BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 18 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 159

Enemies of the State

Has Hollywood primed us for total surveillance?

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 18 NOV 13

Tom Cruise in Oblivion, 2013

To become a hero – and, by the same token, an enemy of the state – whistle-blower Edward Snowden mainly had to muster his courage. Everything else should have been comparatively straightforward: gather the necessary evidence about the nsa and their programmes for total surveillance, approach documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and board a plane carrying a bag stuffed with computer hard-drives. This was no spectacular stunt in terms of a physical feat, yet Snowden’s actions still echoed a Hollywood film script.

It put me in mind of Jack Harper, the character Tom Cruise plays in what is arguably the most stylish of this year’s blockbusters, Oblivion. Set in 2077 – in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a war between mankind and a race of alien ‘scavengers’ that ravaged the earth and forced a mass exodus to one of Saturn’s moons, Titan – the film follows Harper as he is deployed to monitor earth at a supervisory station, Tower 49. In the 60 years since the outbreak of the war, Titan has become the centre of power and controls all of the information, all of the time: its cameras, drones and protective units are almost everywhere. Only Harper manages to go off the radar, declaring: ‘This one is on me.’ During his time on earth, Harper uncovers an epic conspiracy (no spoiler here) to keep people in a state of eventless sterility after they have been subjected to an obligatory ‘memory sweep’. In response, Harper does exactly what Snowden did: he takes something away from under the eye of the ruling power – in this case, a young woman he has previously met in a recurring dream that pre-dates the war. In doing so, Harper becomes, like Snowden, a hero not only for a distant future, but for the present day. Of course, since the star of Oblivion is Cruise, the film is full of deadpan action and heavy weaponry. But if we understand it as an allegory of contemporary power structures and the ‘collective unconscious’, and compare it to similar mainstream movies, we can recognize the familiar construct of individual agency within a panoptic, totalitarian environment: heroes must first go off the grid, then use the element of surprise to strike.

Perhaps more than we would care to concede, Hollywood has familiarized us with the concept of big data and its excessive use, and it also introduced us to people swiping touch screens long before we came to use them on our own hand-held devices. Coincidentally, it was also Cruise – this time in the role of police investigator John Anderton – who prefigured our complex relationship to big data in Minority Report (2002), Steven Spielberg’s visionary adaptation of an eponymous Philip K. Dick short story from 1956. Not only was it enticing for movie-goers to see Anderton access files and images at lightening speed using mental commands and nimble fingers, but the department he worked for – PreCrime – is the kind of thing that has risen to prominence post-9/11, with the secret services always eager to catch terrorist suspects before they have even come close to committing the deed.

The conservative plotlines of most mainstream movies, however, favour promethean heroes over omniscient powers, heroes who try to steal something back for puny mankind. In the majority of blockbusters of this ilk from the last decade, the central conflict revolves around the possibility of something unexpected happening, at the risk of undermining the stability of the system. On the one hand, we have the entropic universe of total surveillance, usually denoted by windowless office chambers in which the entire world comprises a cascade of digital windows on screens. On the other hand, we have the renegade hero, out in the open, trying to gain agency whilst retaining invisibility. Nowhere have we seen this more thrillingly executed than in the opening sequence of Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy (2012), which depicts that most inequitable of manhunts: man vs. missile. Here, paradoxically, bodily strength becomes worthless, if not perilous, since the weapon’s targeting system detects body heat.

In such a case, our sympathies as viewers are clear: we side with the man on the run; that is how we have learned to see movies. But we should not let this distract us from the fact that, in reality, we empathize with both sides: while we may root for the renegade, we cannot deny that we are also invested in the notion of absolute data control. This slightly schizophrenic position is probably one of the reasons why Snowden has not, thus far, become the mainstream hero we might have anticipated. His whistle-blowing act hints at the near-impossible task of re-encrypting our lives after we have willingly turned them into a set of openly accessible online accounts: Facebook, Google, Twitter and so on. While many of us might have assumed that a surveillance meta-structure existed, Snowden has gone one step further and exposed it. Within the framework of the blockbuster movie, however, he would be the techy nerd supporting Cruise’s character, the helping hand providing cues, no more: his deed would not be considered true action.

The odd thing is that blockbusters do insist on the hero’s physical penetration of the system. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013), Matt Damon’s character, Max Da Costa, could pass for one of the hands-on bomb-disposal experts from Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). Da Costa, part of the impoverished masses stuck on planet Earth while the privileged have created for themselves a new home in orbit called Elysium, realizes that the software required to unlock the supercomputer of that gated-community-as-space-station is stored in his own brain. Da Costa becomes the physical password not only to enter Elysium, but to crack its informational core. The Bastille to be stormed in the year 2154 has firewalls rather than fortress walls, which explains the need for a different type of movement – not mass riot, but an individual with a key to open the ‘door’.

When it comes to heroic agency, the body-information interface suggested in Blomkamp’s film solicits conundrums we are only just starting to fathom. For, while we may wish to continue to laud old-school heroes and deceive ourselves into thinking it is still possible to terminally disrupt the flow of information towards the centres of power, in reality there isn’t really a way out. Perhaps it’s little wonder that Snowden ended up in the most unheroic of places, an airport transit zone, with only one option left: succumbing to the benevolence of a president who happened to be trained as a spy. This one was not on him anymore.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.