As trading on the stocks and futures markets has become increasingly automated and reliant on lightspeed transmission of information across fiber-optic networks, power on Wall Street is increasingly a matter of who can subdivide time into the smallest increments with the speed of a network: Whether the electrons carrying information about grain yields make it from Kansas to New York in 17 or 16 milliseconds—the time, evidently, it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings once—can determine the fate of financial firms.
In The Hummingbird Project, Wall Street techies Vinny and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård) set out to do just that, selling a trading firm on the idea of tunneling some cable in a perfectly straight line running from central Kansas to a server farm in New Jersey. The race to have essentially the fastest stock ticker is a fascinating and, in some respects, troubling phenomenon, speaking to the accelerating abstractness of capital in an information society. But the deal-making and bureaucracy involved in drilling a very long, very thin tunnel across several states isn’t intrinsically compelling. Such an endeavor has neither the luster of an underhanded enrichment scheme nor the social relevance of a life-changing innovation; it’s hardly the basis for either a Wolf of Wall Street or a Social Network.
Writer-director Kim Nguyen seems to become aware of this dramatic problem only late into the film, well after he’s attempted and failed to organize the narrative around feeble characterizations meant to lend his bland protagonists a veneer of relatability. Anton and Vinny are cousins, from a family of Russian immigrants, who work together at a financial tech firm headed by Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). Vinny convinces Anton to leave Torres’s firm to help him lay the fiber-optics line for a different firm. Anton is a computer genius with movie land’s version of Asperger’s—the form that manifests solely as comic social misunderstandings tasked with ensuring a transmission time of 16 milliseconds. Vinny’s specific contribution to the project is more loosely defined. One presumes he’s meant to be the one with the vision, but the film doesn’t make clear what that vision is, relying on Eisenberg’s familiar fast-talking, precocious young visionary act to convince us of the project’s significance.
The stakes remain fuzzy even as Nguyen lays foundations for the characters’ motivations. Anton has a family to worry about and, as a programmer, faces legal retribution from Torres for using proprietary code developed at her firm; Vinny learns early on that he’s dying, in a rushed and oddly artificial scene. “You have stomach cancer, you have to undergo treatment immediately,” his doctor flatly and vaguely proclaims. There’s a perfunctory quality to such developments, as if the film would prefer that we not worry ourselves too much about them.
The bulk of the film consists of Vinny solving various administrative issues while looking increasingly ill, and his decision to let his cancer advance while he completes his pet private infrastructure project is so incomprehensible as to render the character unsympathetic. The film makes clear that one firm will surely build something similar to the “hummingbird project” if Vinny fails, and there’s no clear reason to root for one firm over another, given that both Torres and Vinny’s benefactors are equally motivated by the accumulation of additional digits in their bank account balances. (As Anton explains to a random bartender in a tangential scene of exposition incorporated far too late in the film, the underground tube will make around $500 million a year.) All parties seem equally avaricious, but one supposes we’re meant to root against Torres, given that Hayek plays her as a kind of finance-industry Cruella Deville, though the character is cartoonishly abrasive without ever quite seeming evil.
The Hummingbird Project can’t decide what attitude to strike toward its characters’ evident greed. The film doesn’t moralize, but it also doesn’t examine what’s floating in and around its narrative. Taking breaks from its noncommittal life-and-death drama, it occasionally channels the didactic satire of The Big Short, but as a satire it lacks both perspective and clear punchlines. The script or image casually suggests at various moments that we might consider the lemon farmers being exploited by futures markets, mourn the trees being toppled for the sake of virtual wealth, or even, in a bizarre and uninspired turn, appreciate the simple, slow life of the Amish. But none of this coalesces into a perspective, into something the film actually wants to show us about what’s happening in global capitalism.