March 19, 2008

Appleseed: Ex Machina

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.

The Matrix 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 sequels).

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 puts it:

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 vein.

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 ShellIndustrial espionage
Solid State Society   Medicare funding
SAC: ICorrupt medical drug trials
SAC: IITerrorism 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 and Firefly, 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.

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