You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Existentialism’ tag.

In this year 2011, over a decade after The Matrix hit theatres and I was but a boy, I never thought I could ever be such a thing as a Matrix apologist. Of course, the sequels were poorly recieved so I had to defend those, but the original Matrix is one of science-fiction film’s proudest moments – from what I understood of critical consensus. Why then do I find that people can be so critical of it when it’s – on the level that they criticize it for – essentially Star Wars, operating on the same principle of gracefully synthesizing old tropes. Where Star Wars had Kurosawa and Flash Gordon, The Matrix had Gibson and Ghost in the Shell. It also, and this is something that Star Wars most certainly did not have, had a year that was appropriately surrounded by a bevy of cyberpunk and existential movies. We had, from 1995 to 1999, Strange Days, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, and as Christopher Nolan will tell us, Memento. I can agree with that, though it lacks cyber and it has no punk.

If one day The Matrix actually came into your office and ripped you off, just jacked all your belongings and was seen only on the security feed, you couldn’t say a goddamn thing – it’d be crying wolf, as a legion of creatives has already beat you to it. It’s a fundamental problem the Wachowski brothers had with their universe. It’s hugely popular as a franchise in terms of finance, akin to Star Wars but obviously not as galactic (*laughs*), but have you ever really heard of a Matrix fan? As a devout science-fiction nerd, this is indeed something I’ve turned over in my mind not once but a frequently many times before.

A Star Wars fan has a Boba Fett T-shirt, a Phantom Menace poster – because I don’t know he’s a hipster – a Chewbacca bobble-head, and a preorder for Star Wars: The Old Republic, or KOTOR III-VI, if marketing jargon has been effective. The fan has a lot of universe to pick from, it’s so expansive and conducive to fandom. Same with Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy, I guess, though they might just say “Whedonverse,” which might as well just be Buffy for various reasons*. The Matrix on the other hand has something of a flawed universe if we’re speaking to fan-friendly terms.

The heroes in The Matrix universe are actively working to undo the universe. As a result it sort of feels temporary, and personally that’s something that doesn’t jibe with me. It’s definitely one of those weirdnerd things, but out of all the sci-fi universes I’d want to live in – where¬†the Sprawl universe or Mass Effect¬†ties for the top – The Matrix would be down near Ghost in the Shell, which is at the bottom because you can get real fucked up in that world. Being in The Matrix would just be no fun, and it does reflect on the movies, which are all very, very serious.

Despite some flashes of humor, all three movies and the one anime anthology, take themselves very seriously, and tonally that doesn’t always click with people. Not to harp on Nolan again but that’s one of the reasons why I can’t say without qualification that I like his movies, where even the jokes in something like The Dark Knight feel like they’re taking themselves seriously. At the same time though The Matrix always works for me, even if all the parts in Zion that don’t involve sexy robot-on-robot action come off something like… The Chronicles of Riddick.

I’ve said this before but The Matrix is not only exemplary in modern filmmaking (indeed such a general term), I’d also consider it to be the second best science-fiction film ever made, above Star Wars and 2001 and all the others. It fills out exactly what movies of this type aspire to – being hugely entertaining and taking the time out to allow the audience to think about what’s going on. Not even Blade Runner does that because not everyone can find it as entertaining. That being said, The Matrix doesn’t quite operate on the same intellectual plane as Blade Runner, where it’s existentialist questions and themes were upstaged a year earlier with Dark City.

It’s just a damn good movie that talked about all the things people have been talking about for centuries – Allegory of the Cave but the difference here is that the Cave is the Net, which I suppose makes it stretch only as far back as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it never gets old and had two not-as-good sequels and a universe that nerds can’t get behind. Hmm.

*Well I didn’t want to get into it above because I thought it was just a funny throwaway joke but didn’t want to bog down the already needlessly joke-heavy post; a gamble, of course. But it occured to me as I typed the word “Buffy,” up there that Joss Whedon has Buffy, a huge series spanning like seven or twelve seasons or something, and then Angel, which is a spin-off and occupies the same universe, a little later on he had Firefly, which was so short it doesn’t count, and then Dollhouse which was about four times as long but nobody liked it.

Spoiler Alert, seriously. You should make the effort to read Ubik if you haven’t already, and then come back and skim this, the usual stuff. It’s actually a pretty quick read, and this is coming from somebody who rarely meanders onto the printed page. It must have taken me three months to read Childhood’s End, but Ubik was only a matter of three days.

Ubik is the most maddening, perplexing, fascinating, and mind-blowing novel I’ve yet to read. It feels, essentially, like a funny PKD short story like “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but blown up to 200 pages. That’s not a bad thing, but it does present one crucial problem. There’s a punchline to the novel, and it feels like a giant joke, in some way, that Philip K. Dick is dictating to us with his usual wit and entertaining prose. That’s fine, except that I didn’t feel nearly as much sympathy for the hero of the aforementioned short story as I did with Joe Chip or Glen Runciter – or even Pat Conley, who’s involvement in the narrative took me the most. When the characters are victims of some massive farce by the end of a phildickian short story, it’s the story itself that sticks with us; the characters are just vessels by which the story’s punchline gets through. In the longform medium, the paradigm shifts, and the length and complexity of the journey undertaken by the characters engages us on a higher level with those characters.

And yet, Ubik ends with the short story kick, which, by the time I reached the About the Author section and gazed upon it with wild eyes, caused me to emit a sound not unlike a groan, but more like a yelp. I was shocked, but this feeling was both amplified and frustrated by emotions gathered in the immediately preceeding chapter: disgust, mostly. When Jory was revealed I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to reveal how hero Joe Chip would resolve this larger-than-life conflict in the last twenty or so pages, meanwhile ticking away in my mind about how the scenario depicted is like The Matrix (or Inception, if you’d rather) but so much more fucked up, unbelievably so.

In the novel’s final moments, I was constantly reminded of how close to death Joe Chip was, how horrible this death would be, how irreversibly screwed he was, and how no matter what satirical 1992 future he lived in where life and death operate on a strange new level – he could never escape it. My mind was churning with these dark, intense thoughts, and after I put the book down one last time I experienced something very rare.

Usually in science-fiction I really fall in love with, I find myself thinking about the themes and ideas explored long after the title has expired, and usually I relate them here on this website. After Ubik, I was literally thoughtless. My mind was actually blown, taken up to a height unprecedented by an author with golden wings and dropped at the turn of the final page onto hard pavement. The disturbing nature of half-life and of Jory shook me, carrying me with jolting unease through the rest of the novel, where my mental discomfort paralleled hero Joe Chip’s frantic and shattering struggle to regain control of his body – inside his mind.

Based on what Wikipedia has to offer, and the scrawling I’ve found on the inside covers as penned by the book’s previous owner, the eponymous Ubik has been interpreted as God, something that heals us and is everywhere. The argument is that Ubik restores our faith in ourselves, makes Joe Chip believe that he can win the unwinnable fight against Jory. But in the end, he cannot. Eventually things run out – everything ends, and in the Ubik universe, things seem to end with Jory. So is Dick in this way criticizing God and our faith in him? The ending makes me think so, which essentially says that we can’t be sure of anything, not even God or his healing powers, but death is a constant for everyone, no matter how far we get into the future.

I don’t know. Philip K. Dick would go on to write more blatantly theological novels, yet Ubik isn’t considered one of them. It is however, very phildickian, and one clear tell is the inclusion of the dark-haired girl. This time it’s a character named Pat Conley, who indeed is malevolent and a force of destruction. For me, she’s also a force of more discomfort – I really didn’t take to the idea that she was eaten by Jory, that just didn’t sit well with me. Otherwise she was an interesting character among a cast of interesting characters, and I can’t help but wonder how Philip K. Dick manages to balance so many well-rounded elements in one novel, considering how fast he put these and the short stories out.

There’s a lot to be said about Ubik, but I don’t have the capacity to say it. I’ll leave this one up to you, dear reader, because I think what we have here is something of a personal journey to be undertaken, and I can only point you in the Dickiest direction.

Archives

Death Threats

dreckfiction@gmail.com

Topics of Discuss

Follow?

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.