Last week Arielle and I went to go see Transcendence. It was larky, this expedition: we’d never heard of the movie and knew nothing about it save “Johnny Depp” and “sci-fi.” It SUCKED!
But this post is not meant simply to harangue Transcendence (a movie whose tag line could’ve been: In which a man stuck in a big flat screen TV engineers nanites that don’t get mean exactly, but sort of do!) I have bigger fish to fry. The fish is Hollywood’s depiction of bad guys, these days. And actually, now that I think about it, it’s also Hollywood’s depictions of good guys. I guess in general the fish I’m frying (probably more sautéing, honestly, in a little butter, because I heart movies enduringly and heart Hollywood and heart capital “c” Creatives) is Hollywood, which for the purposes of this screed I will call H-Wood, so as not to have to look plainly in the face the object of my abuse.
H-Wood is gaga these days for bad guys who are flat, expressionless, competence-machines driven to inflict their humorless, uninflected will on the world at all costs, without ever breaking a sweat, cracking a smile or being surprised, moved or happy about anything ever. In Transcendence the actor pegged to fill this role (for the role is filled, it is not played–and once filled it is unnecessary to even move within this role) is the young lady who plays the journalist in the Kevin Spacey show about the gothic swamp of connivance and power brokerage that is D.C. (Kate Mara–descendant, incidentally, of two different NFL-franchise owning families, as was pointed out to me about her sister Rooney by my brother-in-law, Adam, co-proprietor of a foodie concept in Austin that features one of the most beautiful Web sites ever devised).
I don’t know who started this trend but I have an idea. It certainly wasn’t Alan Rickman. Or Angela Lansbury. Or Ralph Fiennes. It certainly wasn’t Anthony Hopkins or the guy who played Sollozzo in The Godfather. It wasn’t anyone directed by Oliver Stone. It was maybe Schwazo in Terminator (the good one). Then it was terrifying, because the thing is, he actually was a robot, and what could be more frightening than an indefatigable, unkillable robot whose sole reason for being is to end your life? Nothing could be scarier than that! Nothing! Goddamnit!
In Transcendence, Mara plays a character named…I can’t remember what her name is. It doesn’t matter. She is less a character than an element. Mara plays a luddite terrorist intent on decoupling man from his cyborgian, AI-dependent future. This she goes about with minimal effort and maximum efficiency. She’s uncomplicated and never puts a foot out of place. Evil, H-Wood instructs us, is uncomplicated. It has no room for self-criticism or self-examination. It has no bend or color or particular flavor. It’s predictable, precise. It’s one note, sustained. It is, in short, nothing like people.
But that’s all bullshit. In reality, Osama Bin Laden had a mad crush on Whitney Houston and dyed the gray out of his beard. Gaddafi adored children and suffered from clinical depression. Stalin was this close to becoming a priest. In reality, bad guys are complex creatures with narratives, like those of good guys, that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. The current fashion in H-Wood for boring, milkwhite evil whispers “Shhhhh…” and “There there” to us, assures us that badness just wears the one uniform, it never tells jokes or holds babies, it never breaks into surprise tears while washing the dishes or makes a mistake driving.
At the risk of going waaaaaay overboard with this all of a sudden: isn’t it possible that we train ourselves away from recognizing true evil? In the same way we take to the air waves to gang tackle the Cliven Bundys and Donald Sterlings of the world while remaining largely complacent about institutional racism, we’ve decided that evil is something in a turban…
…but it’s the suits are robbing us blind.