Remediating the apocalypse

The Myth of Keanu

Keanu Reeves is a unique figure in the current Hollywood ecosphere. He has stared in a number of mainstream blockbusters and a range of smaller films. Following his lead role in the Matrix trilogy he is one of Hollywood's most bankable stars.

Yet in spite of his super star status he remains something of an enigma. Although he inspires his fair share of the usual celebrity gossip he also attracts attention as a figure at the intersection of who he is actually believed to be and the characters that he plays. This is expressed in a fan web site that was constructed early in his career: Keanumandu, the Online Virtual Temple of the Society for Keanu Consciousness! (Currently off line but available at internet archive). The site states:

By following the Tao of No (or the No Way) and the teachings of Keanu's cinematic incarnations, we can reach kharmic equillibrium, achieve world harmony, and produce a new cosmic age of peace and enlightenment!

His early incarnation as the "No Way" dude in the Bill and Ted adventure films, his portrayal of the Buddha in Little Buddha, and his protrayal of an undercover cop who gets too close too a hippie mystic, surfer/criminal in Point Break can all be linked to the philosophical sci-fi of his recent work on The Matrix and Constantine. Both Keanu's individual characters and his body of work as an actor can be read as a star text or multimodal mythic cluster that circulates around the self as a cypher and its encounter with the surreal, the spiritual and the apocalyptic.

Keanu's latest film continues this theme. A Scanner Darkly is an adaption of a Philip K Dick novel set in the not too distant future where “we have lost the war on drugs” and Keanu plays an undercover cop/addict in a junkie squat on the track of “Substance D”.

Hopes are high for the film in the sci-fi community. And the Philip K Dick family trust have given it the thumbs up. As one sci-fi site proclaims:

It’s Keanu Reeves in one of author Philip K. Dick’s greatest novels. Whoa!

Even though Philip K. Dick’s work inspired some of the best-known and most beloved sci-fi movies there are (such as Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall) the truth is that the true Dick-ian (don’t snigger you!) movie — reflecting the author’s metaphysical obsession with what reality is and what makes one human — has yet to be made.

The movie version of A Scanner Darkly might just be that movie.

For starters, it is based on one of Dick’s best works, one informed by Dick’s own painful experiences in the drug culture of California in the 1970s. It neatly balances Dick’s own autobiographical experiences, the narrative’s plot requirements and infuses it with Dick’s customary black humour. Yes, despite its bleak subject matter it is also quite funny.

This film seems like it will extend Keanu's sci-fi/metaphysical hero journey begun with Johnny Mnemonic and continued into the Matrix and Constantine. Like the Matrix it also extends the mythology of technology in and of film-making with its innovative techniques.

It has been written and directed by Richard Linklater with his trademark combo of live acting overlaid with animation. Linklater used this technique in his 2001 feature Waking Life which was also a metaphysical tale about dream and reality. The trailer looks startling, translating what I take to be the character's hallucinatory engagement with reality into realistic images that have a literal fluidity on the screen. This combination of new high-tech method to translate a vision of the future is an interesting example of a multimodal mythic cluster where the lineage, the medium(s) and the narrative all combine to proclaim a mythic message.

The ouvres of Dick, Linklater and Reeves all contribute to the underlying discourse about technology, the future and the hallucinatory self. The filmic technique - which of course is always integral to any cinematic narrative - also foregrounds notions of technology and “the new”. The official site describes it like this:

Like a graphic novel come to life, “A Scanner Darkly” will use live action photography overlaid with an advanced animation process (interpolated rotoscoping) to create a haunting, highly stylized vision of the future. The technology, first employed in Richard Linklater’s 2001 film “Waking Life,” has evolved to produce even more emotional impact and detail.

In an interview with the Austin Chronicle one of main animators talks about the task as following the actor's elasticity:

“With A Scanner Darkly, we're trying to be much more cohesive, because we've got A-list actors and those guys need to be recognizable. If you've got somebody like Robert Downey Jr., who is made of elastic — there is nothing on him that is stationary at any time — capturing all of his expressions and doing justice to someone that great an actor is a real challenge. It's interesting to see him in particular, because you never really notice how much goes into acting until you see a guy who is going into the scene that way and you see every little nuance that goes into each little piece of his performance. It's incredibly complex and detailed, and we've really got to capture that in the animation.”

There is clearly a fascinating multilayered construction going on here and from the the trailer it seems that the mirroring that occurs back and forth between texts - script/actor/animator/viewer - is quite powerful.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006