Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in Print and Film: Technology, Imagination, and the Networked Catastrophe

In the midst of widespread reboots, remixes, and remakes of popular media, I’ve been considering how expansion of technological devices and networks have impacted the narratological and ideological composition of such films in ways that we might be less prepared to notice, today, given the ubiquity of such gadgets, devices, and technology. With the relatively recent remake of the children’s “classic” story Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett (1978) as a film (2009)—summaries of which I, apologetically, do not have the space to provide here—a noticeable series of shifts appear that indicate a movement towards abolishing the suspension of disbelief, the reduction of what we might call non-material imagination (i.e. imagination not subjugated to use-value, the production cycle, or pragmatics) to mere innovation/invention of commodities, and the expansion of natural disasters into networked catastrophes with more far reaching economic, political, social, and environmental impacts.

The cultural scripts of progress and techno-scientific innovation/invention that govern the opening moment of the film deal with the lonely, isolated child-scientist, Flint Lockwood, who wants to change the world by means of innovation. In the original narrative, no explanation is offered as to why food falls from the sky, but in the film version, everything is “explained” to the child- and adult-viewer by “science,” various technologies, and “facts.” And by “science,” I mean the grand narratives of science within the spectacle of society that, still today, in Roland Barthes’s words, have “picked up after bourgeois positivism and been used by society to maintain the fiction of a theological truth disengaged from language” (Rustle 9-10). Without reducing science and technology to the same thing—see Juri Lotman’s description of these as antithetical, the former being characterized by “explosions” of knowledge and the latter by gradual developments (88)—the child who enjoyed food that “just” fell from the sky, and the imaginative pleasure derived from such a suspension of disbelief, now is left merely to consume the “facts” offered to explain away…well, everything that happens in the story. Even the iconographic Jello sunset in the book gets appropriated for use-value: it becomes the means of Flint’s (awkward) seduction of Sam Sparks.

For Theodor Adorno, the “human spirit can’t be content with mere ‘factuality’” (“Note” 39), and it’s precisely this emphasis of pragmatic factuality that engenders perhaps the greatest loss in this remake. The local problem in Barrett’s Cloudy also becomes a global “natural” catastrophe in the film. The combination of out of control food production and the massive accumulation of wasted food behind the town’s dam results in this “natural disaster” that threatens not only the town but the whole globe, the blame of which falls onto the mayor at the end who serves as a Girardian scapegoat figure. The expansion of technological networks—and the subsequent subjugation to and surveillance by these networks of most everything—have, benefits notwithstanding, issued in catastrophes, and their related suffering, becoming more far reaching in their effects. For Jean-Luc Nancy, a renewed understanding of “technology” is needed in light of the networked political, economic, social, and environmental relations to account for technology as “not an assembly of functioning means” but instead a force that “exposes us to a condition of finality that had till now been unheard-of: Everything becomes the end and the means of everything” (36), echoing the spirit of Adorno’s haunting words of us all becoming too practical (Minima Moralia 44). What’s left—both for us and the residents of Chewandswallow in the Cloudy film—is not an assemblage of parts as much as, in the mutual cross referencing of everything, the “destruction of all construction and what I might call struction, in the sense of heaping up [amoncellement] without putting together [assemblage]” (Nancy, After 36). The shift seen in the Cloudy book to the Cloudy film illustrates the primacy of techno-scientific advancement and their resulting hyperobjects (see Morton) under a rule of general equivalency within the network, which can (though by no means has to) come at the cost of imagination. If individuals and social collectives have any chance at freedom and social justice, imagination will be crucial—including a sympathetic imagination to think oneself into the life of another, even those with whom we vehemently disagree. Such a sympathetic imagination rests on the ability to decide, at crucial moments, to suspend disbelief and think new worlds into existence, even imaginary ones in which manna falls mysteriously from the sky.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. 1951. London: Verso, 1974.

---. “Note on Human Science and Culture.” 1963. Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Trans. Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 37-41.

Barthes, Roland. “From Science to Literature.” The Rustle of Language. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. 3-11.

Barrett, Judi and Ron Barrett. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 1978. New York: Antheum, 1982.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. 1970. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Cloudy with a Chance of MeatballsDir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Columbia Pictures. 2009.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. After Fukushima. 2012. New York: Fordham UP, 2015.

LotmanJuriThe Unpredictable Workings of Culture. Tallinn: TLU Press, 2013.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013.


Hi Mike,

As a mom of two, I know well how enjoyable--and sanity-saving--it can be to apply rhetorical theory to children's media, to which we parents are exposed ad nauseam, so I very much appreciate your post. For a while, my daughter watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 on repeat, so my question for you stems from that.

For my adult viewer-and-scholar self, the critiques of Cloudy 2 resonated, such as the technological creation of and threat to destroy ecosystems, questions of the pristine, the wild, and human intervention, ethical treatment of the animal and environmental 'other' ("I am not a monkey--I am an APE!!"), the Steve Jobs villain whose hippie flavor of corporate greed is exploitative of both environments and people, the self-replicating nature of consumer culture... There's a good bit going on there, even though I honestly find the film annoying to watch. 

But bigger than that, to me, was the narrative structure's similarity to the Jurassic Park films. It has made me think about how our culture is infused with contradictory impulses of technophilia and techophobia, often depicted through sci-fi narratives, and the ways in which these messages have been communicated to child audiences. 

Do you feel that, as with the original transmediation from print to screen you discuss, what is lost here is the imaginative in the factual, or are there other more dominant concepts at play for you in this film? Does this film manage to bring back any of the lost awe from the book, or does it present only further loss? 

Do you feel there is a sense across children's programming that what's good for adults is good for kids, i.e. filmmakers logicking that the Jurassic model has worked before, so why not reapply it, rather than thinking about what message it sends or about trying to send some other message instead? Is this connection meant as sympathy for adult viewers? Or is this merely one instance of "bad" filmmaking (forced romantic side-plot, illogical science, flattened villainy, abundant cliche), same for kids' media as for adults'?

Thanks for raising the discussion!


Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.