Friday, June 28, 2013

Imitation of Life (2): The Fall of Man

Let's begin with the obvious: Hollywood doesn’t like changes. So, all novelties Hollywood movies may bring have to be firmly counterbalanced by the most rigorously classical visual style possible. This is what I meant last time when I wrote about how Hollywood movies first represented computer-generated imagery in an ambiguous way: CGI was a new technology Hollywood admired as much as it feared, so we find this contradiction in most movies figuring CGI, from the 80's up to the end of the 90’s (to take a more recent example than the one I will discuss at length below: in the Matrix, the digital world is presented as a falsehood that we must tear apart to go back to the real analogical world, but at the end, Sion, the human city in the real world, is saved by Neo, a digital super-God).

Although Hollywood never hesitated to publicize the many virtues of CGI, filmmakers like producers had several reasons to be anxious about it: CGI was a threat for the photographic image and, more importantly, for the classical language of Hollywood movies (which was conceived around the limitations and possibilities of the photographic image anyway). So, while the movies presented a new kind of image, CGI, they continued to implicitly champion the image of old, photography – a sure way to slowly introduce the radical visual innovations made possible by CGI while anchoring them in the tradition of Hollywood cinema. Ok, we have this new CGI thing, said Hollywood, but don’t worry, our movies will remain the same. Nowadays, movies rarely think about CGI because CGI is a given, an official tool in cinema’s language: the threat has been neutralized, so to speak, in the sense that the limitless possibilities of CGI have been harnessed and restrained by the classical language of Hollywood cinema. In theory, CGI can do anything, but right now, for better and for worst, it continues the narrative tradition previously established by the photographic image.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: going back to the 80’s, the best example in Hollywood of this theme of ambivalent technology is James Cameron’s cinema, which constantly oscillates between these two poles of fear and worship of technology. His movies typically use state-of-the-art special effects to present the fall of man (judgment day), humanity overcome by technology, an idea best exemplified by the genocidal machines of both Terminators and the sinking boat of Titanic (he also likes to play with representations of man-machine, like the gigantic robot controlled by Ripley at the end of Aliens, or the cyborgs of Terminator)*. The strength of his cinema lies precisely in this apparent paradox: the Terminators are terrifying because the special effects that make them feel alive are this very technological prowess we’re meant to fear. In other words, Cameron develops and pushes technology in new directions in order to make technophobic movies.

It may be more true for Terminator 2: Judgment Day than for the original movie: in the sequel, the special effects are far more advanced for their time (in 1991, they sure felt otherworldly), and are more convincing (even today) than in the first movie. In that regard, it is important that the T-1000 is brought to live with CGI (while there’s none in the first Terminator), and not just for technical reasons. I’ll explain this point in length next time, but for now, suffice to say that this story of a superior and autonomous AI that will annihilate humanity seems even more plausible when it is told with the help of a new computer technology capable of merging with an indexical image of the world. After all, if computers can now invade the cinematographic image, “the world viewed” in Stanley Cavell’s words, and become one with that image, why not also the world we live in? The movie appears like a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: we’re fascinated by the T-1000, by the creation of the special effect team, but there’s also something terrifying because we’re lead to wonder if this is not the first technological step towards the dystopian future predicted by the movie.

Cameron seems aware of this paradox, because he represents it in the time-travel premise of his movies: when the first Terminator was destroyed in 1984, the defense firm Cyberdyne recovered the remains of the CPU and the robot’s right arm, and this discovery lead them to the design of Skynet, the AI that will destroy humanity in 1997. In other words, the movies are stuck in a time loop (at least the first two, I don’t know for the other sequels): the Terminator was sent in the past to kill John Connor’s mother, but the Terminators could not have been designed if one of them wasn’t sent through time in the first place (or in the last place? I dunno...) The characters are imprisoned in a fatalist time-loop, just like the movies predict a future they may be partly responsible for.

In the end, though, it is suggested that the characters are able to free themselves from this determinism**: the future might not be so bleak. Likewise, Judgment Day drops the pure technophobia of the first movie, opting instead for a more complex love/fear relationship with technology. It’s quite plain in one of the best ideas of the film: the past villain (Arnold Schwarzenegger) becomes the hero, or what was once feared is now the much-needed companion. The robots are both the threat (the T-1000) and an object of love (the original Terminator). Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) even says at some point that the Terminator is the best father she ever found for his son (Edward Furlong), who has a kind-of friendship with Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. In the first movie, the distrust of technology was more extreme: machines would kill us in the future, and there was no counterpoint to what the Terminator represented (the movie even made fun of a simple answering machine, as if we should not trust such a mundane device). The fascination towards technology came only from the audience, wondering how the special effects were made. In Judgment Day, though, this fascination is now expressed by the characters, especially by John Connor and Miles Dyson, the future inventor of Skynet: technology can be helpful, but we should still worry.

Judgment Day may be Cameron most complex film about technology (I don’t remember enough of Titanic to really tell), probably because he couldn’t completely reconcile the technophobia of Terminator with his own technophilia (which he expressed a lot of times in interviews). In Judgment Day, Cameron still doesn’t trust completely technology, so he stipulates that in order to be reliable, technology has to be educated, or has to learn to be human: our love affair with technology should not blind us about our human nature. The more potent example is John Connor teaching the Terminator some manners (like not killing any human beings), but this idea is also shown throughout the movie in more banal moments. For example, there’s a short scene with Miles Dyson and his family where he has to choose between his work and his family. It’s cliché, for sure, but in this context, the underlying idea is rather interesting: the guy who will bring humanity to an end sacrificed his social life for the sake of computers, so the real reason behind Judgment Day is not an act of self-preservation from an omniscient AI that don’t want to be unplug, but our own removal from the world; computers took the place we left there for them. Indeed, Dyson is shown as an idealist, with seemingly admirable ambitions, but without a clue about what humanity might be: “Imagine a world where we can eliminate the possibility of human error” says he (I’m paraphrasing). He may be right when he defends his work later on (“You’re judging me about something I haven’t done yet” and “How could I’ve known what would happen with my research?”), but he doesn’t seem to understand that eliminating human error may be a way to erase humanity altogether.

We may or may not agree that humanity is defined by the possibility of making “errors” (it’s certainly a shallow definition, though not without some truth), but the movie surely draws this parallel since the machines are defined on multiple occasions as incapable of error: they do what they’re programmed to do and nothing else. Sarah Connor, on the contrary, cannot bring herself to do what she thinks she must do: kill Dyson. Her incapacity to kill him (and maybe save humanity in the process) is contrasted with the Terminator’s inability to kill humans because he was told not to (or the T-1000 ability to kill because he was told to); while the Terminator doesn’t kill because he cannot make any mistake or disobey, Sarah refusal to kill is a reasoned decision. Or maybe an emotional one, but either way, in Miles Dyson’s language, this would be a human error, the impossibility to accomplish a given task. The ethical problem raised by this situation (can we kill a human being that may be involuntarily responsible in the future for a mass genocide?) is of no concern here (and frankly the movie doesn’t ponder on it either): I’m only speaking of efficiency, the ability to terminate one task. I would say that Sarah did the right thing, but it doesn’t really matter, because the point is that she didn’t do what a robot would have done without hesitation. Indeed, this subplot is a clever re-working of the first movie, because Sarah’s aim has to be considered in parallel with the one of the original Terminator: she wants to kill the one responsible for the rise of the sentient machines before he’s actually guilty of anything, just like the first Terminator tried to kill Sarah before she gave birth to her son, the future leader of the human resistance. Sarah’s refusal to kill is a way to assess her humanity, by contrast with the Terminator of the first movie.

As we can see, in many ways, Sarah and John represent the survival of the human race, but Cameron portrays them as outcast, misunderstood, so essentially he’s saying that we do not know anymore what it means to be human, to the point that we confine in an asylum our last hope for salvation. In such a context, no wonder that machines can easily infiltrate our world, hiding behind human forms. The Terminators are trying to destroy humanity, but both movies remind us that this process of dehumanization is already well on his way. The last words of Judgment Day are quite clear: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life ... maybe we can too.” The machines may have already won, but we can still change. Strangely though, Cameron didn’t follow his own advice. Judgment Day was an important turning point for him: since then, he has slowly smoothed his attacks on technology, until Avatar, which was in some ways a complete reversal of Terminator. With his last movie, Cameron is saying, with no trace of irony, that we have to leave behind our flawed world and become an avatar in a CGI paradise. The apparent environmentalism of the movie is negated by the highly artificial nature represented (more on this next time). In this way, his cinema follows our own gradual acceptance of technology: what the Terminator represented is pretty much the world we live on now, but, for the most part, we don’t care.

This discussion on the technophobia of Terminator may seem tangential to my proposed subject about CGI, but it’s all related because the Terminator movies are as much about cinema as they are about our relation with technology. These movies may be renowned for their special effects, especially the second one, but we tend to forget the most meaningful one: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body. The Terminator was the perfect role for him: in the first movie especially, Cameron uses the eerie artificiality of his actor’s body to suggest the presence of the machine lurking behind this human form (as if this body was naturally in the uncanny valley). More interestingly, perhaps, this casting made clear that the human body and thus the actors, in the newly-arrived blockbusters, are going to be artificial construct from now on. In my last article, I established an implicit continuity between the musicals and the 80’s action films, but there’s a radical difference between Gene Kelly and Arnold Schwarzenegger (apart from their acting abilities): in a musical, Kelly’s body is really performing, in the sense that we’re astonished by his dancing prowess, by what this body can accomplish. Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilder shape, though, is largely irrelevant in his movies. It establishes the character as strong, and that’s about it. The actor is showing off his body, the artificiality of its bulkiness, but there’s no performance in the usual meaning of the word. In a sense, we’re astonished by the result of the performance of bodybuilding, but not by the performance itself, which happened before, off-screen. Kelly’s performance is defined by the movement of his body, while Schwarzenegger’s “performance” is characterized by its immobility. That’s why he never gets hurt: not because he’s a large, solid, brawny mass of muscles, but because he’s not a real body moving in time. (In a lot of ways, Die Hard and the vulnerable body of Bruce Willis were a reaction to these artificial bodies of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, as if John McTiernan wanted to beat up the body of the Hollywood actors in a last attempt to revive them. It’s not a coincidence if he made Last Action Hero with Schwarzenegger a couple of years later, signaling the end of an era.)

The Terminator is not really different than Conan or John Matrix: all these characters are unstoppable killing machines that cannot be hurt. Terminator only makes clear what stays implicit in Conan and Commando, i.e. the artificiality of the actor’s body, and the danger it represents for traditional, performing actors. Indeed, Terminator can be seen as an exemplary turning point for the actors in Hollywood: we do no longer need you, says the movie (although they still win at the end). Classical cinema was centered on the star, the actor’s presence on screen, but this started to change in the 80’s, and the bodies of actors like Schwarzenegger and Stallone were the first sign of this revolution. We still admired their presence on screen, but not as human characters moving in time: rather, as artificial bodies defined by their stillness. In the blockbusters of the last decade, the revolution was completed, and now the actors have absolutely no physical presence on screen, not even an artificial one. There’s many reasons for this; one of them is the immaterial nature of the digital image, which I will describe later on, and the other is what David Bordwell calls intensified continuity, a visual style that I briefly described some weeks ago: most movies are now made almost exclusively of close-up, so actors are condemned to exist on screen only through their heads. There are no more bodies in current blockbusters, only talking heads (the most expressive physical actor right now is Andy Serkis (Gollum, King Kong), and we never see his real body).

This disappearance of the actors’ bodies coincides with the apparition of the digital image (CGI and digital camera included): as Hollywood cinema got further away from reality and the indexical nature of photographic images, the more the actors’ bodies became disposable. And certainly, there is a parallel to be made with the discourse of Terminator 2: Judgment Day will come when we will lose sight of reality, of our body, of what it means to be human. Incidentally, in this movie the threat for humanity comes in the form of CGI, a morphing robot than can take human form. So, here we are: CGI as a threat, for the photographic image, for humanity, that can only be stop by an old-school physical special effect...

to be followed...

*These inquiries and concerns about our interactions with machines was a prevalent sci-fi theme in the 80’s, as we can see, for example, in the emergence of cyberpunk. Early in this decade, technology became ubiquitous, portable, and computers began to invade our homes, so a lot of worries came from this sudden introduction of technology in all aspects of everyday life. Terminator was only one of the most popular cultural expressions of this technophobia.

**It doesn’t make much sense, unless the characters are now in some kind of alternate timeline, which the movie never hints as, but I don’t think we should ponder too much on these inconsistencies. Plot-wise, Cameron’s movies are usually quite, hmm, stupid, to use some euphemism, and he’s terrible for dialogue. His cinema is interesting mainly for its mise en scène, its ability to reflect the current state of the world in a series of striking images.


  1. Really enjoyed this one - I have have often thought about Cameron's movies and his thematics. Sometimes I think he isn't aware of what he's representing - sometimes I think he's playing me somehow... :)

    Have you looked into the suicide of director Tony Scott? Although no reason for his death has ever been given, I have often wondered about his pathological hatred of CGI in films and his passion for avoiding it (something I greatly respected). We'll probably never know the dimensions of this sad event, but I cannot help but wonder...

    All the best!

  2. Hi Chris! Thanks, I wasn't sure about this one: I thought it was uneven on the writing side, and a bit erratic.

    For Cameron, I'm not sure, but I think he's aware of what he's doing, for the most part: his movies form a coherent vision, about technology mainly, but also on smaller themes like the American family, the woman-fighter or the love-conquers-all aspect.

    And you mentionned Scott in an earlier comment, but I don't know him that well, and I'm still quite surprised that he didn't like CGI: someone like Spielberg resisted to editing on computer (before Tintin, all his movies were edited with scissors and glue), or Nolan insists for shooting on film, but CGI is everywhere now, especially in action movies. It must have been pretty difficult to keep CGI out of his movies.

    Thanks again for the comment!