Thursday, December 19, 2002

Computer Movies, The Matrix, and incidentally more Aussie actors
While watching The Two Towers I noticed Hugo Weaving making a relatively brief appearance as Elrond. Weaving is something of an institution on Australian television and in Australian movies (check out Proof and The Interview if you want to see good examples of his work), but only seems to pop up in big Hollywood movies if they are actually filmed in Australia or New Zealand. I am guessing he is an actor who has simply never felt the urge to move to Los Angeles, but who is quite happy to take the money and the work if there is a big budget Hollywood production shooting locally. Peter Jackson has undoubtedly seen his television and Australian movie work, but I suspect that Hugo Weaving's name comes up frequently when a local casting agent is asked to name a good solid local actor who can do a good American or British accent and play the villain, or a key supporting part, or whatever, in an offshore Hollywood production. This is presumably how Weaving was cast as Agent Smith in The Matrix. If the two Matrix sequels to be released next summer and holiday season are as successful as I think they are likely to be, and taking the success of The Return of the King as a given, then Weaving will have been in six of the most successful films of all time. (Presumably he will be the lowest profile actor to have ever performed such a feat).

As I observed the other day, most big DVD retailers presently have two for one offers, where I can get two quite recent films on DVD for 20 pounds. Having found a DVD I thought my sister would like, I decided to buy one for myself, and I ended up with a 2 disk special edition set of The Matrix . I then went home and watched it.

This was the film that broke the genre of "computer movie" through to a mass audience. It was the right time for it. It corresponded with the point at which the internet was being used by the masses, and with the release of Windows 98 (which popularised the Universal Serial Bus (USB) that made "plug and play" for hardware a reality, which meant that most comsumer electronics devices we would buy subsequently would plug straight into our PCs). It was also the point at which people who had had computers as part of their lives for as long as they could remember reached prime moviegoing age. And the movie is kind of fun, managing to combine the computer and virtual reality genres with lots of jumping and kung-fu. However, it is also kind of stupid, particularly compared to some of the movies that came before it.

The revolution that came with the mainstreaming of the internet in the mid 1990s was the second mass market computer revolution. The first came around the year 1980, when microcomputers first became available to normal people. They got a lot of publicity then, but at this time it was a geek phenomenon. Hollywood noticed, though, and there were a series of movies from this computer revolution, too. There were a couple of "virtual reality movies" made about 20 years ago, which were rather more intelligent than what came later. In these, you see the first signs of silicon valley culture on celluloid. There is John Badham's teen movie War Games and there are actual virtual reality movies: Steven Lisberger's Tron - a hugely influential and surprisingly good film, the first film to use computer graphics in any substantial way, and a film that was grasping towards the idea of virtual reality. Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm (1983): a flawed movie, partly because Natalie Wood died halfway through filming, but an attempt at a mainstream movie about vrtual reality that had some intelligence.

At the time, though, only geeks wanted to see the movies, and perhaps because of the financial failure of these movies, "computer movies" and "virtual reality" movies then went away, and Hollywood then forgot about computer movies for 10-15 years. It wasn't until the mid 1990s, when the media was full of "the internet" but few people had seen it, that they came back. We then got unrealistic stuff like The Net, the computer scenes in the first Mission Impossible film, and the like. (I have a soft spot of Iain Softley's Hackers though, which at least tried in places. It's plot was ludicrous, but I kind of felt that I might have met people like that if I had been at Horace Mann high school in New York in about 1990. And then, eventually, The Matrix came along and changed everything. This reflected the fact that computers were finally cool, and they weren't just being used by geeks any more, but by non-geeks as well.

This is well and good, but couldn't the breakthrough movie have been slightly less ludicrous in terms of plot? What do we have? In the future, artificial intelligences have been developed, and they have tried to take over the earth. In order to stop them, mankind has "scorched the sky" so that the sun's energy could no longer get through and the artificial intelligences would no longer have any power. In order to solve this problem, the AIs have set up huge farms of human beings in suspended animation in order to use their body heat and electricity from their internal electrical systems to power the world of the AIs. In order to keep the humans from getting uppity, they have all been plugged into a virtual reality world that makes them think that they are in a peculiar city that looks like Sydney but has Chicago street names in round about the year 2000.

Okay, lets start with the simplest question. Why use humans, precisely? To prevent them from getting uppity, it is necessary to create this tremendous, power consuming virtual reality. Why not instead use an animal that is less likely to get uppity in the first place. You need something warm blooded, and that is it really. Sheep perhaps? Secondly, the amount of power you get out of all the humans in the world isn't really very much, compared with, say, a single coal fired power station. Certainly it would not be enough to power all the stuff we see in the movie. And did the humans somehow make all the coal, and for that matter all the other fossil fuels, and all the uranium, and etc etc also go away when they "scorched the sky"? If so, that was clever. Or had the humans used up all the earth's resources before this time? (My goodness. Paul Ehrlich was right). And just where do the humans get their heat and power from? Well, from food. And how does food get produced? Well, from plants, which generally don't grow without sunlight. And as the sky has been scorched, there is no sunlight. We do see a nice little scene of the remains of dead humans being fed to other humans, but this isn't going to last long at all. You have to have some external source of calories. (This process is great if you want all the humans to die of some new-new-variant CJD, however). And assuming thatyou could somehow produce plants without the sun, why do you then need the humans. Just burn the plants in small power stations, or use them to drive fuel cells, or something). The whole thing is just too ludicrous for words. It is stupidity on top of stupidity on top of stupidity. I don't mind a little bit of silliness once in a while, and the movie is kind of cool, but is this sort of dumbness really necessary? Surely they could have come up with some slightly more convincing explanation for why humans are being farmed and kept in a virtual reality world. Something about harnessing their mental powers, because artificial intelligences lack certain types of creativity, and the virtual reality is a way of getting the humans to think about the things you want them too. Or something like that.

Perhaps I will get some kind of explanation with the next two movies. Somehow, though, I rather doubt it.

I suspect if I had an editor, I would be told to rewrite this piece, wandering less from topic to topic. Any thoughts from anyone?

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