“I don’t know”

“Annihilation’s great achievement is in exploring these themes through object embodiment, rather than in words. Lena returns to Area X but can only respond to her interrogator’s questions with, “I don’t know.” The self is an unknowable thing, in some ways, just as one can never truly reach the lighthouse. Lena goes back to the version of Kane who returned from the Shimmer, and they embrace. But they are left with an unanswerable question: “Who are you?”

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“One answer to this question is that we are all just beings made of cells, and therefore mortal. Just as cells split to create life, Lena observes, each cell also contains within it the fault that leads to senescence and death. Mortality is thus the defining feature of life’s basic unit: It’s in our genes. When genes are toyed with, as in the Shimmer, the problem of life and mortality comes into sharper focus. Each of the women on the mission contains within herself a drive for self-destruction: nobody enters the Shimmer without one, Dr. Ventress observes. And so each explorer heads inexorably towards the lighthouse—Woolf’s symbol for desire—but also towards death.

“One of the most intriguing details in Annihilation is a tattoo that appears and disappears on Lena’s arm. It’s in a figure-eight shape, like an infinity symbol, but its details show an ouroboros—a snake eating its tail. The tattoo also appears on Anya the paramedic sometimes, and on Kane. The Shimmer seems to work like the patch tool in Photoshop, flinging little bits of self around, redistributing them. The ouroboros is a symbol for the continual flow of death into life into death into life, just as the cells which seed death inside us also split to create life…”

Text: Annihilation Is a Brilliant Splicing of Woolf With Cronenberg, The New Republic

Pic: The Nymph Echo, 1936 – by Max Ernst

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Intense Emotions Hurt

“One of the most important through-lines this film and its predecessor share is the way in which both principal antagonists regard replicants as their “children”. It’s important for a lot of reasons, but for my purposes it’s important for one very specific reason, which is that their children are the direct product of how they’ve been treated by their parents.

“Tyrell and Wallace are both the abusive, neglectful fathers of abused, neglected children, and it shows most piercingly in how their children process – and fail to process – emotion. This manifests a bit differently in each film, and I’d argue much more clearly in the second, but it’s always there. As fathers, they appear to imagine themselves as benevolent and caring, at least to some degree. When Tyrell finally encounters Roy Batty, at first he’s gentle with his prodigal son. What he doesn’t understand until it’s far too late is that Roy really has come looking for his father. He wants more life, but he also wants to understand why he’s alive at all, what his value is, what he’s worth, and he needs that worth to be more than the sum of his use.

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“He was never truly loved, never valued, and when he’s brought face to face with that, he reacts how you should expect. Throughout the rest of the film he’s a burning core of wildly expressed emotion, boomeranging from rage to grief to glee to pain to scorn to hatred and finally to peace. As with K, he’s all or he’s nothing. He’s calm or he’s tearing the world apart.

“Replicants exist in an uncomfortable limbo between having a parent and having none, between knowledge of a distant and detached creator and the knowledge that they’ve always been alone. There’s obviously a god-thing going on here, and it’s not especially subtle, but there are also deeper questions at work regarding what this limbo actually does to a thinking, feeling entity.

Implanted memories might function as a cushion, but they don’t make up for a parent who was never there, and they don’t paper over the knowledge that you were created to be a thing with no other purpose beyond the purely functional.

“The horror in which replicants live is to be fully and completely aware of all of this, of the falseness of the experiences that were given to them to train their feelings, and of their inability to be genuinely close to anyone.

“Blade Runner is telling a story in significant part about how ruinous it is to be denied a personal history. Survivors of child abuse have been denied the same thing in a lot of ways: the time in which children are supposed to be learning what it is to feel healthy emotion and form healthy connections is disrupted and destroyed, and difficulty in processing intense emotion is a common result. That includes difficulty in understanding what emotions even are, in the task of articulating them to oneself. What we can’t articulate or understand, we can’t control. And intense emotion is terrifying, because intense emotion hurts.”

Text: Sunny Moraine,  We Are Not Things: Blade Runner’s unwanted children

Pic: Left: interior of Barozzi Veiga’s 2010 Neanderthal Museum design. Right: Concept art by Peter Popken for the interior of Wallace’s office in Blade Runner 2049.

The Thingness of All Living Things

“The notion expressed by Harrison Ford that spectators require a “human being on screen” with whom to connect is thus challenged by Villeneuve. In Blade Runner 2049, even the blade runners are copycats. “How does it feel killing your own kind?” Morton asks K before being retired. “I don’t mind my own kind because we don’t run,” K says. “Only older models do.” A hierarchy of being is erected in Blade Runner 2049. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” Lt. Joshi informs K. “Tell either side there’s no wall – you bought a war.” The humans of Blade Runner, sitting atop that social pyramid, are preceded by different classes of replicants (Nexus-6, Nexus-7, Nexus-8, etc.), and further down are robots, machines, and holograms. These physiologically and materially diverse beings inhabit a hyper-stratified society teetering on the brink of a civil war. “Am I the only one who can see the fucking sunrise here?” Lt. Joshi exclaims, fearing others might discover Rachael’s half-human child. “This breaks the world.” Beings of all kinds, when confronted by questions of identity and social difference, tribalize. The words “fuck off skinner” are aptly scribbled on the door to K’s apartment. The schismatic dystopia of 2049 reflects unto audiences the cultural polarities of their own historical moment. Even Lt. Joshi’s analogy of a society built on a wall is charged with racialized political innuendo.

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“If, in Blade Runner, that wall partitioned replicants from humans, in 2049, it is far more stratified, not only separating people from replicants, but replicants from other replicants, holograms from other holograms. The inhabitants of Villeneuve’s dystopia maintain stability by staying walled off from one another. Yet the more gradated any hierarchy – the more sprawling a wall – the greater the possibility exists for transgression, for unexpected cross-border play. An enlarged surface area only increases opportunities for its permeability. Thus, much more so than its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 inhabits a gray area, an in-between space where “species” meet: gestating replicants, humanlike holograms, and artificial blade runners. In doing so, it resists Lt. Joshi’s fatalistic hypothesis. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner calls not for a sublimation or homogenization of social difference, but for its intensification. The film reveals (and revels in) the shared “thingliness” of all (non-)living beings. Everything around us – ourselves included – is composed of matter, of matter that matters. Blade Runner 2049 thus offers a counter-narrative to our present-day politics of tribalism. It proffers a post-humanist egalitarianism by amplifying and celebrating its protagonists’ diversity.”

Text: Raymond de Luca, Vibrant Matter in Blade Runner 2049 

Pic: Blade Runner 2049 production still

Double Back

“Consider the insertion of Philip K. Dick into Blade Runner 2049 as a metafiction, something Dick did consciously and unconsciously in his fictions. Dick’s middle name was Kindred, and ‘K’ the replicant played by Ryan Gosling is K/kindred with Dick. K’s serial number is KD6-3.7 This is precisely the kind of numerological gift that Dick would have enjoyed, and perseverated over: it leads in one direction, before the flip/flop undermines the first solution. The combination of 6 and 3, interlinked by the hyphen, gives us 9 or alphabetically ‘I.’ The 3, isolated, gives us ‘C.’ It appears as if K’s serial number will encrypt Dick’s name directly: KDIC – but then it breaks off, or loops back, anagrammatically, leaving the final digit 7 unresolved. The numeral 7 has a rich and paradoxical history in the occult, theology, literature, and pataphysics. It’s also the square root of 49, and so forth. Yet, one must double back, approach the numerology differently: K (11), D (4), and 9 are 24. Then, 3 and 7. Work the numerological equation this way: 2+4+3+7 = 16, or ‘P’. The initials PKD are encrypted in K’s serial number.

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“Or, regard it another way: allow 3 + 7 to simply equal 10. 10 is ‘J.’ Therefore, the K serial number that identifies with Dick simultaneously identifies ‘J.’ Philip K. Dick’s twin sister died six weeks after birth. Her name was Jane. Dick was haunted by Jane. Twinning, and doubling are uncanny devices in Blade Runner 2049. But J is also Joi: a classic projection/introjection of Dick’s “dark-haired girl,” K’s daemon, his anima, his pre-occupation by spirit. Later, as pure emanation, Joi will occupy the persona of the doxie Mariette to experience sex with K. Then, J is Joe: the name given K by Joi when they mistakenly deduce K’s humanity. Joe K is also a ‘joke’ in that the name invokes Josef K of Kafka’s The Trial (pub. 1925), and Dick’s father, Joseph. Further, J is Joshi. Lieutenant Joshi, also referred to as Madam, is a surrogate maternal figure, who suggests the incest taboo in the family romance of the film. J is the lost and introjected sister Jane, and also Jesus, who in Dick’s complex of digressive Gnosticism is female. If this sounds like monomania on my part, then I refer you to The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), the philosophy of the author subsequent to his religious/mystical experience of February and March 1974. Dick’s Exegesis, edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, with exceptional annotations and interventions from an array of acquaintances, academics, and authors, is a (self-)conscious presence in Blade Runner 2049. And this is the fidelity the sequel insists upon, the autodidactic philosophy which the original abjected as too weird. It is the core of the film…”

Text: James Reich, Blade Runner 2049: The Enigma and Exegesis of ‘K’

Pic: Manuscript page from Dick’s Exegesis 

Spiral Jedi

“This is a short mash up my friend Teddy Gage digitally altered for me. It is a snipet of footage taken from Robert Smithson’s film Spiral Jetty. I asked Teddy to “Star Wars Kid” it for me. Just as the original footage of a kid caught on video goofing around with a broomstick was altered by countless anonymous animators by added light sabers effects, Teddy has inserted a light saber into Smithson’s hand” – John Powers.

Time and Events

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“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man. One thing before I proceed: The United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have made an attempt to obstruct me. I have allowed this sabotage to continue until now. At missile two-five-MM in silo six-three in Death Valley, California, and missile two-seven-MM in silo eight-seven in the Ukraine, so that you will learn by experience that I do not tolerate interference, I will now detonate the nuclear warheads in the two missile silos. Let this action be a lesson that need not be repeated. I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest. Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”

Text & image: Colossus: The Forbin Project [1970]

Whether Platonic or Romantic

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“Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.

“The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.

“The effect defamiliarizes the game even as it casts Theodore as a washout. His cumbersome inner life is expressed through his awkward interface with a computer game. At the same time, the film juxtaposes that ungainly interface with the natural, seductive draw of Samantha. Why would one dog-paddle a computer when instead one can flirt with Scarlett Johansson to operate one?

[…]

“The “Alien Child” video game scene serves a specific narrative purpose in Her: It demonstrates a halfway point between the impersonal, voice-operated interfaces that pervade its handheld devices and work terminals, and the empathetic artificial intelligences exemplified by cybernetic OS1 individuals like Samantha. The alien child not only possesses enough of a personality to ridicule Theodore, but also it can respond to the environment—insulting his prospective blind date, or calling the incorporeal Samantha “fat.”

“But despite this slow and steady ramp from familiar to unfamiliar forms of computer intelligence, Her never really challenges the viewer to imagine what it would be like to enter into a relationship with a computer operating system—whether a platonic or a romantic one. At the end of the day, Samantha is just a cipher for Scarlett Johansson—an actress whose voice is so characteristic that no reasonable viewer could possibly dissociate one her from the other. When Samantha starts worrying about incorporeality, it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to take her seriously. Samantha’s vocal reality is so strongly affixed to the rest of her famous body that the film ultimately fails to invite the viewer to ponder what it would be like to fall in love with an operating system. Instead, all we can do is ponder falling in love with a woman we’ve never seen.”

Text: You Are Mountain, Atlantic Monthly