughout history, small special interests have managed to accumulate ridiculous amounts of power and wealth while their people live in poverty. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, and Cuba are examples. As much as they pay lip service to economic equality, party leaders lived in comfortable luxury. Fidel Castro lived a far more comfortable life than a regular Cuban. There are also countless examples of tyrants in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia that live in opulent palaces while their people suffered.
In the show, corporate executives have access to special clubs where sex slaves must satisfy their every desire. Most of the slaves are drawn from the Red Zone slums, where they have little opportunity or choice in making a living. This is very similar to the Kippumjo or pleasure brigade of Kim Jong Un. The Kippumjo is a unit of 2000 women whose sole purpose is providing pleasure for the dictator and members of the Workers’ Party. Rulers like Ida Amin, Moamar Gaddafi, Uday Hussein, and Rafael Trujillo were also known to be pleasured by what were essentially sex slaves.
So could a powerful group seize power and accumulate wealth and power to the detriment of others? Yes. It’s happened plenty of times. It can be called a corporation, worker’s party, or dictatorship but the results are essentially the same. The interesting question for me is whether a corporation or business entity has ever seized power from the state, but that discussion is for another time.
A large part of the show is clearly social commentary but there is a story there as well. Ben Larson (played by Sean Teale) is a midlevel corporate executive in Spiga Biotech, and a sleeper agent. He is looking for a woman named Iliana. Their relationship is not clear yet but it looks like she is a lost love. He finds out she is a sex slave in one of Spiga’s executive pleasure clubs, and resolves to get her out. Complicating the matter is his relationship with the boss’s daughter, a relationship that was part of his plan to move up the corporate ladder. The daughter obtains a permit to have a child with him, a prospect that bothers him greatly. Their marriage is simply a means to an end. Even worse, if the Spiga CEO Elizabeth were to find out, torture and death would certainly follow.
The premiere was a solid start but perils lie ahead. If Matt Damon and Co. let their politics get in the way, Incorporated will fail just as Elysium did. If they let the story guide the way, Incorporated could become a compelling dystopian, cyberpunk-style drama and another success for the SyFy Channel.
Why You Should Watch
- Compelling dystopian world rich in detail
- Quality production values and CGI
- Relevant social commentary (so far not overwhelming)
Why You Should Watch Something Else
- Cliché premise involving those evil corporations acting all corporationy
- Potentially just another preachy, heavy-handed propaganda piece from Damon and Co.
- Underwhelming cast (so far)
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.