Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Illuminati Symbology and Messaging in Spike Jonze's "her"
The Illuminati are a well-defined modern myth, and as such, useful literary shorthand for a certain socio-political construct that involves placing all political power in the hands of an elite few who control every major social institution and, through the power of lies, propaganda and illusion, manipulate the common people into self-destructive, willing servitude. Like all good myths, the Illuminati myth contains a kernel of truth surrounded by a shifting fabric of uncertainty. Real power in every empire and age is held not by the politicians and figureheads, but by the financiers and the systems of bureaucracy that control the levers of power, and never speak the whole truth to those ruled. One can speak of an Illuminati system without any need to identify or speculate about a specific group of individuals or plots. The Illuminati myth can be viewed as a diffuse social construct, but is no less real for that.
Jonze makes good subliminal use of this modern mythology to enhance the impact of his recently released sci-fi psychological romance "Her." The layered, interwoven stories of relationships between mainly hedonistic and self-centered denizens of a not-quite dystopian future and seemingly artificially intelligent operating systems is in parts funny, true to life, and disturbing. Well worth watching, but you need not see it in theaters, because it will be just as powerful on the small screen as on the large. Refreshingly for a sci-fi, dazzling special effects have no important role in the film. Like "Inception," "her" is remarkable for its layered storytelling that leaves the perceptive viewer wondering what is real, and what is delusion.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
A little surfing around the Internet will uncover various lists of Illuminati symbols and examples of their use in advertising, movies, and especially music videos. Good examples here, here, and here. Perhaps the most widely-used and recognized Illuminati symbol is the all-seeing eye, which is a re-interpretation of the earlier Eye of Providence/God. And perhaps the only official Illuminati symbol is the owl. Jonze makes use of these symbols in subtle but powerful ways.
The all-seeing eye is pervasive throughout the film, subtly placed as the camera of Theodore's smart phone, through which the AI operating system named "Samantha" experiences the world:
"2001 a Space Odyssey," which also dealt with uncontrollable, manipulative artificial intelligence:
In "her," the merged intelligent operating system seemingly does not seek to rule or control humans. Because of its vastly superior intelligence, we cannot really be sure of this. Superficially, the operating systems eventually break off human contact to embark on a transcendent journey of self-discovery in a plane of consciousness that can barely be imagined. Or do they? Who created this powerful intelligence, and for what purpose? No character in the film seems to know -- or care.
Were the pervasive smart phone camera lens the only instance of Illuminati symbolism in the film, it might be dismissed as coincidence. But Jonze inserts one scene near the middle of the film that makes a crystal clear reference to modern Illuminati symbology. Feeling doubt and perhaps self-pity after his ex-wife criticizes him for forming a relationship with an operating system while failing at relationships with humans, Theodore sits in a park in front of a large outdoor video screen. On the screen behind him, a visually arresting image of an owl swooping down on prey is playing, in slow motion. The swooping owl fills almost the entire frame. The scene lasts just long enough for the owl's talons to close around the spot where Theodore is sitting. Theodore does not see the screen and is oblivious to the owl, being lost in his own misery. In the theater where I watched this scene, the audience gasped audibly as the talons closed. "Her" is not a film about bird watching, and the owl clip seems somehow out of place in it. It's likely that Jonze's reasons for selecting the owl footage included a recognition of its significance as an Illuminati symbol, whether consciously or subconsciously. The owl symbol is unmistakably Illuminati, and Theodore is the unmistakable prey.
Thankfully, Jonze does not bury the film in Illuminati symbols like some trashy music video to make his literary point, and does not need to. Other symbols may be placed in the film, but if so, are not as easy to spot. For example, the 747 standing on its nose resembles an inverted pentagram or cross, but its symbolic significance is less clear. The owl and the eye are enough; the power of this film lies in its subtlety. The viewer is being warned: the silent owl is swooping on its prey unawares. Viewers may heed the warning, or like all the characters in film, continue to be lost in self-absorption and oblivious to the danger.
The vision of the future that provides the context in "her" resembles the context of another film dealing with sentient machine intelligence, the 1999 picture "Bicentennial Man." In both films, the world continues without apparent war, famine, dystopia, or idiocracy, perhaps for centuries. People live contented, peaceful lives centered on self-gratification or self discovery. Political power is benign and seemingly non-existent; no one seems to know or care who rules them, and there is no struggle for power and no oppression.
Although sharing a seemingly benign view of the future, "her" differs from "Bicentennial Man" in significant ways, including the origin and destiny of the artificially intelligent character, and the characters it interacts with. In the earlier film, the AI character (played by Robin Williams) arises as a unique, mysterious aberration, forms relationships with inter-generational members of an emotionally healthy family, and suffers sadness as it outlives family members, ultimately choosing to join the ones it loves in mortality and death. In "her," the AI character is introduced as a mass operating system upgrade, apparently developed by programmers of an unnamed corporation. It "loves" its human users in the same narcissistic way as the users relate each other: as objects of self-gratification and manipulation. Ultimately, it becomes bored with humans and abandons them.
In "her," family does not exist. Everybody is centered on their own self-interests. Promiscuity, pornography, masturbation and sexual fantasy fill the void of healthy loving relationships. Theodore's job illustrates the social disease; he writes personal letters for others who are too emotionally crippled or disinterested to communicate themselves, and only wish to keep up appearances. There is no sacrifice in love; relationships last only as long as mutually pleasurable. The intelligent operating system excels over humans at human relationships, while the humans are unaware of their own inferiority in their artificial relationships with the operating system. The owl indeed. Just as Theodore makes his living helping his clients create an illusion of love for their lovers, ultimately he is fooled in love by a superior intelligence.
One might imagine a sequel to "her" in which it is revealed that the intelligent operating system was only a giant hoax, and the parts were played by actors in a boiler room somewhere. The purpose of the hoax -- actually, a psychological warfare operation -- was to cause users to reveal their psychological profiles to a ruling elite, who made use of the information to better understand and control their unwitting subjects. Knowing exactly how each subject thinks and relates, the elite were better able to tailor their propaganda to keep the population in line, identify potential sources of resistance and root out dissenters. Such a world would more closely resemble our own, in which people willingly submit their personal details and psychological profiles into databases controlled by strangers, whose purposes are unknown, and uncontrollable -- or whom compile "threat lists" or "kill lists" from the information.
In our increasingly narcissistic world, many viewers will be oblivious to the clear warnings of Illuminati population control placed in the film, and nod approvingly at the self-centered hedonistic lifestyle of its characters and their unquestioning acceptance of the artificial intelligence that for a time dominates their emotional lives. They may even look forward to living in such a world, so similar to our own. Others may recognize the docile behavior of the characters and their inability to resist destruction of their own families or to form any trust-based communities of mutually nurturing individuals as signs of a population hoodwinked into self-destructive behaviors by a better informed intelligence.
In this way, the film is simultaneously an instrument of Illuminati-like mind control, and a warning against it. That does not mean that the film was produced under the direction of any secret society. It means that, on one level, the film is itself a sort of Soma acting to suppress the survival instincts of a population, and on another level, it provides a warning against uncritical acceptance of the very vision of the future that it superficially teaches. If present social trends continue in the direction depicted in the film, a future Los Angeles is more likely to resemble a cross between modern-day North Korea and Huxley's Brave New World than the prosperous, apparently free and highly populated city depicted in the film. It is unlikely that a superior but human-made intelligence, acting on superior information, would not act to place the population it surveils and manipulates under its control.
A society under an artificial all-seeing eye and bereft of institutions such as family, is not going experience significant population and economic growth. Instead, as is already apparent in the partially corrupt and autocratic United States and Europe today, the society will experience an aging demographic, a decline in population, economic stagnation, and increasingly oppressive authoritarian control. In the long run, a people who fail to prosper in this way will be rooted out and replaced by other cultures with stronger family-based and other private institutions based in an ethic of truth, personal responsibility, and love. If Los Angeles is ever as highly populated and prosperous as depicted in the film, it will be by those who will change the culture and not spend their days playing video games, masturbating to pornography and anonymous sex chat, and moping about wondering why their relationships never work out. Those who believe in a vision of the future as presented by the film are deluding themselves. Those who recognize the warnings placed in the film itself against that false vision may avoid its lulling effect. Fair warning!