A Science Fictional Year: Matrix Inspired

Dark City (1998) • Cypher (2002) • Thirteenth Floor (1999) • Yesterday Was A Lie (2008)

I mentioned, briefly, in my discussion on The Matrix about old technology having some kind of magic effect: some ability inherent to the pre-Pentium world (Pentium being an arbitrary significator of technological progress here) to transport or contain its users elsewhere. Which is, of course, counter intuitive. Occulus Rift’s ability to transport someone to a theoretical world is at least twenty times greater than the VHS for Beverly Hills Cop, but somehow our cultural mythos seems to have a different opinion. These outmoded technological artifacts, perhaps because of their undeniable connection with the past, seem more capable of taking an individual into altered states. The movies I picked (with one exception) borrow from the past, or a conglomeration of past and present, to portray a world that you should not believe. And I say they’re Matrix inspired, though really, it’s a case of whatever was in the drinking water.

In Kevin Kelly’s (incredible) book What Technology Wants, in the chapter titled “Convergence”, he discusses evolution’s tendency (and technology’s tendency by extension) to have synchronic developments. For example, the human eye and the squid eye are identical despite millions of years evolution and several phylum, chordata, what have you, separating us. I know this seems like a non sequitur (which is why you should stop everything and read his book right now), but he coins the phrase “steamboat time” to indicate a convergence of technological development. In it, he discusses how five unrelated people in unrelated parts of the world all simultaneously invented the steamboat engine with, as far as we can tell now and then, no communication amongst the individuals. This prompted Mark Twain to write, “When it’s steamboat time, you steam,” to describe the sudden proliferation. Another example would be two totally different men inventing calculus at roughly the exact same moment. Right down to Newton accusing Lebniz of plagiarism. All this to say: whatever water The Matrix was drinking, it contained some steamboat time.

Dark City‘s conceit is of slug like aliens that pilot our dead to perform psychological experiments on us in a shifting environment, with false memories and personalities implanted in our minds. My favorite line (which I will repeat with full dead-eyed eye contact if confronted with a question I can’t answer) was, “We control your dead.” Creepy.

In terms of the steamboat time, all these movies take place in dream like worlds, with dream like cinematography, and slightly off-putting color palettes. All these worlds are meant to only make us comfortable enough to not question their truthiness (except maybe Cypher‘s world). They encourage a Matrix-style paranoia (which really traces back to the crystallized perfection of The X-Files) and distrust of the people who say, “Hey pal. You can trust me! I’m a regular human like you! I mean, ‘I’m a human just like you’!” Trust only your self, and only if you’re under thirty (as of this year, I can’t even trust myself any longer).

Dark City has the structure of a dream: you have the feeling that you’re the only person who’s even vaguely aware enough to know what’s really happening. Or perhaps the only person who has a hope of figuring it out. The geography shifts even as you get a fragile grip on it, and the whole time you have in mind a vague but compellingly necessary goal. For the hero, John Murdoch, that goal is Shell Beach, and like a dream, it’s a location that doesn’t exist yet; it’s a part of everyone’s shared and implicit knowledge. John has to fight against even the implicit reasoning of his nonsensical dream space.

Like our steamboat time in the real world, Dark City experiences its own surge of super necessary steamboat time in the form of John’s emergent telekinetic powers, which allow him to fight the slugs (who control the dead), transcend everyone’s crappy eternal night, and fashion the paradise of Shell Beach which he (and the city) so desperately needs.

Fascinating is that the world of the dream is never fully abandoned. John and his co-inhabitants still live in the floating experimental and isolated world of Dark City. Just one now has the ability to manipulate the machines of the invaders to manipulate the dream. Transcendence becomes building paradise within the dream.

Click on page 2 below to check out Thirteenth Floor and Cypher.