SO UNREAL – Review by Nadine Whitney

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In essence all gods are created by humanity as a way to explain the unknown or as a system of moral and ethical guidelines. That isn’t to say that spirituality is a falsehood, but it is perpetuated by earthly entities. In the digital age humanity created a new god – a cyber god of unlimited potential, and one that carried with it the capacity to gain sentience and turn on its maker. Amanda Kramer’s documentary So Unreal written in conjunction with Britt Brown and narrated by actor and musician Debbie Harry traces how cinema near the end of the millennia reacted to the anxiety of emerging technology and how films that might have been seen as time-capsule curiosities became remarkably prescient.

Cinema is a political mirror distilled into popular culture. bell hooks famously said, “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is.” Yet cinema is inconsistent with its messages. A place where audiences seek both entertainment and catharsis, “Movies hinge on sub currents of dread.” In the Hollywood Golden Age, it was the criminal gang. Moving into post war era of the 1950s science fiction began to point to the “other” as an invading force. The 1960s reflected the terror of mass destruction and the Cold War. In the 1970s a distrust of government institutions meant surveillance and breaches of privacy became a locus of fear. By the time the world entered the 1980s a new potential threat emerged; the computer – now not something confined to huge warehouses, but a machine that was entering the home and workplace. As technology progressed and the personal computer became aspirational, so too did the idea that humanity was entering a new phase and a new space – cyberspace.

The siren song of the 14.4k modem heralded a new age where we were interconnected but anonymous. No longer corporeal but limitless in a world designed for ultimate freedom. But as Kramer points out, often technology leads to baser instincts being explored and fetishized. The world of cyberspace quickly became a receptible for sex, voyeurism, violence, and exploitation.

The apex of cyberspace films remains the Wachowski’s 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. Neo is posited as a saviour for humanity against the machines that keep us trapped. Take the red pill and wake up, take the blue pill and remain coddled in an imperfect but comfortable blanket that denies that humanity is now a battery for a machine. It was sleek, sexy, and terrifying. As Kramer notes it was another version of The Wizard of Oz where Neo as Dorothy pulls back the curtain to reveal an emerald cursor acting as the controller of the kingdom.

As important as The Matrix was and remains in cyber cinema there were precursors that informed the work. TRON (1982) was perhaps the first film to introduce the idea of the Hacker as a white hat that could use human morality to defeat the machine. Kramer argues that the film acted as a kind of balm against the rising anxiety because humanity overcomes what it has created. Not all films agreed with the sentiment that the new gods would be appeased. Surveying a dazzling variety of works that include both the familiar and underseen, Kramer takes the audience on a poetic odyssey through cinema’s complicated relationship with technology and those who wield it.

Although TRON was the first blockbuster, other films preceded it. 1981’s Looker, written and directed by Michael Crichton, combined a murder thriller with the notion that a “perfect woman” could be created, scanned, uploaded, and used as the template to sell products. Once the model was virtual there was no need for actual women. The medium it was concerned with was television (then the primary mode of advertising). In 1983 David Cronenberg released Videodrome (starring Debbie Harry as the perfect woman) a story about a television channel where all perverse desires could be explored without consequence, a place where “the new flesh” was digital. Again in 1999 through eXistenZ, Cronenberg would imagine a world where a videogame was made literal flesh – a place where the body became the console. Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 Brainstorm concerned itself with the idea that human experiences and sensations could be transferred and recorded, which meant we no longer owned our intimate thoughts. Sex and torture blurred. Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days is its successor, where people use ‘squibs’ to access violent crime and sexual perversion. It is deliberately set at the turn of the millennium as an end of days dystopia.

We all know The Terminator franchise by James Cameron where Skynet becomes sentient and destroys the world. But do we know 1999’s The Thirteenth Floor which acts as a cyber neo-noir about endless simulation? Do we know Albert Pyun’s Arcade, or D.A.R.Y.L. (a Pinocchio styled story which prefigures Spielberg’s A.I.)? Virtuosity, Hackers, Sneakers, and The Net rub up against Nirvana, Tetsuo, The Lawnmower Man, and even Weird Science.

Kramer’s philosophical through line is that cinema both accepted and rejected the notion of artificial intelligence and cyberspace. The hacker was both a white hat and black hat figure. Cinema decided to take a “purple pill” and simultaneously woke up from and stayed in its own matrix.

No matter how quaint and ridiculous some of the movies included seem today, So Unreal explains that we too have taken a purple pill. Through social media we now freely feed the machine and make it more intelligent. We turn to narratives that make us feel that superheros can save us from world crises. If the machine is the new god, we made it and we worship it – but gods don’t truly care about our small corporeal existence nor our virtual one. So Unreal is a remarkable philosophical visual essay which delves deep into the psychology of cinema and audiences.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.