It’s difficult enough to make a successful commercial movie that affects the way we think about political or social issues. In general, people go to the movies to escape the stresses of the modern world, not be confronted with a reflection of them. But if you are going to make a movie that pushes political boundaries, it’s best to give the audience a clue as to what they are about to receive.
What you should not do is release such a movie a week before Christmas, call it “Toys,” and have it star Robin Williams, fresh off of his kid-friendly turn as Peter Pan in “Hook.” The good people at Twentieth Century Fox may not have read the script, or they may have had no idea how to market a whimsical comedy/fantasy/war drama because the trailer avoided any reference to the movie’s darker elements:
“Toys” opened on December 18, 1992 to awful reviews and an even worse box office. Most critics were impressed by the film’s visual style but felt it was wasted on an uneven, lackluster screenplay. Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it a “magnificent mess, a chaotic fantasy set in a brilliantly vivid, Surreal landscape.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film an F, writing that “‘Toys’ isn’t a movie, exactly — it’s a bunch of sets waiting for the characters to show up.” The Los Angeles Times called it “expensive and hollow.” After these poor reviews and the misleading trailer, “Toys” disappointed audiences, making only $21 million at the domestic box office, less than half its budget.
Watching it twenty years later without the burden of high expectations, “Toys” is not such a bad film. It’s entertaining, unique, and it admirably takes risks with its abrupt changes in tone. The reason that it failed so miserably with critics and audiences alike is that, much like another film reviewed in this space, American audiences were not ready to hear its message.
The plot of “Toys” is unusual in its details but is grounded in standard fairy-tale stuff. The founder and CEO of a toy company dies, and instead of bequeathing it to his silly, good-natured son Leslie (Williams), he leaves the entire company to his brother Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon), a three-star general and lifetime military man. Leland becomes bored with the company almost immediately; he spends much time lamenting both the cruel fate that has landed him at Zevo Toys but also the need for reduced federal military spending, which, we presume, led to his discharge.
But Leland comes up with a way to make his job at Zevo Toys much more appealing. He realizes that he can transform modern warfare for more fiscally lean times by producing tiny unmanned vehicles that can be used as weapons in future wars. These armed miniature helicopters and tanks will be controlled by children, who have been raised on video games and are located far away from the field of battle.
Sound familiar? In 1992, this would have seemed a fantasy, but today, we call this drone warfare. It is a crucial element of the War on Terror and has been used extensively for aerial surveillance, as well as military strikes. Both the Obama and Bush administration’s use of drone warfare in Pakistan in particular has been a source of much criticism by organizations interested in protecting civil liberties and promoting transparency. The reason for the outrage has been twofold. First, drone strikes are categorically inaccurate. There has been some debate as to the extent of their inaccuracy, but the Brookings Institution estimated that drone strikes may kill “10 or so” civilians per every militant killed. Also, there is little oversight of the drone program; indeed, the entire program is classified.
Leland notes towards the end of the film that his career in the military included stints in Korea and Vietnam. He represents the old-guard military man who probably loved the bloated defense budgets of the Reagan administration but still misses the “hot” wars that defined much of the 20th century. Leland knows that, due to budgetary constraints, warfare is going to change. In many ways, he is one of the most forward thinking in the group. When he shares his ideas with some of his old friends from the Pentagon, their reaction, interested but skeptical, mirrors that of the American people. In “Wired for War,” an incisive 2009 book on robotics in the military, author P.W. Singer wrote that
while we accept change in other realms, we resist trying to research and understand change in the study of war. For example, the very real fear about what the environment will look like as far away as 2050 has driven individuals, governments, and companies alike to begin (belatedly) changing their practices. Yet we seem willing to stay oblivious to the changes that will come well before then for war, even though, just like the changes in global climate, we can already see the outlines of the transformation underway.
Leland’s vision represents the future of warfare, and it is a future to which the filmmakers stand clearly opposed. Today, drones are used not necessarily to save taxpayer dollars but to sanitize war to maintain the public’s approval. Levinson’s film was a prescient commentary on how our innocence is used against us by the military. Technological advances have turned Levinson’s fantasy into reality. The final battle in “Toys” pits Leland’s drones against the old, happy toys that Zevo used to make. In the film, good wins out, and Leslie takes control of the company, scrapping the war toys division. In reality, it is a battle that is still being fought twenty years later.