Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Review: Identiteaze

A cyberpunk allegory about the dangers of reducing human life to binary codes

Inspired by Legacy Russell's theory of glitch feminism as a deliberate embracing of anomaly as resistance to imposed norms, and by José Esteban Muñoz's theory of queer utopianism as a project that can be realized in the present by performing it, Jessie Earl's short film Identiteaze, released last week for streaming on Nebula, satirizes the corporate cooptation of human self-expression by proposing a cyberspace where blank digital avatars reclaim the agency to assert who they are outside of their designed parameters.

Identiteaze is set in a future where AdVent, a tech megacorporation, has created a virtual space for employees to live and work in. Passing mention of "physical asset storage" implies that their bodily functions are suspended while they exist in the VentiVerse. According to the in-universe promotional website, the VentiVerse is intended by the company's founder as a family. And it's precisely this prescribed family model that causes trouble for our protagonists.

We follow Aaron and Erin, who, strictly speaking, aren't people yet. They're created as options in a menu, two possible looks for an employee's digital avatar. In the VentiVerse, you're supposed to be either male or female. When one is selected, the other is deleted—consciousness and all. Because subtext is for cowards, this piece of exposition portrays the fundamental problem with imposed binaries: to conform is to kill a part of yourself. It is simultaneously betrayal and self-mutilation. The rules of the binary demand that you commit a profound violence against yourself in order to adopt one of the allowed values.

Normally, a movie shouldn't need a handbook to understand it, but "normal" is one of the concepts that Identiteaze calls into question. Earl has posted on BlueSky, with evident excitement over the completion of this project, enumerating instances of visual shorthand she resorted to and the respective meanings she used them for. Of course, this is optional reading; a movie ought to be able to speak for itself, but viewers unfamiliar with the symbolic conventions of queer cinema will find the thread illuminating.

Speaking of symbols, an interesting metaphor that the dialogues embed throughout the story is that of a symphony. Its tempo is set by the pace of a metronome. One can notice it hidden in the soundtrack: Tick. Tock. Male. Female. Either. Or. The logic of the VentiVerse is inextricably tied to the Law of the Excluded Middle. The company's founder casts himself as director of this symphony, and his motivational speeches invite users to dismiss the space in between Tick and Tock, to reject the melody it may suggest. The moral stance of Identiteaze inhabits this space in between and argues for the beauty of the atonal, undirected music that we could hear if only we eschewed the rigidity of the metronome.

Apart from this ever-present aural cue, the dehumanization inherent to binary codes is stated repeatedly, both in dialogue and by visual language. On this topic, Identiteaze wastes no time being subtle: in one scene, a middle manager recites a training script at our protagonists without looking up from the page, and doesn't start having a truly personal interaction with them until she finally notices them face to face and realizes that they've rejected the mandatory binary choice.

A later scene is no less straightforward, but it explores the movie's theme in an unexpected way. To correct the glitch in the system, a villain tries to manipulate the protagonists into betraying each other. The format of this coercion has a clear resemblance to the classic prisoner's dilemma. What makes this scene special is that it posits a prisoner's dilemma between the parts of one consciousness. Decision theory tell us that the rationally optimal solution to the prisoner's dilemma is for both parties to refuse to betray. Only cooperation wins, and that decision must begin with each individual refusing to betray themself.

A bonus treat for viewers of Identiteaze is the behind-the-scenes video posted by Earl on her YouTube channel. It's heartwarming to hear an indie creator describe the hard work and dedication it took to bring a piece of sincere art into the world. Earl explains that there's much more plot and lore already created behind Identiteaze, and depending on the short's success, she hopes to eventually turn it into the pilot of a TV series.

The theoretical grounding Earl drew from includes not only the two philosophers named above, but a handful of science fiction predecessors: Cube, Tron, The Matrix, Neuromancer and Severance are cited among the influences that informed Earl's creative process and left their imprint on the aesthetic, the worldbuilding, the dramatic stakes, the tone and the emotional message of Identiteaze.

With so much thought and so much love at the center of this movie, it feels almost mean to have to point out the growing pains that one sometimes finds in indie productions. While the set design is impressive (even more so once you learn from Earl's behind-the-scenes video how it was built), and the CGI effects are used in the right measure, and the frequent symmetrical shot composition is both aesthetically and thematically perfect, the sound quality isn't always ideal. The whole movie is supposed to take place in an abstract cyberspace, yet a background echo from recording in a semi-enclosed set persists in some scenes. In quick, scattered moments, the acting or the writing noticeable stumble, and there's a distracting distortion in the sound of many of the protagonists' ADR lines.

Still, for the minuscule budget it was made with, Identiteaze achieves a professional-level look. A movie as loaded with symbols as this one demands a very deliberate use of the camera, and Earl relies heavily, with a well developed eye, on the possibilities of shot composition and, especially, the shot/reverse shot technique to underscore the themes of duality and nonduality. This is the first Nebula production that has convinced me to subscribe to its streaming service, and the decision has certainly paid off.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

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