Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Tech Messiah

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

I could understand why, if you were adapting Jurassic Park, you might decide to drop “Mr. DNA.” There are other ways to do this plot exposition, maybe by giving B.D. Wong a little bit more to do as Henry Wu, or maybe Richard Attenborough vamps a little bit, or, heck, you might assume that people don’t actually care that much about where the dinosaurs come from as long as there are dinosaurs. But Mr. DNA makes it into this movie, and he turns out to be an essential. How do you convince people that dinosaurs in a modern theme park are a good idea? You have a cartoon character explain how we got them! And then our special group of investigators/guests heads behind the scenes to talk to Wu and see the hatching facilities; you make sure we see cute baby dinosaurs! Jurassic Park is not out to fool us. It’s not as if the marketing just focused on baby dinosaurs and an animated double helix. The film itself is pretty clear before any of this exposition business about how dangerous the dinosaurs are, how fallible the park employees are, and how breathtakingly arrogant it is to play God. All the same, we can see how the characters in this film can be convinced that this prehistoric whizbang is a golden goose or a golden opportunity.

One doesn’t have to be a one-percenter to see the reason why Hammond’s greed outweighs his good sense. More interestingly, you can watch two scientists with very different motivations fall in love with the idea of these dinosaurs walking about. Wu, smarmy and superior, is the kind of man who believes that this display of scientific creativity will ultimately lead to some kind of profit beyond the salary. On the other hand, Grant looks at the little Velociraptor and starts investigating it, undone with curiosity about seeing his field come to life again. He comes to his senses soon enough to chide Hammond a little bit, but his first reaction at seeing the full-grown dinosaurs is to glory, not to chide. It’s rare for the savior to be a tag-team duo, but in Jurassic Park that’s the set up. Capital and science, an Anthropocene pair that seem likely to doom their own era, are put together in Hammond and Wu. Hammond is the money, Wu is the brains, and together they fabricate a new evangel which the lawyer Gennaro can see the sense in. Together they’ll make a combination safari and theme park that would make the Disney conglomerate quake with fear. John and Henry are an unholy combination: a tech messiah.

Not every tech messiah is evil—I have a hard time seeing Hammond and Wu’s avarice as pure malevolence, for example—and yet their presence in a story is an uncanny sign of a world gone wrong. In Christianity, the messiah is a man himself, but he is also understood to be part of the Godhead; it is man’s errors which call for the divine solution. The tech messiah is a secular figure, and even at his best, he (it’s always a male figure) is a product of the same world which created the situation which requires saving from. There is nothing divine in the origin of the tech messiah, whether he appears for good or for evil. With human technology he has acceded to a numinous state and has slain the need for God.

In the case of Schindler’s List, the other tech messiah film by Steven Spielberg from 1993, Oskar Schindler has not killed God, exactly, but he has supplanted him. (Perhaps one would be forgiven for believing that this man Teutonic enough to be a member in good standing in the Nazi Party might have tried it at one point.) Noteworthy, too, is the personal growth that we witness Schindler undergo over the course of the film. At the beginning, he leaves his business interests with Itzhak Stern, who wisely seizes the opportunity to funnel especially endangered Jewish people into Schindler’s population of essential workers in enamel. After the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, which he witnesses at a distance from horseback, Schindler takes up Stern’s mission in great haste, spending his money on lives rather than trinkets, and makes his Jewish workers even more essential by moving from pots to weapons. Where individuals trying to protect Jews from the Nazis can only hide a bare handful at most, the industrialist can protect Jews at an industrial scale. Spielberg’s contrasting tales of tech messiahs are companion pieces, no matter how different they may appear at first glance. Hammond and Wu have between them the wealth and knowledge to do incredible good in the world, and what they’ve decided to create instead is a place to milk the families of hedge fund guys. Schindler looks at what he’s done and breaks down in tears. “I didn’t do enough!” he sobs, lamenting that his car or his Nazi membership pin might have brought in the money for more people, now dead.

The tech messiahs using their abilities for good are as much machine as man. In RoboCop, a man who wanted to make the world a better place is killed in a cruel, brutal fashion and then is brought back to life by a power higher than himself. RoboCop, née Alex Murphy, has been brought into existence to put the souls of criminals in God’s hands, and he does so until people from both sides of the law begin to suspect that it’s Murphy inside that casing. The more they suspect, the more of his old self he begins to rediscover, and this humanity is what makes RoboCop a heroic figure rather than a man-shaped drone. Finding that he used to have friends, a wife, a child moves RoboCop, and it activates the decency in him as well. That desire to make the world a better place moves him from knocking out petty criminals to striking at the heart of organized crime, which is to say the highest reaches of corporate America. Detroit’s problems have not been solved after RoboCop kills Boddicker, his chief associates, and Jones, but the heads of two snakes, one with black hands and another with a white collar, have been chopped off. WALL-E of WALL-E is a machine who has grown personal characteristics, collecting items from his trash purview and organizing them in his little trailer, developing curiosity and empathy and fidelity. (He is so cute and I want like, six of him.) These are traits which serve humanity in the end, at least as many traveling rotund and ignorant aboard the Axiom. I think it’s important that it’s not a question of saving, because he definitely does not keep people from going extinct. Who knows that they couldn’t have managed to go on forever as a nomadic people aboard the Axiom and her sister ships? But he does provide purpose to an aimless race. Without WALL-E, these people would be slugs. With him, and with the plant that he has saved from the skyscrapers of garbage and the maw of space, humanity has a second chance. The sins of the fathers have not been expunged; the Earth that the Axiom castaways come to is a ruined Earth, nothing like what’s been remembered by the ship’s computers. But those sins have been smeared, and WALL-E imagines an intervention for humanity that allows us to clean up our own mess.

Then there’s Luke Skywalker as he appears in Return of the Jedi, who for belonging to such a hi-tech future is sort of an awkward fit as a tech messiah. This is to say nothing of the triumph of the natural Ewoks over the mechanized stormtroopers on Endor: yub nub, eee chop yub nub. “Cybernetic” might be a better word for Luke as well as his father. The true tech messiah is Darth Vader, described by the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi as “more machine than man” in one sequence, taking a leading role in destroying the evil Emperor Palpatine. (I feel like I can hear people saying something about a movie called “the Rise of Skywalker?”) In the Emperor’s throne room at the height of the second Death Star, three men with tortured bodies undergo a strange battle. The only one whose body is still unfettered with metal goads the other two, one of whom does not really want to fight anyway, and it’s Darth Vader, whose soul is already thickened and veined with a history of cold-blooded murder, who hefts the Emperor to his death. While the strike team on Endor and the pilots in the infrastructure of the Death Star do heroic deeds, the victory belongs primarily to Luke and Anakin, two men who transcend their bodies in order to bring some hope back to the galaxy. For Luke, it’s a victory which shows that he does not have to follow the path that his father trod; his mutilation, as well as his flirtation with the Dark Side, ends around his right wrist. And for Anakin, who is a bald and pale old man underneath the samurai helmet, being released from the technology which keeps him alive is a huge relief. “You’ll die,” Luke says when Vader asks him to remove some of the apparatus so he can see Luke with “my own eyes.” Vader was the one who was prophesied as a kind of Force messiah, the one who would bring balance. In these final moments of his life, it’s clear that this man who hastened the rise of the Empire has delivered the final blow to it as well. Vader can claim to have been the beginning and ending of a circle, a teleologically curious position which puts him in a different category than the march of men.

Enough of the cute stuff. The bad tech messiah is the one who feels most likely, the one who most reflects the real world that we live in today. It was popular to say during the height of the pandemic that Jurassic Park sequels made sense all of a sudden; there was no risk that rich and powerful people wouldn’t have us normies take for their hideously craven benefit. Who exemplifies this devil-may-care attitude, a disregard for the rules and a disinterest in taking responsibility for his own actions, let alone the actions of people who are led astray by him? If Ferris Bueller is a second-semester senior in 1986, it’s safe to assume that he was born in 1968, putting him roughly halfway between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Ferris Bueller was designed in a lab to become Bezos or Larry Page, growing up the scion of wealthy parents on the North Shore; is there any doubt that his parents would be able to spot him $300,000 if he got the idea for Amazon a few years later? We watch his powers of persuasion, which are Mephistophelean. Cam may say that it is possible to resist Ferris Bueller, which, fine, but only Ed Rooney manages to resist him over the course of this film, and Ed Rooney ends up slightly maimed in body and entirely mutilated in dignity by the end of the picture. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off paints a portrait of the exact kind of guy who goes to an Ivy or somewhere commensurate based on what his parents will pay for—what, you think Ferris is going to goof off at Illinois-Urbana Champaign for four years?—and walk away with the connections and the wherewithal to get even richer than his folks. Maybe Ferris Bueller becomes Peter Thiel with less of a fetish for seasteading and destabilizing democracy, or maybe he’s just another Elizabeth Holmes. All the same, the material is there to be molded by the same good people who brought us great men with the moral rectitude of a Mark Zuckerberg.

Then there are the cartoon villains, one of them literally from the pages of comic books and the other…I dunno, probably the Tuskegee Study. The Armitage family of Get Out are a cottage industry for terrifying crimes. Rose seduces Black men and brings them home, where her psychiatrist mother Missy takes over; then it’s up to her brother Jeremy and especially her father Dean to complete the complex process which takes a white person’s brain and sticks it inside a Black person’s body. For the white people who undertake the silent auction in the backyard of the Armitage home, the Armitages are salvific figures, able to prolong their lives and do so in what they admit to be the coolest way possible. The power that Dean and Missy have figured out how to harness is nothing short of godlike, which of course is what any mad scientist is. The perfidious laboratory or operating room that Doc Armitage works from is the forge of a god, and the future that he makes possible for potential buyers is the stuff of Ponce de Leon’s sweatiest fever dreams.

Otto Octavius’s experiments are about as ludicrous in their own way. He has developed not just nuclear fusion in an extremely safe place in New York City, but he’s also manufactured some robotic arms that allow him to control the reactor. Suffice it to say, this all flops in cosmically ugly fashion, and the dreams of this well-meaning family man are upended in terrible ways. The first experiment kills his wife, discredits him, and maims him neurologically as his arms turn evil and take him with them. (Spider-Man 2 gets way more fun if you imagine that every time his arms “talk” to him, they’re saying something like “DO CRIME!” in slithery voices.) From there, the regular bank-robbing mayhem and kidnapping and blackmail and all that jazz, y’know, standard villain stuff. Sort of.

Long before The Dark Knight was accused of lending a more complicated approach to superhero movies because it set some scenes at night, two ’04 releases created significantly more interesting villains to challenge the heroes. The Incredibles is a champion of “the villain may have a point,” creating in Syndrome a normal person with an uncanny gift for invention whose rejection at the hands of an arrogant elite creates a festering need for approval. That film makes Syndrome’s brutality inexcusable, but years before anyone thought the words “It’s about ethics in gaming journalism,” Brad Bird pointed an accusatory finger at toxic fandom. Spider-Man 2 is, in its own way, even more fascinating on the subject of its villain. Octavius ultimately sacrifices himself and his robot arms in order to keep his reactor from obliterating New York City, making him one of the more difficult figures in a superhero movie, period. (Can’t wait for him to be ruined later this week, it’ll be great.) How strange it is to see a denouement in a superhero movie like this one, where the heroism of our title figure is to appeal to the humanity of the damaged person on the other end of the gun and beg them to do the right thing. In a safer place, a lab which would have provided safeguards for his wife and his arrogance alike, Octavius might have turned into a true tech messiah, able to provide clean energy for everyone on earth. In the New York where there is no stronger person on the side of right than a severely depressed Spider-Man, all he can do is avert total disaster.

Octavius opens the door for a tech messiah who is neither all good nor all bad. These men are complicated figures; if RoboCop is the good and Dean Armitage the bad, then Tony Stark is the ugly. There are species of filamentous algae which aren’t pond scum as much as weapons dealers during the War on Terror are pond scum, and Tony Stark’s braggadocious tour through the Middle East gets him kidnapped by a group of terrorists who want him to make them weapons. The tactic backfires as Tony, get ready for it, is ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS, and he shoots his way out and loses the man who saved his life along the way. The arc reactor that Tony makes is enough to keep him alive despite the damage to his heart; it also becomes the path to making a supersuit which allows him to act with impunity in global affairs. As soon as Tony is sure that the suit is functional, he wipes out the terrorist cell in the mountains without the benefit of tribune, trial, or any of the other niceties of international law. The encounter he has with the American Air Force is played for laughs, a sign of the film’s merely mild discomfort with the idea that a very rich man with access to very potent explosives has taken it upon himself to play out his vengeance thousands of miles away from his Malibu mansion. Iron Man will turn into a guy who plays defense much more than he plays offense in future films, but in Iron Man, the preferred outcome that this tech messiah is able to bring home with him is one that ought to make us shake in our hypothetical boots.

And then there’s the world’s problematic fave, Avatar. If you wanted to read it this way, I suppose you could walk away believing that Jake Sully is not a tech messiah but a hero in the mode of the Ewoks, a person working with natural weapons against a technologically superior force, albeit way taller, significantly less furry, and with a crippling dearth of yub nubs in their musicology. The more convincing reading is that Jake is a tech messiah for the Na’vi. For one thing, he can only exist in his Na’vi form because of the avatar that was specially formulated for his twin brother, which is an incredible marvel created by human scientists. For another, the reason that the Na’vi survive the initial thrust of the attempted genocide against them is because Jake warns them of the impending assault on Hometree and rallies them into a battle which convinces Eywa, the spirit goddess of the planet, to intervene on behalf of the Na’vi. Jake doesn’t do it all himself—the discourse around this and Dances with Wolves both overstate how singularly important the white guy is among the people of color he’s decided to join up with—but he’s a key element in the Na’vi resistance to human exploitation of Pandora. Only able to do what he does because of the technological advances which allow him to live inside a Na’vi body, Jake becomes an cultural and military leader by doing what almost no Na’vi has ever done before. By grappling with a giant flying monster and taking his place as toruk makto, Jake proves that it takes someone from outside the culture to save it. Not even Neytiri or Tsu’tey, two of the leading citizens of the Hometree clan, imagine becoming toruk makto themselves, even when the sign of a monster rider would hearten their people and give them a way to unite their clan with other clans in the area. Jake is the only one who can accept that it’s a suicidal move without really comprehending how crazy the gesture is, and it makes him the messianic figure in Avatar rather than one of the real Na’vi.

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