5 Screen Narratives Reckoning with Technology

Table of Contents After YangEverything Everywhere All at OnceKIMISeverance Swan Song Editors’ note:  TGC reviews media that is not suitable for everyone. To help readers make wise viewing decisions, we recommend reading “Should I Watch This?” and checking out a content guide. You can tell a lot about the anxieties […]


Editors’ note: 

TGC reviews media that is not suitable for everyone. To help readers make wise viewing decisions, we recommend reading “Should I Watch This?” and checking out a content guide.

You can tell a lot about the anxieties of an age by the common themes that show up in its narratives. Art tends to channel cultural preoccupations. In recent years, one theme has shown up again and again in movies and television: technology. From Black Mirror to Bo Burnham’s Inside, from The Social Network to The Social Dilemma, there’s no shortage of thought-provoking reflections on the moral dimensions and ethical questions arising in a world where technological development often outpaces the cultivation of wisdom. It’s not just limited to the science-fiction genre, either. These days, comedies, dramas, and even martial art action films (see below) are also wrestling with technology-related themes.

There’s no shortage of thought-provoking reflections on the moral dimensions and ethical questions arising in a world where technological development often outpaces the cultivation of wisdom.

Christians should be leading the charge in thinking wisely about technology. There are several new books out there to facilitate these discussions: Tony Reinke’s God, Technology, and the Christian Life, Felicia Wu Song’s Restless Devices, Jason Thacker’s The Age of AI, Chris Martin’s Terms of Service, my own book on wisdom in the digital age, and more. If Hollywood’s recent output is any indication, our society is conflicted and uncertain about technology. Even secular artists sense the moral complexity of technology’s onward march. Consider picking up one of these books to be better equipped to bring Christian wisdom to the sorts of questions being asked in pop culture—like those in the five narratives below.

After Yang

Kogonada’s sublime family drama is the quietest and subtlest film on this list, yet it still raises big questions about the nature of being human. The story follows a family of four, in which each member comes from a different background and the “son” (Yang) just so happens to be a robot. After Yang malfunctions at the end of the (highly memorable) opening dance scene, the film goes on to explore familial grief as if a human child and brother had been lost. What’s the meaning of human connection when one part of that connection isn’t human? Can a nonhuman “being” help humans rediscover the weird wonder and texture of life—from butterflies to tea to “Chinese fun facts”? If a nonhuman like Yang can experience friendship and love, work and leisure, happiness and pain, and social membership in a family and culture, what about the human experience does it lack? The film asks more questions than it answers, which is the type of science-fiction drama I like. Watch on Showtime. Rated PG.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

As its very apt title suggests, there’s a ton going on in this multiverse-hopping, maximalist martial arts film starring the brilliant Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. Directed by the filmmaking duo Daniels (Swiss Army Man), EEAAO is rife with philosophical ideas and theological implications. While the film’s ideas are all over the map and ultimately land in a rather vacuous place (“We can do whatever we want, nothing matters”—but be kind to one another anyway), it’s the form of the gonzo experience that rings true to life in the internet age. The film is more or less a microcosm of your average day online—scrolling through feeds of random information, seeing context-less fragments of people’s lives, and generally feeling overwhelmed by the limitless drama unfolding at any given time, all over the world. The film’s three-part structure (I. Everything, II. Everywhere, III. All at Once) also captures the overwhelming chaos of perceptual life in the smartphone age—where we literally have access to everything, everywhere, all at once. The internet has overcome the old constraints of space, time, and geography—rendering to humans the closest approximation of god-like powers (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence) they’ve yet experienced. It’s no wonder the film’s protagonist is a nod to Eve (“Evelyn”). Her choice is the same one Eve faced in Eden and the same one we face any time we open Google: Do we take the bait of infinite knowledge and timeline-shifting, “we can do whatever we want” metaverse fantasy? Or do we rest content in our limitations, happy that we can know some things, be somewhere, and live in some time, even if we can’t do it all? Now in theaters. Rated R.

KIMI

Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI is a taut, brisk-paced thriller that essentially reworks Hitchcock’s Rear Window for the age of Alexa and COVID-19. Zoë Kravitz shines as a (rightly, it turns out) techno-paranoid data analyst for a tech company whose home assistant (“Kimi,” basically Siri or Google Home) doubles as a surveillance juggernaut. Anyone leery of Big Tech’s data-mining capabilities should probably avoid this film, which frighteningly plays out the implications of a world where the tech in your home (or hand) records your every movement and decision. Yet the film also ponders the potentially good implications of technology that makes sin and injustice harder to hide. Are the trade-offs worth it? If surveillance technology can expose crime and lead perpetrators to justice, are we willing to let go of our privacy? And is the “truth-telling” nature of objective technology really reliable when it’s owned by profit-motivated, often morally compromised corporations? The film—a good supplement to reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—leaves us unsettled about these questions. Watch on HBO Max. Rated R.

Severance

This acclaimed new workplace drama on AppleTV+ has a fascinating premise. Mysterious corporation Lumon Industries pioneers a medical procedure called “severance” in which select employees can opt to sever their work and nonwork memories, such that they functionally live two lives with two perceptual realities. For “severed” employees, their “innie” (workplace self) only knows life within Lumon—they literally never get to sleep or leave, only toil (the parallel to hell is doubtless intentional). Meanwhile, their “outie” self has no idea what their “innie” does in the workplace, and most don’t seem to care. The concept displays in exaggerated relief aspects of our lives we already experience: digital technology that allows us to fragment and compartmentalize multiple “selves” (e.g., our projected Instagram self vs. our real self, our Zoom self vs. our camera-off self); the struggle of increasingly fluid work-life boundaries (who wouldn’t want a cleaner “break” between the two?); the temptation to escape stress and other unpleasantries, like death, if technology allows (“A life at Lumon is protected from such things”). The show—just renewed for a second season—is incredibly thought-provoking on the nature of consciousness and the dangers of the dis-integrated self. We need to be thinking through these questions as Web3, the metaverse, and virtual reality grow in prominence. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated TV-MA.

Swan Song

Mahershala Ali shines in this 2021 sci-fi drama, which plays like a more tender episode of Black Mirror. Directed by Benjamin Cleary, the film (set in the near future) centers on an ethical dilemma posed by technology that allows a terminally ill human to secretly undergo a procedure where a clone version of themselves is created, complete with all their memories and personality, yet without the sickness. Would your loved ones know any different if one day a “healthy replicant” version of their husband or father was subbed in, while the old one went away to die in secret convalescence? Is sparing people trauma and grief always a worthwhile goal for technology, regardless of the cost? This seems like a key question in technological ethics. If a technology helps us avoid pain, does that automatically make it worth it? What about technology that creates a semblance of immortality, where some version of “you” is reproduced in perpetuity (the goal of transhumanism)? Or is humanity’s beauty irrevocably tied to its contingency and potential for real loss and suffering? Swan Song helps us think through these questions in a moving, life-affirming way. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated R.

5 Screen Narratives Reckoning with Technology

Dong Anker

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