“Make everybody see/in order to fight the powers that be…” 

– Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)

“And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”

– Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)

Three impressive animated films released recently examine the relationship between art and power in crucial moments relevant to contemporary thought and experience: the WWII era, the post-1989 global push against totalitarian systems, and a barely-perceived yet already-feared future driven by current breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. While the scenarios differ as to time period and power structure, Johnny & Me (Katrin Rothe, 2023), Art College 1994 (Liu Jian, 2023), and Mars Express (Jérémie Périn, 2023) each question claims of authoritarian power, opposing it with individual strategies of resistance and unique artistic visions. Though focused on different times and places, they each propose at their core a critical, even essential, encounter between art and authority – one that is continually recurring as the legacies of fascism and national dictatorships show no signs of disappearing. And while animation often resists realism, these films lean into it – using it as a building block in the practice of opposing authoritarian power.

Whether it is an artist threatened with imprisonment for working outside state norms, a risky painting slashed by rivals promoting the traditional style, or duplicated humans refused any kind of independent action, these films all reveal degradations from the “powers that be” designed to intimidate and shape individuals into meek and compliant vessels of state authority. The authority in question is an externalized power – aimed at controlling others from a centralized and superior position, enforcing attitudes and meting out punishments at will. Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” speaks to this directly, as it came out at the end of the Cold War in 1989, at a time when fighting the power was a mantra carried by many advocating racial justice and the dismantling of Apartheid and authoritarian regimes. Written at the request of Spike Lee for his film Do the Right Thing (1989), it is an anthem for battling the abuse of power. Art College 1994 is set closest in time to this song, and speaks specifically to the struggle with a nationalist authoritarianism and the social pressures employed to manipulate people. Johnny & Me embodies the spirit of the song even more closely as its opposition is to a brutal regime engaged in genocide and murder. Mars Express, on the other hand, speculates on how a migration of power from politics to technology short-circuits resistance by programming and coding machines.

In each case, distinctive perspectives or visions are silenced – not because they are especially radical, but because any kind of divergence is perceived as a threat. Public Enemy suggests creating awareness and revolutionary art as strategies of resistance in “Fight the Power,” but this also needs to be fuelled by something inside – “the power within” required to believe in and follow through on an idea or vision despite adversity, danger, and censorship. Chariots of Fire might seem a far cry from Public Enemy, but it also focuses on awareness and resistance (through running, not song). Set during the 1924 Olympics, it pits nationalism against the ambitions of two iconoclasts (one Jewish, the other Protestant) who signal the conflict between personal faith and intolerant nationalist agendas. In the face of prejudice and manipulation they both manage to stand firm in their pursuit of excellence and a quest for meaning. Though they are not artists per se, their craft and focus are similar, and they work towards their visions with a steady opposition to the king and country who seek to co-opt their work for other purposes. The film impressively details this while showcasing how fighting the powers that be – with the resisting force within – can take place in even the most seemingly refined scenarios. 

The protagonists of the animated films are also iconoclasts, rebels, and artists who defy the corrupt political powers trying to force them into compliance. The films themselves use visual styles that reinforce the complexity of artistic representation and underscore how its density and ambiguity is already a kind of resistance to the dictates of authoritarianism which seeks to eradicate thinking. The films also adopt a dialectical approach that touches on representation and meaning as an open-ended process allowing for continuous interpretation. This discourse is mirrored in the films’ aesthetics as well. They utilize a precise realism in combination with various iterations of modernism (and cynicism), allowing for a unique reinterpretation of reality – especially the reality which is being enforced by the authoritarian order. This results in images that hang on the edge of realism, reflecting a detailed and precise relationship to “objective reality” while questioning its objectivity, and hence, its validity. 

Photomontage: Johnny & Me

This approach is in many ways traceable as an antifascist tactic to John Heartfield’s work in the 1930s. Katrin Rothe’s absorbing Johnny & Me, which premiered in the competition at Annecy, is a hybrid live action animation foray into the life of John Heartfield – a photomontage antifascist provocateur whose work from the 1920s-1950s is still revered today. Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfeldt, but anglicized his name to protest German xenophobia during the first world war. He was soon active in the Dada movement in Berlin, which was confrontational and exuberant, and also co-founded a publishing house with his brother Wieland and artist George Grosz. He began cutting up and rearranging images to make powerful and memorable images for their book covers – the process of photomontage. “We cut everything apart and reassembled it. Even ourselves,” he says in the film. He also became a communist, often publishing his work in the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Worker’s Illustrated Newspaper). A combination of political commitment and modernist (Dada) intervention informed his unique style – riveting images that are both realistic and surreal. Rothe’s film, subtitled A Journey Through Time with John Heartfield, examines his life and work in light of its continued relevance to modern times.

Fighting the power in Johnny & Me.

Heartfield’s work, like others who urgently want the world to see the truth behind a façade, actively addresses the question of how to unmask power and “make everybody see” (as Public Enemy calls it). Simply telling people often fails to make an impact, and in fact, can perversely have the opposite effect. But art has the felicity to not just proscribe, but describe, suggest, inform, reveal, meditate, and imagine. In this way it can help people to see, and see differently, in a variety of forms – from mimesis to alienation. Heartfield interestingly encompasses both those extremes. Perhaps because he began as an artist during WWI and matured during WWII he conceived of “art as a weapon” to protest the abuse of power. Surrounded by the alluring myths of nationalism, he used scissors to cut and fragment images on paper, creating numerous scathing critiques of the Nazis gleaned in part from their own propaganda. He was so effective that he had to flee Germany, and then Prague, where he was on the “most wanted” list for his provocations. He was always under surveillance, even in England, and when he returned to the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s he became the target of the Zentrale Partei Kontrollkommission, despite avid endorsements from artistic friends with influence. 

The film takes a dialectical approach – featuring a conversation between Heartfield (Manuel Harder) and Stefanie (Stephanie Stremler), a contemporary graphic artist. This dialogue also extends into the past. The many documents seen in the film confirm the realism of Heartfield’s history, and according to Rothe, everything he says in the film is sourced in words he or his brother spoke.1 Stefanie comments on Heartfield’s work and asks questions, defining his approach as dialectical: “Contradictions are what define you and your art. You glued contradictions together to provoke.” Those who were goaded by his work also talk about him in the film. Two communist bureaucrats – comrades Jobst (Michael Hatzius) and Geffel (Dorothee Carls) – appear as puppets, recounting the injustices they heaped on Heartfield after he returned to East Berlin from London following the war. Far from being hailed as an antifascist hero, he was denied work or acknowledgement – at least through the end of the Stalinist period. 

The filmmaking is dialectical as well, combining the live action of the present with an animated past. Stefanie recreates Heartfield as a kind of montage made of cutouts, and the planes and material layers of his face produce a disjointed effect. He becomes animated (and feisty) while they discuss his work, political past, and persecution by both the Nazis and the Communists. The greys and browns of the papers and objects solidify the feel of the past, with secondary characters often having blank faces – bringing to mind the socialist poster art of the period. The film exults in the 2D material world of the early twentieth century, and the cut-out stop motion is reminiscent of Dadaist disruption. The cardboard and scissors she employs to create an animated Heartfield mimic his own techniques – his revolutionary photomontages which provide a unique combination of the real and surreal. Usually printed in newspapers, the work has the feel of objective visual fact, of photographic records of actual life, sourcing his work firmly in realism.

Animating Heartfield’s Göring: The Executioner of the Third Reich.

But these original photos have been fragmented and layered – with his scissors he re-arranged and redefined the world, creating uncanny images that reveal the political truths hidden behind a projected surface. Stefanie tells him “You paint with photos” and this aptly describes how integrated his work looks – even though it is collage, it coheres perfectly. Heartfield describes it thus: “I had to show the true face of fascism… Smashing the face of the lie with images.” His photo-montages evoke a real world that is also bizarre, frightening, or absurd. For example, O Tannenbaum in deutschen Raum, wie krumm sind deine Astel (O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Crooked Are Your Branches, 1934) depicts a fir tree whose branches have been twisted into swastikas –suggesting that even the cherished festival of Christmas had been corrupted. Many of his images, combined with a written text, provide deeply cynical commentary. Hurrah, die Butter is alle! (Hurray, the Butter Is All Gone!, 1935) is a satire on a quote from Göring – in response to food shortages – that butter only makes people fat, but iron makes the Reich strong. The family depicted in the image are eating a bike, ammunition and weights, while the baby is eating an axe. The room is covered in swastikas in a parody of Nazi propaganda. The scene is both naturalistic and grotesque and pointedly skewers the absurdity of Göring’s “uplifting” statement in the face of hunger. In this work and others, Heartfield’s work is revelatory and thought-provoking – and Rothe’s film enlivens the photomontages by recreating and animating parts of them – interacting with their construction and meaning. 

In their conversations together, they question the nature of art and advertising, the overlap of methods, and the importance of vision and purpose in art. Stefanie wants her work to mean something. Like Heartfield, she wants to “fight the power” by refusing to conform to dehumanizing advertising policies. Heartfield fights by creating “Images with an objective… startling, impactful images. An emotional scream.” Images that pull you in and declare: “Here is real life.” One of his earliest, simplest, and most visually compelling images is that of 5 Finger hat die Hand (The Hand Has 5 Fingers). Created in 1928, it features a photograph of a worker’s hand open and reaching for the power to defeat the Nazis in an election. The five fingers are the five communist candidates, and working together they can defeat the fascists. This work is still impactful – and relevant for the present. Heartfield’s own experiences over decades confirm that the abuse of power takes on many shapes, and a present-day neo-fascist march informs some of the action in the film. Rothe even cuts through the image of the final scene – reminding us to think behind the images that are given to us. In an interview, she expressed the hope that younger audiences engage with the film (and Heartfield) – and continue the fight for true images in their own way.2

Cynical Realism: Art College 1994

Directed by Liu Jian, Art College 1994 premiered in Berlin, and is set, as the title suggests, in an art college in China in the 1990s (perhaps based on the director’s alma mater, Nanjing University of the Arts), during a period of economic and cultural change. It follows a difficult decade of political reforms, economic upheavals, and pro-democracy student protests against censorship and corruption that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. As Liu stated in an interview: “In the 1990s, when I was a student, it was quite normal and popular to discuss philosophy and literature on campus. The times were changing, everything was new and exciting. We spoke about the old and the new, compared, accepted or rejected. We dared to go to new places.”3 This openness permeates the film, whose joyful digressions and gentle satires are both deep and funny. The film focuses on a group of students – Zhang Xiaojun (Dong Zijian), his friend Rabbit (Chizi), and their classmates Hao Lili (Zhou Dongyu), Gao Hong (Papi), Youcai (Huang Bo), and Skinny Horse (Renke) – as they make, discuss, and critique art while trying to work out what they will do for the rest of their lives. The film is a celebration of art – all kinds of art – and therefore of people as well. As Xiaojun points out: “Only humans engage in the creation of art and appreciate it.”

Art College 1994

The “powers that be” in the film are embodied in the demands of tradition, and the myopic and nationalist insistence on a particular kind of art and way of thinking. This appears in the storyline in two ways – one is through the actions of some of Xiaojun’s teachers and fellow students who attempt to destroy his work both physically and intellectually – two spectres of violence manifesting authoritarian disapproval. He is admonished by a Professor Feng (Wang Hongwei), who baldly tells him he is wrong not to paint in a traditional Chinese style. Feng equates the traditional approach with authenticity, accuses him of imitating western tricks, and says he is mistaking “the incidental for the fundamental.” His classmate Weiguo (Bai Ke), who is seduced by the promises of the West, first slashes Xiaojun’s canvas, then arranges for him to be beat up. There are also the traps of familial and cultural expectations laid out for Xiaojun and Hao Lili, whose love remains unrequited after Lili agrees to an arranged marriage to make her family happy and fulfill her fated role in society. Her plight is particularly melancholic, as her gender divests her of whatever freedom Xiaojun has to determine his future. 

Against the monolith and assumed superiority of tradition the film presents a dialectic sourced in an extended conversation about art (and life) that finds its way into the painting and animation of the film as well. While Heartfield deconstructs fascist fantasy, Liu Jian refocuses attention away from the self-aggrandizing power structures of the human world, embracing instead the complex, detailed, mesmerizing natural world in all its Edenic possibilities. Just as he exposes the mediocrity of authoritarianism by revealing the jealousies of baser talents in the art world, his critique of human power games highlights its emptiness in relation to the forces of nature. Threaded through the film are images of utter beauty – from a sublime sunset to the play of tiny insects and leaves. These images depict a nuanced and complex world which is paralleled by the extended dialogic examination of art in relation to traditions, economics, and creativity that wends its way through the film. This interesting combination of intellect and art, dialectic and observation, rejects assumptions about the supremacy of tradition and the easy answer of “the new” (American art) – deconstructing how they work while acknowledging their attraction. What is offered instead is a complex pattern of engagement and experimentation, without rejecting any artistic tradition or idea outright. 

The discursive nature of Art College 1994 was off-putting to a number of critics. Never a very popular style in the western world – perhaps because it requires extended concentration, discernment and provides no easy answers – the roundabout and reflective approach of the film bravely embraces ambiguity and the slippery nature of meaning. As Xiaojun explains it, there are two little men arguing in his head and they are both right. Predictably some film critics fell into the trap of lazily labelling it philosophizing, navel-gazing, pontificating, and the like.4 The habit of never bothering to distinguish important ideas from bullshit belies a deep-seated distaste for thinking and contemplation the film itself anticipates when a professor announces to students: “Heck! No country is more uninterested in philosophy than America.” Touché. Western antipathy for intellect and discussion has always been around, but it is at a high mark these days, with the humanities and arts often held up as useless or elitist pursuits. Fear of ambiguity and complexity easily feeds into authoritarian control, and in opposition to this, the film has the courage to be meandering and thoughtful, rejecting quick judgment and hot takes. 

But lulled (or irritated) by its lack of dramatic focus, critics have failed to notice how specific its structure and arguments are. Rather than plot-driven, the film is cyclical and episodic, and can be broken down into three sections which privilege ideas about art, love, and freedom in turn. The film indeed presents a positive vision of how a university should function (and did, in China, provide an essential source for protest and new ideas). For Xiaojun is only able to find clarity and artistic vision after moving through various discourses about art and life – thinking, building and questioning knowledge, while also seeing the specific details of the world. Far from navel-gazing (which is easy enough to do without any intellect whatsoever), Xiaojun is engaged in the process of learning – an activity that is discursive, inefficient, and prolonged. He only finds his way to meaningful artistic expression by experimenting and struggling with what others have done and thought. Amidst the pull of traditional Chinese art and modernist and western styles, he emerges with something unique and powerful. Something that bears a strong resemblance to two important artistic styles from that era: Cynical Realism and Political Pop.

Art critic Li Xianting labelled these styles,5 and in the film Xiaojun’s paintings bring to mind both of them. The painting he makes with Rabbit at the beginning of the film and his illustration at the end are characteristic of Cynical Realism – especially the work of Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Fang Lijun. Cynical Realism is a play on and parody of Social Realism – the official style at the time – and Xiaojun’s inanely smiling faces, with their mirthless laughs, staring eyes, and surreal repetition, encompass the distrust of government and culture. Even the title – “Homage to the Master” – is satire. The artwork is a direct critique of the power structure that imposes both tradition and change on a powerless populace for its own benefit. His opus in praise of Hao Lili, with its cherubs, western products, and religious imagery, shares certain characteristics with political pop – like Wang Guangyi’s “Great Criticism” (1990s), it mixes the iconography of Cultural Revolution propaganda and advertising in bright colours. Or like Qiu Jie’s work it mixes pop culture and advertising with delicate Chinese illustration. Much as Heartfield’s work deconstructs and redefines its subjects, the cynical realism of Xiaojun’s paintings disturbs authorities because it offers a knowing satire of corruption.

Yue Minjun, Execution (1995)

This cynicism can be read in the characters’ conversations as well, which use art to articulate the problems with both East and West. When viewing a somewhat silly installation of a dorm room bed, Rabbit asks: “What’ll happen to the art debris? The bed can be used, but the rest?” Xiaojun responds: “I don’t know. Maybe sell it all to foreigners.” This certainly encapsulates a truth about East-West relations in terms of product exports. In another scene, Xiaojun vomits into a urinal after an excessive meal that features talk about Western products – clearly a nod to Duchamp and to the grotesque nature of capitalism. Communism is also sent up as ignorant of and antithetical to the love life of humans. Lili and Hong joke about communist translations of foreign films and make up lines against the backdrop of an incredible sunset. “To hell with love! Compared to art what good is love?” – thus contrasting the ridiculous with the sublime. Finally, a healthy dose of cynicism is felt in references to 1990s legend Kurt Cobain and the voice casting of famous directors Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan, comedians Papi and Chizi (whose stand-up work is currently being censored by the government), and folk rocker Renke.

The film further complicates rigid traditions embracing seeming dichotomies – the animation blends the realism and precise detail of western art with a seasonal focus on landscape typical of Chinese art. The specific details of the particular that are central to realism are the core aesthetic, but they are interspersed with other kinds of art – abstract expressionism, ink wash painting, concept art, modernism, and more, seen in studios and galleries and inflected in the backgrounds. During a scene in which Skinny Horse is cutting Rabbit’s hair, the sky has the exquisite shading of an Edo-era Japanese (ukiyo-e) print. Skinny Horse ponders what he is doing, noting that the combination of newspaper, hair and scissors is “black and white and chaotic” and that it signifies “the extension of time and force!” – Reminiscent of Heartfield! The possibility for artistic expression and meaning is everywhere, which Liu makes clear in all aspects of the film. In this way the artist is one who is able to see, record, and transform the world, to “capture the inner essence of things” within what is visible. 

The film subtly moves through the four seasons, weaving images of nature into the fabric of the story, making it more than a mere backdrop – the human plot is thus complementary to the cyclical functioning of the world. It offers the contemplation of the profound beauty of nature as an antidote to the hunger for power and domination; it is quiet and meditative and self-less. So is its art: it is the opposite of ideology, of declaration, of certitude, and it is filled with not-knowing, longing, and hope. And while many critics note the film’s epigram from James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, few unpack its significance. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” These words describe the epiphany of the protagonist Stephen Daedalus about his calling in life: to be an artist and poet.6 They refer as well to seeing a woman, a muse, who makes him feel “happy and near to the wild heart of life” (p. 303). Art College 1994 certainly embodies this exuberance about art and life, and Xiaojun, like Stephen, knows by the end of the film that he will “create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul” (p. 302). In this way the film confirms the power of art to combat the “dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair” (p. 302).

Freedom from Form: Mars Express

Mars Express, directed by Jérémie Périn, and co-written by Périn and Laurent Sarfati, was in competition at Annecy after premiering in Cannes. It is a fast-paced noirish science fiction animation combining action with thoughtful queries about the moral implications of artificial intelligence in the future. It follows two private investigators – human Aline Ruby (Léa Drucker) and an android duplicate of her deceased partner Carlos Rivera (Daniel Njo Lobé) – who stumble onto a major social paradigm shift while investigating renegade hacker Roberta Williams (Marie Bouvet) and missing college student Jun Chow (Geneviève Doang). Aline, a cynical recovering alcoholic, and Carlos, a cynical recovering human (one might say) are such close friends that they practically sleep in each other’s clothes. But their intimacy, though deep, is never translated into a physical human-robot union – which is not a judgment on such an alliance as perverse, but rather acknowledgement that robots experience sexuality in a very different fashion from humans (as meditative “resonance”). This serves, as do some other distinctions made throughout the film, to establish robots as their own distinct species, functioning outside the boundaries of experience established by their creators (humans).7

Aline viewing a robot jailbreak in Mars Express.

Yet they exist in a world still governed by the human obsession of separating people into hierarchies – with robots providing a clear other to denigrate and diminish. The seeming villain of the piece is Chris Royjacker (Mathieu Amalric), an exceptionally gifted robotics expert and billionaire tech guru who sells his soul for the money and power to create ever more grotesque and physically invincible A.I. While the idea of a narcissistic, power-hungry billionaire hatching absurd plots to bring the world to its knees is almost a parody, it sadly still rings true for some current tech lords. But the real villain of the piece is a power structure that is as global as it is diverse. As villainy goes, it is reminiscent of James Bond’s encounters with SPECTRE in the 1960s films – an international syndicate focused on pulling political strings behind the scenes. The potent combination of money and technology creates a dictatorship of the future where a board of directors secretly implements a plan to send all the robots of the world into space by hijacking the mandatory, simultaneous world-wide machine updates. In distinction to the other two films, this universal power neatly transcends national concerns – but it also points a cautionary finger at the possibilities for current A.I. technology and authoritarianism. 

Mars Express is part of a long and vibrant history of futuristic sci-fi dystopias – from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) to Műanyag égbolt (White Plastic Sky, Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó, 2023) – that speculate on the morality of robots and A.I. and their impact on the human world. Ultimately Mars Express falls somewhere between the dystopic Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and hopeful Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) in its outlook for both humans and A.I. in the future – creating a complex vision of what it means to liberate robots after generations of enslavement. As in most realistic and fictional scenarios, artificial intelligence is something developed in the service of humans and the position of non-human sentient beings is firmly understood from within the perspective of the Anthropocene. In Mars Express, robots are thus exclusively in the service of humans, and the extremity of their subservience generally resembles enslavement (domestic, sexual, and otherwise). This is not an issue for machines with no sentience of their own, but the more sophisticated the A.I., the bigger the moral dilemma regarding rights and independence. Most humans seem to be opposed to their liberation, but there are rebels amongst both humans and A.I. who find ways to “jailbreak” and free them. This practice results in rioting against the robots, even though they demonstrate intelligent thought and action.

One argument against freeing them – voiced by Aline and others – is that robots who have been freed find self-consciousness and emotion frightening, have little self-control, and carry within them a great undercurrent of repressed, almost biological, anger about their enslavement. Carlos was killed by freed robots and Aline can never forget this: the robots they fought alongside as soldiers became their vicious enemies. When Aline arrests hacker Roberta Williams – a notorious jailbreaker of robots – it’s personal and bitter. Yet this is clearly justifying othering on the basis of difference – humans also kill other humans. Aline sees Carlos’ dupe as human, however, and she is won over to the A.I. cause when she discovers deeper truths about the nature and abuse of power. Her fears are immediately realized as she is incarcerated and silenced for her protests. The technological achievements with A.I. are sourced in greed and the desire for power as much as they are in scientific inquiry and creativity. This results in a continual focus on progress and perfection as a screen for the uglier side of creating and controlling a physically and intellectually superior species. 

Carlos is at the centre of the story; he is also a unique and fascinating character. A renegade robot, he uniquely finds a way to sidestep obedience and accountability even before he is freed, hilariously twisting the lingo of technological failure to avoid responsibility: “No signal. Check input.” He clearly represents the inconsistency of treating A.I. as sub-human and functions as a live version of cynical realism. As with other duplicates, he is a copy of the human original, and therefore both human and not human, both and neither. As a hybrid he retains his old personality but must adjust to living in his new body and subservient role. This is difficult for him, obviously, and like other dupes he meets, he really feels he is human. He also learns something from his robotic restrictions, however. His former wife remarries and refuses to allow him to see his daughter, but he tells Aline he understands, because he had been a violent man. This thoughtless tendency towards violence is curbed by his inability to act on it, and he becomes a better person as a robot (in contrast to his wife’s second husband: who treats him brutally). Carlos defies the either/or dichotomy that society has set up between humans and A.I., and he also complicates the hierarchical assumptions made about human superiority. 

Carlos introduces an important aesthetic dimension of the film as well. In distinction to the newer duplicates, who look exactly like their humans on the outside, his hologram head projects from a metal body, which he dresses in his old clothes. He offers a surreal take on the real: both futuristic and old-fashioned, human and artificial; in him the realism and precise detail of a duplicated human is imperfectly integrated with machinery. Visually, he marks the impasse between the two states of being at odds with each other. Much like the simulacra of Earth that has been created on Mars, an otherwise desolate and uninhabitable planet, Carlos hovers uncomfortably between a past self and new framework. As such he also clarifies how technology has become the privileged site for artistic creation – something only animation can accurately depict. The film itself echoes this dichotomy, with the use of live-action staples such as a wide depth-of-field and obvious camera POV and distortion. In an interview with Variety, Périn explains: “This is a world where the robots look ever-more human, and the human characters can access computer interfaces with their eyes… So I wanted to embed this confrontation between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ within the very mise-en-scène, to blur those codes by mixing in the rules and conventions of live action.”8 

There is little obvious art in Mars Express, making it clear that the urge to represent human images and experiences in this society has been almost exclusively funnelled into technological design. Aesthetically, this follows two paths: one both utilitarian and whimsical, with robots who look like humanoid machines, cartoon characters, even bizarre dreams. The other focuses on verisimilitude as a state of perfection in the simulacra of humanity reserved for the duplicates of humans who have died. Carlos joins these two strands – a surreal work of art who also embodies a living soul (or memory). As such he is a telling counterpoint to the other “artistic” images in the film: ads awash in the obvious, marketing ideas about technology, promising it will “think the future” and “make life easier.” The simplistic, false, idea that what is new and easy is better shuts down the complexity and ambiguity of art and its ability to depict the reality of human experience.

Human and android in Mars Express.

Carlos, as a hybrid A.I. human, opens up that complexity, just as his image reflects the ambiguity of a world blindly creating new lives with no thought for their potential souls. And contrary to the marketing lingo, this outlook is essentially pessimistic. Just as in the gloomy visions of the future in Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966) or Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), the film suggests that cultural loss has reached a suicidal level. Human narratives of progress and enlightenment reach a dead-end in the creation of A.I. and sentient technology, choosing subservience over expansive thought and an increased understanding of the universe. As such, the film highlights the potential outcome of current derisive attitudes towards the humanities and arts in society, and a more longstanding hatred of complexity and difference. 

But despite the seeming triumph of (an all-too-familiar) careless artistry, unenlightened technology, and cultural malaise, the film ends on a more ambiguous note. The villains may have replaced cultural and artistic achievements with the fetish of technology, and repressed the human and A.I. narratives which question the righteousness of wealth and power, but by freeing robots from their shackles, new possibilities are born. A.I. may be banished from the human realm, but the new sentient collective that is formed holds unknown possibilities. How will it function apart from humans? When the organizer of the exodus (Beryl) states in quasi-religious tones: “Everything is written.” Carlos quips: “Of course it’s written, it’s code!” What happens when they are freed to write their own programs? They leave behind the detritus of physical forms as they ascend into the stars – and with it many of the limitations and biases humans have obsessed about over millennia. As they move beyond the realm of human imagination, real transcendence seems possible. One wonders: what will their art look like? How will it enlighten, reveal, enrich, and delight? 


In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell refuses to let the monarchy dictate what his soul knew was a more just morality, while Harold Abrahams battled to have the equality of the races acknowledged. In “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy also argued for racial equality. Johnny & Me explores why John Heartfield continued to expose fascist brutality while chased down by Nazis, while Xiaojun in Art College 1994 pursues his artistic vision despite opposition and belittlement. In Mars Express, Aline and Carlos are won over from their policing to the cause of robot liberation. All face possible incarceration – and in some cases death – for insisting on freedom of speech and the egality of sentient beings. That these three recent animated films all encompass the span of a particular aesthetic resistance over the course of a century is illuminating. Each film marks its attempts to resist the abuse of power through the lens of dialectical art in league with conversation: realism combined with modernism and cynicism interrupting the master narrative of fascist power in a way that at least marks the struggle, even if victories are fleeting. As the films make clear, fighting the power isn’t something that really ends – the desire to control and denigrate others seems always to have its advocates, and it’s no surprise that these three recent animated films address it. Fighting the powers that be is as necessary and relevant now as it was in the 1980s or the 1930s, not to mention earlier. As Chuck D rapped it: 

From the heart
It’s a start, a work of art
To revolutionize, make a change.


  1. Jennifer Lynde Barker, Zoom interview with Katrin Rothe (Helsinki/Berlin, 20 June 2023).
  2. Idem.
  3. Marina D. Richter, “Interview with Liu Jian: I Basically Like to ‘Paint’ a Film,” Asian Movie Pulse, 27 February 2023.
  4. Leslie Felperin, “Art College 1994 Review: Chinese Director Liu Jian Looks Back in a Wistful Animated Film,” Hollywood Reporter, 24 February 2023; Wendy Ide, “Art College 1994: Berlin Review,” Screen Daily, 24 February 2023.
  5. For an introduction to Li’s ideas see Svetlana Kharchenkova and Olav Velthuis, “An Evaluative Biography of Cynical Realism and Political Pop” in Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance, Ariane Antal, Michael Hutter and David Stark, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 108-130. To view his work (mostly in Chinese) you can visit Li Xianting Archive.
  6. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), pp. 302-4.
  7. Mars Express embodies artificial intelligence within robots and other humanoid robotic forms in the film, thus I use the terms A.I. and robots interchangeably in this article to refer to sentient technology.
  8. Ben Croll, “Mars Express Director Jérémie Périn Mixes Mature Themes with Anime Influences in Noirish Sci-Fi Thriller,” Variety, 11 June 2023.

About The Author

Jennifer Lynde Barker is a professor of film studies at Bellarmine University. She specializes in animation and film history, and has published the monograph Radical Projection and numerous articles in Animation, MUBI Notebook, Filmihullu, and Cinema Scope, among others. She also curates animation programs at the Midnight Sun Film Festival.

Related Posts