Review: ‘Love Death + Robots’ 2 (2021)

It’s not so much born in my head as it seems to be repeated in everything around us. Or maybe it’s playing in my head and I’m afraid to admit it.

I’ve been curious why the Marvel Cinematic Universe picked the Malthusian catastrophe for the ultimate disaster the superheroes rescue everyone else from. Narendra Modi has invoked the misguided idea of some (religious) communities breeding too fast for Hindu India – for Bharat – to bear. The third episode of Love Death + Robots 2, ‘Pop Squad’, visits the same idea from the class perspective. Its story seems to assume the language peculiar to the world it is set in doesn’t need explanation, and how right it is: a minute into the episode, you know ‘Pop’ in the title refers to ‘Population’. You know that lady’s “boost” is her longevity injection, that “rejoo” is short for rejuvenation (no spoilers). ‘Snow in the Desert’, the next episode, visits a dystopia in the neighbourhood. Both of them touch on the allegedly polar issues of poverty and immortality.

I know all these words in stories because they’re old tropes but the public imagination is not a synecdoche: perhaps we know them because they’re on the back of our minds? And if so, why are they there? Perhaps they haunt all pre-fascist societies – like premonitions of otherisations ad infinitum, inequalities ad absurdum. Perhaps they haunt everyone who’s come close to the deranged eschatologies of the far right, and they’re phantoms of the irreversible unforgetting of what these ideologues are prepared to do to make their fantasies come true.

Love Death + Robots 2 seems fixated on such auguries, in fact. It has nothing of the variety the first season did, a season that explored so many facets of the human condition (my favourites are ‘Sonnie’s Edge’ and ‘Zima Blue’); in contrast the second season only seems interested in passing commentary, and anything interested in commentary over substance can offer neither.

‘Pop Squad’ had the tightest script by far and the lack of intensity and cynicism in every other episode was consipicuous. (You can’t say cynicism’s absence in Forrest Gump was conspicuous but you can with Tau, so you know what I mean.) ‘The Tall Grass’ got a rise out of me with its simple premise – Gigerian, I’d say, because like the artist’s work, it drafts a new sentence, leaves blanks where some words used to be and asks us to fill them in. The result is often a horror that feels visceral because it’s of our own making.

On the other hand, ‘Ice’ was a near-criminal waste of a premise, I’d argue, a children’s tale of the sort that shouldn’t find place in an anthology as iconoclastic as LDR. ‘All Through the House’ was a poor simile of the first season’s ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’. ‘Automated Customer Service’ was tosh. ‘The Drowned Giant’ was a short story annotated by CGI; the protagonist’s narration stood by itself so I’m not sure what the visuals were doing there. I don’t know what the point of ‘Life Hutch’ was.

But all of them – except perhaps ‘Ice’ – were concerned one way or another with a madhouse apocalypse. Imagine a spectrum defined by the following narrative function: a human or two is thrown into the deep end of the perishablity pool and thrashes about for a bit; some learn to swim; everyone discovers the possibility of unusual endings or the endings of unusual things. Encode this into a blathering neural network and sooner than later, you’d have Love Death + Robots 2.

Perhaps its producers started off aspiring to animate fantastic worlds with the tensions binding the real one, but sadly for them reality was and remains far ahead. People have lived through and anticipated more than what even ‘Pop Squad’ offers us. It’s easy to see where each episode is going within the first twenty seconds – fostering an unacceptable level of predictability, give or take a couple twists. There are no ghosts, no phantoms, nothing that lingers inside a small box you didn’t know was there inside your head. They show us the end of the world but do little to help us confront it.

Featured image credit: Netflix.

The real story of ‘The Old Guard’

Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you intend to watch The Old Guard but haven’t done so yet.

The Old Guard, an action film starring Charlize Theron among others, released on Netflix on July 10. In a scene in the film, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivers two undying men to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (Harry Melling) only to watch the CEO, demanding that their proof of immortality be “indisputable”, stab them to death and then watch their wounds heal. After he’s had his fill, the CEO orders the men to be taken away to a lab for ‘tests’. Before he leaves the room, Copley walks up to the CEO and attempts to remind him that “this” – referring to their arrangement, pursuant to the CEO’s stated intention to mine the immortals’ genetic material for life-saving drugs – “is about science, not profits or sadism”.

The Old Guard has received good reviews, as you might know if you’ve already watched it, but perhaps the film’s entire story could have been non-existent were it not for Copley’s naïve beliefs, no?

At another point in the film, Copley talks about entering into his deal with Merrick, the CEO, because Copley’s wife’s death of ALS taught him that genetic gifts that could alleviate “needless suffering” should be shared with humanity, not hoarded by a few. A noble sentiment – and I almost fell for it until being jolted back by another character, who reminds Copley that the gift wasn’t his to give. In The Old Guard, it’s four white people who have been forced to give, but the argument is strengthened by the fact that it’s an apt metaphor for the real world, in which it’s often the people of the developing world, and in that world the most marginalised, doing the ‘giving’.

In effect, the film’s story is about Copley’s mistake and Copley fixing that mistake – except the mistake doesn’t seem defensible to me as much as it must have been born out of a long-standing ignorance of a bunch of issues, from self-determination to science’s need to be guided by politics. When Copley tells Merrick that “this is about science, not profits”, I laughed out loud, and my scalding hot tea poured out through my nose when he added “or sadism”. What kind of person arranges to violently capture four people who really don’t wish to be caught, puts them in chains, and brings them to a pharma company believing it’s neither for “profits” nor “sadism”?

Even more broadly, when has science ever not been for sadism or profits? Vast swathes of modern science as we know it – since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry into consciousness in those moments of the science-military nexus, exemplified by the apoliticism of Enrico Fermi that, in the final analysis, had deeply political ramifications – have been for profits and power, if not directly sadism.

Modern medicine is not at all free of pain either. Even within the limited view of physical violence, drug trial protocols require a set of preclinical trials to be conducted in ‘animal models’, and many researchers who work with animals also grapple with mental health issues, for example in the form of compassion fatigue. Only in this decade or so have we begun to grow organs in the lab or virtual environments in computers to simulate the actions of different drugs, and even these solutions are eons away from entering regular practice. And then there’s the brutal history of medical and psychological experimentation that, at various points in time, overlapped disturbingly neatly with the day’s most significant human rights abuses.

If we considered violence of other forms as well – including but not limited to rationalists who wield ‘science’ to delegitimise non-scientific ways to organise and make sense of the world and to terrorise the followers of other traditions; to the West, which, “rather than improve conditions of work where necessary, or make a provision for proper career structures where they are lacking so as to attract local graduates, … has found it simpler and less expensive to import foreign doctors to work under conditions which locally trained doctors would not accept” (source); to even imperialist trade agreements that suppress local enterprise in favour of foreign imports – neither medicine nor the institutions responsible for its development are at all free of violence.

This said, I’m not railing against Copley here as much as his writers, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. Even considered in toto, The Old Guard affords Copley the resolution of his moral crisis by facilitating the rescue of the ‘caged’ immortals – but in so doing legitimises the separation of scientific practice from cruelty and abuse. But as history has revealed on multiple occasions, science as so many of us would like it to be is so frequently not what it actually is. As a human enterprise, it’s dirty, fraught and contested. Most of all – likely to the chagrin of those who still believe there can be a functional line between science and politics that wouldn’t be to science’s detriment – it is negotiated. And the more we persist in our efforts to install the scientific enterprise on a pedestal, as being even if only in idea to be untainted by social and cultural considerations, the more we diminish its influence on society, the more we overlook its use unto oppressive ends and thus the more we empower those who do so.

Instead, what Copley should really have done after being contacted is deduce preemptively that Merrick is cruel and therefore Merrick’s practice of science is bound to be cruel, sign the contract (to keep the deal from going to someone else) and then stealthily undermine Merrick’s plans while also protecting the immortals. Then, once Merrick has been killed off (in order to make it a good action film), the immortals volunteer to have their genomes sequenced and the corresponding results uploaded onto a preprint server, and then recall all their time on this good Earth to write anecdotally well-supplied books about the real history of science.

Partial review: ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’ (2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil is a documentary series on Netflix that narrates the lives and actions of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, leading up to and during the Second World War. This is a partial review because it is based on watching eight episodes, of a total of ten, though I’m confident about publishing because I’m not sure the two remaining episodes will change my impression much.

What worked

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, it has been open season around the world to ridicule, denigrate and deride the group of men who tried to set up a pan-European fascist empire on the skulls and bones of millions of people they murdered to realise their grisly ambitions. They were Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Röhm and Martin Bormann, among others. Hitler’s Circle of Evil rests comfortably in this notion, that no one is ever going to think highly of these men (except neo-Nazis), and takes a shot at exploring the people, the humans, behind each monstrous visage.

At a time when newspaper editors in the US are pilloried when they attempt to humanise the madmen who pen supremacist creeds and then go on shooting sprees, humanising fascists is a dangerous proposition. But since the credentials of the first Nazis are such that they are quite unlikely to be mistaken for having been good people who did bad things owing to a conspiracy of circumstances, and because right-wing nationalists are finding increasing favour in the most powerful countries of the 21st century, Hitler’s Circle of Evil ends up being well-made (at least in spirit) and well-timed, serving an elaborate reminder that the champions of hate are people too, and by extension that people can be nasty.

Indeed, this is a remarkable series for those who haven’t pored through history books attempting to make sense of Hitler’s henchmen but have, like me, focused instead on the mechanics of the war itself. These men for the most part were sucking up to Hitler, to receive a pat on the back and a sliver of the Führer’s power, and less plotting against Jews and expanding lebensraum. This is what Hitler set up, this was the heart of the Third Reich: if you didn’t jostle, conspire and backstab for power, you would be pushed down the pecking order.

This paradigm often led to ridiculous outcomes – of the lol variety in Martin Bormann’s case and the wtf variety in Rudolf Hess’s. But in the final analysis it is clear that these were all small-minded, weak-spirited, weak-willed men, typified by Heinrich Himmler, who took advantage of the pitiable social circumstances of early 20th century Germany, with a bit of subversion of their own, to animate their innermost insecurities with political, industrial and finally military power.

The show’s vantage point is also interesting because it doesn’t take its eyes away from the inner circle and focuses from start to finish on the interpersonal dynamics of the Nazi leadership. Contrast this with the Second World War in the popular imagination – where it very easily, and therefore very commonly, becomes a grand vision: the dramatis personae are strewn across dozens of countries, mobilising their forces with ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks and troop-carriers, discussing strategies encompassing hundreds of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars and thousands of kilometres.

But according to Hitler’s Circle of Evil, the whole enterprise could alternatively emerge from the lives and relationships among a small coterie of people often to be found in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in south Germany, that antisemitism was really the populist cloak to hide their venal tendencies and desperate attempts to grab power. As a result some of the war’s more historic moments become flattened, notably the start of Operation Barbarossa, to a few simple considerations on Hitler’s part. On the other hand a lot of what was thought according to the popular narrative to be periods of boring politics or even quietude are brought roaring to life with intimate details of behind-the-scenes action.

What didn’t work

All this said, my principal concern about the show is that even as it holds a mirror to contemporary authoritarian nationalist regimes, and informs us that fascism then and now is the same wine in different bottles, whether the show’s makers traded off the relative importance of each henchman in the pre-war and war years for dramatic effect. Obviously a show that retells events that actually happened to piece together well-documented historical knowledge has little, if any, leeway to take liberties with the truth, but it is entirely possible to distort the picture by muting some portions.

The first sign of this in Hitler’s Circle of Evil comes through with the depiction of Rudolph Hess. Hess goes from being described mainly as Hitler’s groupie, and a smart one at that, who helped the Führer become the Führer and even helped him write Mein Kampf and introduced to him the idea of lebensraum, to being seen as a hypochondriac dolt. Both descriptions can obviously be applied to the same person but it is odd to make only a particular set of traits explicit at different points in the series, almost rendering Hess’s actions unexpected, even contrived.

I concede that expecting to learn everything about the people who shaped 1930s Germany on a single day is ridiculous, but Hitler’s Circle of Evil would have started off knowing this, and it is worth considering what the show could have done better.

Another notable issue is that we learn a lot about Hitler’s henchmen but not enough. The Nazis are commonly associated with antisemitism and a rarely matched propensity for violence, but the origins of these tendencies are barely discussed, certainly not beyond mentioning them as the reason the Nazi Party did X or Y. Hitler’s ambition of European domination, for instance, shows up out of the blue somewhere in episode 5. We know from historical texts why Hitler invaded Europe but the show itself does not do a good job of setting it out.

More broadly, we learn very little about Hitler himself, so there is often haziness about why exactly some decisions were taken or some events transpired, considering Hitler was the ultimate arbiter. By focusing on the ‘circle of evil’, the show bets too much on the henchmen and too little on the tyrant they orbit, and when many of the tyrant’s impetuses are absent from some scenes, they look insipid, even contrived.

Oh, and the kitschy acting. The kitschy acting does not work.

An unrelated note: the Berghof was Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, constructed under Martin Bormann’s supervision in 1935. In episode 5, Hitler’s Circle of Evil tours through its halls while the narrator talks about the Nazi Party beginning to devote its efforts towards drafting the plan that would come to be called the ‘Final Solution’.

The tour finally ends with views of the alps from the Berghof’s balconies and full-length windows. And here, the historian Roger Moorhouse takes over from the narrator: “There’s a curious paradox and it’s only really made sense of by the fact that there is a new morality, if you like, in inverted commas, within Nazism which allows people to be cultured, intelligent, educated, and at the same time espouse those most radical, hideous, racist ideas.”

This moment in the show is a disturbing one as it implies in an inescapable way that a beautiful sweeping view of verdant mountainsides in the passing embrace of a white cloud might dull one’s suffering, then memories of pain, then the pain of others and ultimately empathy itself. There between the limestone peaks of southern Germany, evil becomes banal.

The potential energy of being entertained

Netflix just published a report drafted by its Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, estimating – among other things – its environmental footprint for operations during the year 2019. According to the report, as The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes:

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.

This is staggering but not surprising. Through history, the place at which energy is consumed to produce a product has been becoming less and less strongly associated with where the product is likely to be purchased. The invention of sails, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and then satellites each rapidly transformed the speed at which goods could traverse Earth’s surface as well as the speed at which consumers could make more and more informed – therefore more and more rational – choices, assisted by economic reforms like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The most recent disruption on this front was wrought, of course, by the internet and a little later the cloud. Now, with industries like movie-making, gaming, digital publishing and even large-scale computing, nothing short of a full-planet energy-accounting exercise makes sense. At the same time economic power, inequality and effective governance remain unevenly distributed, leading to knotty problems about determining how much each consumer of a company’s product is effectively responsible for the total energy required to make all products in that batch (since scale also matters).

Such accounting exercises have become increasingly popular, as they should be; private enterprises like Netflix as well as government organisations have started counting their calories – their carbon intake, output, emissions, trade, export, etc. – as a presumable first step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep Earth’s surface from warming any more than is already likely (2º C by 2100).

There is a catch, of course: it’s difficult to affect or even estimate the relative contribution of one’s operations to the effort to restrict global warming without also accounting for one’s wider economic setting. For example, Netflix likely displaced the DVD rental industry as well as stole users, and their respective carbon ‘demand’, from cable. So Mahdawi’s ringing the alarm bells based on Netflix’s report alone is only meaningful in a stand-alone scenario in which the status quo is ‘memoryless’.

However, even in this contextually limited aspiration to lower emissions and its attendant benefits for human wellbeing, joy, hope and optimism don’t seem to feature as much or, in many cases, at all.

Knowing Earth is already headed for widespread devastation can certainly smother action and deflate resolve. But while journalists and researchers alike have been debating the pros and cons of using positive or negative messaging as the better way to spur climate action, their most popular examples are rooted in quantifiable tasks or objects: either “Earth is getting more screwed by the hour but you can help by segregating your trash, using public transport and quitting meat” or “Sea-levels are rising, the Arctic is melting and heat-waves are becoming more frequent and more intense”.

It seems as if happiness cannot fit into either paradigm without specifying the number of degrees by which it will move the climate action needle. So it also becomes easily excluded from conversations about climate-change adaptation and mitigation. As Mahdawi writes in her column,

Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.

If Netflix did issue such a warning, it would no longer be a popular pastime.

One of the purposes of popular culture, beyond its ability to channel creative expression and empower artists, is entertainment. We consume the products of popular culture, nucleated as music, dance, theatre, films, TV shows, books, paintings, sculptures and other forms, among other reasons to understand and locate ourselves outside the systems of capitalist production, to identify ourselves as members of communities, groups, cities or whatever by engaging with knowledge, objects – whether a book or the commons – or experiences that we have created, to assert that we are much more than where we work or what we earn.

Without these spaces and unfettered access to them, we become less able to escape the side-effects of neoliberalism: consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, social isolation and depression. I’m not saying you are likelier to feel depressed without Netflix but that Netflix is one of many sources of cultural information, and is therefore an instrument with which people around the world gather in groups based on cultural preferences – forming, in turn, a part of the foundation on which people are inspired to have new ideas, are motivated to act, and upon which they even expand their hopes and ambitions.

Of course, Netflix is itself a product of 21st century capitalism plus the internet. Like iTunes, YouTube, Prime, Disney, etc. Netflix is a corporation that has eased access to many petabytes of entertainment data across the globe but by rendering artists and entertainers even less powerful than they were and reducing their profits (rather, limiting their profits’ growth). The oft-advanced excuse, that the company simply levies a fee in return for easing barriers to discover new audiences, doesn’t always square off properly with the always-increasing labour required to create something new. So simply asking Netflix to not display a warning about the amount of energy required to produce a show may seem like a half-measure designed to fight off all of capitalism’s monsters except one.

We have a responsibility to iteratively replace the most problematic ways in which we profit from labour and generate wealth with practices that improve economic equality, social dignity, and access to education, healthcare and good living conditions. However, how do we balance this responsibility with a million people being able to watch a cautionary documentary about the rise of fascism in 1930s’ Germany, a film about the ills of plastic use or an explainer about the ways in which trees do and don’t fight global warming?

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” as well as in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the absolute worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.

Free speech at the outer limits

On January 12, Peter W. Wood, president of an American organisation called the National Association of Scholars (NAS), wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against attempts by one individual to prevent NAS from organising a conference on science’s reproducibility crisis.

As it turns out, the individual – Leonid Teytelman – has been fighting to highlight the fact that the conference is an attempt to use “the issue of scientific reproducibility as a Trojan horse to undermine trust in climate change research” (source), and that Wood’s claim to “hold to a rigorous standard of open-mindedness on controversial issues” extends only so far as upholding his own views, using the rest of his diatribe on the WSJ to slap down Teytelman’s contentions as an unfortunate byproduct of “cancel culture”.

We’ve all heard of this trope and those of us on Twitter are likely to have been part of one at some point in our lives. The reason I bring this up now is that Wood’s argument and WSJ’s willingness to offer itself as a platform together recall an important but largely unacknowledged reason tropes like this one continue to play out in public debates.

A friend recently expressed the same problem in a different conversation – that of India’s Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964. These rules discourage government employees from commenting on government policies, schemes, etc. to the press without their supervisors’ okay or participating in political activities, and those who disobey them could be suspended from duty. However, public opposition to India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has been so pronounced that there appears to be renewed public acknowledgment of the idea that the right to protest is a fundamental right, even if the Constitution doesn’t explicitly encode it as such.

So after the government sought to use the CCS Rules to prevent its staff from participating in protests against itself, the Tripura high court ruled that simply showing up at protests doesn’t constitute a ‘political activity’ nor does it cede sufficient ground for suspension, dismissal, arrest, etc. This was obviously heartening news – but there was a catch.

As my friend, who is also a government employee, said, “Civil servants becoming openly political is harmful for the country. Then one doesn’t even have to maintain a façade of neutrality, and the government can’t run if it is busy quelling open rebellion in offices.” That is, to maintain a democracy, its outermost borders must be organised in a non-democratic system – a loose, but not unrecognisable, analogue of the argument that free speech and the slice of freedom it stands for cannot be absolute.

To quote from Laurie Penny’s timeless essay published in 2018, “Civility” – and its logics – “will never defeat fascism” or, presumably, its precursors. Freedom has borders and they are arbitrary by design, erected to keep some actors out even if those on the inside may agitate for unlimited freedom for everyone, and aspire to change their opponents’ minds through reason and civil conduct alone. The borders prevent harm to others and keep people from instigating violence – as the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, under Article 19(2), reminds us – and they just as well entitle us to refuse to debate those who won’t play by the same rules we do.

The liberal democrat’s conceit in this regard is two-pronged: first, that all issues can be resolved through reason (not limited to or necessarily including science), debate and civil conduct alone; second (this one more of a self-imposed penance), that one is obligated to engage in debate, and more generally that to disengage – from debate or from public life – is to abdicate one’s duties as a citizen. So the option to refuse to engage in debate might offend the liberal democrat’s commitment to free speech – for herself as well as others – but this ignores the fact that free speech itself can be productive or liberating only within the borders of democracy and not beyond its outer limits, where the fascists lurk.

And unless we imbibe these limitations and accept the need to disengage or boycott when necessary, we will remain trapped in our ever-expanding but never-breaking circular arguments and argumentative circles.

In the present case, Teytelman tried to expose the NAS as a threat to public trust in climate science but failed, thanks in large part to the WSJ’s ill-founded decision to offer itself as a broadcast channel for Wood’s tantrum. Perhaps Teytelman has more fight left in him, perhaps others do too, but the time will come when the appeals to reason alone will have to cease, and more direct and pragmatic means, equipped especially to disrupt the theatre of fascistic behaviour – part of which is the conflation of ignorance and knowledge and often manifests in the press as ‘he said, she said’ – will have to assume centerstage. (I.e. The WSJ can’t solve the problem by next inviting Teytelman to write a one-sided piece.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a more pertinent example. Goop trades in specious ‘alternatives’ to treat made-up diseases. But in spite of what one professor of law and public health acknowledged to be “immediate and widespread … backlash by health-care professionals and science-advocates”, and what many science journalists celebrated as inspirational examples of good communication, the company is set to launch its own Netflix show (more of an infomercial) on January 24. Note that as of December 2019, Netflix had 158 million paying subscribers.

It’s time to stop playing nice, and to stop playing this as individuals. Instead, science communicators – especially those committed to beating back the tentacular arms of pseudoscience and organised disempowerment (à la organised religion) – should respond as a community. While one group continues to participate in debates if only to pull some of the more undecided people away from ‘evil in the guise of good’, another must demand that the video-streaming platform cancel its deal with Goop.

(We could also organise a large-scale boycott of Goop’s products and services but none of the buyers and sellers here seem to want to change their minds.)

Responding this way is of course much harder than simply calling for violence, and quite painful to acknowledge the grossly disproportionate amount of effort we need to dedicate relative to the amount of time Paltrow probably spent coming up with Goop’s products. And in the end, we may still not succeed, not to mention invite similar protests from members of the opposite faction to our doorsteps – but I believe this is the only way we can ever succeed at all, against Goop, NAS and anything else.

But most of all, to continue to engage in debates alone at this time would be as responsible a thing to do as playing fiddle while the world burns.

The science in Netflix's 'Spectral'

I watched Spectral, the movie that released on Netflix on December 9, 2016, after Universal Studios got cold feet about releasing it on the big screen – the same place where a previous offering, Warcraft, had been gutted. Spectral is sci-fi and has a few great moments but mostly it’s bland and begging for some tabasco. The premise: an elite group of American soldiers deployed in Moldova come upon some belligerent ghost-like creatures in a city they’re fighting in. They’ve no clue how to stop them, so they fly in an engineer to consult from DARPA, the same guy who built the goggles that detected the creatures in the first place. Together, they do things. Now, I’d like to talk about the science in the film and not the plot itself, though the former feeds the latter.


A scene from the film 'Spectral' (2016). Source: Netflix
A scene from the film ‘Spectral’ (2016). Source: Netflix

Towards the middle of the movie, the engineer realises that the ghost-like creatures have the same limitations as – wait for it – a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). They can pass through walls but not ceramic or heavy metal (not the music), they rapidly freeze objects in their path, and conventional weapons, typically projectiles of some kind, can’t stop them. Frankly, it’s fabulous that Ian Fried, the film’s writer, thought to use creatures made of BECs as villains.

A BEC is an exotic state of matter in which a group of ultra-cold particles condense into a superfluid (i.e., it flows without viscosity). Once a BEC forms, a subsection of a BEC can’t be removed from it without breaking the whole BEC state down. You’d think this makes the BEC especially fragile – because it’s susceptible to so many ‘liabilities’ – but it’s the exact opposite. In a BEC, the energy required to ‘kick’ a single particle out of its special state is equal to the energy that’s required to ‘kick’ all the particles out, making BECs as a whole that much more durable.

This property is apparently beneficial for the creatures of Spectral, and that’s where the similarity ends because BECs have other properties that are inimical to the portrayal of the creatures. Two immediately came to mind: first, BECs are attainable only at ultra-cold temperatures; and second, the creatures can’t be seen by the naked eye but are revealed by UV light. There’s a third and relevant property but which we’ll come to later: that BECs have to be composed of bosons or bosonic particles.

It’s not clear why Spectral‘s creatures are visible only when exposed to light of a certain kind. Clyne, the DARPA engineer, says in a scene, “If I can turn it inside out, by reversing the polarity of some of the components, I might be able to turn it from a camera [that, he earlier says, is one that “projects the right wavelength of UV light”] into a searchlight. We’ll [then] be able to see them with our own eyes.” However, the documented ability of BECs to slow down light to a great extent (5.7-million times more than lead can, in certain conditions) should make them appear extremely opaque. More specifically, while a BEC can be created that is transparent to a very narrow range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, it will stonewall all frequencies outside of this range on the flipside. That the BECs in Spectral are opaque to a single frequency and transparent to all others is weird.

Obviating the need for special filters or torches to be able to see the creatures simplifies Spectral by removing one entire layer of complexity. However, it would remove the need for the DARPA engineer also, who comes up with the hyperspectral camera and, its inside-out version, the “right wavelength of UV” searchlight. Additionally, the complexity serves another purpose. Ahead of the climax, Clyne builds an energy-discharging gun whose plasma-bullets of heat can rip through the BECs (fair enough). This tech is also slightly futuristic. If the sci-fi/futurism of the rest of Spectral leading up to that moment (when he invents the gun) was absent, then the second-half of the movie would’ve become way more sci-fi than the first-half, effectively leaving Spectral split between two genres: sci-fi and wtf. Thus the need for the “right wavelength of UV” condition?

Now, to the third property. Not all particles can be used to make BECs. Its two predictors, Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein, were working (on paper) with kinds of particles since called bosons. In nature, bosons are force-carriers, acting against matter-maker particles called fermions. A more technical distinction between them is that the behaviour of bosons is explained using Bose-Einstein statistics while the behaviour of fermions is explained using Fermi-Dirac statistics. And only Bose-Einstein statistics predicts the existence of states of matter called condensates, not Femi-Dirac statistics.

(Aside: Clyne, when explaining what BECs are in Spectral, says its predictors are “Nath Bose and Albert Einstein”. Both ‘Nath’ and ‘Bose’ are surnames in India, so “Nath Bose” is both anyone and no one at all. Ugh. Another thing is I’ve never heard anyone refer to S.N. Bose as “Nath Bose”, only ‘Satyendranath Bose’ or, simply, ‘Satyen Bose’. Why do Clyne/Fried stick to “Nath Bose”? Was “Satyendra” too hard to pronounce?)

All particles constitute a certain amount of energy, which under some circumstances can increase or decrease. However, the increments of energy in which this happens are well-defined and fixed (hence the ‘quantum’ of quantum mechanics). So, for an oversimplified example, a particle can be said to occupy energy levels constituting 2, 4 or 6 units but never of 1, 2.5 or 3 units. Now, when a very-low-density collection of bosons is cooled to an ultra-cold temperature (a few hundredths of kelvins or cooler), the bosons increasingly prefer occupying fewer and fewer energy levels. At one point, they will all occupy a single and common level – flouting a fundamental rule that there’s a maximum limit for the number of particles that can be in the same level at once. (In technical parlance, the wavefunctions of all the bosons will merge.)

When this condition is achieved, a BEC will have been formed. And in this condition, even if a new boson is added to the condensate, it will be forced into occupying the same level as every other boson in the condensate. This condition is also out of limits for all fermions – except in very special circumstances, and circumstances whose exceptionalism perhaps makes way for Spectral‘s more fantastic condensate-creatures. We known one such as superconductivity.

In a superconducting material, electrons flow without any resistance whatsoever at very low temperatures. The most widely applied theory of superconductivity interprets this flow as being that of a superfluid, and the ‘sea’ of electrons flowing as such to be a BEC. However, electrons are fermions. To overcome this barrier, Leon Cooper proposed in 1956 that the electrons didn’t form a condensate straight away but that there was an intervening state called a Cooper pair. A Cooper pair is a pair of electrons that had become bound, overcoming their like-charges repulsion because of the vibration of atoms of the superconducting metal surrounding them. The electrons in a Cooper pair also can’t easily quit their embrace because, once they become bound, the total energy they constitute as a pair is lower than the energy that would be destabilising in any other circumstances.

Could Spectral‘s creatures have represented such superconducting states of matter? It’s definitely science fiction because it’s not too far beyond the bounds of what we know about BEC today (at least in terms of a concept). And in being science fiction, Spectral assumes the liberty to make certain leaps of reasoning – one being, for example, how a BEC-creature is able to ram against an M1 Abrams and still not dissipate. Or how a BEC-creature is able to sit on an electric transformer without blowing up. I get that these in fact are the sort of liberties a sci-fi script is indeed allowed to take, so there’s little point harping on them. However, that Clyne figured the creatures ought to be BECs prompted way more disbelief than anything else because BECs are in the here and the now – and they haven’t been known to behave anything like the creatures in Spectral do.

For some, this information might even help decide if a movie is sci-fi or fantasy. To me, it’s sci-fi.


On the more imaginative side of things, Spectral also dwells for a bit on how these creatures might have been created in the first place and how they’re conscious. Any answers to these questions, I’m pretty sure, would be closer to fantasy than to sci-fi. For example, I wonder how the computing capabilities of a very large neural network seen at the end of the movie (not a spoiler, trust me) were available to the creatures wirelessly, or where the power source was that the soldiers were actually after. Spectral does try to skip the whys and hows by having Clyne declare, “I guess science doesn’t have the answer to everything” – but you’re just going “No shit, Sherlock.”

His character is, as this Verge review puts it, exemplarily shallow while the movie never suggests before the climax that science might indeed have all the answers. In fact, the movie as such, throughout its 108 minutes, wasn’t that great for me; it doesn’t ever live up to its billing as a “supernatural Black Hawk Down“. You think about BHD and you remember it being so emotional – Spectral has none of that. It was just obviously more fun to think about the implications of its antagonists being modelled after a phenomenon I’ve often read/written about but never thought about that way.