The Lego Movie was first recommended to me as a vital socio-political analysis of our era while I was visiting the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in February. When I saw the movie, I was impressed with the complex interplay of group psychology and autocracy, but I was even more impressed with the way it continued the story first told in Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian 1921 novel, We.
We is the story of a fully dehumanized and mechanized Earth nation, where the characters don’t have names, only numbers. The Lego Movie puts this dehumanization and mechanization into the obsession some Lego fans have with perfectly constructed Lego sets. Both focus on the blind followers of directions.
(I have written synopses of both The Lego Movie and We at the bottom of this article for any who may have missed either of these seminal works, but I recommend reading/watching them yourself, especially in order.)
With the obvious transformation of world, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie does something between a reboot and sequel to We. By the time of The Lego Movie, Zamyatin’s absolute authoritarian One State has failed. But the tensions between control and freedom in an artificial world continue. The wheel turns again, another revolution, as Zamyatin predicted at the end of We. Then at an unspecified future moment, a new war, and a new autocratic Well-Doer (the title of the dictator of One State) arrives in the absolute power of Lord Business.
The authors of The Lego Movie learned from some of Zamyatin mistakes. The protagonists, Emmet and D-503, are much alike. Both of them are competent technical men content with following orders. They are also useless and uncomprehending of their circumstances at every point of the plot, but where We is a first-person tale told by an idiot, The Lego Movie takes a safe third-person perspective. We are not trapped inside only what Emmet knows at any given time, which, like D-503, is usually damn little.
Unfortunately both stories hinge on a nearly identical and demeaning love story, as if a man’s only possible desire for freedom comes from the need to sexually pursue an attractive woman. In both cases, the main characters have no motivation beyond attempting to please women who have more political consciousness than they do. It’s sad that this view of men has persisted so long in the minds of male writers — the stories were released 93 years apart.
That the sequel had to wait nearly 100 years to be made shows that We was ahead of its time. This is not the morally simple dystopias of 1984 (which was based on We but lacked the original’s fundamental quandary) or The Hunger Games (which is an alternative history that places the Chicago labor movement in a science fictionalized ancient Rome), but worlds where the trade-off of freedom for security and happiness is real, places where the autocrats fulfill the fascist Utopian promise. We and The Lego Movie are about the tension between happiness and freedom, and in both the deadly irritant is the disease of imagination, which poisons the perfect happiness of autocratic order each society has and leads the resistance to the dangers and uncertainties of free lives.
Resist, and you will be killed, but comply, and you will be happy and safe. You will want for nothing, and any suffering that may be will be so distant as to be the fate of insects too small to see. It is the promise of empires to their people taken to its logical conclusion. We may burn a few native villages and track everyone via numbers assigned to them at birth, but there will be so many more happy people in the world!
Most of us are more OK with this deal than we care to admit. Often, this is for good reasons. Despite the expectations of the cruelties of automated societies, in some aspects the whole thing went rather well. Numeric identifications aren’t about making us all the same, but distinguishing us uniquely. You aren’t John Smith to the system because then you’re not you, only the category of John Smith. Most of the time this surveillance is used to make sure everyone has some access to the benefits of society. Yes, it makes dissent nearly impossible, but almost everyone gets to learn to read and it’s easy to get food and communicate with almost anyone in the world.
Then there’s disability in its myriad forms. Despite the draw of eugenics and compliance cultures, the post-industrial urban age has been a place of rights and empowerment for people who would have once been seen as drags on resources and quietly culled, often by their own families. The ADA has been called an authoritarian crackdown, which it is, but it’s also created a world far more humane than any before it for the many people fated by bodily flaw to lives of pain and constraint.
The question both these works subtly place before their readers/viewers — all while distracting them with more straightforward tales of running through tunnels and secret meetings and romance and blowing up infrastructure — is this: Is authoritarianism a dystopia or a utopia?
In his 1970s sci-fi classic Ringworld, Larry Niven proposed a device called a tasp, which could stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain and cause a sense of total happiness, pleasure, contentment. The tasp was a device, drug, and a weapon of control that could enslave through addiction to involuntary bliss. In 2014, we are very close to building something like the tasp, though not yet usable from a distance. We are feeding deep brain stimulators into areas of the brain to cure depression and treat Parkinson’s. We are tenuously close to escaping the painful freedoms Nature has made for us, into the slavery of technological Bliss. I often ask people if they’d take a tasp. Some say yes at once. Some view it with existential horror, but most are in-between — fascinated, desiring, but not wanting to let go of the world. Most people I ask seem to be OK with the idea of a little slavery in exchange for happiness-on-demand.
Both these stories make clear the price of making these dystopias into utopias isn’t the little bit of slavery part, your involuntary labor is easy to live with. We’ve lived with involuntary labor in one form or another since we started experimenting in civilization. No, the thing we must give up is imagination: the sense of future, the pain of desire, the draw of struggle and change. It’s obvious that to be changelessly and uniformly happy, we must give up change and difference. Both stories are filled with little desires to be sought and fulfilled — sex, friends, rivalries, sports, so on — but as along as we submit to the Well-Doer and Lord Business, nothing of deep consequence can ever happen to us. Once we grow disconnected with meaningless lives, such that not even happiness and pleasure can save us, the wheel revolves again.
Where the stories depart is in how to resolve the tension between imagination and the desire for safety and happiness. For Zamyatin, the cycle of destruction and conflict is eternal. “Why then do you think there is a last revolution?” the rebellious I-330 asks D-503. “Their number is infinite …. The ‘last one’ is a child’s story. Children are afraid of the infinite, and it is necessary that children should not be frightened, so that they may sleep through the night.”
The Lego Movie veers completely away from Zamyatin’s fatalism and does something new, and strange, even possibly naive — but also hopeful, risky, and above all, imaginative. At the moment of conflict, Emmet steps away from the cyclical script of 20th-century fascism and seeks reconciliation. “Look at all these things that people built. You might see a mess… what I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People taking what you made, and making something new out of it.”
Here, he acknowledges the fault of the natural world: that people can’t create as much alone as they can working in concert together. But he also argues for a place of imagination. He continues: “You don’t have to be the bad guy.”
That Lord and Miller have rebooted and extended We at this moment is important. A paradox has entered our political discourse: The more controlled and artificial and technological we make the world, the more capable of wild and powerful fancy it becomes. Like Facebook protests, taco delivering drones, antibiotics, graffiti stenciling robots, comicons, carbon-fiber space elevators and custom over-night stickers, reconciliation between control and imagination was beyond imagining in 1921. Now, like Google self-driving cars and Amazon drone deliveries, we only have to wonder how much we want it.
At the end of The Lego Movie the invaders from Duplo explain the cost of a more interesting world — we will always fight and struggle with the unknown when we surrender the benefits of control. But it also hints at the happiness of the struggle, the joy of uncertainty, that comes with finding a balance of control and chaos.
(If you haven’t seen the movie and read the book, there are synopses of both at the bottom. Do take advantage of that. My generation is having one of those historical “if you can’t do, teach” moments regarding overthrowing governments in our kids’ movies and young adult novels.)
The Lego Movie: Synopsis
The Lego world is a neat and orderly one, with everyone fitting perfectly into the roles their sets dictate: The Western saloon is full of perfect cowboys, the knights on on their matching horses, the damsels are in their castles, the pirates are orderly pirates, and Emmet, the perfectly normal construction worker, is a builder in the soon-to-be-perfect Bricksburg cityscape. He follows instructions in every part of his life, while a song called “Everything Is Awesome” plays in a world of perfect order and happiness. And everything is kind of awesome, if a little empty.
After work, a gust of wind catches his instructions and blows him into a demolition area where he sees Wyldstyle, a member of the secret resistance called the Master Builders. He is immediately taken with her and forgets his duty to call the police. While trying to get closer and meet her, Emmet falls into a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance, a prophesied “relic” with the power to bring down the autocratic ruler of the Lego world, President Business. Touching the piece knocks him out, and he wakes up in the custody of the authorities, and the robotic secret police. He learns from Bad Cop, the head of the autocrat’s robotic police forces, that Business plans to freeze the world in a few days.
Wyldstyle rescues Emmet from being executed and reveals that he’s considered The Special, a leader of the resistance prophesied to find the Piece of Resistance (a cap for a Krazy Glue tube). She takes him to the Old West world and introduces him to Vitruvius, the wizard who prophesied his coming. There, the power of Master Builders is explained: They can take apart the world and build anything they want, almost instantaneously, with no instructions at all. They are perfectly free, magically powerful, and powered by pure imagination. Much to Wyldstyle and Vitruvius’ disappointment, Emmet appears to have no imagination and be unable to build anything without instructions. Still being chased by Bad Cop, they flee the Old West to Cloud Cuckoo Land, home of Princess Unikitty and the heart of the resistance beyond and unseen by Lord Business, as he is called outside the modern setting of Bricksburg. Along the way they meet Batman, WyldStyle’s partner.
Once at Cloud Cuckoo Land, Emmet’s lack of charisma or ability to build without instructions causes the Master Builders to reject him, despite the prophesy and the destruction of their world in two days. Bad Cop and an army of robot police and control agents called “micromanagers” track down Emmet, and destroy Cloud Cuckoo land in the subsequent battle, capturing most of the remaining master builders. Emmet and his companions, now including a spaceman and Princess Unikitty, construct an escape submarine to evade capture. During the construction Emmet notices they are all idiosyncratic, egoistic in their designs, and imaginative to the point of insanity. He builds a couch that will later serve as their escape capsule when their sub breaks apart underwater.
They are saved by a pirate master builder, who left Cloud Cuckoo Land before the police attacked, and Emmet gathers everyone around to reveal his plan to defeat Business. He tells them they don’t know how to work together, and to infitrate Business’ infinite tower, they have to “do the one thing no one expects… follow the instructions.”
Working together, they disguise themselves as regular worker Legos and infiltrate the tower, almost getting the piece of resistance to the doomsday “kragle” before being discovered and captured by Lord Business. Business takes the remaining living master builders and puts them in his “Think Tank” — a room with a matrix that captures their imaginative capasity and turns it to making the directions everyone else in the world follows. The world now complete, Business plans to kill them and freeze everything in its perfect happy order. Emmet, tied to the battery that will kill the Master builders, destroys the Think Tank and frees everyone by throwing himself out of the world in an act of sacrifice.
Instead of dying, he finds himself in the real world, as a father and son argue over whether Legos are decoration or toys, with the son playing imaginitive games as his besuited father seeks to glue the world into perfection. The son finds Emmet on the floor and returns him to the scene of Armageddon, as micromanagers and police robots terrorize and freeze the world. Emmet, still with the Piece of Resistance, goes to confront Business.
In the world, the father picks up the Business minifig and realizes he’s the bad guy in his son’s story. He asks what the hero would tell Business, and the boy pleads for a role for imagination in an unfrozen world. He explains that the ordered world inspires people to build and create more, and they should be free to express that creativity. Business/the father relent, and the world is made open to imaginative play. But as a condition of freedom, the father explains that his younger daughter will also be allowed to play with the Lego.
The movie ends as the Duplo figures emerge from an alien craft and say, “We are from the planet Duplo and we are here to destroy you.”
We also tells the story of a besotted builder who is a happy cog in the machine of a twisted utopia, from the perspective of his own diary. Instead of being a construction worker, D-503 (here they have numbers instead of names) is the chief engineer of the Integral, a spaceship designed to launch four months after the opening of the novel. The place is called One State, and its first spaceship’s mission is to conquer — bringing One State’s form of absolute automated life and perfect happiness to whatever beings may inhabit the stars.
Much of the book touches on the next four months of D-503's life, but it also paints the world he’s in. His city is all that we know of being left of civilization. It is a glass city, domed, and ringed with a green wall. Beyond is the ruins of terrible mass destruction, grown over by nature in Earth’s steady and slow healing way. The city of One State is governed by the Well-Doer, and its great prophet is Frederick Taylor. Taylor, the 19th-century inventor of Scientific Management, designed systems to train and deploy people as machines, perfectly performing repetitive tasks with maximal efficiency. He was not popular with unions.
Like all citizens of One State, D-503 lives in a glass apartment, so that the police (called guardians) can keep an eye on him. There is only a curtain for sex, which is arranged by the government via a system of pink claim checks citizens can issue on each other. Procreation must be permitted and all children, once born, belong to the One State. D-503 has a regular partner, O-90. Walking along with her one day, he bumps into the seductive and slightly insane I-330, who smokes, drinks, has sex without pink slips, and gets phony sick notes from a corrupt doctor. They start up a relationship over the next weeks, and D-503 can never bring himself to turn her in despite the rampant law breaking. D-503 still sees O-90, who convinces him to give her an illegal, unpermitted baby.
D-503 begins to dream at night and imagine by day — signs of mental illness in One State. His co-workers become concerned by his apparent illness. Eventually I-330 reveals that she is part of the resistance, called Mephi, whose goal is the blow up the green wall and return One State to nature. She sneaks him beyond the wall, where he sees people-like things covered in fur. These are people, wearing animal skins, but D-503 knows so little of the world, he’s never sure.
As things begin to unravel more, and everyone spends more time dodging the guardians, O-90 realizes she can’t give up her baby, and D-503 convinces her to go to I-330 to be spirited beyond the wall where she can keep her own child. Meanwhile, D-503 has been diagnosed with a soul, and told that imagination is making him miserable and criminal, all of which he embraces as true. He’s told of a new surgery done with x-rays that destroys the part of the brain that causes imagination and emotions, and will allow him to be a perfect Taylor human-robot. He is in turns eager and hesitant to get the operations.
On the day of the election of the Well-Doer (who is always elected in unanimous glory), I-330 and many others choose their deaths by publicly voting against unanimity. The surgery is mandated for all citizens of One State, but too late — many people are in open rebellion, part of the green wall has been blown up, and birds and corpses can be seen on the streets.
In his last entry D-503 relates that he’s had the great operation and can’t understand why he made such a big deal out of the last few months. In the background, One State is likely failing, his first lover is on the run to find the woodland tribes, and I-330 is tortured and liquified in front of him. But D-503 is fixed now, sharing the table of the Well-Doer, and sure that he will triumph, “For Reason must prevail.”