It sounds like a hackneyed horror movie: A bunch of psychopaths are on the loose, killing innocents and consuming everything in their path. They're on a course to destroy life as we know it, and we invited them into our homes.
But this is no B-grade fright fest. Instead, it's a documentary on the phenomenon of multinational business behemoths. The Corporation, a smart and scary film directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, is all about the rise of an entity it says has come to be the dominant institution in our society like the monarchy and the church before it. In a brief introduction, Achbar and Abbott explain how corporations were initially formed following the Industrial Revolution. When the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution eliminated slavery and guaranteed equal protection to all citizens, a group of businesses redefined themselves as corporate entities enterprises with the rights of an individual. This tactic allowed owners to have limited liability and the rights of "moral persons with no morals."
The history lesson sets up the film's clever conceit of administering a personality test to the "person" that is the typical corporation. Utilizing the World Health Organization's psychiatric tools, the film diagnoses the corporation as extremely antisocial, with the characteristics of an ax-wielding maniac. Whether the symptom in question is the incapacity to experience guilt, the failure to conform to social norms or the inability to maintain healthy relationships, the film argues that we've got a monster making our goods for us.
Achbar and Abbott have also conducted a dizzying array of interviews with the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and historian Howard Zinn. However, the best interviews are with business insiders, some of whom even acknowledge that they are part of a system that is greedily consuming resources, exploiting or killing people and poisoning the environment. But while the interviewees say they're trying to implement nobler practices, it still seems as if little is being done to stop the freefall into the abyss. As Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest carpet manufacturer, admits, "Someday, people like me will be in jail" for what they've done.
The exhaustive interviews and case studies of big baddies like Disney, Nike and Shell seem to suggest that there is no way to stop corporations that rival governments in power. Instead, the film says, these financial-page titans effectively subdue a willing public with branding and advertising that begin in childhood.
For nearly two hours, Abbott and Achbar leave us in desperate need of a solution to the dire crisis they present. Examples of potential reforms are quickly shot down. Not only are corporations not to be trusted, the audience is left to think, but we mindless consumers are also to blame for buying into a system we don't really want. For all its intelligence and organization, the film admits defeat by implying that we won't stop drinking hormone-laced milk, wearing clothes that may come from sweatshops or washing those same clothes with detergents that are running off in our water supply and killing the habitat.
At the end of The Corporation, the forces of evil are creeping up the steps to our bedroom, ax in hand, and we've got nowhere to hide. It's the perfect Halloween movie.