How To Make A Techno-Thriller Out Of Politics

With computers and the Internet all the rage, one striking element in this year's popular culture is the failure of virtually all the cyber-thriller movies. Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, Strange Days ... all bombs of one degree or another. Only The Net--the least interesting of the group, naturally--did well. Having America's new sweetheart, the very appealing Sandra Bullock, as its star certainly didn't hurt. Nor did the fact that it was the least assaultive on the audience. The plot, though, was ludicrous, with Bullock(!) as the ultimate computer nerd stumbling into a nefarious cyberspace plot. Since she is a total geek who communicates only via the Internet and the telephone, it is purported child's play for the Bill Gates-like cyber-villain to erase her identity and destroy her life. To call this plot unlikely is a considerable understatement. But the casting of Dennis Miller as the ex-shrink/lover, the only person who can vouch for her, does heighten Bullock's believability as a damsel-in-distress. Very serious distress. With the exception of Johnny Mnemonic, which featured Keanu Reeves but was stiffly directed by '80s art star Robert Longo, the other cyber-films lacked stars. Worse, they were all way too self-conscious, making too much of the gee-whiz aspects of the technology at the expense of story and emphasizing an off-putting Blade Runner-meets-Miami Vice style of hip dystopia. The irony is that we are living in a chaotic age that seems, in very large measure, to have been prefigured by that school of science fiction known as cyberpunk. Novelists like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson have limned a near-future world in which advanced technology is both accelerating and increasingly intertwined with everyday life, transnational corporations are dominant and public debate ever more deracinated, and individuals increasingly seek to escape the frightening absence of a unifying center. Well, there can't be much debate about the acceleration and diffusion of technology. This year's level of corporate merger activity is greater than any time during the 1980s, setting both national and global records. We just endured the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, which ultimately turned on the question of who was a bigger hypocrite in the employment of illegal immigrants. As to the question of people looking to escape the absence of a center, consider these facts:* The controversy over global climate change--after unusual hurricane activity in the Caribbean, Japan's worst typhoon in 50 years, and 600 deaths caused by a Chicago heat wave, to name a few of the most obvious signs--is now less over the existence of global warming than its extent.* Despite the defection of corrupt family members--mistakenly ballyhooed in the Western press as proof of his impending political demise just a few months ago--Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq is stronger now than it was before the Gulf War.* Italy's profound crisis of political corruption has not been stanched by new politics, it has been accelerated. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul elected in an alliance with the renamed Italian fascists, will himself go on trial for political corruption on January 17.* Despite comforting words from the White House and Wall Street, the Mexican crisis deepens.* Quebec is very close to separating from the rest of Canada.* Japanese banks, the world's largest, are also among the most precarious, so much so that U.S. officials have recently prepared a bail-out program in case of further Japanese bank failures.* U.S. politics is increasingly chaotic. House Speaker Newt Gingrich--the dominant politician of a year ago--is the most unpopular political figure in the United States, not counting Louis Farrakhan. As predicted, Ross Perot's Reform Party confounded most experts by winning a place on the California ballot.* The Simpson verdict and the Million Man March have brought America's racial divide into sharp relief, with the indisputable emergence of Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan marking the ascendance of Malcolm X's view over that of Martin Luther King. Islam is the most dynamic spiritual and social movement in the world today.* And, of course, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an elite Jewish fundamentalist opposed to the course of rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians shows how fragile progress can be.So the cyberpunk thesis works. How to make a cyberthriller movie work? Here's a thought. Start with colorful, if seemingly implausible, characters: A deeply controversial, still youthful president who appears to embody the latest psychological theories about multiple selves. His shadowy adviser, a political opportunist who turns from left to right, and back again, on the proverbial dime. A deeply controversial, still youthful leader of the opposition who speaks incessantly about the 21st century while attempting to move the nation back to the 19th, and who discovered his life's mission by reading a science fiction trilogy on "psychohistory." His muse, a hyper-ambitious political socialite and self-styled expert on "effective compassion" who is actually a priestess in a sinister California cult. A black general who might have been president, who secured his career by rejecting the in-channels report on what turned out to be the most famous atrocity of a horrifying Third-World war, then went on to achieve global fame as the architect of the world's first televised, high-tech war. And, a cantankerous Texan who made billions in computer services and then blew his first independent race for the presidency by telling a nationwide audience of his belief that North Vietnamese agents had plotted to disrupt his daughter's wedding. Then throw in a plan for massive expansion of the government's ability to monitor private voice and computer communications, a plan promoted by the president and backed by the leader of the opposition. Contents should be shaken, not stirred.

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