Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, Marvel/Disney, 2014), based on a less well known Marvel comic, outperformed instalments of Marvel’s Captain America and X-men franchises in the year’s rankings, grossing USD333m (IMDb) at the domestic box office and USD774m worldwide (Wikipedia). An ensemble crew built around the ostensibly human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) enjoys rollicking adventures on a multitude of planets. The plot is not unfamiliar: its most recent outing was in Joss Whedon’s Serenity, end piece of the ill-fated TV series Firefly (Whedon also held a consultant deal with Marvel during the development of Guardians). Without the TV-friendly constraints on Firefly/Serenity, however, Guardians cuts loose with the budget and with a good deal more guilt-free violence. Like 2015’s Jupiter Ascending it revels in world-building, but its great attractions are its double-cross plot and associated snappy dialogue, especially impressive effects work on the animated characters Groot and Rocket, and the construction of a crew from an unlikely cast of outcasts and outlaws giving the film its feel-good message about friendship.
It also has two stand-by ingredients for blockbuster plotting. There is a villain who represents absolute evil, in this case with a gloss of religious fundamentalism. Contemporary Hollywood often finds it difficult to picture the good, but the evil is a constant. And there is a mini-utopia incapable of defending itself which requires the assistance of an elite squad whose ethical codes are more flexible than those of the people they protect. So far, so ideological: though we have to remind ourselves of these things, it is no longer challenging to map current political motifs against the thematic content of mass-market films.
On the other hand popular cinema is an exciting filed of study for all the reasons that are raised against it. These are films made by committee, informed by the latest marketing intelligence, assembled by teams who compete as much as they collaborate and with few illusions about their capacity for changing minds. Mostly they want to tell a story with strong characters, vivid situations and, more cynically, jokes fit for the 16-24 male target audience (an egregious gag at the expense of a disabled prisoner is especially grating). There’s a certain poignancy about the genetically engineered talking racoon being the only one of his kind (but what adolescent hasn’t had that feeling?). So far so unforgivable, but it is precisely the fact that so much conscious attention to merchandising and sequel preparation goes in that something unconscious can leak out.
Something rather odd occurs in the climactic battle scene over the planet of Xandar. Cross-cutting between the aerial battle and the holographic display viewed by the planet-bound strategists, there is more than a convenient distinction between terrestrial thinking (posed as various forms of “Run away!”) and airborne reflex violence. In the cockpits of the various flying machines we are almost invariably invited to identify with the pilots. In shots of the holographic table, we are positioned in the god’s eye view, as indeed are the characters ranged around it. The crowded sky demanded a series of manoeuvres on the pilots’ part that proved tough to choreograph until one special effects maven brought in a YouTube video of flies manoeuvring round a turd. “They looked like they weren’t obeying any laws of physics. We showed that clip to James (Gunn) and he loved it” (Cinefex 2014: 22/27). The reference footage applied to alien spacecraft then informed both the first-person shooter action and the elaborated heads-up display on Xandar. The hologram also used an elaborate ‘Google Earth’ render of the city under attack, originally built in order to scale from high altitude vista to ground-level action. Redeployed in the hologram scenes, with the addition of spaceship graphics from the action sequnces, gave the crew the chance to create a far more photo-realistic version of the hologram than, for example, the translucent equivalent in Avatar (2009).
In the cross-cutting, we get to see both visions of the battle – as immersive spectacle and as table-top simulation – and to oscillate between them. This flicker between tactical and strategic visions is more than a device to orient the viewer in 3D space, a CG equivalent to the 180 degree rule. It also places us at once in the position of actors and of spectators, rather like the mini-maps in the HUDs of many FPS games. That ambiguity is rich in possibilities.
First, it is a reflexive image of the task of animating in 3D, placing us in the position not of gods but of animators working out the physics of thousands of agents operating in finite space. Then, it places us in the doubled position of the spectator-actor, whose first person experience is instantly translated into some Other’s dataset. Third, it reveals the ultimate control over the supposed reflex in the double bind Pasi Valiaho has recently analysed in games design and culture as ‘the neo-liberal brain’, a willing sacrifice to a model of neural stimuli/response in a necessarily random play which however always sums at a governable whole. And finally it plays through a mise-en-scène in which two major structures or grammars of vision are at work.
In his classic account of perspective, Panofsky (1991) describes perspective not only as the construction of a unique position from which the image makes sense as symmetrical with and definitional for the modern concept of the “I” but claims for it an organisational power which makes it a ‘symbolic form’, a means for structuring visual information that can be applied more or less universally to the whole field of the visible. Data visualisation may be the first new system for organising visual information that has anything like the same pretension to being a universally applicable system. What separates the two, apart from the gap between illusionistic representation of the field of human vision and the use of diagrams to present visible and invisible entities and processes, is the subject they address. Panofsky and his many followers, not least in film theory, assert that the subject addressed is individual, and indeed individualised by perspective. Data visualisation however addresses us not singly but socially (the pioneering work was done in conjunction with the evolution of statistical science, where the word ‘statistic’ originally meant proper to the state). This social subject isn’t, however, the utopian social subject for which Marx and his many followers yearned. Instead it has become the hallmark not only of state activities but of the commercial corporation – corporations like Marvel.
The message of friendship, of solidarity against all comers, that informs the narrative of group formation in the film produces unity from the outcast by simultaneously emphasising their incommensurable egos and their capacity to act in unison as a team. It is in this sense both utopian – this is how we might get along, not only with other humans but with the non-human world around us – and an accommodation to the assimilation of individuality into corporate conformism through the reduction of personality to behaviour, and behaviour to mappable statistic. Despite its own best endeavour to frame a satisfyingly whole story and complete diegesis, the unconscious of the filmmaking process reveals a deep, unspoken truth about the rupture in neo-liberal society, and the even more repressed utopian possibilities coiled up within it. This is exactly the kind of internal contradiction that makes popular film, and popular science fiction spectaculars, such fabulous laboratories for the analysis of the contemporary and its secret antitheses.
Bio: Sean Cubitt is Professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths, University of London, Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee and Professorial Fellow of the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is The Practice of Light (MIT Press 2014).
Duncan, Jody (2014). ‘The Rocket Files’. Cinefex 139, October. Electronic edition
Panofsky, Erwin (1991 [1924-5]). Perspective as Symbolic Form. Trans Christopher S Wood. New York: Zone Books.
Väliaho, Pasi (2014). Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.