It is the best of times – it is the worst of times. It is the age of wisdom – it is the age of foolishness. It is the epoch of belief – it is the epoch of incredulity. It is the season of Light – it is the season of Darkness. It is the spring of hope – it is the winter of despair. We have everything before us – we have nothing before us. In short, the world as we know it, that network of interactive systems whose beginning is marked by a catastrophe, is approaching its catastrophic end with such speed that all we can do is sit tight and celebrate the twilight of history. The end of the world.
What dies is an image: the world of the human model as we’ve come to understand it. All the films preoccupied with the first glimpse into this uncertain future ask, in fact, the same questions: What does it mean to be human, to witness the perversion of all images, to be forced to coexist with the machine – "Resistance is futile," says the Borg. "You are to be assimilated." – to move inside an ever-changing landscape, within a postapocalyptic world in which new technologies devour the old?
From the lonely neon streets of an orientalized Los Angeles collapsing under the weight of huge financial conglomerates and haunted by the fugitive shadows of the Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), through dark cities of lost children in search of that fifth element which can save the world with The End of Violence in sight, these films propose a dual reality – a Matrix of colossal proportions – whose organic matter proves to be as lethal as the most sophisticated of weapons in a recreational game of eXistenZ. In fact, these science-fiction-neonoir-cyberpunk-20-minutes-into-the-future dystopias rest on a paradox: the nostalgia for a future we have never really known, whose appearance changes so quickly, so horrifyingly, that we can’t keep up. "To put it precisely, one is desperate. To put it still more precisely, one is very happy," wrote this century’s fortuneteller, Franz Kafka.
The films of our immediate future are concerned with life after that final image – let’s call it the Fall – often suggested by their ambiguous happy endings. John Murdoch, the hero of Dark City, does not escape the isolated place where the Strangers have conducted their sinister experiments on human beings. He merely controls the mechanisms which can transform that grim world into a sunny version of his beloved Shell Beach. But that construction is only an illusion, an enchanted-fabricated reality made to replace the dark, alienating one. And Murdoch knows as well as we do that he’ll never go home, that he’s destined to live "lost in space," in the middle of a hostile galaxy, with a woman whose identity has been erased and whose memories are manufactured, like those of Rachel, the sad Replicant. The ending of Dark City is then as "happy" as that of Blade Runner.
As Deckard and Rachel drive into the sunset – at the end of the Blade Runner version which gives in to Hollywood’s norms – we are hardly fooled by their flight to nature. For what survives this melancholy tale of technological desolation is a couple consisting of a man and a Replicant – possibly two Replicants – whose apocalypse has already happened.
More human than human, and hunted down like that mythological beast, the unicorn, that Deckard dreams about, the Replicants develop emotions which place them outside the mechanical mold. Neither humans nor just machines, they embody our most private dilemma: that of the boundaries of the human soul. What does it mean to be human? To love? – Roy Batty, the Christ-like leader of the Replicant rebellion, loves Pris. To forgive? – up on the roof of the Bradbury building, against the huge, revolving sails of industrial fans (the windmills of another Quixotic quest), Roy spares Deckard’s life. "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?" he asks.
Liberated from the confines of the Matrix and aware of the treacherous nature of the dream he used to call reality, Neo seems to have the best of both worlds. But as we leave the theater bewitched by this exquisite simulation, we tend to forget that the (happy) end is only the beginning of a new struggle, since the Matrix is not destroyed but merely exposed.
More human than human, the Replicant lives his short life with frightful intensity, receptive to notions of beauty which we seem to have forgotten, entangled as we are in our web of feelings of nostalgia for something we’ve never had. Batty combines his superhuman power with the power of the poetic word as he (mis)quotes William Blake’s "America: A Prophesy": "Fiery the Angels fell, deep thunder roll’d around their shores, burning with the fires of Orc."
Conversant in metaphors, the Replicant’s reading list surpasses that of the average viewer. Did Batty read himself into insanity like Quixote whose signs – the windmills – mark the final scene? Is this what triggers his emotions? The written word, the humanities as a whole, that which – some time ago – we deemed unproductive, hence negligible? If so, the postapocalyptic science-fictional scenario works against itself – against the "scientific" part, that is – as a warning. "Read the books," says the vampire in Abel Ferrara’s Addiction. The answer is there. Sartre, Nietzsche, even Lewis Carroll, as The Matrix suggests.
The return to the humanities implies, if only remotely, a return to the organic world as eXistenZ, the game which downloads directly into the humans’ spinal jack, demonstrates. But Cronenberg adds an ironic twist to his cautionary tale: Two of the players of eXistenZ, fanatic defenders of realism – like the viewing public – put an end to a game whose organic nature might bridge the gap between the organic and the technological, with a clear preference for the former. In their quest for realism, the players destroy a system which could expand their understanding of reality. "Quite an experience to live in fear..."
On May 28, our portion of fright will increase noticeably with the release of The Thirteenth Floor – a thriller in which the difference between reality and illusion is, of course, blurred by technology – starring Craig Berko, Vincent D’Onofrio and Gretchen Mol.
And so, hoping for the best, we sit back and read the books, and wait for the end of the world, while – on the other side of the mirror – the films we love, the films which keep us alive, speak of that immediate future when, finally equal and utterly content, we are destined to live happily ever after.E-mail comments to [email protected]