Fans of the The OA (a mystery/sci fi show that ran from 2016-2019) will want to check out A Murder at the End of the World, a miniseries created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. The two shows are not related, though, so you can watch the new one without having seen The OA.
This review won’t be too thorough as I’m writing this in the middle of the season. I may add to it after I’ve watched all the episodes.
Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) is a young hacker and amateur sleuth who learned from being the daughter of a forensic investigator. The first episode begins as she does a book signing recounting her experiences investigating a murder. She is surprised to be invited to an elite conference in Iceland run by a tech guru named Andy (Clive Owen), where she meets a host of brilliant (and potentially suspicious) characters, including her ex partner (both romantic and in sleuthing) Bill (Harris Dickinson), Andy’s wife Lee (Marling) who is also a hacker, and Lu Mei (Joan Chen), a designer of smart cities.
The action alternates between the present and past, as Darby remembers how she and Bill followed cold case clues to track a serial killer.
The stark landscape of Iceland creates an intense atmosphere as the conference attendees are trapped in Andy’s luxury compound with an unknown killer on the loose. What begins as a luxurious getaway for the world’s tech elite becomes a struggle for survival.So
At this point in the series, Andy is an ambiguous character who may be working for the good of humanity or have a more self-centered motive. There are signs that the site of the conference is more of a survivalist compound than a luxury hotel. This idea can be found in actual recent headlines such as:
A Murder at the End of the World isn’t a conventional murder mystery set in an exotic location. The story is also deeply concerned with bigger issues such as the role of technology (AI in particular), economics, and the possibility of imminent environmental catastrophe. A nearly sentient AI that can project a human form on a screen hovers in the background as a kind of super-Alexa/Siri. As in movies such as Ex Machina and Her, we’re made aware of how such advanced AI can pose dangers as well as benefits.
No matter how the program ends (I’m not sure if there will be future seasons), it raises some important questions. I found an insightful Salon Talks interview with Brit Marling, where she expresses a preference for posing questions over giving definitive answers.
The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.
While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.
Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.
One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.
What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.
They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:
“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”
What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.
Fyre: A Lifestyle App
At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.
All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.
Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?
One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.
We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.
One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.
Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.
The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air
The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.
It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.
Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.
The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.
When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).
The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.
A Society Obsessed With Images
Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).
The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.
The Circle, a Netflix original movie, will appeal to fans of the UK series Black Mirror. Each episode of that series was a dark, dystopian look at modern technology and how things that seem to be making life better also have truly sinister consequences. In the case of The Circle, the issues examined are privacy and the prospect of a completely transparent society where all of our actions can be viewed by the public at all times.
The Circle has a well-known and high-quality cast, especially for a movie without a theatrical release. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a young woman who gets an entry level job at a company that’s sort of a combination of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tom Hanks is the charismatic and megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-type cult figure who runs the company known as The Circle. Also appearing are Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, known for her role in Dr. Who.
At first, The Circle evokes familiar images of ultra-hip work environments such as the Google Campus. The setting is Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The campus has the kind of amenities normally associated with a cruise ship. At the same time, the atmosphere is eerily cultlike and employees are all but compelled to socialize constantly, weekends included, and report all of their doings on The Circe’s own social media site.
Mae, at first skeptical of the company’s all-pervasive technology (which includes a mini-camera that can take in entire scenes without being noticed, supposedly to help expose abuses of power) but who is gradually drawn into the mystique. For one thing, her father is suffering from MS and the company helps him with its cutting edge medical technology. Then, she impulsively goes out in a kayak late at night and almost drowns -thanks to The Circle’s cameras, however, she is observed and saved. Then she agrees to participate in an experiment where her life is broadcast 24/7 – sort of like a Truman Show, only in this case the star/victim knows she’s being filmed all the time.
We can question the realism of The Circle -especially the idea that someone like Mae could so quickly go from “guppy” (the company’s cutesy name for new employees) to one of its most powerful and influential spokespeople in a matter of weeks. There are also some actions taken by The Circle that would most likely have been prevented by the company’s legal team to avoid lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
As with Black Mirror, however, it’s best to view the movie as a kind of sci-fi thought experiment and parable rather than hold it to a strict standard of realism. The Circle raises fascinating questions about two opposing values: the right to privacy vs. the benefits of a completely transparent society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and darkly ironic, which leaves the fundamental questions open-ended.
The novels of Philip K. Dick are not easy to translate into film, but Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon, does a good job at conveying some of the cult novelist’s more far out (yet far from implausible) ideas. Whereas Richard Linkater’s Through A Scanner Darkly was a mostly animated, surreal movie where the line between reality and hallucination was always on the verge of collapsing, Radio Free Albemuth is closer to being a conventional science fiction film. In fact, the movie has a deliberately retro feel to it, as it depicts an alternative late 20th century America that has too many similarities with the actual 2014 America for comfort.
The story follows a record store employee named Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who starts to receive mystical visions from a mysterious source called VALIS. He and his writer friend Phil (Shea Whigham, playing author Dick himself) try to unravel a mysterious series of events that involve interrogations at the hands of stormtrooper-like government agents and a radical organization plotting to overthrow the fascist government.
Radio Free Albemuth portrays a low tech, pre-Internet America that feels even earlier than the 1980s. The cultural climate is more like the 1950s and the enforced conformity, with the ever present threat of being hauled in for your political beliefs recalls McCarthyism, with some Orwell thrown in. It is, however, unsettling to note that, while the technology is retro, the proto-fascist political rhetoric spouted by President Fremont has an all too contemporary ring.
The film is a bit confusing when it comes to the time frame and how it relates to historical events. Dick wrote the novel in 1976 and it was published after his death in 1985 In the book and film, the Soviet Union has collapsed and America is run by the right wing President Fremont (Scott Wilson), who has been in power for 15 years. So Dick foresaw the end of the Soviet Union some 20 years before it actually happened. It’s worth noting that in the late 1970s, when Dick wrote the novel, the Soviet empire hardly seemed to be falling apart and the Patriot Act was still far in the future.
Dick’s vision can be seen as prophetic in a number of ways. Not only did he foresee the impending end of the Soviet Union, but his pre-9/11 foresight that the U.S. government would use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties was eerily prophetic as well.
Singer Alanis Morissette provides the musical talent for the story as Sylvia, a woman who also has visions and whose family is connected to that of Fremont in a mysterious way. One of the subplots involves inserting a subversive revolutionary message within a pop song.
Those not familiar with Dick, or with conspiracy theories and/or metaphysical ideas regarding parallel realities might find this material inaccessible and farfetched. The film also turns rather dark towards the end. Whereas it starts out with Brady being hopeful at accessing a higher intelligence, gradually the power of the Orwellian state overshadow the other elements. While Dick’s visions are metaphysical and hopeful on the one hand, they definitely tend towards the dystopian as well.
Radio Free Albemuth is certainly full of interesting ideas about consciousness, metaphysics, politics and what it might take to become free in the face of widespread oppression. These are themes that have universal relevance.