Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Across the Barbie... Land... Verse (Trailer Talk)

Like a phoenix, but a really pathetic one who looks like shit—okay wait no—like a lone cicada, I rise from my slumber to make a bunch of annoying noises because we're living in a weird time where trailers for Spider-Man and Barbie movies drop on the same day and at this point only the combination of those two things can make me feel more alive than dead. Listen, I didn't expect that this is how I would end up either.


Now this is the good shit. For starters:


Okay, yeah, sorry. I just, I love the Spot. He is all that is pure and good in this godforsaken world.

So what's new in this? We got Miles Spider-Manning it up in the neighborhood, which is great, A+, just what I need. The convention center of Spider-Mans is apparently set up by Miguel O'Hara, probably after the first film where the multiverse almost broke. As I've said before, I'm not a huge fan of a giant Spider-Team when they could all be in their own universes doing Spider-Stuff, but whatever. We got some Peter B. and animated footage of Mayday, his Spider-Baby who, in a truly irresponsible move, has webshooters.

Now, I could go over all the little details, like Miguel calling MCU Spider-Man a little nerd (HAHAHAHA) or Ben Reilly (my only other source of hope and joy) but instead let's take a look at the plot details we're finally getting.

Looks like Miles is going to be rejected from the Spider-Society, possibly because he's too young and/or attached to his home reality. The main conflict will probably be something to do with the Spot fucking up the multiverse, but in order to stop that Miles has to let someone (probably his dad) die. And this will make the Spider-Society fight him. I'm pumped! This is exactly the shit I want out of Spider-Man! If I have this right, Miles (and maybe Gwen) will be the only one willing to contradict the dogmatic ideals of a bunch of old Spider-Men, choosing to find his own solution and save everyone.

Sure, the ones set in their ways are also Spider-Mans, but in this case it just means Miles is the most Spider-Man of all. I'm more excited for this movie than I was last trailer, which is good because there ain't a lot else out there. EXCEPT FOR THIS

I, uh. What? Huh?

What's happening?

I have no idea what's going on here. That's good! Instead of some sort of Malibu, we start in Barbie Land (Shoulda been Barbie World) where everyone is either Barbie or Ken. Huh. But why? I guess every iteration of the Barbie doll is another person? I guess I prefer it when Barbie is an unstoppable polymath, but this concept has legs.

Judging from the way everything is, Barbie Land is a child's view of reality, given that Barbie and Ken haven't had a sex ed class yet. Is this a real place, or is this Lego Movie rules?

Oh god it might be Lego Movie rules.

Okay, fine, I don't have any insights here! This film is a black box! Where's Raquelle?? Is this a musical?? GIMME SOMETHING HERE!

Oh shit is that Michael Cera?

Sunday, December 18, 2022

These Trailers Are For Me (Spider-Verse and Barbie)

Wow! Trailers and teasers galore! Okay, well, two of them. But two trailers highly relevant to me in particular have released in the same week, and I know my take is highly sought after, so here we go!

Second trailer for Across the Spider-Verse Part 1! (Geez that's a mouthful.) There's a bit to unpack there. What we knew from the first trailer was the involvement of Miguel O'Hara, Spider-Man 2099, as well as the return of Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman. Miles still has the new suit, which is growing on me, and we got some new stuff character-wise from this trailer.

Another Spider-Woman is in the picture, this one being a variant of Jessica Drew, the mainline Spider-Woman right now. There's a lot of hubbub about the character design, and that she's noticeably pregnant, but that's a can o' worms I do not wanna get into.

Peter B. is back! And with a little baby carrier. Shortly after the trailer came out, the film team released concept art of his kid, who is a little baby Mayday. I was sort of hoping we'd get more of a timeskip for him, maybe with a teen Mayday. I just want Spider-Girl, guys. But baby Mayday is better than nothing.

Plotwise, this doesn't give us much, but we can glean something. Looks like Gwen and Miles find themselves in some sort of multiversal Spider-Folk convention center, which is disturbingly close to the comic Spider-Verse. (Which I hate.) I really hope they're not going all-in on that, because Morlun is stupid and I don't like that plot.

It's probably more complex than that, given that it seems Miguel and Jessica Drew will have a more antagonistic role. Perhaps what Miles and Gwen want to do to fix whatever's happening clashes with what the larger group of palette-swapped Spider-WhoGivesAShits so there's some conflict about that. From what we know now, I like the idea. Spider-Man is about defying the orders of authority, so Miles contradicting what he thinks is an immoral course of action is exactly what I like in my Spider-Men.

Truth be told, I was a lot less hype about this trailer than I expected to be. I have three theories for that.

1. This trailer just isn't exciting
2. I over-hyped myself earlier and am working on a hype deficit.
3. I am the hollow shell of a human being and at the pit of my heart lies an incinerator that burns up everything pure and joyful, emitting only a dark, acrid smoke that fills every wrinkle in my brain.

All of these are possible.

I just don't like how there's now a giant mass of anonymous Spider-Folk running around in the background of this trailer. The first movie had 5 (6 if you count the dead one) Spiders, which allowed time for each to be a unique take, with distinct personalities, artstyles, and quirks. Hell, it gave Spider-Ham a dramatic moment.

With the new one, however, you got a ton of Spiders back there. And I can bet that some character designer spent months on all these background characters, but in the end that don't matter because they're like background noise. It's like the Conservation of Ninjutsu principle, one ninja is an unstoppable badass, but a giant mass of ninjas is an easily defeated goon squad. It's the problem you always run into when you introduce an infinite multiverse. Individuals cease to matter when there's a million slightly-different copies of that same person running around. The variety in Spider-People was what made Into the Spider-Verse so good, but I feel like when you make a faceless mass of Spider-Men, you lose something.

It's always possible I'm overreacting (re: the black incinerator in my heart) but I've been hurt before. We'll see.

Now I haven't actually brought up the Barbie movie here yet, that's been confined mostly to twitter as paparazzi shots of shooting days were put out there. Now there is no way I'm not watching the Barbie movie. At some point my brain broke in a very specific way, and now Barbie movies are my coping mechanism.

The Main Question running through my mind has been: WHAT IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT??

There are so many ways to take a Barbie movie, a lot of them probably bad. I need to know. This movie's being directed by Greta Gerwig, who previously wrote and directed Lady Bird, which won a bunch of awards I'm too lazy to look up. You don't get that kind of talent on a toy movie. Except, I guess, now.

Unfortunately this teaser doesn't give us much to work with to determine the movie's plot. Yeah there's a cool 2001: A Space Odyssey reference, but for all I know that was made specifically for the teaser and will have nothing to do with the final film.

I would like this movie best if Barbie is portrayed like in Life in the Dreamhouse. Where all the Barbie dolls are canon, she lives a gifted life in a doll Malibu, and she's not meant to be like a real life human person. Given the acknowledgement that she is a doll and the hyperstylized shots we see of what is assumedly Malibu, this film might be on that track.

What I really wouldn't like, but is very likely, is if this follows the standard plot structure of your basic Hollywood film. Barbie shouldn't have a character arc. What does she have to learn? There's a very real risk that this film will have the theme of "Barbie is unrealistic" which would be a damn shame considering just how much there is to work with regarding this property.

Given that this is just a teaser, there's a lot that's still open. Really we'll just have to wait for a proper trailer before predictions can really begin, but god damn if I'm not seeing this on opening day.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Books from the Bin: Mindscan

If you've read anything I've written, you probably know that I like to think about the confines of identity, how it changes, what constitutes it, and all that. So maybe you can understand my mindset when I saw a certain book in the fabled bin, and why I had to read the whole goddamn thing. So here we are.

Books From the Bin: Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

Now that we're looking at the same cover, I hope you can see what I saw. To my mind this was probably a Dickian or Asimovian sci-fi book, with the questions of what constitutes artificial life, what makes a person a person, and what happens when there are two of you?

I don't think I would be writing this if it was that. Lemme lay out the plot for you. In the far off future year of 2045, the corporation Immortex has created a way to copy the mind of a human being into a robot duplicate. It's still very early work, so only the wealthiest can afford the procedure. One of those wealthy is our main character, Jake, who has a terminal brain problem and pays a fuckton of money to get a robot duplicate, while his original is shipped off to the moon to die. Turns out the original guy's brain condition has a cure, which he promptly gets on the moon, but they refuse to bring him back to Earth, as the robot is legally him now. Now, what you would expect is an exploration of the psychological impact of being replaced by a robot version of you, that, at least from the moment of transfer, was you.

You would think that, but instead most of the book is about how great it is to be a robot, then a court case which somehow ties the legality of a robot duplicate to abortion(???) and the original Jake actually gets psychosis from the brain surgery so we don't actually have to grappel with that viewpoint and yes of course the robot is the original shut up.

In Asimov, the ideas are told straightforwardly, but the concepts are big enough that it's interesting to see them through. A good portion of his original robot stories are just two scientists arguing, which gives you the context and information you need to know to start guessing what's going on yourself, until the ending where it's revealed. With Philip K. Dick, the ideas are big and convoluted and scary. Frequently he'll confuse your sense of what is actually real, a lot of his stories star or feature a character with schizophrenia or hallucinations. It's anyone's guess where any of these stories are going to lead, but they almost always provide good questions about the nature of reality.

Sawyer, on the other hand, has simple execution and boring ideas. The concept of this book is that robot bodies are the future, are better than organic bodies, and should be recognized as the original whenever possible. One might think there would be a treacherous philosophical path to lead here, but what appears instead is a broad scientific idea of what creates consciousness (not what constitutes consciousness) and an even broader legalistic look at personhood.

The court case that makes up the crux of this novel consists of Jake's new robot girlfriend, an old, famous, witty, filthy rich author of young adult novels who gets a robot body so she can live forever and never lose copyright on her books, versus her son who posits that his mother died on the moon and the robot cannot legally be his mommy. The robot lady is both an author mouthpiece and an erstatz J. K. Rowling. She's a beloved author worth billions who is never wrong. I call her J. K. Robot.

It is this court case that's meant to contain the real meat of this novel. It's not inheretly a bad idea. There are plenty of pieces of fiction that use a court structure to discuss speculative concepts of this nature, and it's not all that different than Azimov's scientist arguments. The trouble with Mindscan is that it tries too hard to make the court behave like an actual courtroom. It's about laws and precedent, and since it takes place in a speculative future of the USA, these aren't even laws we're familiar with. It never really tackles the fundamental issues at play in a way that makes you think.

There's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Measure of a Man." It centers on a court case deciding whether an android character, Data, has the rights of a sentient being. The sides argue back and forth about what makes up a person, eventually coming to the question of what comprises sentience, and how to determine if something embodies it. It's deep, it's allegorical, it leads to the realm of philosophy and can change your perspective.

In Mindscan, however, it comes down to two sides. The Robot side calls a neuroscientist/robot brain man, who goes into technical detail to explain where consciousness resides on the brain. The opposing side calls a philosopher, who turns out to be a Christian, who essentially asserts that robots don't have souls. There's nothing to sink your teeth into here. Sure, I may now be aware that the prevailing consensus of neuroscientists in the year 2006 was that consciousness was created in the nanotubules of the brain. But where does that get me? There's no food for thought here, you're just meant to accept that the robots are people, and those who disagree are unscientific.

What about the human guy who wants his life back? Surely that must have some meat we can sink our teeth into! But no, that, too, ends up with a shallow conclusion. Beyond having much less page-space dedicated to it, the moral conundrums are sidestepped by two very important points. 1. The guy signed a contract, dude. And 2. He got psychosis from the brain surgery so he's too unstable and violent to bring up a cogent argument, and it's fine when he's killed by J.K. Robot. Reading the sections with him makes you feel like maybe you have psychosis, because obviously anyone would want their life back, especially if Robot You has alienated your friends and family by being a robot, but nobody else in the Moon Hotel cares! They're all "Well you signed a contract sir" as if that's the most sacred law devised by man. It's written as if it's unreasonable to want to have your life back after you give it to your robot copy! And it's extra sad for me, because this book missed a perfect opportunity for Clone Angst. I love Clone Angst! And I can't find it anywhere but Spider-Man!

Think about it! It's a perfect analogue to Ben Reilly! What do you do when you lose your entire life to a copy of yourself? If everyone around them sees them as the real you, what do you have left? Think of the tragedy, the isolation, the unmooring of your very identity and the rebuilding that must be done in order to continue. But nope! He signed his personhood away and got psychosis and died anyway so we don't have to think about something actually interesting.

And it's certainly not limited to these two examples, the book is filled with little opportunities to explore this topic, but shuns them aside or ignores them entirely, making the act of proposing them nothing but frustrating. To wit: Robot Jake and J.K. Robot are watching the news as Canada makes multiple marriages legal. Jake, being a younger guy, is glad for the social progress, but J.K. Robot, being old as shit, is apprehensive. But she sees the disparity in their opinions on this, and brings up the difficulties immortal robot bodies bring to social change, when inevitably you'll have the same rich powerful people and their outdated ways of thinking forever. So what happens? Is this discussed again? Of course not! At the end they go to Mars where it's a bohemian paradise and I guess J.K. Robot just changed her mind about this sort of thing.

Oh, what about the idea that once you've made a digital copy of a brain, you could replicate it infinitely? There's some ethical quandaries there, right? Worry not, that very thing happens to our main character! Through some quantum bullshit he can psychically communicate with his other robot duplicates, and at the end an Immortex scientist reveals they've been performing experiments on his brain using these duplicates. Oh shit! There could be a whole book just about that! Well Jake is just sort of upset but takes no definitive action on it. He has some stern words for the scientist who does not give a single shit.

Something else keeps popping up and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. Characters keep bringing up old pop culture, and it's completely mystifying. It's comparable to Ready Player One, but at least that wove it into the plot! They mention Cats, Harry Potter, Finding Nemo, Lord of the Rings, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Steven King, Magnum P.I., Superman, The Six Million Dollar Man, and probably even more. I don't think I've ever read a sci-fi book that mentioned real world media so often and so jarringly. It's ironic, I think, to directly mention so many other properties, when author mouthpiece J.K. Robot has a little spiel against the very notion of public domain. Maybe it's just the way I am, but once she suggested that copyright should be held by estates forevermore and it should be illegal to use characters from those media unless you own that copyright, I was sure she was going to be the villain. How naive I was.

Over and over again this book only disappoints. Halfway through the book, my mind was awash with possibilities! None of them bore fruit. I had it wrong, this book wasn't supposed to be a meditation on the self in a world where one's brain is replicable. It's not meant to go through the ethical or philosophical implications of this process. I shocked myself that in all actuality, Warpath had a more thorough and cohesive concept of the whole brain copy conceit. This book is just there to provide the same thing transhumanists have been saying since their inception: Being a robot is fucking awesome and anyone who doesn't think so should go to jail or die.

And I didn't like it.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Barbie Girl in a Pointless World

Does life have a meaning? A sophomoric question to some, but the only important question to others. In those for whom the answer is simple, there is some sort of faith, an assurance deep inside of them that there is a reason for each travail and setback. They intrinsically have the will to persist, and no discussion need be brokered.

The other half of that equation is where things become more complicated. When life's meaning is an open question, it demands an answer. One must either find an external reason for being, or accept that there is none, and persist regardless. Philosophers have debated this point for centuries, among their ranks being Friedrick Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Viktor Frankl, and... Barbie?

Yes, her.

In the dark of night, in the throes of a deep depression, I thought, as I often do, about Barbie. What drives this woman? She takes on so many guises, can accomplish any task, but why? What is her purpose? The query stuck in my mind, overwhelming more important things like signing up for health insurance or buying food. I have tried to know. I must know.

In an earlier article, I claimed that Barbie perfectly embodied the Ubermensch. I feel as if this holds enough explanation within itself to preclude any further discussion. No, we will find our explanation with French philosopher, Albert Camus. In his text, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the condition of life that makes it unbearable. It is the random, meaningless nature of the events that surround us. You live for no reason, you will die for no reason. You have a unique consciousness to experience the world but it has no purpose for anything else, and will fizzle out one day with as little import as it began. It is the Absurd. He envisioned our lives comparable to that of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek legend, who, punished by the gods, was tasked with pushing a gigantic boulder to the crest of a hill. But no sooner did he accomplish this than the boulder rolled back to the foot of the mountain, where his quest began anew. The trials and tribulations we face are no more meaningful than putting a rock on top of a hill where it will not stay.

But what if you could choose to find joy in that act? Camus proposed three methods with which one could cope with the Absurd. The first is the Don Juan. Experience as much love and romance as one could, at every moment. The newness of love would refresh itself each time, holding the utter pointlessness of it at bay. The second is that of the actor. With each new identity adopted, one struggles against the banal face of reality, each one a new boulder for Sisyphus to carry. The third is of the conqueror, one who acts without hesitation, succeeding in every horizon that is encountered. Simply placing a mark on history is enough to justify continued existence.

So now we must ask, what does this have to do with Barbie? Well, she fulfills two of the three methods Camus proposed for dealing with a meaningless existence. She has forgone the Don Juan route, which we will address later, but the remaining two fit her to a T. First, the actor. In the majority of Barbie movies, it is not specifically Barbie that we follow. Rather, she is cast in the role of another character altogether. Barbie in Princess Power is not about Barbie. It is about Kara, a princess of Windemere who is played by Barbie. The same is true of Barbie Star Light Adventure, where though the character is named Barbie, it has nothing to do with Barbie herself, she is merely another role that Barbie plays. In that way, Barbie transcends the limits of reality to inhabit the personas of many different iterations of herself. She does not live in a world where she is a super spy, but by acting in these films, she can broaden her horizons, if only in fiction.

The most relevant to Barbie herself is, surprisingly, the conqueror. Though not a conqueror of territory or resources, what else could you call the unending succession of professions Barbie has mastered over her lifetime? It's not as if she has a personal connection to each of these jobs, as she quickly moves onto another after mastering it. People spend half of their lives training to be a doctor, with the expectation that the other half will be spent living in that role. Barbie gave it up to be a racecar driver or something. What the job is does not matter, what matters is that there is always more, always another summit to climb. She can continue to stay occupied, never really having to face the Absurd.

Next you may wonder, could it be that Barbie does in fact create meaning in her life? In a meaningless world, how could one do so? For that we must look to Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and creator of logotherapy, the idea that to survive difficult times, one must latch onto their own purpose. He formed these ideas while being held in a concentration camp, and tried to figure out why some people survived the abhorrent conditions and others did not. He realized his findings were relevant to people across the world, whether dealing with inhumane conditions, or the suffering inherent to life. Suffering, he found, acts like a gas, where no matter its mass, it expands to fill the human heart.

In Frankl's book, Man's Search For Meaning, he outlines three different ways one can create a sense of meaning in one's life: The first is to create a great work, as in Frankl's case was a book on the very subject I am writing about, which motivated him onward when conditions pushed him to the brink. The second is a great relationship or experience, to truly love another person and create a unique bond that surpasses all tribulations. The third is to simply bear great suffering nobly, to be in the midst of agony but hold oneself steadfast, and act with grace in the worst of situations. We can dismiss the third condition outright, with regard to Barbie. Suffering seems all but banished from her life. She's a Barbie girl, in a Barbie World. Her every physical need is met, and she has the time, energy, and motivation to pursue whatever career suits her fancy. So this can be disposed with.

What of the first method? One may assume that Barbie's various occupational forays would fit this condition, but I disagree. Each is surmounted and discarded, one after the other. The content of each job is irrelevant, otherwise why not focus her efforts to only a couple? And the quantity itself is not a goal, as it's difficult to find an accurate figure for her careers, and in no piece of media is she really all that motivated to collect more before her time is up. The jobs she has taken are so numerous so as to be functionally meaningless, like trying to bring value to a single footstep on an aimless walk.

The second option seems closest to correct. The mention of relationship brings to mind Barbie's constant paramour, Ken Carson. Through most media, Ken is there at Barbie's side, usually seen as quite a catch himself. One may even believe this relationship is important enough to create meaning for Barbie. But let us not fall prey to romantic delusions. Barbie is a polymath, constantly on the move, ever pushing forward, ever changing. What is Ken? At best, he is The Boyfriend. An accessory. What could a mere mortal hope to provide to one such as Barbie? His assistance is taken in jest, the way one might praise the art of a child. There is nothing he can do that Barbie could not surpass. Barbie broke up with Ken and the two were not together for seven years, but that changed nothing for Barbie. She loves him in the manner of a pet, a less intelligent lifeform that can provide intermittent amusement, but nothing truly substantial. Barbie stands alone.

So we see, Barbie does not have the kind of life to create meaning for herself. In each of the ways Frankl described, she acts contrary. She holds no faith, expounds no philosophy, but we can tell by her actions what she believes. There is no meaning for Barbie. What she enacts is the endless treadmill against boredom, against the desolate truths that underpin her existence. She has no reason to persist, none more than your office lamp or toaster, but unlike those objects, she has a choice. Yet persist she does. Despite the desperate banality at the core of her life, Barbie surpasses all of us.

Just a minute, I'm being told now that Barbie isn't real. Shit.