Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Yea though I walk through The Uncanny Valley

The proliferation of CGI has always scared me: a simulacratic nightmare waiting to happen, it's Thanatos manifested in the Geeks of Hollywood (i.e. George Lucas), reflected in their determination to "cross" the Uncanny Valley and thus liberate themselves from actually having to, you know, "talk" to real girl actors. Do I judge them? I do, your honor. Rather than play with Elizabeth at Castle Frankenstein, they hole up in their nerdy towers with Fritz (Dwight Frye) and labor long into the night in order to complete experiments that will only rain doom upon us all.

Films like THE POLAR EXPRESS, BEOWULF and FINAL FANTASY IV have tried different tricks to cross this uncanny valley, as have video games, and occasionally a gamer or graphic artist gets close (as in Max Kor's elf below) but as of "now" at any rate, there is still a border between the simulacrum and the real, some innate border patrol of revulsion sends us running when we see a human avatar's eyes. It all has to do with deep reptilian brainstem stuff - programming so deep it goes back farther than even the most gifted programmers can reach... yet.

BUT, the scary thing is--in the parlance of the Terminator films--the CGI-frenzied Hollywood "will not... stop" trying to cross this valley, or trying to "pass" fake humans for real ones on their intended audience. So there will be more, much more of that creepy feeling of "recognition of the repressed" which is the "uncanny" part of the valley. But they... will... not... stop! They're as sure this is the future of film as Doctors Moreau and Frankenstein were sure about their monsters, or how Bush was about Iraq, or Pandora about her box. And who can blame them? Even if it's a monster, at least it's something. They'd rather go out in an atomic bomb finale than wait around to grow old as Elizabeth pours them endless rounds of watery tea, day after day, decade after decade...

With that grim idea in mind and the immanent arrival of TERMINATOR: SALVATION on the horizon (May 09), it's worth sharing this panic attack-inducing dread I had last night: It's inevitable that the uncanny valley will be crossed. And when it does, we will be terminated as a (unique) species.

Gaze at he planetarium ceiling with me now and just imagine, really closely and vividly, about what that would look like-- the CGI avatar that was completely indistinguishable from an onscreen living human, what no longer being able to tell the difference between real and fake human would mean to the movies, to us, to humanity, to long dead stars who would never shill for corporate interests in their own lifetime. They joke about it in movies with Al Pacino that I haven't seen, and William Gibson's novel, All Tomorrow's Parties, deals with a similar issue, but neither I think takes the idea to its full James Cameron-esque extreme.

Why must and will this happen? Because it is humanity's destiny. Even in blowing up Skynet and trashing THE POLAR EXPRESS, we only slowed it down. We were never meant to stop it.

While a malevolent military computer like Skynet may be far-fetched at this point--as such actual, physical destruction occurs in "the real" --I can all too vividly imagine it occurring in the simulacrum, which is where most of us are living now anyway. Once that happens, once we are unable to immediately distinguish a dead-eyed avatar from a live human being, then that lonesome and uncanny valley shall be crossed forever. We'll think we're making a new friend but we won't realize that this friend has friends of his own--Sorcerer's Apprentice-style--and these new friends are going to keep coming, until they take over our house and steal our water rights. We will be as the Native Americans were when they signed over Manhattan for a few shiny silicon beads.

In order for this valley to be crossed the avatar's eyes will have to reflect the madness of total identification, beyond even what one human sees looking at another; because we will need to provide "more" to achieve the effect of "sameness": "more human than human" as the Rydell Corporation puts it in BLADERUNNER... that is the only way it can successfully work. The riddle of the uncanny valley is this: one cannot cross it without becoming something else. The 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY big black obelisk stands in the middle of that lonesome valley, the obsidian blackness is the blackness of your dilated pupils when you stare into the mirror. Cross it and you wind up hiding from your older self in some inner hotel bathroom, and then you become old, and die and are reborn... Dave... Davey... happy birth... day.

The uncanny valley is the Nagasaki of the Self through which no stranger passes - for all becomes familiar as it exits itself, and William Wilson-like, begins again at the end as the other guy - the American GIs become the Nazis, the shirts become the skins, an undercover cop forgets his real identity and becomes a crook, the film begins before it's even shot, or becomes, as wikipedia notes in their entry on TERMINATOR SALVATION: "...simultaneously a sequel and prequel" of itself.

It's all written out beautifully at the end of T3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, where the "future" dreamt by Reese and Sarah in the first two films becomes the present, the machines rise and, with a little scotch tape speed bump, the Moebius strip flips around. Safe in their presidential mountain stronghold, all decked out like the 1970s parent's rec room basement of our primal fantasies, Nick and Norah can spend the rest of their lives on that infinite Thin Man playlist. Didn't Angela Chase herself sum it up in MY SO-CALLED LIFE, when she was reading the Diary of Anne Frank? That happiness is being walled in with a boy you like? This is the sub zero basement dream palace described by Dr. STRANGELOVE, ("where animals could be bred and slaughtered!). It's the Anne Frank-enstein mythic tower-cum-basement, the prison cell where Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Ghetty in LOST HIGHWAY.

But that's not all that's post-modern sleazy/great about T3: there's also Kristanna Loken, the latest and greatest cyberdine systems model, who just may be the first crossover human/avatar.

What I mean by crossover here is that she's human, but able to "pass" as an avatar, able to traverse the uncanny valley in the opposite direction. They make her up as if she's airbrushed by one of those trichophobic Japanese graphic designers: her blond hair gelled back into one solid, easy to animate sheet, her skin slathered in make-up, her eyes so blue they're metallic. She's great because she shows the true nature of that covergirl chick we all eye: she's indiscriminately homicidal.

And then there's Nick Stahl. Sorry, but I like Nick Stahl as John Conner. Do we really need our currently overexposed friend Christian Bale up there taking his place? Could the nerds not forgive Stahl for being innately mangy looking? Just look at him off to the right (pictured): all pale and hung over with eyes that have an actual glimmer of intellect and sexual maturity. Is he too "debauched" for fandom's "virgin majority" voting bloc? Apparently in the preview for SALVATION, Bale's still doing the "hoarse whisperer" routine from DARK KNIGHT. Oh man, why does he do that? The virgin fans of Generation Z get what they deserve: the straining voice of pre-preparation H.

What's worse is that Bale's been there and done the John Conner bit already, in that British dragon movie, REIGN OF FIRE (2002), which operates on basically the same future du jour premise as SALVATION: you know, flying dragons/machines of the night hunting the last few humans as they hide amidst the wrecked cars, like mice in the grass hiding from owls? The scenes of coughing humans hiding underground by candlelight, amidst dirty-nosed children with hungry eyes? It was all there in REIGN, and it was all pretty bad, until gonzo Matthew McConaughey showed up. And in SALVATION I don't think he's showing up.

I shouldn't bash Bale though, since he was so great in AMERICAN PSYCHO, and at least, as of now, John Connor--savior of mankind--is still being played by an actual human. How long is that going to last.... in the future?!


  1. "once we are unable to immediately distinguish a dead-eyed avatar from a live human being"

    But do you really believe that this will ever happen? I vehemently believe that the "creators" will always be aware of humanity's discomfort at seeing an avatar of themselves and will realize that moving in this direction will equal death to movies. Part of the fascination, for me at least, with the Terminator films has always been the fact that they have a man/woman playing a machine. The subtext there goes against one of the fundamentals of the movie and I revel in that knowledge.

    And thank gods, finally someone else with some love for Stahl and I completely agree that he made for a great Connor. Bale's raspy man voice thing is already rubbing me the wrong way.

    Excellent post.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Marina, and good point about positive subtextual ramifications of humans playing robots instead of vice versa. But I don't share your faith that they wont do it if they can, and they are already trying. Considering how fast and unstoppable the digital revolution is, how can it be more than a matter of a few years?


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