While the 1999 Wachowski film The Matrix looms large over the cyberpunk genre, directors and artists have long been interested in the subgenre. After all, as computers gained a foothold in American culture, the figures that promoted them became fascinations. Through various projects, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Paul Allen became integrally tied to the entertainment world. By the end of the 1980s, it was clear computers were with culture for the long haul. Director Amanda Kramer turns away from narrative features to deliver an essay about the power of these films. As Artificial Intelligence continues to grow as a threat to the world of creatives, So Unreal reminds us that the dystopian worries did not pop up overnight.
Throughout So Unreal, Kramer utilizes a handful of films as milestones in bringing digital worlds to life. While The Matrix would serve as an integral endcap of the 1990s, fears of computer technology go back decades. Rather than trace the trend back to HAL and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kramer plants the starting line around Tron. While other features, including Looker and Virtuosity, would shake up the way we looked at the digital world, So Unreal charts the ever-evolving dialogues and ideas that emerged.
Kramer’s focus on the genre allows her to cover dozens of films. Her argument is not that our culture is technophobic. In fact, we seem relatively comfortable with the concept of letting tech run amuck. Whether intentional or not, some filmmakers and storytellers laid the seeds for worry about the future of creativity in a world dominated by binary counts. Kramer’s ability to utilize films from the 1980s and relate the genuine fears of synthetic creation highlights the timeless nature of the tales.
The changing depictions and understanding of hackers make for an engaging sequence. Jurassic Park – its own warning sign about the power of technology in the hands of those who do not understand it – and Hackers celebrate the digital world as a “cool space.” Even then, it is a world of deviants and those outside the societal norm that seem to conquer the digital landscape.
Additionally, other themes emerge. So Unreal uses The Net, a middling thriller, to highlight Kramer’s central argument. The fears of tech harming unsuspecting victims seeped into every corner of culture. That power showed technology as something to be scared of, rather than embraced. By the time that Terminator 2 and Strange Days engages with a world that is corrupted by culture, Hollywood made it clear – technology would result in our doom.
The narration from Debbie Harry mainly works, but its modulation occasionally makes for difficult-to-understand dialogue. As a stylistic choice, it’s exceptional. However, digital voicing does not always need to sound like Tron‘s Master Control Program. Again, Tron serves as an inspiration for the transition title cards, as Kramer works through themes and timelines of the cyberspace genre. However, mixing it up might have helped add more visual flare to each segment. There were many features to choose from.
On the whole, So Unreal delivers a poignant message about our fears of tech. Our consistent worries for over forty years may have led us to this moment. We have reached a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” scenario, as those worried about the effects of the digital world on our culture have come and gone. Instead, the forty years of pop culture worry allowed a generation to grow up with the tech apocalypse in mind. While this does provide a moment for self-reflection – and some hope that the changing times will not be as dire as some predict – it also ushered in an era of complacency.