“In the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” The story goes that the advent of the railway did not so much alter as entirely shatter and reconstitute humankind’s perception of space-time. Anyone over a certain age can empathise with this- the question in the 21st century is what qualities can be ascribed to space-time now that the speed of the railway seems positively quaint. Now that we believe in instants. Collateral and Miami Vice were already 24/7 cinema- the former exists through the night and the latter runs through day and night indifferently- they foreshadowed Blackhat’s ostensible collapse of spatio-temporal frames. This is the post-fordist nightmare of constant performance, with a more recently dystopian constancy of ‘connection’. Time is homogenous. Time has been globalised. There is only one time and that is Real-Time. Miami Vice’s time was an unstable barrage and the humans in it had to either keep up with it, or grab hold of something. When they tried hard enough, they stopped time. Operating entirely within real-time, Blackhat a decade later rules this out as an impossibility and changes the question to: how can we disappear?
We mythologise connectivity as ethereal, ubiquitous, sublime, and we for some reason shut out of our minds images of data centres and server farms, and the environmental, human, and infrastructural costs of the perceived intangible. We talk about information and the knowledge economy. We want these things to become holy. The computers that run computers and the servers that run servers and the spaces that run non-spaces: this is gravity. The (predominantly coloured) hands caught in the photocopier of the not ‘product’, but emphatically abstract ‘service’ Google Books- Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps, is gravity. Blackhat too announces itself by making this visible. A nuclear plant explodes, triggered by someone who is physically remote. The command that triggers it is impressively fast, but it is not instant- we see the process of information as it travels. It is not obscured by The Cloud- it follows a chain of cause and effect, which is the rule of our physical world. There is a limit to the magic: gravity. What we perceive as instant is movement at hyperspeed. Blackhat breaks the metaphor and desecrates the symbol. Time, money, and movement- these are reified. Eerily, the physical in turn desires to become abstract.
Jonathan Crary asks for a future without barbarism and where post-humanism is not the solution. Whatever one’s opinion on the matter it is clear that we are already hybrids. We are only fully activated when we are connected to others remotely through devices that we keep on our bodies and which we grow anxious in the absence of. Some see this as a form of addiction, but it seems obvious enough to most that our hybrid-state is a social and professional expectation, as well as an existential one. We need these devices in order to perceive and participate in real-time. We see ourselves abstracted and reconstituted in information appearing elsewhere, in spaces we cannot physically inhabit. This is obvious- it goes without saying. Abstraction is connectivity. Hathaway performs a physical disappearance by altering the refresh time of someone else’s GPS, and not with a choreographed chase through streets and rooftops. We seem to exist both within the boundaries of, and beyond physics simultaneously. This tension is at the core of Blackhat and Mann’s cinema generally- fragmented, breathless, movement-obsessed, his films are too persistently physical and too romantic to ever go fully abstract, and he is too interested in process to ever share someone like Yuichi Yokoyama’s totality of action.
His first solution is to turn those who can not just observe, but control and manipulate ‘the intangible’ (i.e. the flow of information, the access to hybridised potential (activation), currencies) into superheroes and supervillains. Information is data, the economy is information, the internet is connectivity, currency is hypothetical, a signifier pointing to an empty space, weighing more provided it stays that way. ‘The body of Our Saviour shat but Our Saviour shat not.’ The seductive power of these things lies in the fact that they are simple but impenetrably abstract- signs signifying metaphors. You open the door and there is nothing there- the absence makes it holy. The internet doesn’t want to be real, and capital wants to be, except when it wants to become knowledge. Then it’s the hands in the photocopiers and the children in the cobalt mines. Blackhat rejects all claims to holiness. Hathaway and the blackhat don’t teleport, they travel at hyperspeed. They control the power of movement, they change the tides, they break systems of power. They exploit the symbols. It seems like black magic, but it’s not, it’s all belief. Seemingly borders don’t exist for them, and so we return to the question of how to describe time and space when this is the case. People afraid of post- and trans-humanist futures cite science fiction dystopias as worst-case scenarios for the place of traditional moralities and human rights. Most audiences look to superheroes instead (Civil War, Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight). Are they ‘beyond good and evil.’ Returning to the image of the 19th century train- Mann’s cinema so often feels futile- these super-people know how to catch the train but they can’t drive it and any way there’s still the train. ‘Things go wrong. The odds catch up. Probability is like gravity: you cannot negotiate with gravity.’
The movement in it could not be described as anything other than sublime, but it’s made weird by the fact that we’re shown the mechanics of such movement. The gravity of the symbols, of those misnomers information, capital, cloud, connection. The director has always been about process and Blackhat is no different. Similar processes in The Fate of the Furious belong entirely in the realm of magic- we sit back as Cipher and Ramsey cast spells, summoning bizarro visualisations that show how we can transcend space-time. Blackhat on the other hand has the audacity to show us command lines! I said we abstract ourselves in order to inhabit spaces we physically couldn’t, but the truth is that we hybridise ourselves to interpret these spaces in ways that make sense to us. Does talking about these things demystify or remistify them? Blackhat does both. Like Miami Vice the film ostensibly rejects metaphysics, but its intimate approach to death shows the director in a different place this time around. That one was so obsessed with life that it framed death as just an absence of life. This one is about ghosts, but also about making the abstract physical. It’s conflicted.
Between these two films came Public Enemies and in Public Enemies we see spirits leave bodies. A year earlier, in a very early episode of Breaking Bad the director establishes two timelines- one with two men scrubbing globules of a dead person’s skin and guts from the floor, and another with one of these men musing on how only 99% of the human body can be accounted for chemically. This kind of thing would never again be picked up on in the show. Blackhat is similarly ambiguous- ‘real-time’, against its nature, slows subjectively so that we can stay with a woman as she blinks her final blink. The film against metaphors erects a skyscraper as a tombstone. Is the person just the sum of what they do before they become deactivated? Or does death activate them to reach their true potential as skin and gut globules? At a distance Mann’s cinema could agree with either of these positions, but we know that its power lies in that inexplicable 1% where people hold on against the very machinery of his cinema. And he’s as excited as we are when they shatter the frameworks that he builds. There’s this grimness visualised, this Deleuzian nightmare of time, and this post-fordist nightmare of performance and teleology, and there is always gravity and fate, but there is this faith that we will eternally try to even for a second transcend these things.