This is not so much a film review or article, but a beginning, an initial exploration. I’m fascinated by how technology and the fear of death are becoming increasingly entwined in Western culture. There are no easy lessons to draw, but I wanted to write something about how mainstream cinema interacts and deals with such concerns.
To begin with a truism, ‘machines are taking over the world’, it’s said. Is the truism true? Back in the 1930s writers such as George Orwell worried that technology was leading us into a soulless future. Orwell is a fascinating, frustrating read 80 years on. His prophecies and visions of the future are right and wrong in roughly equal measure. His main concern, Big Brother aside, as expressed in The Road to Wigan Pier, was that technology would make us soft, incapable of doing anything. Our inveterate need to invent would deprive us of the need and therefore the ability to physically carry out tasks.
But the vision of a servile technology and leisurely lifestyle hasn’t really worked out. We seem to spend more and more of our time actively in thrall to the machine – programming, information storing and retrieval, consuming and increasingly interacting through avatars, watching, commenting, living life at a remove. On a trip my family and I took recently through France, I drove for miles, fascinated at first by the changing landscape and its unknown potential but slowly and inexorably drawn to the grid on my dashboard, the straight lines and digital certainty of the satnav.
What’s this got to do with cinema? Cinema, mainstream cinema at least, primarily treats technology as character. Think of the cyborgs and AI of The Terminator franchise, Alien, Blade Runner and Robocop, a genre developed from a strand of science-fiction personified by Philip K Dick but traceable ultimately to the Robots series of books by Isaac Asimov. The other standard approach is the disembodied God-like figure of whom Hal (2001: A Space Odyssey) is a good example.
These approaches suit cinema, particularly ‘spectacle’ cinema, because they allow the existential dilemma of the individual – whether to sacrifice oneself for the good of others or to kick for survival oneself – to be reframed. So in these films it’s often alien intelligence that takes the ‘hit’, a kind of cheat that allows the human protagonists to have it both ways: to work for the good of others and to survive. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. This framing of narrative, while it drives story, bears very little relation to the reality of our relationship with technology. In actuality, or at least what we think actuality is, our relationship with technology is mediated through a very different interface. As David Thompson points out in The Big Screen, we use technology primarily through the use of screens. We read, write, watch, learn, interact and increasingly project our desires, needs and pathologies through screens. This adds an extra dimension to our relationship with cinema, fictionalising story at another level – meta-fictionalising perhaps?
One obvious way this ‘meta-fictionalising’ plays itself out is in our approach to death. On larger canvases such as Interstellar, particularly where, as here, ecological concerns such as climate change intrude into narrative, the question of death is reframed as one of salvation. Literally, how can the human race survive? Can the human race survive?
This has always been a concern of cinema – science-fiction movies at least. What’s new, though, can be found most obviously in more general ‘action’ movies, where death seems increasingly to be ‘not the end’. In a brilliant article that started me thinking about these subjects, Jonathan Eig wrote that death is not allowed to happen to the good guys in cinema these days; there’s always a way out. Even secondary good guy characters in these movies, who used to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community, are now not often allowed to die, although we watch hundreds if not thousands of subsidiary characters getting satisfactorily blown away, along with the excruciating end that’s reserved for the bad guy.
It’s often technology that saves the good guys. By extension it’s this ‘saviour’ technology that massages our ego, works to reduce our fear of death. In the new world of technology, of screens, as reflected in cinema and most particularly in children’s movies, death is stepped around by clever knowledge or even, in the last resort, by a new form of existence: digitisation.
A large part of children’s stories in cinema (and fiction more widely) is dealing with people’s unreliability. People, adults, let you down. They fail, they disappear, they die. Faced with this unreliability, children turn to technology and its repertoire of tricks, fakes, simulations of reliability. This is a trend undoubtedly happening in the real world, with consequences that are slowly beginning play themselves out. But it’s also happening in cinema, with one example being the brilliant, frustrating Big Hero 6.
Big Hero 6 encapsulates many of the themes discussed here: technology as character, death and digitisation, reliability, human invention, slavery to machines. I enjoyed the storyline, the verve and invention of Big Hero 6. It’s a ‘marvel’ of a film, a blaze of animation, humour and emotion, which manages to deliver the most devastatingly neutralising anti-climax, a cheat of epic proportions. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s enough perhaps to say without adding spoilers that the one person who dies in the film is, in a sense ‘reborn’ through the use of technology. It’s a way out that hints at a kind of immortality. That this should occur in a film which has gradually, painstakingly built up real emotion for its characters is a disservice to children because it robs that emotion of ultimate veracity.
Am I taking this too seriously? Isn’t it the case that mainstream films are designed as escapism and should be read that way, particularly children’s films? I don’t believe so. Nearly all children’s films these days are made to entertain the adults who watch the film with the children, and it is legitimate therefore to discuss such films from an adult perspective.
More pertinently, the way we consume media today, drawing on technology through the interface of the screen, increasingly mixes up reality and fantasy. It is becoming more difficult to see where one stops and starts. Technology is now very much part of our lives and deaths in ways that no one – not even George Orwell – could foresee, and as a result is changing, even distorting, their meanings. It’s timely, important and instructive to watch this occurring through the medium of mainstream cinema, the biggest of our screens.