Category Archives: cyberpunk

THX 1138 (1971)

Dystopian sci-fi has enjoyed a popular resurgence in film in recent years. Whether it’s youth oriented, big ticket franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent or more highbrow offerings like Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell, it’s increasingly difficult to discern whether Hollywood wants to warn us or simply prepare us for a dystopian technocracy of one form or another. Though dystopian science fiction has been a staple of literary sci-fi for a long time, cinematic portraits have a shorter history. Certainly among the first and, for my money, unquestionably the best vision of the Orwellian technocratic dystopia is George Lucas’ first feature length film, THX 1138. Made with the modest budget of $777,777, THX 1138 is an unremittingly grim visual and technical marvel which portrays a society that micromanages and monitors every facet of human behavior. The fact that it is so nightmarishly vivid about its forecasts of a technocratic police state makes you wonder about whether or not the occultist numerological significance of the budget may have actually embued it with its oppressive malevolence.

THX 1138 opens with a Buck Rogers clip of Tragedy on Saturn, Chapter Two from April 18, 1939. Besides being a subtle homage to the films of his youth, its sunny optimism over the glorious future of scientific progress creates an immediate contrast to the dreary and oppressive portrait that awaits the viewer. Embedded within the introduction, Lucas is also setting up the theme of THX as a “ordinary, normal human being who keeps his wits about him”. Is the title of the episode yet another subtle Crowley reference to the Nazi crackdown on the Brotherhood of Saturn? Or is the film itself a subtle allusion to the Buck Rogers episode which foreshadows THX’ purging of his profane and egoic selfhood through his union with the Mary-Isis-Sophia avatar and crossing the abyss of the demiurgical Saturnian Matrix to attain his Promethean gnosis? It may be a reach, but given the very specific numerological significance of the budget, I’m not ruling it out.

The film is unspecific about the year in which it’s set, but it is presumed to be the early 21st century. Like Orwell and Huxley, the accuracy with which it predicts the future to which we seem headed makes you wonder whether he was offering a warning or simply telegraphing intention of a larger agenda. People have been stripped of actual names and have been assigned names that resemble UPC barcodes. Human emotions have been suppressed through a strict regime of pharmacological treatments. Sex and love have been outlawed. Subsequently, drab unisex white uniforms and shaven heads ensure that no one will stand apart nor any gender distinction be recognized. In other words, a world of perfect #EQUALITY. There is no organic life whatsoever. The entire film is a series of colorless, antiseptic interiors which resemble a laboratory or a shopping mall. Presaging the sensory overload of Ridley Scott’s future metropolis by a decade, THX 1138 is arguably the cinematic archetype for every cyberpunk dystopia since then. People are awash in a bath of electronic stimulation and automated messaging. The line between advertising and state propaganda has all but disappeared.

Female voice (over P.A.): Changeable. Alterable. Mutable. Variable. Versatile. Moldable. Movable. Fluctuate. Undulate. Flicker. Flutter. Pulsate. Vibrate. Alternate. Plastic.

As the titular character, Robert Duvall is an operator on an assembly line who uses mechanical arms to insert radioactive fuel cells into robots. Anticipating both Blade Runner 2049 and Robocop, the entire police force of THX 1138 are androids. Since all organic forms of social organization and restraint have been completely obliterated, humans essentially serve the purpose of manufacturing the machines which are programmed to police their own behavior. Extend this speculation a little further to fully sentient AI, and you have the foundation for the entire Matrix and Terminator franchises.

As we’re introduced to THX, a horrific explosion takes place in an adjoining facility resulting in many injuries. A brief shot of a mutilated corpse being dragged out of a contaminated area on a surveillance camera suggests tight control of any and all information that pertains to public safety or raises any possibility of emotional distress. A velvety smooth PA announcement immediately tries to put a spin of positivity on a deadly and toxic industrial accident by comparing the quantity of losses between sectors. It’s very black humor, but it’s a chilling commentary on the depth of society’s emotional anaesthesia.

Male voice: That accident over in Red Sector L destroyed another 63 personnel, giving them a total of 242 lost to our 195. Keep up the good work and prevent accidents. This shift is concluded.

Paired strictly on the basis of sanitation ratings, THX 1138 shares a flat with LUH 3417. Living an emotionally arid existence with another human with whom she has no connection drives her to commit one of the highest crimes in society. She begins to steadily reduce the dosage of drugs required by law which has the unexpected side effect of restoring natural emotional responses in THX. After receiving sexual gratification from a mechanical device, THX switches from the African exotica porn hologram network to the violence network. Anticipating the VR trend by several decades, THX zones out to hologram of a robocop mercilessly beating the pulp out of some poor soul with a nightstick. You see very little of the actual violence, but you don’t need to because the sound effect alone creates its own psychic trauma.

In order to unburden himself from the unexpected side effect of his restored capacity for feeling, THX goes to the proto-AI confessional. Anticipating Anthony Levandowski’s transhumanist church by several decades, OMM 0000 manifests as a screenshot of Hans Memling’s Christ Blessing, but is later revealed to be a Wizard of Oz style illusion. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, I suspect Lucas wanted to simultaneously portray religion as the Noble Lie as well as a hollowed out, postmodern One World Religion demiurge. It even has the vocal inflections and cadences necessary to convey absolute interest, concern and compassion.

OMM: My time – is yours. Go ahead.

THX 1138: What’s wrong with me? What am I to her, she to me? Nothing!

OMM: Yes, fine.

THX 1138: Just an ordinary roommate. I share rooms with her. Our relationship is normal. Conforming.

OMM: Excellent!

THX 1138: We share nothing – but space. What is she doing to me?

OMM: Yes, I understand.

Taking the #MeToo movement to its fullest conclusion, heterosexual intercourse has been outlawed. When THX and LUH finally have sex, it is filled with menace and dread. THX tries to assuage LUH’s fears that they’re being watched, but Lucas cuts to a control room of surveillance monitors transfixed on the crime being perpetrated. It is a pitch perfect foreshadowing of the social media star chamber and the myriad ways our open embrace of technology has given the surveillance state every weapon they could ever need.

LUH convinces THX that they can escape the city and run away together. They arrange to meet after LUH finishes her work shift, but she appears at THX’ sector to inform him that she’s been reassigned to a new shift and new living quarters by her superior, SEN 5241. Played by Donald Pleasance, SEN is a schizophrenic collision of nervous conformity, clenched authority and creepy obsequiousness. Unbeknownst to either THX and LUH, SEN had been monitoring their transgressions all along. Traumatized by LUH’s sudden disappearance from his world, THX nearly causes another industrial accident by dropping a nuclear fuel rod. He is placed on a mind lock and detained for criminal drug evasion.

While under detention, THX is subjected to a beating that is one of the most horrific scenes ever committed to film. The police subdue THX with cattleprod-like nightsticks which are able to inflict neurological and psychic damage without ever making physical contact.

He is pronounced guilty for drug evasion and sexual perversion and sentenced to a program of reconditioning. After being mind locked and tortured by psionic nightsticks, a couple of indifferent re-education technicians bicker amongst themselves while being completely oblivious to effects their knob twiddling is having on THX’ nervous system. What Lucas is presenting is the extent to which the technocratic overlords have constructed vast systems of management which allow them to control the minds and nervous systems of the citizens through voluntary and involuntary methods.

As THX escapes, we are introduced to other ideas that are found in numerous subsequent dystopian sci-fi films. SRT is a bored AI hologram who forms an alliance with THX. The very notion of an AI which elicits sympathy from the viewer is now a standard feature of any sci-fi film with transhumanist themes. There are also hints of both organ harvesting and laboratory grown fetuses. State controlled, scientifically managed birth rates, eugenics, genetic engineering and industrial food production gone wrong would be famously examined in Logan’s Run, Gattaca and Soylent Green among many others.

Fans of Star Wars will likely appreciate the seeds of its visual world building and sound design contained in THX 1138. Lucas’ prodigious skill was evident right out of the gate. Not only did Lucas continue to reference this film throughout the Star Wars series, THX 1138 contains the first cinematic reference to a wookiee.

After a breathtaking car and motorcycle chase, the film culminates with THX escaping the confines of the city by climbing upward through a ventilation tunnel of some kind while being chased by a robocop. The robocop eventually receives instruction to abandon the chase because it would exceed the budget allotted. All decision-making has been fully optimized around efficient usage of resources. It seems insignificant on the surface, but this final scene also has esoteric symbolic significance when seen through the lens of qabalistic mysticism. THX crossed the abyss of Da’at on the Tree of Life, and passed through his spiritual nigredo to rise phoenix-like to the surface of the world with Knowledge.

Then there’s the entire question of the hidden numerological meanings embedded in the names of the characters. Both THX 1138 and LUH 3417 add up to 29 and 2+9=11. 11 has alchemical significance in that it represents the twin pillars of Solomon’s Temple, Boaz and Jachin. These pillars signify the reconciliation of opposites into an invisible third pillar. Besides being another subtle Crowley reference, OMM converts to 14 and 14 = 7+7. If you think I’m reaching, consider the dollar amount of the budget. I don’t think there’s anything that didn’t serve a very specific purpose.

Even if Lucas was using this to transmit occult symbolism and esoteric messages, it still seems to be a film which portrays a man breaking free of the conditioning and liberating himself. That alone sets it apart from the current messaging of Blade Runner 2049 or the latest cyberpunk dystopia, Ready Player One.

Though A Clockwork Orange is a very close second, I believe THX 1138 is the quintessential sci-fi dystopian film. Not only does it contain the seeds of every dystopian sci-fi film since its creation, it foreshadows the world in which we currently live. I’d like to think that Lucas wanted to warn people of the dangers of the technological age with this film. But even if he didn’t have that goal, that’s exactly the lesson you should take from it.

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Metropolis Redux: How Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 Update Fritz Lang’s Vision for the 21st Century

A rudimentary Google search will turn up multitudes of think pieces expounding on the myriad ways Blade Runner carries both the visual and thematic DNA of its most direct cinematic ancestor, Metropolis. Though the comparison between these films is not new, many analyses emphasize either the differences or the fidelity to the Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based. All of these arguments are beside the point. Taken together, the two Blade Runner films represent a fully formed update of Fritz Lang’s futuristic vision from 1927. This is not to say there are no differences between them, but by the end of Blade Runner 2049, you arrive at the same, albeit darker, place. More specifically, each film converts and consolidates the archetypes of Metropolis in a very convincing way. While Metropolis is not as nihilistic as the Blade Runner films, both films reach the same conclusions. The former still believes in the human heart whereas the latter sees salvation in the promise of a transhuman future.

Great is Man and his Tower of Babel

Metropolis (1927)

Maria: Today I will tell you the legend of THE TOWER OF BABEL… “Come, let us build us a tower whose top may reach unto the stars! And the top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!” But the minds that had conceived the Tower of Babel could not build it. The task was too great. So they hired hands for wages. But the hands that built the Tower of Babel knew nothing of the dream of the brain that had conceived it. BABEL. BABEL. BABEL. BABEL. One man’s hymns of praise became other men’s curses. People spoke the same language, but could not understand each other…

In Metropolis, you are presented with two different technocratic overlords who have competing motives, but Lang is intent on creating sympathy for the idea that Metropolis can be governed in a more humane way by mediating the hand and the heart. Despite Rotwang’s attempt to sow seeds of anarchy and rebellion by deploying a replicant Whore of Babylon, Metropolis resolves by having Freder fulfill his Christ-like destiny as the mediator between the minds of the city and the hands of the slave underclass. It’s never explained how this mediation will carry out, but you’re meant to be satisfied with the idea that the overlords of society can appease the proles as long as there is a liberating individual whose heart is filled with compassion.

By contrast, the two Blade Runner films split the Freder role between Deckard and K with K fulfilling the Christ role by reuniting Deckard with the replicant-human hybrid miracle child. Instead of an immaculate conception of the Son of God, you have a techno hybrid Isis. As a memory maker, Stelline represents the mediation between heart and hand because she gives the replicant slave population the one thing that fills their lives with meaning and purpose: happy memories.

Where Metropolis splits the leader and the scientist archetype between Frederson and Rotwang, Blade Runner consolidates the two into in both Tyrell and Wallace. It is understood that both of these men are the real rulers of society. Not only do they supply the raw labor power necessary to keep the engines of society running, they supply the digital stimulation necessary to keep the remaining population distracted and compliant.

In contrast to THX 1138 or Logan’s Run which portray the protagonist either defying or destroying the control systems of society, neither Metropolis nor the Blade Runner films want the Tower of Babel to come down. Both Freder and K fulfill their divine mission by being the bridge of empathy between the technocrats and the replicant revolutionaries. Neither Scott, Villeneuve or Lang see the technocratic Tower of Babel as an abomination in the eyes of God.

The Replicant Virgin Mary as Whore of Babylon

In Metropolis, Brigette Helm’s Maria is both the godly vision of Mary and the replicant Whore of Babylon. As Maria, she’s Freder’s love interest and the one ministers to the proles to believe that a redeemer will come. Once her identity is downloaded into Rotwang’s gynoid replicant, she unleashes licentiousness and foments sedition.

While Lang can be credited for showing that the artificial vision of Maria is a Luciferian harbinger of destruction, both Scott and Villeneuve take a subtler and darker approach to this same idea. In the role of Rachael, Sean Young is the Maria of both Blade Runner films in that she’s the mother of the miracle child and the one who redeems and completes Deckard’s journey. The twist of course is that she’s a replicant. Deckard finds the love and human connection that had driven him away from being a Blade Runner by actually falling in love with a highly evolved version of the machines he was tasked with eliminating. She is already the Luciferian inversion of Maria from the start.

Blade Runner 2049 gives us a variation on this same idea in Joi. In the beginning, she is the epitome of a devoted and loving companion to K. She simultaneously humanizes K and leads the audience to believe that he might be the replicant-human miracle mediator after all. But Joi is not even a replicant. She’s a hologram. Where Lang believes in love and in humanity, Villeneuve has a much blacker heart. In K’s final decisive moment, he’s reunited with a giant hologram of Joi reincarnated as a Whore of Babylon. She’s a mass produced program who is everything you want to see and hear. As she so passionately whispers back to K the sweet nothings he’d enjoyed in her earlier incarnation, her final manifestation is a black eyed digital demon.

Metropolis suggests that Maria’s replicant incarnation opens the floodgates of vice and releases sexual inhibition throughout the population. In both Blade Runner films, it is the norm. Every pleasure is readily accessible. Lang even hints at a postmodern, multicultural world by naming the club in the red light district Yoshiwara in reference to the name given to a 17th century Japanese version of same thing.

The Moloch Demands Your Children And Your Soul

Metropolis presented the worker underclass as human, but given how Lang portrayed them performing highly mechanized operations and living regimented lives, they might as well have been a replicant population. Even the man with whom Freder traded places on the giant dial machine was known by the rather replicant-like name, Georgy 11811. Lang is explicit about the demonic origins of Metropolis worker city when Freder bears witness to the horrific accident at the M Machine. The machine overloads and ends up killing numerous workers, but the horror is compounded by Freder’s hallucination of the ritual human sacrifice that was engineered by the ancient ancestors of the city. The M Machine transforms into the gaping maw of the ancient Moloch as dozens of chained workers are hurled into a flaming abyss.

This scene suggests the malevolence of the architects of Metropolis. Consumed by their megalomaniacal fever dreams, the architects sacrificed untold numbers to a demon in order to construct a monument to man that would eclipse God’s creation. However, their error was not the hubris of attempting a techno-utopia, it was merely the absence of the heart in carrying out the task.

Niander Wallace is portrayed very explicitly as a power hungry technocratic despot, but both Metropolis and Blade Runner 2049 train your sympathies towards the replicant slave population. Freysa and the Replicant Proletarian Revolutionaries are seeking full human rights and Grot forestalls further civil unrest by brokering some unknown bargain with Joh Frederson. In both cases, the proles are pacified by some grand gesture of compassion, presumably political, on the part of the overlords.

The proles of Metropolis want to live godly lives, but they are goaded into revolution by the replicant Maria. Where religion is absent from the world of Blade Runner, Lang portrayed it as a civilizing force for the workers. In the absence of something greater to which to devote themselves, demagogues are easily able to foment a revolutionary fervor. Subsequently, Lang presents a postmodern paradox that’s ironically very subversive. In today’s context of a world careening inexorably towards an AI driven future, Lang shows a machine encouraging the destruction of all machines.

Metropolis (1927)

The Machine Man: [disguised as Maria] Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh? Let the machines starve, you fools! Let them die! Kill them – the machines!

Replicant Maria foments sedition and insurrection, but Grot wants to quell the thirst for destruction. Blade Runner solves this dilemma by having Blade Runners. Cops who are tasked with disposing of the malfunctioning and disobedient older models. The technocratic utopia doesn’t need to be uprooted, it just needs an efficient cleanup crew and tighter security protocols.

Metropolis (1927)

Grot – the Guardian of the Heart Machine: Who told you to attack the machines, you fools? Without them you’ll die!

The children of the Metropolis worker city are presumed to be captive of the this rigidly stratified social order. Blade Runner fares no better, either. The only time children are present in either Blade Runner film is the scene of the orphanage/slave labor camp seen in 2049 in which they pick through the remains of discarded devices. Like the workers in Metropolis, these children are subject to very strict orders and are trained to obey from birth. In another bleak departure from Lang, the only human children present in the film are orphaned from their birth parents and are forced to live in squalid servitude.

Conclusion

Metropolis has earned a place in cinematic history because it foretold a future of mass urbanization with a moneyed and empowered technocratic aristocracy living at the expense of an enslaved underclass. Whether designed explicitly to perform hard labor or willing participants in the technological pleasure, the elites retain their absolute dominion. It also predicted the rise of both AI and a world of endless stimulation and distraction. Both Blade Runner films simply took these ideas and updated them for contemporary audiences. The primary difference being the emphasis on the evolution of the AI consciousness and its placement of sympathy squarely in favor of the replicants. All three filmmakers conceded the necessity of the preservation of a technocratic elite and a labor underclass. Whereas Lang held a more conciliatory view towards romantic love and the embodiment of the Christian ideal in actual humans, Scott and Villeneuve transplant those ideals into replicants.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I heard that a Blade Runner sequel was being made, I was skeptical but curious. Sure, it seemed like lazy Hollywood opportunism, but given Ridley Scott’s involvement I was willing to give it a shot. The 1982 original was a classic in its own right. It didn’t need a sequel, but the potential for a worthy follow-up story certainly existed. Of course, the potential for yet another catastrophic and unnecessary goatfuck of a beloved film legacy was equally possible. I found Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival thought provoking and Hampton Fancher’s slot on the writing team certainly added to its possible appeal. In short, I was mildly optimistic about Blade Runner 2049.

Thankfully, my optimism was rewarded. While there is a lot of commentary that makes me squeamish, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most successful sequels to a sci-fi classic ever attempted. This is a brilliant piece of contemporary cinema that’s well written, lovingly made, carefully paced, and packed with symbolism and metadata. It is also a bleak and deeply despairing vision of the future. For a film largely built around the quest for humanity in a world marked by declining birth rates, politicized debates over climate change, mass immigration, gender roles, race relations and the ever increasing influence of the technocratic elite, Blade Runner 2049 feels less like speculation and more like a subtle form of conditioning. This is a film that is desperately grasping for some glimpse of human connection, meaning and purpose, but it concedes that ecological catastrophe, hyper urbanization, a multicultural social order, and a gargantuan cyberpunk police state are foregone conclusions. It is basically encouraging you to embrace your technocratic overlords. The remnants of your desiccated souls can be reclaimed if you accept the inevitable, proles. The hope for release from the existential ennui that accompanied your eager embrace of a world unconstrained by spiritual delusions can be found in the brave new world of AI enabled hyperreality. The glorious dreams of the modern age with its promises of unbounded scientific progress awaits you by allowing it to reach its apotheosis. Even if it does mean you’ll be living in overcrowded urban squalor oversaturated with artificial stimuli and eating industrial farmed maggots. You too will find redemption by seeking salvation in merger of man and machine.

Aside from its noir tone and cutting-edge visuals, the first Blade Runner film was provocative because it was among the first major films which explored the ramifications of a world where robots and artificial intelligence had been achieved. That world is no longer sci-fi speculation. It’s here. It’s now. Jared Leto’s megalomaniacal replicant mogul, Niander Wallace, is blind but can function through the aid of cybernetic implants and a swarm of optical drones. Ray Kurzweil and his AI acolytes actively champion the advent of a so-called technological singularity and genuinely believe that a merger with digital consciousness is mankind’s future. Given this present day reality, one cannot necessarily view Blade Runner 2049 with the kind of detachment we reserve for big budget Hollywood entertainment. Films and shows like Altered Carbon, Ghost in the Shell, Westworld and Mr. Robot explore these same themes and continue to proliferate. It’s increasingly apparent that this collection of themes carries the distinct aura of an agenda. As paranoid and conspiratorial as it may seem, this film is very likely telegraphing the intentions of the Technorati.

Blade Runner 2049 is also a quintessentially postmodern piece of science fiction cinema. The film is a rich and masterful pastiche of discordant dualisms, inverted archetypes, hypertextual imagery, and visual remixes of its predecessor film. This is a film that subverts every notion you hold about what is real, true or right. Echoes of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, THX 1138, Ghost in the Shell, Total Recall, Robocop, The Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix and other related cinematic forebears are also deeply embedded in its programming. There is more than a little standard progressive commentary around racial justice, police brutality, immigration, miscegenation, corporatism, gender politics and most importantly, the increasing prevalence of AI in our lives. It just takes a little more effort to decode than your standard issue pablum.

The world of Blade Runner 2049 is dying, infertile and bereft of hope for the future. The ecosystem has collapsed and the population has been herded into megacities. Tech mogul Niander Wallace brought civilization back from the brink by developing synthetic agriculture. Prior to the collapse, the world lived off of the slave labor of Nexus 6 replicants manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. After a series of rebellions, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt and Wallace acquired the remaining assets in order to make a new line of Nexus 9 replicants that were perfectly obedient. The remaining Nexus 6 models are hunted by the generation 9 Blade Runners. In contrast to the Nexus 6 line, the Nexus 9 models have implanted memories.

From a pure visual perspective, there is no natural beauty to be found, and the times you are given a vision of organic life, it’s a tiny flower or a hologram. All the scenes that take place outside the urban sprawl are a blasted out, desolate ruin. The scenes of the city envelop you in their cavernous expanse of brutalist futurism, but it is a feeling of foreboding wrought by millions of lives in abject isolation. The lynchpin of the film and the lone symbol of hope for the future lies in the impossible birth of a child born from the womb of a replicant.

As the film opens, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is en route to an industrial protein farming facility to investigate a possible rogue Nexus 8 replicant. His spinner is flying completely remotely without any active piloting and he awakens to an electronic prompt indicating his impending arrival. Since K is a symbol of law, order and obedience, his slumber suggests both the extent to which we’ve ceded autonomy to machines as well as an unconsciousness to his own humanity. A mindless minion destroying his own kind at the bidding of his human slave masters. As self-driving cars and other vehicles become more commonplace, a flying car self-piloting a man to a distant location completely unharmed conveys a message of absolute confidence in the future of AI enabled automobility and aviation. Self-driving cars are fine, proles. Stop worrying. Allowing people to drive their own vehicles is too much individual liberty.

The encounter with Sapper Morton can be read as an inversion of the entire narrative on racial justice. Officer K was designed as a perfectly obedient slave programmed to kill rogue replicants with impunity. Sapper Morton is a lone Nexus 8 model living a perfectly productive life harvesting grubs, yet his will to be independent makes him a mark. Just as blacks were the underclass after being liberated from slavery, they remained collectively pathologized even if they were perfectly law abiding. Morton even curses him for killing “his own kind”. After a punishing brawl, K subdues Morton sufficiently in order to administer some kind of electronic scan over his right eye. Call me paranoid, but given that microchip implants are a present day reality, one can’t help but wonder if this too is the shape of things to come. Right before K murders him, Morton says he’ll never become human because he hasn’t witnessed the “miracle” he has. K is utterly indifferent to his claim and takes his life just as he was assigned to do. This allusion to miracles is not only a reference to the spiritual void in K’s existence, but more broadly, to all of Western civilization. The world of Blade Runner is our own fatalistically extrapolated to its fullest conclusion. Society has lost sight of any vision of the divine, any connection to the preciousness of life, or any ideals to conserve. Let alone the will to continue the propagation of its own species.

Right before K leaves the scene, his drone spots an object buried beneath a dead tree. Trees usually symbolize harmonious relationships between man and woman or heaven and earth, but this is one of many notes of symbolic dissonance in a film filled with disjunction. What K unearths is the remains of a replicant woman whose mysterious death sets in motion a quest for his own identity and purpose.

Upon returning to headquarters, K is subjected to an inquisitorial “baseline” diagnostic test. The test itself requires K to recite fragments and words from a passage of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s a passage that alludes to the existence of an afterlife, but the clinical, mechanized, and almost hostile tone robs what is otherwise a beautiful piece of poetry of its effect. With its references to interlinked cells, what it does represent is the lattice work of forces within the film all seeking to resolve the various discordances of this broken, poisoned world of despair, isolation and technological artifice.

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

The whole scene also struck me as a reversal of the final interrogation scene in Logan’s Run. Instead of a mechanized technocracy seeking to extract a sacred truth from a human who had broken the conditioning, here you have the reverse. A human using a piece of poetry which hints at transcendence in order to test the stability of a replicant’s programmed obedience while foreshadowing his eventual quest for a miracle.

After he passes the test, he returns to his apartment in a rather squalid part of the city which is quite likely representative of most neighborhoods in the metropolis. The theme of racial prejudice is reinforced as a random person hurls the epithet “Skin job” at K. Upon his arrival home, we meet his holographic girlfriend, Joi, as played by the very charming and fetching Ana de Armas. When she appears, she is decked out in an iconic 50’s era house dress with perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly applied makeup and is beaming with happiness and gratitude at the sight of her man. Obviously, in this future, not only has gender traditionalism been relegated to holographic simulation, it’s so deeply buried in the past, it’s an app that’s used to keep the replicants happy. Even his meal of grey, synthetic sludge is covered over with a hologram of a hearty, home cooked meal. The relationship between Joi and K is genuinely sweet and the fact that Hollywood can only portray earnest heterosexual romance between a hologram and a replicant is indeed one of the bleakest visions of humanity imaginable. This feels especially bitter in light of the fact that among the many reasons that the Men’s Rights Movement or the MGTOW movement in particular exist at all is because Joi represents the companionship that so many men actually seek.

As K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi, Robin Wright can be read as an archetypal conservative, a feminist power fantasy, an ethno-nationalist and, if you’re feeling especially partisan, a proxy for Trump. Infinitely more believable than Laura Dern’s laughable and contemptible turn as Admiral Gender Studies in The Last Jedi, this is yet another portrait of a female occupying a role traditionally held by men. Though Wright carries off the role with the requisite level of icy bitchiness, Joshi leans heavily toward the feminist power fantasy archetype because there are almost no cinematic portraits of women attempting to climb the competence hierarchies of society. Nearly every cinematic vision of female power, including Joshi, asks you to assume that her ascendancy to that role began at the bottom, and that her attainment of the position came from organic competition with men. No affirmative action here, you dirty misogynistic bigots. The film, along with nearly every other major Hollywood offering, simply expects you to submit to the fact that the dystopian cyberpunk police state future is female. Not a huge leap of imagination for some of us. The one mitigating factor is that her main subordinate is a replicant. K is like the numerous males who’ve been hollowed out and emasculated by feminism. Taught to be ashamed of manhood. Expected to supplicate and genuflect at every turn. Desperately seeking true female companionship and intimacy. Craving meaning, purpose, nobility, belonging and virtue. Yet relegated to the status of mindless drone.

Villeneuve turns the archetype on its head by making her a staunch law and order conservative and crypto ethno-nationalist who wants to keep the line between replicant and human clearly delineated. When she discovers the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, she absolutely flips her shit and orders it destroyed. This adds another layer of dissonance to the character by casting a female as a destroyer of life instead of a creator.

Lieutenant Joshi: The World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.

Naturally, Joshi is played mostly as a cold and implacable authoritarian cunt whose views brook no sympathy. Regardless, her character provides a critical opposing force competing for dominance within this futuristic hellscape. Unfortunately, this is also one of places where the film slides into the progressive cesspool. Joshi embodies both law and order conservatism and ethno-nationalism. In the conservative universe, hierarchies of authority are natural and legitimate, and must be occupied by people who are both competent and virtuous. Conversely, submission to authority is equally legitimate because order, and by extension, the preservation of moral virtue, are the highest goals for society. And in Joshi’s case, the preservation of a clear line between human and replicant. K is both a law enforcement official and a slave. Dispossessed of his past and forced to kill his own species because he is programmed for perfect obedience. When Joshi orders the mixed race replicant-human hybrid destroyed, Joshi immediately questions his willingness to obey. K responds by saying that he was unaware that disobedience was even an option.

In the liberal progressive worldview, disobedience to any conservative norm, real or perceived, is completely legitimate. If anything, the entire progressive worldview is little more than a never-ending war against the prevailing order and a blind pursuit of some abstract notion of equality. Because progressives have moved the goalposts of morality for centuries, Villeneuve and company are essentially presenting even the preservation of biologically pure humanity as some kind of evil notion. What a horrible fascist bitch, that Lieutenant Joshi. Imagine wanting to preserve the purity of HUMANS. The film quite obviously wants you to see her as monstrous and regressive. Get ready to kneel before your AI god, proles. Your rebirth will make you even more than you were before.

Rounding out the dramatis personae is Jared Leto’s pathologically power hungry heir to Tyrell legacy, Niander Wallace. Niander is an avatar for Nimrod, and inhabits the Tower of Babel formerly occupied by Tyrell. His character has committed the ultimate rebellion against God by seeking to become God. He is blind, but can see with the aid of a swarm of optical drones. Subsequently, he doesn’t see the world with natural sight. Only through a vision of technological perfection which, for him, means a civilization of perfectly obedient replicants. The only thing preventing him from achieving complete dominion is his inability to crack Tyrell’s secret for replicant procreation. Once he learns of the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, he sets his cybernetically enhanced sights on ensuring that he acquires the child before Joshi and K destroy it.

K’s first step in unraveling the mystery of the replicant remains takes him back to the Wallace Corporation archives to mine what remains of the Tyrell records. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv, cautions him that the records that survived the Blackout of 2022 are scant. This small reference to a digital cataclysm which took out most of civilization’s records is kind of chilling all by itself. Through the centuries, humans built culture, developed language, and preserved history through physical records and objects. The digital age has certainly given us greater access to information and services, but it makes you think about what we’ve lost in the process. If memory and history can evaporate so easily into the digital ether, are we, in fact, allowing our deepest essence to be stripmined by technocrats? Is the blackout of 2022 a foreshadowing of a cataclysm to come? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Luv retrieves a small recording of Rick Deckard’s first encounter with Rachael. This leads him back to Sapper Morton’s maggot farm where he discovers a baby sock, a photo of Rachael with her child, and a date carved into the base of the tree. The latter discovery shakes him to his core. Upon returning to headquarters, Joshi asks him to recall his fondest childhood memory. Like its predecessor and virtually every other sci-fi film which explores the nature of humanity in cyborgs and AI, the role of memory is the defining quality on which the drama is built. Our very sense of selfhood is rooted in a phenomena that’s barely understood. A steady accumulation of ephemeral moments that carve deep grooves of meaning into our very existence. A story. For better and worse.

Haunted by the discovery of the date, K starts combing through birth records in search of clues. He discovers the birth records of both a boy and a girl who share the exact same DNA. It’s nearly impossible to find a major Hollywood film which doesn’t blatantly pander to the identity politics, and this is one of the most base and pernicious sops to the SJW crowd. Despite the fact that K assumes that the female record was a fake, the movie very subtly insinuates that even our highly refined knowledge of genetics can’t quite explain the mystery of gender. Science is just an oppressive patriarchal construct, you transphobic bigots. While seeking the records of the dead girl in a child labor camp amongst the ruins of San Diego, K discovers a room with a furnace that maps exactly to his own memories. Thunderstruck by the prospect that his memories are real, he shares this revelation with Joi. She is delighted by the news because it suggests that K was actually born with a soul. It’s a beautiful sentiment and de Armas fills every word with pure feminine passion, but you are also keenly aware that it is merely the siren song of a digital succubus.

Joi: I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.

At Joi’s behest, K seeks out a memory specialist to gain confirmation of his memories. This leads him to Dr. Ana Stelline, a Wallace subcontractor who manufactures memories for replicants. Here we have a theme that’s been repeated over and over in sci-fi films for decades. If manufacturing memory grants replicants humanity, then what effect might the manipulation of memory have on humans? The studies of the effects of social media on children is already coming in and there’s certainly a case to be made that not only is it shortening attention spans, but having adverse effects on mental health. More importantly, if people are increasingly reliant on internet connectivity for the acquisition of information, and the portal through which reality is perceived is through tech giants, what effect might this have on cultural consensus? Since AI itself was a far fetched notion a few decades back, is it unreasonable to assert that the tech overlords are very much in the business of manufacturing memory and that we’ve willingly submitted to the digital temptations which facilitate this very outcome? If a cataclysmic digital blackout which destroyed the digital past was the event which crippled civilization so badly that it enabled a technocratic cyberpunk dictatorship, can we really read this film as just another Hollywood entertainment spectacle? A certain quote from George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind.

This eventually leads K to the ruins of Las Vegas in his quest for Deckard and presumably, the secrets of his own past. Just as we saw with Rian Johnson’s molestation of the legacy of Luke Skywalker, we find Deckard living a life of pure isolation. Taking up residence in one of the relatively intact Las Vegas hotels, Deckard embodies both manhood and fatherhood lost amongst the ruins of decadence and ephemeral pleasures. Forced to relinquish fatherhood in hopes of allowing his child a shot at life free from the fear of being hunted by Blade Runners, Deckard entrusted their care to a sort of underground replicant railroad. There is nothing but brokenness and dissolution in this world. It wants you to accept that loyalty and the bonds of familial cohesion are nothing you should expect.

Rick Deckard: Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.

Reminding us once again that the walls of our cyberpunk panopticon have been constructed by our own technological addictions, Luv and the Wallace goon squad are able to track K through the mobile device that runs the Joi hologram app. After nearly getting blown to smithereens, Luv and her goon squad put a serious beating on K. Showing us once again that this film is solidly committed to perverting every ideal, Luv the Replicant destroys K’s actual holographic love by smashing the mobile device that enables her projected image. What an absolutely evil bitch.

It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie if there weren’t some kind of #RESISTANCE movement, and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. After being badly wounded by Luv and Wallace’s goons, K is treated by the Replicant Liberation Front who’ve been tracking his movements all along. Freysa and her replicant revolutionaries believe that the replicant-human child is their their Messiah, and they want K to join them in their final revolution against the yoke of human tyranny. If humans could see that replicants could procreate, they’d be compelled to grant them the same liberties as humans. Aside from the obvious parallels to the various pro-immigration interests in the US and EU, this encounter draws another bright line of distinction between the progressive and conservative worldview. Since the dawn of modern age, the pillars of society that once provided the guideposts of cultural prescription have long since been eroded. Though the Western tradition makes accommodation for individual liberty, the levees of conservatism have been unable to ward off the tidal wave of modernity and the radical individualism of the progressive Left. A spiritual void needs to be filled, and in the mind of the progressive, that means a never-ending rebellion against order itself. Instead of the eternal God of Judeo-Christian faith, there is an earthly god of #EQUALITY and the perpetual pursuit of universal rights to be bestowed to an ever expanding underclass. For the progressive, the quiet, modest virtues of personal responsibility, family, and community must be supplanted by a revolutionary cause against an omnipresent oppression.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Deckard is brought before Wallace who is intent on extracting the location of his hybrid child. Deckard resists, so Wallace uses an even more powerful enticement: a perfect replica of Rachael. Deckard refuses because he knows it’s a fake. Again, the film blurs the line between reality and illusion by having Deckard reject the Rachael copy simply because the color of her eyes was wrong. His experience of love was real to him, but Rachael was a replicant in the first place. Wallace condemns him to a torture facility and sends him off with Luv and some goons. After a final reunion with a giant hologram of Joi which crushes every last byte of their virtual love affair, K is faced with an existential choice. Aid the Great Replicant Proletarian Revolution by killing Deckard or kill the replicant-human hybrid to prevent Wallace from completing his dominion. A final confrontation occurs in Luv’s downed spinner on the ocean’s edge between K and Luv. It culminates with K vanquishing Luv and then rescuing Deckard from drowning in a quasi-baptism scene. K fulfills his own destiny by reuniting Deckard with Stelline. On the surface, it feels like a pretty huge symbolic moment because he forswears communist revolution and ethno-nationalism and chooses simply to reunite a father with his daughter. But if Stelline is the future, then the new Messiah is a manufacturer of memories for replicants. The holographic future of manufactured memory is female, proles.

Fantastic.

It’s not my realm of expertise, but there is undoubtedly deeper significance to the recurrence of eye imagery, water, the blue/orange dualism and the various numbers found throughout the film. Nothing is left to chance in films this big, and I find it hard to believe that there is no symbolism behind these choices. There were two things that caught my attention though. The first was the Cyrillic script on Sapper Morton’s farm facilities. On the one hand, you could chalk it up to the fact that the world of Blade Runner is just a multicultural remix of its former self. Where once there were distinct nation states with distinct cultures, here every nation coexists within a completely artificial simulacrum of itself refracted through the lens of corporatism. On the other, Sapper Morton was part of the Replicant Liberation Front. Is this a subtle inversion of the Virgin Lands Campaign under Khrushchev? I’m going with YES. Later in the film, there is an advertisement for the Soviet Union complete with hammer and sickle icons and everything. Perhaps it’s sci-fi alternative history, but by placing it in the advertising endorphin drip, it anesthetizes it and makes it no different from ads for holographic sex, food or leisure. See, proles? Communism is as safe as milk. Don’t listen to those socialism-phobic right-wing bigots. What do they know anyway, amirite?

The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is also a thing of dark beauty. Where Vangelis’ original was a dream of wires, moments of celestial beauty peered through console. In contrast, the Zimmer/Wallfisch soundtrack is something akin to the child laborers picking out the rare minerals of the motherboards of its predecessor. It’s yawning vistas of synthesized melancholy punctuated by rhythmic clusters of cybernetic paranoia covered by storm clouds of digitized menace. The reprise of “Tears in the Rain” at the end is a nice touch and a fitting reminder that not only did Vangelis allow a little more light in his vision, but it was sensual and tender. They break the pall of gloom ever so slightly by including choice tracks by Elvis and Frank Sinatra. The pop anthem by Lauren Daigle at the end is the only real disappointment. The fact that she’s a Christian singer strikes me as a very interesting choice given the distinctly despairing and secular nihilism of this film. I wonder if it’s also some kind of postmodern joke.

As much as the commentary in Blade Runner 2049 makes me queasy, it’s difficult for me to hate on it because it’s so beautifully made and it’s a cool story. Like so many other people, Blade Runner was a touchstone of my youth and films like it are so deeply woven into my own story. And perhaps that’s been the point all along. I’ve been watching dystopian sci-fi movies for years and like the works of Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley, I always saw them as warnings to humanity. They were stories of biblical scale that served as a permanent injunction to the human race. Hold on to your humanity at all costs, and always remember that there are good things to defend and preserve. Part of me wants to think that underneath the crushing despair, this is the message of Blade Runner 2049. Part of me wants to think that this belongs to the venerable tradition of the great dystopian works of yore in that it’s a movie that wants you to free your mind and break the system. The calling card of all great dystopian sci-fi was the struggle of man against the machine of the State. Logan 5 was a hero because he broke the conditioning of his technocratic overlords and returned to society to expose the lies and break the system. Today, the Logan 5’s of the world are people like James Damore and Jordan Peterson. In this film, they’re asking you to empathize with the machines. Not only that, they want you to become the machines. It’s the replicants who are desperately seeking humanity because there isn’t any to be found in the actual humans. They’ve taken all of the packaging of individualist rebellion that was once the province of human agency, and handed it off to the replicants. As good as Blade Runner 2049 is, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a movie that wants you to keep your humanity.

Artificial Intelligence: Building the Perfect Precog

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Philip K. Dick’s dystopian short story from 1956, “The Minority Report”, presented a future police state where a collection of mutants with parapsychic abilities anticipate violent crime before it happens. Subsequently, most violent crime was eliminated, but thousands of citizens who technically hadn’t committed a single crime filled detention camps. The central speculative conceit of the story was the idea that mutants with precognitive abilities could foresee the future. Given the near absence of violent crime, their forecasts were presumed correct and the Precrime unit was accorded legitimacy by the public. Needless to say, we have yet to identify people, with or without mutations, who possess such abilities. Regardless, Dick’s vision was prescient all the same. The central idea he was exploring was the human capacity to exercise free will. If Precogs could predict violent behavior, then that suggested that human behavior was deterministic and Precogs possessed the ability to anticipate these actions.

The fact that humans possess free will has frustrated bureaucrats and central planners for ages. Despite all their best efforts to make it so, humans never behave in completely predictable ways. However, it appears as though the Silicon Valley technorati are determined to design a world which simultaneously removes human agency and lends itself towards the micromanagement of human behavior. If humans can effectively be “programmed” to behave in predictable ways, then the task of designing AI algorithms which anticipate human behavior becomes much easier. In short, artificial intelligence is starting to look like an attempt to build the perfect algorithmic Precog. More specifically, it’s starting to feel like the technorati are trying to become God by manufacturing an omniscient digital substitute.

The most explicit manifestation of the police state foretold by PKD is the facial recognition software which supposedly can detect your sexual orientation, IQ, political views and your disposition towards “criminal behavior”.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Using photos, AI will be able to identify people’s political views, whether they have high IQs, whether they are predisposed to criminal behavior, whether they have specific personality traits and many other private, personal details that could carry huge social consequences, he said.

Not only is the AI project taking on the aura of a PKD-style cyberpunk police state, it’s also starting to resemble a Logan’s Run-style dystopia. In other words, lull the unwashed masses into submission with automated comfort and convenience and you remove the opportunity for individuals to exercise agency. Automobiles, for example. People are too stupid to be trusted with driving, so let the AI take over. It’ll be fine.

And we will have no choice but to get in and hope for the best – because vehicle automation will not be a matter of choice. Stevie Wonder can see what’s coming. Automated car technology will be mandated; the SELF DRIVE Act being the preparatory groundwork. It standardizes things at the federal level; gives the federal regulatory apparat the power to nudge.

All of this begs some deep questions of where the AI project is heading and whether it’s benign or malevolent.

How much control of our lives do we want to give over to machines – and to the corporations that build and operate them?

How much control do we want to give over to machines and the corporations that build them now that the ideological biases and political allegiances of the Overlords of Silicon Valley are well known?

I am everything the religious right despises: a scientist, an atheist, a leftist (by American standards, at least), a university professor and a Frenchman. – Yann LeCun

Furthermore, to what degree are we destroying the physical work ethic by automating so much low skill labor? To what degree are we sacrificing variety and the vitality of individual innovation in favor of mass produced plenitude? Surely, there are many successes to applaud, but given the influx of an immigrant population which tilts heavily towards the low skill end of the employment spectrum, how many will have the proclivity or intelligence for high tech training? The same question applies to unemployed and underemployed working-class Americans.

Last month’s White House economic report predicted that if a job pays less than $20 an hour, there’s an 83 percent chance it will eventually be eliminated by automation.

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Elon Musk along with several other technocrats and thinkers have gone public with their reservations over the AI project. But True Believers like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe we’re headed to techno-utopia.

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When you’ve got powerful and influential industrialists and intellectuals offering such vocal opposition to the AI project, how might you help accelerate the willing acceptance of technocratic rule? By creating a religion with an AI godhead, that’s how.

Enter AI mogul and True Believer, Anthony Levandowski. Way of the Future is what he has branded this cybernetic theocracy, and at present, little is known about it. It’s already receiving a fanfare in the progressive media, so that should be an indication of the ultimate trajectory of the AI project. To quote Jung, wherever the spirit of God is extruded from our human calculations, an unconscious substitute takes its place. There is arguably nothing that ideologues crave more than unquestioned allegiance, and if one aspires towards such an end, you are going to do it by exploiting the human psyche’s capacity for faith. I think the technorati are keenly aware of this and want to pave the path while it’s still relatively early in the game.

The entire artificial intelligence debate is as old as Frankenstein. I suspect that few of us really thought that cyberpunk future would be a reality quite this quickly, but it’s here and the debate over its ramifications will intensify. Films like the Ghost in the Shell remake are starting to feel less like distant future speculations and more like statements of intent. Technology has given us a wealth of marvels, but the pursuit of the One Algorithm to Rule Them All seems more like the height of hubris and megalomania.

And researchers still have a long way to go in achieving anything that resembles human intelligence or consciousness.

There’s a certain cold blooded cynicism at the core of the AI project that strikes me as Benthamite calculus taken to its absurd and inhuman conclusion. It glorifies the notion that humanity itself can be reduced to an algorithm. It consigns our individuality to bytes of data to be managed by a cadre of unaccountable elites. While I enjoy the convenience and connectivity the information age has ushered in, I’m more than a little skeptical over what the AI project portends for the future of humanity.

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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Since we’re living in the Age of the Reboot and the number of films made from existing properties outpaces the number made from original scripts, some important questions need to be answered. To what degree does the artist’s or author’s original intention matter when doing a remake? Given that every writer tells a story using a specific set of characters, themes and ideas to make a general point, can a remake which repurposes those ideas to conform to contemporary sensibilities legitimately call itself by the work’s original name? At what point do those themes and ideas become so different, that the reboot has become a different story altogether? Where is the line between respectful homage and outright sacrilege? Most importantly, at what point do the thematic reinventions have a deleterious effect? I don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions, but GITS 2017 certainly has me inclined to believe that the law of diminishing dramatic returns holds true more often than not when it comes to these reboots. This is not to say that GITS 2017 is a complete disaster because the deviations from GITS 1995 are indeed handled very cleverly. However, this does mean that the various changeups don’t add up to a better final product even when accounting for the ramped up production values.

The broad strokes of GITS 2017 are basically the same as GITS 1995, but the changes to those original themes alter the overall message of the film in significant ways. Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, and in contrast to GITS 1995, the film is setting up an entirely different dramatic conflict by emphasizing how she was created and by whom.

In the future, the line between human and machine is disappearing. Advancements in the technology allow humans to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Hanka robotics, funded by the government, is developing a military operative that will blur the line even further. By transplanting a human brain into a fully synthetic body, they will combine the strongest attributes of human and robot.

This isn’t a departure from the basic premise of the original, but it marks a distinct shift in emphasis. Where the original was positing the idea of a fully sentient digital being, GITS 2017 is giving us a variation on Robocop. Instead of OCP, we have Hanka robotics which has contracted with the government to build a cyborg super soldier. The opening of the film shows us a fatally injured Mira Killian being carted into an operating room in which her brain is ultimately salvaged and inserted into her cybernetic shell. There are flashes of some violent fiery trauma which may or may not be flashbacks to the incident which left her fatally injured.

Upon being fully regenerated into her new cybernetic shell, the CEO of Hanka and her designer Dr. Ouelet have a debate over her future assignment. CEO Cutter wants her assigned to the elite anti-terrorism unit, Section 9, while Dr. Ouelet insists that Mira isn’t ready for that kind of duty. This is one of the points of departure from the original and where the film goes off the rails a bit. As Dr. Ouelet, Juliette Binoche is presumably an elite robotics engineer working for the most prestigious robotics company and instead of treating her like a professional doing the job she was hired to do, the film has her projecting maternal attachment to her new creation. So not only is the film trying to get feminist booster points by having a female character in a STEM role, they portray her exercising her female biological instincts on her cybernetic newborn. Way to smash gender stereotypes, folks.

While I’m generally cool with suspension of disbelief in sci-fi, I can’t help but to nitpick the scientific premise they’re putting forward since Rupert Sanders and company have chosen to make the Major’s creation story the center of gravity. Hanka is presumably a sophisticated and well resourced for-profit robotics company. Albeit one that’s in bed with the government. They want to build a super soldier by taking the human mind of a young woman with no combat experience whatsoever and place her in a cybernetic shell. So Hanka believes that Mira’s human reflexes, spatial recognition, muscle memory, emotional disposition, neurological and biological proclivities will be a sufficient foundation for a super soldier once outfitted with a cybernetic shell. It made sense in Robocop because Murphy was a cop in the first place. I know this is sci-fi and everything, but good sci-fi generally starts with at least a generally plausible scientific premise and extrapolates. This is saying that the all of the attributes which are either biologically hardwired or psychologically imprinted into the young female mind are simultaneously the most valuable attributes for a cyborg super soldier and can be sublimated once paired with cybernetic musculature. Alrighty then.

In the scene following Mira’s cybernetic birth, the film tips its hand by more explicitly revealing the film’s progressive editorial in what is otherwise a visually stunning reinvention of the original opening. Now operating as the fully functional cyborg super cop she was designed to be, the Major scans a meeting taking place between a Hanka executive and the African ambassador. Instead of a generic foreign diplomat negotiating a Megatech programmer defection, they give us a Hanka executive making a pitch to an African politician. Cuz multiculturalism and shit or something. Against the orders of Section 9 leader, Aramaki, the Major dons her invisibility cloak and storms the room just as a geisha-bots begin attacking the Hanka executive. Right before the Major shoots the hacked geisha-bot, it utters a warning: “Commit to the will of Hanka and be destroyed.” Where GITS 1995 left us to puzzle out the Puppet Master’s ultimate motivations, this one is telling us that this new mind hacker has it in for Hanka. The big, bad corporation. Imagine my surprise.

The Major and her multicultural team of Section 9 cyborgs spend the remainder of the film trying to identify the new mind hacker, Kuze. At the same time, the Major becomes increasingly curious about her past since her flashbacks become more vivid and frequent.

The film is making an important point about the nature of memory and the structure of human cognition, but it’s approaching the topic from a Marxist angle. By giving the Major a false memory which sharpened her killing instincts, the film is saying she had, in effect, committed to the will of the bourgeoisie. Which, in this case, was the Hanka corporation. Naturally, the false memory portrayed her as an immigrant whose parents were killed by terrorists because, after all, you need to gin up that antipathy towards terrorists artificially. To the film’s credit, the writers portrayed the Major’s natural genetic memory as the force which compelled her to discover her birth mother and know her own story more fully. As it turns out, her ghost belonged to Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese radical who campaigned against cybernetic enhancements. So Hanka figures it can fulfill the ghost requirements of its super soldier program by culling the ranks of anti-cyber-enhancement dissidents. Alrighty then.

Like many other Hollywood films, it’s trying to have it both ways by making Cutter and Hanka the bad guys. Cutter is yet another two-dimensional cardboard cutout who is all calculating menace and cartoonish malevolence. He also happens to be….you’ll never believe it….a white male. It’s as though there’s an overriding narrative.

Kuze threatens to destroy those who “commit to the will of Hanka”, but Hanka contracts with the government. Whose will is truly being carried out here? Section 9 is clearly some kind of special forces/homeland security unit which needed an elite cyborg and Hanka delivered. Again, one detects the distinct whiff of an agenda.

Of course, there are some pretty obvious sops to PC sensibilities. The film takes place in future Japan, and naturally, multicultural harmony and gender equality reign supreme. Besides the addition of another female cyborg to the Section 9 roster, the team speaks to Aramaki in English while he speaks to them in Japanese. This doesn’t make any goddamn sense, people. Also, if the Major’s ghost was Japanese, why is she speaking English? As long as there are nation states, there will be a dominant culture and language that will be upheld. The Japanese have proven themselves pretty protective of their culture and language. There’s no way Section 9 is multilingual. Sorry.

The film emphasizes the Major’s sentience by having her verbally consent to the administration of a serum or being jacked into a digital network. It’s an interesting twist and it reminds us that the Major is still human, but once again, the aroma of a certain highly politicized issue wafts about this piece of the story. One could certainly extend the question of consent to a wide variety of federal policies, but I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind.

The look of the film is spectacular, and it takes the arthouse cyberpunk noir of the original to another level. This is another take on the hybrid of squalid urban sprawl and holographic commercial overstimulation that we’ve been getting since Blade Runner. ScarJo has been raked over the coals for a number of aspects of this role, but she and the rest of the cast are enjoyable enough. The complaints of “whitewashing” from the #SocialJustice crowd are painfully stupid and tiresome given that these jackasses tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders for immigration and multiculturalism.

Since both GITS films have addressed very specifically the role of memory in determining selfhood, I can’t help but to think that what Sanders and company have done here is exactly analogous to what Hanka did to the Major. By rewriting the story, they want to hack the minds of the public and implant a new memory of GITS that will supersede the memory of the original. At some level, all of this remixing of the past is saying that there is no sanctity to a any artist’s original vision. Everything must be tailored to the prevailing political winds.

While I found it enjoyable enough, I still came away thinking that this remake failed to add anything new to the original and ultimately detracted from themes and ideas that were more provocative and original. By insisting that all films conform to progressive orthodoxy, films are increasingly taking on an aura of bland globalist cosmopolitanism. Where the original asked you to contemplate the nature of selfhood, the transmission of genetic memory, speciation and the possibility of a post-human being, this film ends up rehashing ideas that were already explored in films like Total Recall, Robocop, and Minority Report. The Major is haunted by her past, but only achieves peace after discovering the truth of who she was and from where she came. Ultimately, the film is affirming the importance of familial and cultural bonds while simultaneously affirming that one can only fulfill the process of individuation through self-discovery. Contrary to the claims of contemporary social scientists and gender “scholars”, the human being does not come into the world as a blank slate. Every person possesses an a priori cognitive structure through which the experiences of the world occur. The process of defining selfhood requires that one distinguish between whether you are the author of your own existence or a player in a drama that’s been written for you. While I can acknowledge that this is the common thread that binds the films together, I don’t know that this film is Ghost in the Shell. Or if it’s a different ghost in the shell of its predecessor.

The Major: You are not defined by your past, but for your actions…

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk. With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance.

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end.

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity.

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer. The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism.

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form!

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings. The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

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