Issue 005 Winter 2023 Essays

Tekno-visions


From ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’ to ‘Neptune Frost’, a slate of films are picking apart the shiny promises of the metaverse.

By Lakshmi Padmanabhan

From Neptune Frost (2021), dir. Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, courtesy of Kino Lorber.


New worlds are springing up like fungi lately.
And they’re looking a lot like the one we already live in, but worse.


A former Head of Strategy at Amazon Studios and Mark Zuckerberg’s spiritual guru, Matthew Ball, has gifted us a term for this mess: the metaverse.1 When you clear away the stock images of digital avatars wandering through outer space and performing complex surgery, it appears the metaverse is basically a term for the unified realm of virtual reality, accessible through all the existing applications, games, and other social media we currently interact with online, but scaled for an unlimited number of users, i.e., a fancy name for a world populated entirely by consumers of the companies who create these products.

Ball, whose idea is hardly original, borrows the concept from dystopian science fiction. The first-known mention of the term metaverse is in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, in which the creation of a virtual reality world doesn’t work out for the humans involved, just as it doesn’t in the extremely popular Matrix franchise. The current marketing pitch for these dystopian futures is that technology is amoral—it’s the humans who do bad things with it.2 Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Affairs and former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, describes the metaverse as a logical evolution for communication technologies, whose defining quality will be the “feeling of presence, like you are right there with another person or in another place.”3 Unfortunately, another defining quality will be that you are, in fact, not in that other place, with that other person.

As anyone on Twitter knows, the platform allows you to directly interact with any other user on the site, in theory, but the algorithmic infrastructure that tracks user data automatically curates the conversations you see. In effect, this rapidly tightens the user’s social circle and creates ever more fractured social worlds. This carefully curated isolation that Meta, Twitter, and others market as the total unification of social life across virtual and mundane reality serves as a fair description of both the internet we have now and the metaverse we’re promised will arrive soon. While Silicon Valley tech bros salivate over badly staged mock-ups of their techno utopia (see the photos from Clegg’s pitch4), Hollywood executives have already made billions of dollars translating these dreams of alternate worlds that collide with our own to the big screen, most obviously through the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).


From Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, courtesy of Sony Pictures.

MCU takes this logic to its most spectacular conclusion: a superhero for (almost) everyone. No, literally: You get a superhero, and you, and you, too! Their characters with special powers are empty suits; their origin stories, costumes, and worlds are carefully designed aggregations, tested on focus groups, drawn from polls, and cynically marketed as progressive cultural representation. Sony Pictures’ 2018 Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse illustrates that atomization is not only good but necessary for survival: If everyone doesn’t return to their rightful place, they will die. In the film, we meet the new Spiderman, the charming and hilarious Miles Morales, an Afro-Latinx kid from Brooklyn. He quickly learns he isn’t the only superhero around; there are millions of unknown worlds, and each has its own Spider Person (or Spider Hams). Peace reigns in these multiple worlds, as long as they stay in their own beautifully animated singular realities. The trouble begins when Kingpin builds a collider, a machine to move between worlds, and brings these other avatars of Spiderman (Spider People?) into Miles’s world.

Such narratives allow us glimpses into other worlds, only to reveal that, despite surface appearances, what happens there is quite similar to what happens here. It is hard to imagine a more obvious explanation of the corporate logic of market segmentation. It is made clear that when worlds collide, and unforeseen circumstances bring very different people together, their collective gathering will literally kill them. The film doesn’t allow us to contemplate the possibility of the Spiderman avatars teaming up to improve the world in which they find themselves. Instead, they are each dispatched to their perfectly crafted origin worlds alone.


From Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

Miles Morales is hardly alone in his experience, as a rash of new films has been grappling with the dreams of multiple worlds colliding through new technologies. A24’s sci-fi comedy, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), and the Afrofuturist indie film Neptune Frost (2021), also dream of other worlds collapsing into our own, but to very different ends. All three films share an aesthetic of excess, with meticulous attention paid to the construction of their worlds. Each scene is beautiful and overflowing with details. Essays could be written on the set design for Everything Everywhere and the authenticity of its Chinese American milieu or Spiderman’s stunning animation that blurs the boundaries between comic book and film screen with absolute ease. Neptune Frost’s striking costumes of upcycled technotrash and minimal post-production work reflect the extremely small budget they were operating with, which was funded largely by a Kickstarter campaign. Despite some comical and distracting DIY special effects, the stunning cinematography reflects the ethereal quality of the narrative in deep colors and smoothes over a few confusing holes in the plot.5 Where they radically diverge, however, is what aims they set for such visual pleasure.

The opening scene of Everything Everywhere All At Once takes us into the world of the Wang family, with the luminescent Michelle Yeoh starring as Evelyn Wang, the extremely overworked Chinese immigrant matriarch who runs a laundromat. Her patient and hilarious husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and their angsty lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), are helping her run the family business, file taxes, and prepare for the imminent arrival of Gong Gong (James Hong), Evelyn’s demanding father. Waymond is considering divorce, Joy is dating Becky—a relationship that Evelyn is not happy about—and the burden of the laundromat’s IRS audit falls on Evelyn. We learn all this as the camera travels through a mirror and directly into the living room of the Wang household, a set as visually overwhelming as Evelyn’s life. Evelyn does a mental gymnastics routine, sorting out receipts while simultaneously making breakfast and dealing with clients in the laundromat, as the surveillance cameras reveal that Waymond has been possessed by Alpha Waymond, his avatar in an alternate universe. It turns out that Alpha Waymond has been searching universes for the right Evelyn to defeat Jobu Tupaki, the villain who has set out to destroy the entire multiverse.


From Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of A24.

The multiverse narrative becomes a vehicle for Evelyn to imagine paths not followed in her life, including one where she rejects Waymond’s marriage proposal and stays in China to become a film star trained in martial arts. In another universe, she is a sentient rock. In yet another, she works at a teppanyaki restaurant alongside another chef, played by Harry Shum Jr., with an animatronic raccoon on his head—a visual tribute to the popular Pixar film, Ratatouille. These alternate worlds reveal Evelyn’s unfulfilled dreams as she grapples with a continuous sense of failure in her current world. Alpha Waymond helps her fight off the bad guys that Jobu sends after her. We eventually learn that Jobu is the evil version of Joy, whose mind shattered under the weight of Evelyn’s expectations and Joy’s desire for love and acceptance from her family.

Co-director Daniel Kwan drew heavily on his own experience growing up Asian American in a Chinese immigrant family to imagine the set and narrative for this film. As critic Anne Anlin Cheng writes of this film, “To be an immigrant is to live in a fractured multiverse, one riven with geographic, temporal and psychical dissonances,” and Everything Everywhere utilizes the multiverse logic to address this experience of racialization in the United States.6 Yet by the end of the film, it is hard to tell whether this link takes us much further than this opening diagnosis. While much of the narrative tension runs on the high-stakes question of whether Evelyn will kill her own daughter to save the universe, Evelyn ultimately reconciles with Joy, recognizing in her alter ego, Jobu, a child in need of love and validation that she has been withholding.

What remains unaddressed are the exact structural conditions that are allegorized by the multiverse narrative: the complex and violent histories of racism and exploitation that lead to the financial and emotional pressures that the working-class, immigrant Wang family faces. Instead, in the figure of Joy, these complex histories are experienced as a kind of chaotic shuttling between worlds, an individual diagnosis of mental disorder rather than a structural one. Meanwhile, all the worlds we visit with Evelyn are marked by spectacular differences—like a world of people with hot-dog hands, or one entirely populated by sentient rocks—but they are ultimately structured by the same social relations as the one in which we live. A quirky amateur version of the famously racist film, The King and I, which plays on the TV in Evelyn’s laundromat, plays again in the world of hot-dog finger people—a hilarious visual gag that suggests that no matter how many worlds we traverse here, racist tropes and colonial relations will remain an unquestioned given. Ha, ha?

To be clear, Everything Everywhere is a pleasure to watch, for the most part, if you can get past all the kink-shaming visual gags.7 But it does seem worth it to expect a bit more from our dreams of multiverse travel than to encounter the tired trope of lesbians with bad haircuts, or the conclusion that the nuclear family is the only model of social reproduction that can save the world. Despite Everything Everywhere’s earnest rendering of immigrant life in the United States, a contrast to the MCU’s blatant attempts at anodyne multicultural representation, in both cases, the utopian dreams of other worlds quickly turn into apologia for the dystopian racial capitalist order in which we already live.


From Neptune Frost (2021), dir. Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

But Neptune Frost, a scrappy, luminescent musical directed by Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, provides an alternate vision. The film begins in a coltan mine in Rwanda, where miners work under brutal conditions to extract the metallic ore necessary to power the mobile technologies that serve as the material infrastructure for the metaverse. Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse, aka Kaya Free), one of the miners, watches as his brother Tekno (Robert Ninteretse) is killed for working too slowly. He escapes the mine to follow the dreams of the Wheel Man, who tells him to hack the system of violence in which he lives.

The story unfolds through a series of songs and scenes set in surreal landscapes traveled by Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), our trans femme protagonist, and Matalusa, as they both escape to follow their dreams of creating a better world. They find each other in an encampment accessed through an invisible portal in the hills of Burundi. The intensity of their immediate attraction to each other and the connections they build with the other runaways who form their hacker collective cause a massive glitch in the system of surveillance within which they live.

Neptune and Matalusa live out the dreams that Meta claims to be building: a world-changing intimacy across time and space achieved through a blend of technology and community. While the film is short on the technical details that foster these connections, the rhythm of their collective dance and shared song makes visible the intimacy these characters share. Together with their collective of hackers, they upload videos to the i-fi (internet), defiantly flipping off “Mr. Google” and astutely linking the violence they face working in the coltan mines to the dependence of the global economy on their labor to build new technology and infrastructure for the global capitalist order. Their videos rack up billions of likes and draw the attention of the world outside. For this achievement, the collective immediately comes under attack, with bombs raining down on their encampment. Watching these sequences in Neptune Frost, it is impossible to ignore that the future dreamed up by tech giants such as Meta is built as much by the blood and sweat of workers as the ore they mine from on increasingly uninhabitable land.


From Neptune Frost (2021), dir. Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

In the final scene, we watch Neptune through the camera of an attack drone as they flip the camera off, addressing the viewer directly. In this moment, we viewers are indistinguishable from the surveilling gaze of the genocidal state. With that final frame, the film points to the structural complicity between the technologies used to produce these dreams and the technologies we use to dream them, all of which rest on the ultimate currency—the labor of workers turned into technology, metal, and money. Or, as Neptune reminds us in the opening scenes, “all that we pay not to see.”


Footnotes:

1. Matthew Ball, “Framework for the Metaverse,” MatthewBall.vc, June 29, 2021.
https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer

2. Nilay Patel, “Is the metaverse going to suck? A conversation with Matthew Ball,” The Verge, July 19, 2022. https://www.theverge.com/23269170/what-is-the-metaverse-matthew-ball-interview-decoder-podcast

3. Nick Clegg, “Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters,” Medium, May 18, 2022. https://nickclegg.medium.com/making-the-metaverse-what-it-is-how-it-will-be-built-and-why-it-matters-3710f7570b04

4. Clegg, “Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters.”

5. There are also plenty of visual and narrative cues connecting the film to a broader Marxist and anticolonial politics, inviting historical reinterpretations of the plot. For example, the title of the film shares its name with Neptune Frost, a Black Civil War veteran who was once enslaved and is now memorialized with a plaque in Harvard Square’s Old Burial Ground. (Georgia Sparling, “Historian seeks to honor forgotten black soldiers,” Lesley University, Jun 5, 2018, https://lesley.edu/news/historian-seeks-to-honor-forgotten-black-soldiers.)

6. Cheng, Anne Anlin, “Perspective | ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Is a Deeply Asian American Film,” The Washington Post, May 4, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/05/04/everything-everywhere-asian-american-pessimism.

7. Kyle Turner, “This One Stale Joke Won’t Let Everything Everywhere All at Once Be Great,” W Magazine, April 14, 2022, https://www.wmagazine.com/culture/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-butt-plug-a24-film-review.