Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Double feature: Don't believe everything you see

Cinema is the art of illusion, so what new thing can films say in the age of the deepfake?

A shady government agency has been researching the use of paranormal powers, more specifically projected illusions, implanted memories and mind control, as a mechanism to secretly influence global politics. Their experiments culminated in the improbable birth of the child of two psychics, a prodigy who upon reaching adulthood might manifest formidable talents. However, ethical scruples move an employee of the agency to take the baby away from what would surely have been a lifetime of servitude and medical torture. Years later, the agency's deadliest psychic is still hunting down that child, eager to twist the world's most powerful mind into an unstoppable weapon. Successive layers of illusion are deployed until the movie pulls out of its hat the big reveal that not only the protagonist has been deceived from the start, but also the viewer, who must now reevaluate all the events that have supposedly happened so far.

Probably nothing in this description strikes you as particularly original or groundbreaking. What I do find at least noteworthy is that in 2023, not one but two movies used this exact plot: Hypnotic, co-written and directed by a shockingly out-of-form Robert Rodriguez, and starring a very tired Ben Affleck in exactly the type of depressed-divorced-detective role you accept when you no longer have a superhero salary; and Awareness, co-written and directed by Daniel Benmayor and starring Carlos Scholz as a rogue mentalist whose most daring trick is the illusion that he can still play a teenager.

It's understandable that the idea of lies-based espionage is becoming popular. Our historic moment is ripe for science-fictional allegories of disinformation for political gain. You've heard of fake news, alternative facts, CGI impersonation, distorted curricula, journalistic and scientific malpractice via LLMs, and the most absurd conspiracy theories asserted with a straight face. Real life has become a bad magical tournament/urban fantasy: whoever can cast the most convincing illusion spell will control the world.

Unfortunately, when it comes to representing those anxieties on the screen, neither Hypnotic nor Awareness does a very convincing job. In both movies, the momentum gained by what is admittedly a strong start gradually loses its punch as the plot keeps adding more and more outlandish complications until the ending arrives forcefully, not because the story has been resolved, but because it ran out of the sense it could pretend to make.

A few good things can be said of Hypnotic. It boasts careful coordination of the choreography between the initial scenes and later ones that reenact the same events without the filter of mental trickery. Borrowing perhaps too many pages from The Prestige and Inception, most noticeably in its visual effects, it makes an interesting argument about the dangerous uses of dramatization as a method of control. However, in hindsight, the reveal that most of the plot has been a fiction-within-a-fiction fails the moment you pause to examine the incompatibility between the villains' actual goal and the feigned actions they scripted for the protagonist to witness. Even worse, the cinematic language successfully established all through the movie, which communicates to the viewer the simultaneous unfolding of an illusory action and its real counterpart, breaks apart in the ending, where the same editing technique is used to introduce shots that may not be immediately recognized as the flashback they actually are. The last thing you need during a crucial scene where instead of dramatizing your climactic resolution you make a main character quickly vomit a mountain of exposition is to confuse the viewer as to which events are in the past and which in the present.

As for Awareness, its merit is to be found in the deliberate use of the camera during fight scenes. By affixing a camera to the end of a character's gun, an otherwise ordinary arm motion forces the viewer to reverse the focus of their gaze: instead of a stationary body with a moving limb, here the limb appears stationary while the rest of the body rotates across the frame. This technique is used in scenes where psychics use mind control to force other characters to shoot at each other; the possessed hand becomes the center of the action as the victim helplessly watches in the periphery. A variation of this type of shot (pun only half intended) occurs when the psychic twitches his head to give a mental command: the camera rolls in sync with the head, effectively keeping it static in the frame, signifying its control over the action, while the world around it looks momentarily kicked out of balance by the character's thoughts. Many such camera tricks inundate the fight scenes to express distortions of reality, although there are times they become excessive, almost hostile to the eyes, especially in the flashbacks that reveal one character to be a mental fabrication. Little else is worthy of praise in this movie. The tone is a mishmash of the best bits of Push with the saddest bits of Stranger Things, and the dialogues are so painfully hackneyed that the viewer may start suspecting that the plot has more than one purely imagined character.

The theme of deception as an instrument of war is enormously relevant today, but these two films waste their opportunity to say something meaningful about it. They're serviceable action thrillers, as long as you don't poke too hard at the plot's logic, and the implied subtext about children being the biggest potential victims (and unwitting tools) of organized disinformation is one worth taking to heart. As Orwell warned, a war over the telling of our past is really a war over our future.

Nerd Coefficient

Hypnotic: 4/10.

Awareness: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.