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Film Comment Selects 2012: Transfer and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

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Film Comment Selects 2012: <em>Transfer</em> and <em>All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace</em>

The basic premise of Transfer immediately intrigues: An elderly couple, Anna and Hermann Goldbeck (Ingrid Andree and Hans-Michael Rehberg), decides to try out an experimental operation that will allow them to extend their lives by mentally inhabiting the younger bodies of Apolain (B.J. Britt) and Sarah (Regine Nehy). As Anna is suffering from a terminal illness, both she and Hermann feel an especially urgent need to give this procedure a try. But Damir Lukacevic, the writer and director of this sci-fi drama, isn’t willing to rest on that premise alone to generate interest; he has bigger game in mind.

By making Apolain and Sarah African refugees who feel a desperate need to assent to this operation just so they can support their families back home, Lukacevic adds a level of social commentary to an already fairly heady mix. Anna and Hermann are wealthy white people who are so driven to extend their lives with each other that they, at least initially, don’t think much about the troubling moral implications underlying the mere idea of inhabiting someone else’s (younger, stronger) flesh. The fact that the two bodies they decide to inhabit are black suggests an attempt on Lukacevic’s part to address thorny issues of racism and post-colonial exploitation. Hermann, for instance, briefly voices discomfort at the idea of taking on these bodies (“Aren’t they too black?” he asks in an early scene); Apolain, in a later scene halfway through the film, expresses a palpable class resentment toward their “masters,” accusing them of using their bodies entirely for their own personal gain.

Lukacevic builds in yet another layer of complexity to his conception by allowing Apolain and Sarah a four-hour window late every evening with which to essentially be themselves. (Why the corporation that developed this procedure would even allow such a window in the first place is a question that’s never answered.) Eventually, even with a mere four hours to spend with each other every night, Apolain and Sarah become attracted to each other—and this leads to a whole host of problems that inevitably bleed into the “lives” of Anna and Hermann during the other 20 hours of a given day.

In the annals of science fiction of this type, Transfer may not be on the exalted plane of its spiritual precursor, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, but Lukacevic’s film satisfies, at a minimum, with a surfeit of intriguing ideas and delirious plot complications.

Transfer offers an entertaining diversion, but All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace—in the sheer expansiveness of its vision, if nothing else—has the power to challenge one’s view of the world.

Adam Curtis’s latest BBC documentary is technically not science fiction, but it tackles the stuff of many a sci-fi book/movie: artificial intelligence, unstable ecosystems, dangerous genes, scientific chutzpah. After The Power of Nightmares, in which Curtis posited a link between the rise of both Islamism and neoconservatism in the United States in order to help explain what led to the so-called War on Terror, the British filmmaker turns his methodical eye to the ongoing global financial crisis, suggesting that our technologically saturated society may have helped lead us to this point, and then enlarges his historical, societal, and scientific inquiries into examinations of cybernetics (the study of systems in the environment) and the “selfish gene theory” (the idea that human behavior is controlled by “selfish” genes). Is our humanity being slowly leeched away by gadgets? If so, how did we get to such a point?

Some of the conclusions Curtis makes are provocative indeed. In the first part of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, for instance, he goes all the way back to Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism to explain the behavior of the various Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, businessmen, and world leaders who helped hasten the global financial crisis, suggesting that it was Rand’s belief in the virtue of selfishness that influenced many of these players, mostly for the worse. (Curtis, I assume, took his cue from the fact that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was a devotee of objectivism.) And in part three, Curtis offers an alternate interpretation of the root causes of the Rwandan genocide in 1994—that it wasn’t the result of incomprehensible tribal tensions between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis as most of the Western press reported it, but of myths their previous Belgian rulers perpetrated in order to keep both tribes in line. This revisionist take ultimately feeds into his larger point about how we have all accepted helplessness and defeat by swallowing increasingly popular theories—set out by William Hamilton, George R. Price, and, more recently, Richard Dawkins—that human beings are simply machines controlled by the genes we’ve inherited.

Curtis derives the title of his film from a poem by Richard Brautigan published in 1967 in which he envisions a world more or less run entirely by machines, in which said machines would naturally help bring our environment back to the balance to which, according to cybernetic theories, it naturally aspires. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, however, casts an intensely critical eye on such thinking. In its own intellectual way, it’s a deeply humanist work, obliquely arguing for the existence of a human soul beyond the scope of mere 0s and 1s. Whether or not you end up agreeing with some, all or none of what Curtis throws at you during his film’s three absorbing hours, you may well find yourself wondering afresh just how much technology has infiltrated your life, and whether all of it is automatically for the good, as we have all been led to believe.

Film Comment Selects 2012 runs from February 17—March 1.