I approached Appleseed: Ex Machina
with expectations set admittedly too high, in the hope that the sequel would get beyond the silly premise of the original
. Instead, the sequel only left me appreciating how much better a film the first one was. Yes, the plot was incoherent at times, but better structured and more interesting overall.
proved that carried along by a sufficiently complex and ingenious plot, an idiotic science fiction premise (starting with that business about the batteries) can be stretched out for ninety minutes. Appleseed
managed that. Appleseed: Ex Machina
doesn't (and neither did the The Matrix
All the eye candy and video game shoot-em-ups makes the movie an entertaining-enough diversion. But Appleseed
did such a good job proving what a really bad idea it is to create an authoritarian society with utopian pretensions run by a bunch of genetically-engineered androids and a ginormous mainframe.
And then Appleseed: Ex Machina
proposes that the answer to all those inherent problems are more
dispassionate androids and a bigger
mainframe, with even more
total control of everything. We're even treated to crowds of mainframe-controlled zombies, looking as cornily Roger Corman as it sounds. As economist Donald Boudreaux
A far greater danger to Americans' prosperity than a President with a poor speaking style and a penchant for standard-fare political shenanigans is the spread of the belief that economic salvation lies in having someone "in control."
But back during the 1960s, the mainframe was the only way to harness enough computing power in one place to do anything useful. By the 1970s, the Cray supercomputer had further cemented the metaphor of the super-smart, centrally-located, all-powerful electronic brain, generously time-sharing out its intelligence to us mere mortals.
If anything, Appleseed
is a tribute to a bygone era, when despondent Marxists could dream of benevolent dictatorships putting a chicken in every pot and
making the trains run on time. But run by computers, which would make it all totally cool. Yet by the 1990s, Cray Computer Corporation was bankrupt.
The Internet was instead about decentralized, distributed computing using off-the-shelf components.
But the Star Trek
universe is still ruled by mainframes. The Matrix
universe is run by mainframes. The Star Wars
universe is run by mainframes (all conveniently located in one location, without redundancy or backups). Hollywood has mainframes on the brain.
Recall that every other episode of the original Star Trek
had one of these Edenic societies blowing a major fuse. At least they got that
part right. "One ring to rule them all" became "One mainframe to rule them all." It does give the protagonist and easy objective: toss the ring into the volcano. Or nuke the mainframe.
And then rebuild the blasted thing all over again, exactly the way it was before. A never-ending public works project to beat all public works projects, I guess.
One notable exception is Ghost in the Shell,
created by Masamune Shirow after
he wrote Appleseed.
Second time around, Shirow got it exactly right: a decentralized, distributed, chaotic world where nobody can be in control of everything, and the worst problems are caused by people trying
to be in control of everything.
It becomes the contradictory job of the good guys in Section 9 to exert authoritarian force in resisting that authoritarian impulse (ditto: Jack Bauer). But good premises make good stories precisely because the conflict is built in and perfection is elusive. Not surprisingly, every Ghost
sequel has equaled or exceeded the original.
Take seriously the notion that a technological, utopian paradise is possible in the here and now, and like all socialist realism art, the essential conflict can only boil down to evil (capitalistic) forces trying to destroy Eden. It sounds high concept at first, but it'll always end up as high camp in the James Bond/Austin Powers/Star Trek
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
the end of the world (not again!) was turned into a running joke. The underlying plot devices in Ghost in the Shell,
by comparison, are surprisingly mundane. Stop aspiring to perfection, and the challenge of wrestling with ordinary desires and frustrations opens the door to transcendence.
Consider the original and its four sequels in terms of the primary plot device:
|Ghost in the Shell||Industrial espionage|
|Solid State Society ||Medicare funding|
|SAC: I||Corrupt medical drug trials|
|SAC: II||Terrorism and separatism|
To be sure, Solid State Society
is a tad deeper than that, but the questions raised by a high-tech society with an aging population and a low birth rate--also explored in Katsuhiro Otomo's comic Roujin Z
--are questions about the value of life itself. It makes sense why the various players would be driven to a murderous crime wave.
I thought the free-wheeling world of Star Trek: Enterprise
made it the best of the series, though the Orwellian U.N-in-outer-space meme still hovered there in the background. In Serenity
Joss Whedon created the best space opera series to date by getting back to a messy, libertarian world that was recognizably real.
Naive and idealistic politics, however well-intentioned, make for bad movies. Imperfect people battling an imperfect system make for good movies. As novelist Richard Russo
puts it, "unrelenting virtue is not just unrealistic but uninteresting." Appleseed: Ex Machina
takes on the task of making an uninteresting idea interesting. And mostly fails.
The "uncanny valley"
Reframing the mainframe plot
The Medicator (they'll be back!)
Labels: anime reviews, annoying stuff, ghost in the shell, politics, science, science fiction, shirow, uncanny valley