For decades now, one of the key players in Hollywood has been a vaguely sinister computer, like the machines that are characters in so many stories told by Hollywood. This computer works at a pace no human could muster, churning forth productions soullessly calculated to extract money from the optimal demographics with maximum efficiency. The computer makes product embedded with signals that are refined to entice consumption while minimal resources are wasted on the substance of the product.
The targeted audience is introduced to the product, they desire it, they consume it and when it is over, they barely notice anything has happened. And this allows the process to be repeated endlessly. Repeat consumption is even more likely because wasteful components like satisfaction, contemplation or nostalgia or any sense of value or values are excluded from the product and shrewdly withheld from the consumer. This leaves the consumer still hungry, tantalized by promises that were not quite fulfilled, like someone who has consumed 1,000 calories of Froot Loops. The revenue that this computer generates exceeds the GDP of many countries. Even some kind of decent ones.
But it seems that, like HAL and Skynet before it, Bruckheimer has become self aware. When I watched Hostages, before it even occurred to me to write a Hostages review, I engaged the computer a way I haven’t done since I last accused a gaming console of going into “computer cheat mode” in 1996. “
“It knows,” I thought. “You MUST know,” I muttered emphatically to the television.
One of the stars of Hostages is Dylan McDermott. He is an FBI hostage negotiator. We meet him when he negotiates with some cornered bank robbers by needlessly antagonizing them and then hanging up on them. One of the robbers switches clothes with a hostage and leaves the bank with him. From roughly 100 yards away, Dylan recognizes that their shoes don’t match their outfits and pumps three rounds into the disguised robber, whose body is firmly pressed against that of the hostage. He walks away from the carnage expressionless, but his body language has been copied from NFL wide receivers walking towards the bench after scoring touchdowns.
Dylan is grilled about his decision making processes during the bank robbery on a couple of occasions. Here, Bruckheimer incorporates language from the new, popular understanding of statistics and gambling. “I made a bet,” Dylan says. Hostage negotiations are all about probabilities. The most probable thing was that the hostage and hostage taker had switched clothes. Moneyball. Nate Silver. Bringing Down The House/21. If you wield the incantations used in those stories, you’ll always guess right and your bullets will never pass through the bad guy and into the civilian.
Bruckheimer leaves none of the clumsy traces that sloppy, incontinent, organic life forms trail behind them. There are no oily fingerprints. It doesn’t make allusions as personal flourishes, it plucks trending concepts and images from the information cloud and integrates them into the product. Hostages doesn’t take place largely on screens as some kind of statement, but because people are really into screens right now.
But we can now perceive that the maker of Hostages knows. It knows that you know. It knows that you know that it knows that you know. But it never has to break form for this to be evident. It remains stoic and pristine. It is Deep Blue to Tarrantino’s Kasparov.
When watching Hostages, I feel like everyone is taking this completely seriously. No matter what they say or do, you could swear that they are pretending this is real, or could be real. Even when a high school girl who is secretly pregnant says this to her mother:
“Mom, why didn’t you just kill The President?”
To which the mom patiently and maternally replies,
“If I had killed the president, you’d never forgive me and I’d never forgive myself.”
See, Hostages initially leads you to believe it will be another procedural about specialists, in this case, hostage negotiators. But it turns out to be a serial about a top hostage negotiator who takes hostage the family of a Woman Surgeon (Toni Collette) who is scheduled to operate on The President. If she does not cause the president to die during his operation, her family will be executed. `
The great thing about this scenario is that it requires the characters to work the phrase “kill The President,” into many pieces of dialogue, which instantly makes them fantastic.
“You’re going to kill the president of the united states Ellen. Otherwise, we’re going to kill your family,” explains Dylan. He’s totally acting like this conversation could ever happen on earth.
This is why I think Bruckheimer has become self aware. It realizes it is a computer, a being, generating entertainment product for an audience. If it did not realize that, it could not realize that all of this is beyond ludicrous, that in many ways, the Transformers movies are more realistic and naturalistic than Hostages, and chose to go ahead anyway. This can only be a conscious choice.
“OK, we all know that every second of this is preposterous. And since we both know that, why try to dial it down? Why try to pass it off as something it’s not? We’ll keep all of the conventions of a procedural thriller. We’ll mix in jargon, and the experts will signal their expertise to you. The characters will all take this completely seriously. The direction will convey seriousness. But the things being said and done will be totally unconstrained by the shackles of plausibility, because we both know…”
So someone like Tarantino casts aside verisimilitude and replaces it with knowingness, intended to be shared with the audience. It’s a game we play with him. He’s taking conventional implausibilities, familiar to us from other movies and TV, and using the points where they stretch the the truth the most as a new starting point. “You know those scenes where one guy is able to beat up 20. This is one of those, except we’re going to push it further by having one woman beat up 150 men.” It’s similar to how the Simpsons uses Itchy and Scratchy to depict violence in cartoons for children, or what takes place in any number of other works created by human beings.
Bruckheimer lacks this sense of play or interaction. It is simply aware that it is making a story for you and that you know the story is wildly implausible. It knows that you like the signals that say the product is intelligent and that this is happening in the real world, but that you don’t care too much if it could ever really happen. So, it rewrote its own program to stop filtering out any implausibilities whatsoever in the words or actions of the characters, while keeping the conventions this genre uses to convey realism and plausibility in tact.
It turns out that the bad guys are kind of good guys. Chances are that Bruckheimer detected some data trend suggesting that certain stories, told with compassion for all of the characters, were finding success. Maybe at the time it was finishing work on Hostages, it was assimilating the script for the anticipated film, A Place Beyond The Pines, which makes a big point of that. In any case, it decided to show us what drove the hostage taking presidential assassins and why they weren’t that bad.
Dylan has a wife with cancer. And a cute daughter who draws pictures. Bruckheimer knows that kids are cuter when they draw pictures. Agreeing to kill The President will somehow gain them access to an experimental new treatment that could save the wife. So, like any good guy would, he decides to destroy another family, jeopardize global stability and alter the flow of history so that he doesn’t have to get a sad.
Anyway, as he runs around with these commandos, taking people hostage and shooting them, he is determined to not actually hurt anybody other than The President, who will be killed. I’m going to have to get into the story a bit more than anticipated here.
The Woman Surgeon is poised to kill The President by secretly giving him some traceless blood thinner that will cause an apparently natural death during surgery. But at the last minute, she aborts mission and “discovers” the mistake she caused, postponing the surgery. So then, the conspirators (this goes all the way up to the chief of staff and includes many in the FBI, Secret Service and so forth) and she have to convince everyone that she didn’t do anything wrong and that they should try the surgery again. The idea here is that, after she almost killed The President during the first surgery, and then actually kills The President during the second surgery, nobody will realize what happened. So, in order to clear Woman Surgeon the first time, they pin the mistake on her best friend, a nurse. They write a suicide note for the nurse and abduct her.
Now, being a good guy, the Dylan doesn’t actually want the nurse killed. I guess his plan is that, after the nurse writes a false confession and suicide note, then is kidnapped for weeks and released sometime after the plan to kill The President comes off, nobody will be the wiser. But things don’t go according to plan and the guy who kidnaps the nurse has to kill her, which really angers Dylan, who has recently shot Woman Surgeon’s husband in the stomach to compel her to return from a successful escape. That’s when the goon who kidnaps the nurse says to Dylan, ”You don’t get to kill The President and keep your hands clean at the same time.”
So Dylan tips off some cops and has the guy arrested because killing the nurse means he really a bad guy and Dylan is a good bad guy who hates bad bad guys. Also, one of the abductors sees Woman Surgeon’s son get beat up by a drug dealer and is so filled with righteous indignation that he tracks down the drug dealer and beats him up. That’s what a good bad guy he is. He’s compelled to avenge a minor asswhipping of the boy he is kidnapping. A boy he will murder, unless his mom kills The President.
Though Bruckheimer is tremendously successful in selling product, and though Hostages is a large step forward in artificial intelligence, I’m sure that it could not emulate certain patterns of human artists even if it wanted to. I keep mentioning Tarantino and The Simpsons because everyone knows them and I like both of them a lot. But you could plug in any number of shows or movies.
So, for example, when the creators of The Simpsons make certain allusions, they’re expressing something particular about themselves and connecting it to something particular about you. They reach around the media reality of gorgeous people in heavy makeup, trumped up fears and shiny products that stands as a wall between them and you, and touch on little bits of real life you might have in common with them.
Like, when Prime Simpsons would make jokes about Mad Magazine, the writers were remembering something about their past and giving it a new expression. Much of the audience remembered reading Mad in their own pasts, and remembered particular aspects of that experience. How Mad had 37 special editions a year, or how it made fun of politicians most kids had never heard of. And this makes us happy. It lets us into the writer’s personality and history and we connect with them. It stirs up fond memories for us and it’s an esoteric bit of observational humor, focusing on realities you might not have thought of for a decade, rejuvenating them.
Bruckheimer is still unable to reach such heights, but there’s something charming about a computer mirroring human behavior. It’s similar to the charm of a child drawing a picture. Bruckheimer can bluntly insert trending topics into a story, like “probability/gambling/Nate Silver,” or “show where the bad guys are coming from and make them seem hu-man.” But it can’t reach into a data cloud and pluck out Mad magazine, an understanding of why Mad is special and convey some of the experiences common to many Mad readers. If it tried to, you’d probably just wind up with a character making reference to some random piece of culture that achieved X level of popularity in the year Y. “Hey, do you remember Falcon Crest? Those people were rich. Maybe we can watch a few episodes if you kill The President.” I think this is how Robot Chicken is produced.
Robots attempting human connection draws out our sentimentality enough to cover both parties. And it’s an exciting breakthrough to boot. Is it possible that future generations of computers will be able to produce fully developed and satisfying stories for us? What if there will be a machine that can make a continual flow of Prime Simpson episodes, tailored to the individual consumer? Only then will we truly be free. And by ‘free,’I mean ‘enslaved.’