A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

A Glitch in the Matrix is a (purported) documentary about people who believe in some form of what’s known as the simulation hypothesis, which essentially postulates that existence—as we perceive, experience, measure, and know it—is an artificially created simulation. The film was directed by Rodney Ascher, and if that name is familiar to you, it’s likely because he also helmed the 2012 documentary Room 237, (a film that purported itself as) an academic and scholarly deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, creating a lens through which the film could be viewed as both Kubrick’s confession and his exegesis. Although you may not have seen Room 237, you’ve still probably born witness to its reverberations in the pop culture discourse; for instance, if you’ve ever seen a tweet or a listicle that references Kubrick’s involvement in creating false footage of the moon landing or read an article about how The Shining is really about the collision of American imperialism with Native Americans, you’ve seen the cultural impact of Room 237.

For the first hour of Glitch, the film assumes an editorial tone that could charitably be described as “negligent.” The simulation hypothesis itself is laid out for the presumably unfamiliar viewer using clips from films that feature characters awakening to an understanding that their reality is somehow falsified or otherwise unreal: The Truman Show, Brazil, They Live!, and, of course, The Matrix. Interspersed with this exposition are excised-from-context clips from various respectable (if problematic) academics and intellectuals like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, using soundbytes that overemphasize their concessions about the possibility that the simulation hypothesis reflects an accurate understanding of our reality (for the record, that’s not what he said). For some reason, there are also a lot of longer, non-excised clips of non-scientist and former trust fund kid turned insouciant, nascent Bond villain Elon Musk, in which he talks about his own ideas about the simulation hypothesis, which we will definitely be circling back to. Additionally, there are long clips taken from noted speculative fiction author Philip K. Dick’s infamous appearance at a conference in Metz, France. For the uninitiated, much (if not all) of Dick’s prose focuses upon protagonists whose lives are somehow unreal, either because the character prioritizes a fictive inner life which is demonstrably oppositional to their lived experience, or because the character exists in a fiction within a fiction before realizing the falseness of their presumed reality. In that rare public appearance, a post-psychotic break Dick elaborated on the idea that his novels were not fiction, but were in fact true, and that his writing of them was his way of exploring his “realization” that he had personally experienced multiple different timelines, and in so doing unintentionally elaborated upon and outlined the psychological delusion that we now call the “Mandela effect.” 

Among these irresponsibly arranged sound bytes and film clips, we also get to meet several of the documentary’s subjects, most of whom were interviewed via some kind of video conference software, and who appear on screen as video game-esque avatars. There’s Jesse Orion, a special education teacher who dreams of being an illustrator full time; we get to see some of his work, which includes a skull drawn in a Mike Mignola style as well as pages from his redrawing of an entire volume of Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s work using characters from the Peanuts comic strip. There’s also Leao Mystwood, who appears as a kind of high-tech Anubis; his time spent in a sensory deprivation chamber convinced him that his perception of himself as having or being a physical form is false, and that he is instead composed of code. There’s Alex Levine, whose avatar looks like a cross between the classic “brain in a jar” image that accompanies many discussions of simulation hypothesis and 790 from Lexx. But the interviewee we spend the most time with, and who in fact the film opens on and who deliberately “set[s] the tenor” of the piece as a whole is Paul Gude, who portrays (and perhaps perceives) himself as leonine. Paul opens with a story about attending a lecture while at university, in which his instructor discussed the genealogy of neurological epistemology as understood by theorists who were bound by the horizons of their knowledge; that is to say, when the highest level of technology was the aqueduct, the human understanding of neuroscience was perceived as and delineated through the use of fluids/humors, and then the rise of telegraphy altered that perception and description to instead treat the nervous system as a series of wires and impulses. From there, the rise of sophisticated computing technology lead to the contemporary understanding of the mind as a kind of CPU informs our current understanding of reality and the perception thereof; Gude then posits that since we now have technology capable of replicating reality virtually, we should then not only have the ability to conceive of our perception of reality as virtual, but to an extent, we must concede that it is so. 

Gude notes that he was adopted, and that his adoptive father was a clergyman, and talks at length about his childhood proddings at the concepts of what constitutes reality. Some of this is familiar to me, although I wouldn’t go so far as to presume the universality of those experiences. One anecdote revolves around his childhood move to an area with a much smaller population than the city in which he previously resided, and his internal mental justification of this was that this was the result of the need for “them” to use less processing power to render fewer people and objects; the long drive to and from other areas was therefore the result of the need for “them” to change the surroundings and set up the next location. Although he doesn’t come straight out and use this analogy, it could be more simply explained that he conceived of car trips with his father as the equivalent of a loading screen between sections of a video game that show up while the next area is rendered. Another instance of his worldview being altered occurs while he is sitting in church, listening to his fellow congregants sing a hymn in unison, and his subsequent “realization” that what he is perceiving as a musical harmony and the assumption that it is produced by air forced through internal human flesh must be false, that it in fact could not possibly be the case. His story is presented without commentary, creating (through the language of documentary filmmaking) the impression that the documentarian concurs with this analysis and sees no issue with arriving at the conclusion that reality is a simulation because it’s “impossible” that the sounds of people singing are created by the vibration of larynxes. This is what I’m talking about when I say that the editorial tone is questionable; these are not intercut with psychologists elaborating upon common delusions and their physiological origins, but are simply presented as completely rational ideas. 

Gude is not the only subject here for whom a history of teleological theology clearly underpins their perception (and associative distrust of the parameters) of reality. Leao Mystwood, whose introductory chyron provides the appellation “Brother,” also notes that he himself is an ordained minister. Textually, the film itself draws a comparison between the simulation hypothesis and many religious teachings, specifically citing Luke 7:21, in which Jesus, upon being asked about the Kingdom of Heaven, notes that the kingdom is “within” the questioners, existing both inside and outside of them. For someone for whom the concept that we reside in a simulation is an a priori assumption about the nature of existence, this statement, taken through that lens, seems to be that of an Avatar (defined traditionally, e.g., a divine being made flesh in our world) describing an external, “truer” world to beings who can only perceive the simulation that is “housed” within that truer world. And, despite the fact that Jesus also described the Kingdom of Heaven as a place of feasting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a man who sowed good seed in his field, treasure hidden in a field, a net, and yeast, I think that interpreting the concept of “heaven” as a “truer” outer world within which our world is but a shadow on a wall is completely legitimate—and therein lies the rub of this film as a whole. After all, what is the simulation hypothesis if not a kind of creationism? I put “them” in quotations earlier when discussing Paul Gude’s ideas because he never names these actors and artificers who are exterior to the simulation, and neither does anyone else who was interviewed for this documentary; who are “they?” What could “they” possibly be other than the divine, or some secularized recontextualization of the concept of divine beings? 

I find A Glitch in the Matrix troubling. That’s not because its “revelations” shock me to my core or make me re-evaluate the reality of, well, my reality. To be quite frank, the “simulation hypothesis” is essentially what I was raised to believe, as elaborated upon here, simply with a different name and an overlayment of scientific buzzwords and bizarre fetishization of Elon Musk (I haven’t forgotten about that part) over it to make it seem not only plausible but undeniable, when in reality it comes down to one of the oldest human concepts of them all: faith. One of the core tenets of faith is that this mortal, decaying flesh is not all that we are. That there is something external, that there is something higher, that there is a consciousness or consciousnesses which supersede and exist beyond ourselves which exert authority over our existence. Regardless of whether or not I personally think that interpretation of existence is valid, whether that concept comes in the form of a deity in heaven above or a programmer of the simulation, both require the same rejection of empirical reality as it can be measured, tasted, and observed and embrace an unfalsifiable concept of existence. That’s fine! But to present a text that defines existence this way as a documentary, to treat the belief system as fact instead of a chronicle about the people who believe it as fact isn’t documentation at all; it’s proselytization. It’s the same as when the VHS box for Future Tense proclaims that it’s a “true story” that just “hasn’t happened… yet,” except that, unlike that production, this one doesn’t advertise itself as an evangelical tool. This presents itself as a factual document of record, which is both disingenuous and dangerous. 

To give credit where it’s due, the second half of the film delves further into the dark potential of this way of thinking. In the first half, more than one of the interview subjects notes that there are people with whom they have interacted whose personal tendencies toward antisocial behavior and violence were only curbed by the belief that reality is real and therefore there are consequences to violence. This smacks of the logical fallacy that many people express, that we must maintain a society-wide belief in a higher power/metaphysical consequence in order for the populace to inhibit their darker impulses; you see this in the way that many people can’t wrap their heads around the proven validity of  redistributing police and carceral punishment funds to preventative social safety nets as a method of preventing (instead of punishing) crime. There are a great many people (including, in my opinion, most of the people who appear in this movie) who need psychological therapy and/or pharmaceutical assistance to reach a baseline of empathetic civility. That the belief that others are less “real” than oneself creates a space for violence in its very core; it’s the foundational basis of white supremacy and other forms of antisocial ideologies that often result in violence in the public and private spheres. The film does denounce this potentiality, at least, and does so through a recorded phone call with Joshua Cooke. 

That name, too, may sound familiar; nearly two decades ago, Cooke murdered his parents in the basement of their home with a shotgun. Infamously, his lawyers considered pleading insanity on his behalf, citing that Cooke “harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in [a] virtual reality,” which became known as the “Matrix defense” (Cooke eventually pled guilty). The possibility that the rejection of the fundamentals of reality could lead to violence is also referred to as the “school shooter” mentality within the film, but the film fails to provide a truly robust condemnation of violence within its text, and I think that’s rather telling. The proliferation of a multitude of people who take to the internet to share photoshopped images of cereal boxes and TV Guide typos to use as visual aids to the recapitulation of their experience of the so-called Mandela Effect isn’t just harmless shenaniganry; it’s a demonstration of the larger parts of society’s growing unwillingness to reexamine their precepts and beliefs, even in the face of evidence against it. We are living in an era in which people are more likely to believe that they’re sliding through parallel universes like Quinn Mallory rather than consider that their memory might fail to be 100% accurate, simply because Reddit told them so; we’re seeing the consequences of that now, politically and globally. To paraphrase another giant of speculative fiction, Isaac Asimov, there is a growing contingent of Americans who legitimately believe that their ignorance (and misremembrance) is just as valid as scientific knowledge and evidence, and it’s that which I find truly deplorable about A Glitch in the Matrix’s text—it will only add more fuel to that fire which threatens to consume our world. Blink and you’ll miss it, but one of the interviewees notes that they think large scale disasters, including those like recent California wildfires that are exacerbated by climate change, are the result of programming errors; every day in every way they’re coming up with new reasons to denigrate the need for immediate action to mitigate and prepare for climate change.

Although the second portion of the film attempts to cover the failures of the film’s first hour, its bizarre fetishization of Musk extends beyond the questionable first half into the second. And make no mistake—some of these people come within a hair’s breadth of literally worshipping Musk. Taking into consideration that the simulation hypothesis is just creationism with extra steps, at least one of the interviewees essentially likens Musk to a god. While explicating on the idea that some people are player characters and others are non-player/playable characters (or NPCs), one of the interviewees speculates that Musk might be not only a player character, but someone from outside the simulation who “descended” into our reality as an avatar in order to try and awaken us and to a recognition that the simulation as false. That is to say: this person believes that it’s possible Musk is an extra-simulation messiah. At the risk of editorializing, I’ll say this: if god were one of us, I’d accept that they were a slob like one of us or a stranger on the bus, but they sure as hell wouldn’t be a guest on Joe fucking Rogan’s podcast. I get that for many neurodivergent people, Musk’s accomplishments (such as they are) are encouraging and demonstrate that people with Asperger’s shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but I won’t make any apologies for failing to be impressed that the heir to an apartheid emerald mine leveraged obscene and objectively amoral wealth into a business empire that’s largely dysfunctional. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more interested in living on the moon than I am, but I’m not gonna work for Mr. Grimes’s scrip and I’m not going to live in one of his lunar debtor’s prisons/company towns; you can fucking forget that.  

I mean no disrespect to those who work in the service industry, but when someone says “For two years, all I did was work at Chili’s and then come home and play video games,” and then uses that as the basis for their claim that they then “realized” that reality was also just a video game, that’s a person who needs counseling and therapy to manage their addiction. I’m not mocking this guy: addiction is a disease, it takes many forms, and it warps your reality. What it doesn’t do is make you an expert on that reality. The two works that this most reminded me of were the film What the #$*! Do We Know!? and the book Supergods by Grant Morrison. In the case of the former, Glitch is similar in that it presents pseudoscientific ideas not as a possible interpretation of existence, but as decidedly true (and, although I am aware that this verges on ad hominem, it’s worth noting that it was created by NXIVM cultists). In the case of the latter, I find the use of footage from Philip K. Dick’s mental breakdown to be both heartbreaking and cruel; it reminded me of Morrison’s book, which for the first 2/3rds is a loving, jubilant history of superhero comics and that artform’s various wonders, before the final third descends into a bizarre scripture of Morrison’s personal beliefs. I won’t try to summarize them here, but here’s a sample (from p. 277 of the 2012 Spiegel & Grau paperback edition): “The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity [….] Could fertile wet planets like our Earth really be nurseries where omni-anemones fed and grew to become quicksilver angels in a timeless AllNow?” For the sake of my future hypothetical political career I won’t get into specifics, but I’ve personally spent a not-insignificant amount of time communing with the fractals, if you catch my drift; that doesn’t mean that I would ever consider that experience to be revelatory about the nature of reality, and if I did, and I tried to start spreading the Gospel of Boomer, and that Gospel also incorporated depersonalization that is analogous to that which is part of evil ideologies, I’d hope no one would follow me. I also hope no one takes this documentary to heart, and in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to a different documentary about the simulation hypothesis someday, one which is more scientifically, spiritually, and ethically considered.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

Creative Control (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

“It’ll be weird when we all have chips in our brains.”
“It won’t seem weird then. It’ll seem inevitable.”

Some of the most effective sci-fi works are the ones that don’t have to reach too far into the future to find something worth saying. The recent indie cheapie Creative Control doesn’t say exactly what year it’s supposed to be set in, but it might as well be next year, maybe even next month. Walking through the CBD in New Orleans every week, I see tons of tiny tech startups clacking away on their Apple computers in the giant, unobscured windows of their rented, cubicle-free workspaces. I usually assume most of these businesses are in the search optimization market or something similarly intangible, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be hammering away at creating or advertising Augmenta, the central technological advancement that drives the plot of Creative Control. The film starts from an entirely plausible place & doesn’t stray too far from that contemporary anchor, a decision that helps keep its technophobic paranoia surprisingly relatable, despite its hamfisted smartphone addiction shaming & the general unlikeablility of its characters.

The fictional technological advancement Augmenta, in case you haven’t guessed it, is posed as the next logical step in augmented reality. Housed in the clear plastic frames of hipster glasses, Augmenta is much more stylish than the Borg-ish look of Google Glass & aims for a Steve Jobs-esque attention to clean, fashionable visual aesthetic. The company hired to sell this product is a hipster Brooklynite version of Mad Men, complete with rampant alcoholism, model-chasing adultery, and hypermasculine ennui. This is cheap, casual sci-fi with occasional moments of off-putting acting choices, but it’s grounded in a very specific world of money-chasing advertisers & profit > people manufacturers that’s likely never going away, so it actually comes across as relatively pertinent to our current consumer culture. Creative Control toes the thin line that divides technology & magic, exploring the way that A.R. advancements attempt to “enhance real life with a magical layer in front of it.” It uses the uncanny, inevitable future of every consumer wearing a “face computer” to moralize about a modern society increasingly “addicted to misery & pain” and decreasingly engaged with life head on as characters multitask in both the real & digital worlds simultaneously, never fully focused on a single interaction in a constant attempt to focus on them all. Creative Control presents big ideas about digital & tangible interactions in a very realistic future, but those concerns merely color the anxieties of its beyond-grating cast of capitalist brutes rather than lead to some kind of grand, epiphanic statement about where our culture is headed.

For all of its see-through smartphones, holographic lap dances, and strange, geometrically-shaped pills, the world of Creative Control is still very much like our own. It’s even crawling with the same cocaine-numb bro monsters, douchebag fashion photographers, and overly flirtations yoga instructors that currently infest the masculine end of modern hipsterdom as we speak. Creative Control’s plot mostly revolves around a tangled web of adultery & romantic jealousies where an ad agency jerk (with a Yoni Wolf fashion sense) satisfies his lust for a skirt-chasing buddy’s girlfriend by masturbating to her avatar in his Augmenta-created fantasy world. In the process he loses touch with his girlfriend’s wants & needs and the basic demands of his job as he slips further into a drug & alcohol fueled confusion that blends reality & fantasy into a difficult-to-parse mess of petty romantic betrayals.

No one in the male-dominated film isn’t an asshole except the two girlfriends who get sucked into their partners’ corrosive bullshit and they’re treated like a nagging shrew & a magic pixie dream girl ideal, respectfully. The one exception there is Reggie Watts, playing himself as Augmenta’s chosen spokesman. It’s in Watts’s prankster-minded screen presence and in the film’s crisp, black & white digital cinematography that Creative Control finds its own voice as a distinct work. Its fretting over technology addiction & its anxious gaze into modern romance is a little less special, but also a natural element of its pedigree as a contemporary sci-fi drama. I left Creative Control glad to see Reggie Watts get paid for being his wonderfully weird self (along with a cameo role H Jon Benjamin) and super glad that I don’t have to deal with the film’s tech startup bros in my own life, though I know for sure that they exist. It worked pretty well for me in that way even if it wasn’t the cinematic breakthrough equivalent of augmented reality or “face computer” technology.

-Brandon Ledet