As the decade draws to a close, analysts and commentators are spewing out retrospectives left and right, drowning in remember-when and wasn’t-that-crazy stories. Instead, here I think it may be appropriate to recollect that ten years ago saw the advent of a film that ushered in the surrealistic absurdity we all lived through: “The Matrix,” most remembered for its ad-hoc philosophy and pioneering cinematography techniques. What it ought to be remembered for is how presciently it describes the current situation of our culture, indeed the world situation.
This may appear to be a stretch, but follow this line for awhile: mysterious agents are after a man who is unwittingly living what he considers a normal life, only for him to find out that things are not what they seem. He is introduced to “the desert of the real,” a truly frightening place. All of the civilized aspects of our existence amount to a fabrication, he finds, a cynical fraud to keep people in a cocooned, atomized state. How all of this can be rendered into a clear-eyed look back over the last decade, the discordant first notes of the young epoch, must be centered on how, through ubiquitous punditry and a break-up of the older modes of this information age, we have been witness to the construction of our reality.
No, we are not in pods; our lives are not simulacra. It is telling that the first reaction so many had to the first major event that heralded a dark era was that it appeared cinematic, the antithesis of real. So did the beginning of our adventurism abroad, set off like a video game, void of the suffering that followed sure enough. Another image, a flooded city, televised rioting, disorder. Upheavals across the planet came into our consciousness as mediated images, a construct. In a nation where about ten percent holds a passport, it was as real as it got.
To close this out comes “Avatar,” in which a mercenary, colonialist power travels to a poorly-understood, far-off land to steal its resources. Say what you will about Iraq, but the theme of misadventure and hubris has been thick in the air for so long that it is difficult to disentangle noble intentions from the blood on the ground. It is interesting that at the beginning and end of this ten-year span we have seen two sci-fi flicks that well capture the mood.
And so we face the second decade of the twenty-first century: unpredictable, likely fraught with hazard. Let us keep our heads.