Stripmining reality as we amuse ourselves to death: 9 and Gamer
9 struck me as scarcely a movie at all, more a brief collection of scenes where sketched-in doll-characters with incongruous movie star voices endlessly fend off evil machines in a generic post-apocalyptic landscape. At first, I kept falling asleep, but then I roused myself enough to wonder what I was supposed to feel about all this. Was I supposed to care that the young heroic 9 cares enough to go save other characters while the slightly Asian-looking older curmudgeon 1 doesn't think he should? 7, I believe, wears a skull to show some chutzpah and she has the voice of Jennifer Connolly, so I liked her the best. But why on earth should I give a tinker's damn about a bunch of barely-differentiated dolls?
The film evokes Edward Scissorhands in the way the dolls' inventors die before their inventions kick into action, but at least Edward had Winona Ryder as a love interest and a cartoon suburbia to slice his way into. 9 has the odd effect of rendering the apocalypse moot. You see the occasional human corpse lying around, but what does humanity's fate matter if only miniature animated burlap bag lives are at stake? I found myself much more moved by the defunct Columbia SC mall full of dead stores where I saw the film than anything in 9's rusty metallic steampunk universe.
Among recent futuristic films, Gamer was much more thought-provoking. I liked Entertainment Weekly's dismissive summary put-down of the movie:
"In the fractious future, video games have `gone human,' with real live blood-sport warriors controlled by geeks with joysticks. The sickest of these games is Slayers, in which death-row inmates kill each other off in a noisy orgy of skip-stutter editing and dirty-ash-spattered explosions. It's The Dirty Dozen meets Tron, updated for the age of action incoherence. As the brutish Kable, Gerard Butler must find out who's pulling his strings, but it's the audience whose chain gets yanked by this head-ache inducing techno-violent mishmash. D" --Owen Glieberman
Well, yes, but . . . . in its jaded way, Gamer makes surprisingly cogent points about our sickly relationship to the media. As the film depicts grotesquely fat people in grey apartments living fantasy lives through their cartoonishly attractive avatars, I found myself brooding on how much of our identities get shaped by our identification with figures in video games, movies, etc. If one watches enough movies, then what happens to one's everyday identity? As people amuse themselves with their toys in air-conditioned comfort, doesn't the external world get increasingly stripmined in the process? As William Saleten points out in this 2006 Slate article,
"The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, only one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it's been getting hot lately.
Instead of fixing the outdoors, we're trying to escape it. On every street in my neighborhood, people have torn down ordinary homes and put up giant air-conditioned boxes that extend as far as possible toward the property line. They've lost yards and windows, but that's the whole idea. Outdoor space is too hard to control, so we're replacing it with indoor space. From 1991 to 2005, the median lot size of single-family homes sold in the United States shrank by 9 percent, but the median indoor square footage increased by 18 percent. If you can't stand the heat, go hide in your kitchen."
Do people have genuine adventures anymore if they always live them through the media? And what does it mean if real live people become avatars? Haven't we just seen poor Kurt Cobain reduced to a Guitar Hero avatar?
Are real-life soldiers fighting in Afghanistan functioning as avatars for the increasingly older game-playing American public? Gamer shows how the artificially pleasure-filled fantasy world of the screen already dominates the polluted, paved-over, species-deprived, globally warming, and frankly less-fun world outside. In the words of Neil Postman, we are "amusing ourselves to death" with the druglike soma of entertainment, but Gamer goes further to suggest how media fantasies shape our reality in increasingly surreal ways.
As a side note, here's a great quote from Postman: "When we begin relying on the Internet for all of our news and information we will turn into a nation of zombies."