The Universe According to Thanos

If you’re a fan of the superhero comic book genre of cinema, then you should run as fast as you can, not merely walk, to the latest installment of the Marvel Comics franchise, The Avengers: Infinity War. If these loud, action-packed movies are not your cup of tea, then you should probably take a pass. But if you don’t care what the film snobs think and you enjoy them immensely, then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. The directing brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo have pulled off no small feat here. While the movie is not without its flaws, they successfully juggled a long parade of characters and intertwining plot lines to pull off one highly entertaining thrill ride of a flick.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

At the center of this movie–it is in fact, his story, told mostly from his perspective–is its formidable villain, Thanos. Thanos is a “titan,” or he’s from Titan–I forget which. He is a mighty big badass, but he fancies himself a thinking badass. He has reached the conclusion that the universe is out of balance, which is to say it’s becoming much too populous. He’s certain that he sees the future, and that future consists of many worlds becoming so crowded that their inhabitants are on the verge of overconsuming precious scarce resources, causing much famine, suffering, and misery. He seeks out the complete set of magical “infinity stones” that, once collected in full by his big fisted metal gauntlet, will grant him immense power to do whatever the hell he wants–so he wants to  wipe out half the population of the universe in order to avoid all that suffering and death and misery. It’s kind of funny, though–in the peculiar sense, anyways–that he doesn’t think to use those magic rocks to create a superabundance of resources on all the worlds whose populations he seeks to halve, so that the halving wouldn’t be so necessary. Thanos seems a bit too eager to employ genocide as a solution.

Thanos’ zero-sum theory of humanity isn’t just a comic book trope, however. It is widely shared by people who actually have some influence on public policy, as frightening as that sounds.

Thanos’ rather stark and brutal perspective is somewhat reminiscent of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th century English economist. While the majority of middle-class Europeans rejoiced at the terrific gains being made at the time by the proliferation of new technology that brought on the Industrial Revolution, Malthus preferred to rain all over their prosperity parade with a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions. He claimed that all that newly created wealth was merely subsidizing the increased reproduction of the poor, who would eventually become so numerous that they would be confronted with famine and disease, what has since become known in the popular usage as a “Malthusian trap.” Such crises would inevitably kill off a great many people, thus regressing society back to the preceding economic state.

“It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life,” wrote the rather grim and pessimistic Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. “All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.”

Malthus supplied absolutely no evidence for his stark thesis; he simply stated it as a given fact. But his theory was spectacularly wrong. Contrary to what it implied, the food supply at any given time isn’t fixed. The more people come into existence, the more people do continue, thank goodness, to develop methods for increasing the available sustenance as the population grows. The entire population of Europe was approximately 127 million in 1700. It steadily increased to 224 million by 1820 when Malthus was in his mid-fifties, and then eventually reached 498 million by 1913. And yet the massive crises of starvation and want that Malthus predicted never came to pass. Europe’s biggest disasters occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and they were caused not by overpopulation, but by blundering statesmen who condemned the continent to two horrific wars that slaughtered millions.

Indeed, paleoanthropologists estimate that there was all of 10,000-30,000 homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, and everything we know about human life in that period indicates that it was pretty nasty, brutish, and short. The “Toba catastrophe,” a massive volcanic eruption that occurred in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago, is believed to have caused a “population bottleneck,” that is, a sudden and sharp reduction in the human population to as few as 1,000 -10,000 people. Today, there are billions of people walking the planet. By Malthus’ logic, we should never have become so numerous and prosperous at the same time. Living standards and quality of life today are not worse than they were during the paleolithic era, but far, far better. Malthus had it exactly backwards.

His skewed theory that a growing population inevitably meant greater scarcity of food and resources led him and those who believed in his expertise on the matter to some deeply flawed preferences in public policy. He was intensely supportive of England’s Corn Laws, for example, which imposed steep tariffs on imported grain. His reasoning was that this would incentivize greater self-sufficiency for food in England at a time when other countries taxed their own grain exports whenever they experienced economic hardship. But the increased food prices caused by the Corn Laws simply ended up increasing the wealth of England’s landowners at the expense of everyone else. The higher food prices imposed on the general population reduced their ability to purchase manufactured goods, thus hampering the country’s industry. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to understand how much the increased prices of food and other goods, along with the reduction in employment opportunities, arrested the living standards of anyone who wasn’t an aristocrat.

But the Malthusian delusion persists–among highly learned scholars, no less–no matter how many times it’s discredited by both logic and experience.

The American biologist Paul Ehrlich provides one example of the stubborn persistence of this thesis. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that due to the growing population, the 1970s would be a decade of mass starvation, misery, and death…hundreds of millions would perish as the result of food shortages, stated Ehrlich.

Obviously, this had not come to pass. (At one point in 1980, Ehrlich even predicted that England would cease to exist by the year 2000.) Some famines had occurred subsequent to Ehrlich’s predictions, such as Ethiopia’s catastrophic famine of the early 1980s, but they were the result of deeply misguided government policies that prevented the populations of those countries from accessing food supplies when they needed them most, not global overpopulation.

Of course, that’s not to say that there’s an eternally guaranteed progression of advancing technology and growing prosperity. If one were to chart the evolution of man’s quality of life throughout the ages on a graph, the line would look like more like a zig-zag, sometimes inclining upwards, at other times declining downwards, and then back up again, down yet again, and so forth.

It’s knowledge and what man does with it that is the real determining factor of progress or regression, not population growth. It’s certainly true that it’s not necessarily a given that human knowledge will always advance to the overall improvement of living conditions indefinitely, but it’s been pretty much on a roll for quite awhile now.

Incredibly, Ehrlich’s erroneous prophecies of mass starvation hasn’t kept academia and policy makers from falling into the Malthusian trap any more than Malthus’ own errors have. The British journalist Brendan O’Neill has been tracking this trend among the world’s intelligentsia for some years now. In this 2012 piece he reports that at that year’s UN Rio+20 Earth summit, over a hundred venerable institutions, including England’s own Royal Society, chillingly urged those in power throughout the world to look past “ethical sensitivities” and “confront rising global population.”

I’m not quite sure what they meant by that, but something tells me that the rest of us should make sure they don’t get their hands on any infinity stones.

Ready Player Done

I grew into my adolescence during the 1980s, and Steven Spielberg’s movies were a large staple of my juvenile pop culture diet. I had become a Spielberg fan even well before the ’80s. I was only seven years old when my parents took me to see Jaws upon its original theatrical release in 1975. Many parents today, as they are in a constant state of neurosis keeping watch over their little children’s supposedly fragile psyches in order to shield them from all sorts of horrid influences and nasty thoughts, would shudder at the thought of a small child being exposed to a film like that…and by their own parents, no less. Why, a young girl goes skinny-dipping and gets devoured by the titular great white shark right in the opening scene! How depraved to allow a child to see such a thing!

But that was the great thing about being raised in the 1970s–parents didn’t give a damn. Me and my friends were already doing stupid things like pretending we were Evel Knievel and jumping our bicycles off of very poorly constructed plywood ramps. What was the big deal if we saw some movie about a shark that greedily feasted upon human flesh–men, women, and children alike? Most people didn’t think too much of anything about a seven-year-old boy seeing a movie like that, not back then.

And I loved that movie, of course. Still do. My wife and I took our son to see an outdoor screening of it last summer. He was long overdue, as he was already the ripe old age of eleven. We matured earlier back in the ’70s.

Spielberg’s next major hit was Close Encounters of the Third Kind later that decade. Supernatural phenomena featured prominently in the popular culture of the 1970s, an obsession of many in the hippy-dippy sect of the baby boom generation. By the ’70s, they had ditched their peace signs and tie-dyed shirts for “power crystals” and other such accoutrements of what became known as the “New Age” movement. (Which appears, thank goodness, after having lived well into the 1990s, to have been tossed into the dustbin of history.) Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock himself, the late Leonard Nimoy, hosted a fairly popular syndicated “documentary” series that explored such mysteries of existence as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, the “Bermuda Triangle,” and other assorted and sundry manifestations of the otherworldly, including UFOs. They had already been reported for decades before, but it was in the ’70s that sightings of flying saucers and claims of alien abductions really came into fashion with widespread media attention. Even President Carter had claimed to have seen a UFO.

I need not cite every work of Spielberg’s canon to illustrate how adept he’s always been at exploiting whatever zeitgeist was capturing American society at any given time. Close Encounters and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released just a few years later, both catered not only to the popular fascination with UFOs and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, but to ordinary Americans’ growing distrust with those in power as well. Following Vietnam, Watergate, the economic “stagflation” of the late ’70s, and other assorted debacles, there was a prevailing sense that those who held the reigns of the institutions of American society weren’t to be trusted; they were hopelessly corrupt, deliberately withholding the truth from the public, or they were simply incompetent, and everyone seemed to feel helpless as to what to do about it. The secretive, shadowy government officials and scientists in those two films were reflections of our own perceptions of faceless technocrats who seemed drunk with power.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, with which Spielberg kicked off the 1980s in collaboration with George Lucas, was particularly effective at playing to those sentiments, but this time redirected them in such a way as though to remind moviegoers that, no matter what our political leaders may be up to, Americans are usually the good guys. Yes, Spielberg and Lucas were already highly successful moviemakers reliving, perhaps indulgently, the Saturday matinee cinema of their youth, but it’s easy to see why their own subjective nostalgia played so well to a mass audience. A handsome, smart, masculine hero battling Nazis obsessed with tapping sinister occult powers was just the antidote Americans craved to cure them of their moral and ethical angst in the wake of the Vietnam war, the Nixon-era scandals of corruption, the revelations of the CIA’s abuses of power.

Like Spielberg’s prior movies, Raiders took that apprehension and loathing and repackaged it into glorious, enthralling Hollywood entertainment–everything worked out for our heroes in the end. The man-eating shark got blown up, Richard Dreyfuss got to take a life-changing journey beyond the stars, Indiana Jones beat the Nazis, and E.T. got to go home.

Don’t worry, Spielberg seemed to be saying. Everything will work out just fine–and in a really, really super cool way that’s fun to watch. 

But a lot has happened since the early 1980s. The scandal-plagued Clinton years of the 1990s, the 9/11 attacks, the eternal War on Terror, the exposure of the fraud and deceit at the root of the Iraq War, and the financial crisis of 2008 have shaken up the country in ways that make the ’60s look like an almost mildly entertaining high school musical. So much so that a billionaire real estate tycoon and reality TV star got himself elected president of the United States in stubborn defiance of the media’s persistent predictions otherwise. Millions of Americans have had their perceptions of their country and its role in the world radically transformed in recent decades. Spielberg, however, is still working with the same old formula that he’s been working with since he and his fellow baby boomers first came into their own in shaping so much of American pop culture. The incongruity has recently become painfully awkward to watch, like seeing a typical millennial’s grandfather trying to impress the kids with the Lorde records in his collection, but he keeps getting the titles of her songs confused with those of Joan Baez.

Following the clumsy and historically inaccurate The Post–grossly inaccurate even by Hollywood’s sloppy standards, in which the paper that declared in the wake of Donald Trump’s election that “democracy dies in darkness” is conveniently recast as the crusading defender of press freedoms against the predations of Richard Nixon (simply not true)–Spielberg now treats us to the dystopian spectacle of Ready Player One.

Now, this movie often looks fantastic. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski–a long time partner of Spielberg’s going back to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan–has an eye for arresting detail reminiscent of a Life magazine photographer. And though the vast virtual world at the movie’s core takes some getting used to, it offers many visual pleasures that at times are spectacular to behold. And Spielberg is, as always, a keen master of keeping the action of a story moving along at a brisk clip, so the movie’s nearly two-and-a-quarter hours breeze by easily enough.

But something isn’t quite right here.

The movie is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title. Our story follows a young man named Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) who apparently lives atop a pile of trailer homes. It’s the mid-2040s or so and the future looks pretty crappy. So crappy, in fact, that most people escape into a massive virtual reality network called “the Oasis” with the use of special visors. Seeing as how the setting is America only a quarter of a century from now, this bit of speculation is depressingly plausible. It isn’t so hard to believe that Americans would rather play an online video game all day than actually deal with their stagnating society, which would require having an uncomfortable argument or two.

The most envied prize hiding in the Oasis is an “Easter egg” planted by its eccentric creator, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The people obsessed with hunting for this Easter egg, the discovery of which transfers ownership of the Oasis into the hands of whoever finds it, are, of course, known as “gunters,” because sci-fi writers don’t like to be bothered with what they consider to be superfluous vowels. Watts, using the pseudonym/avatar “Parzival,” meets and falls in love with a young lady (Olivia Cooke) after saving her virtual life and preventing her from being “zeroed out.” She has named her avatar “Artemis” (which is actually spelled as “Art3mis”–again, sci-fi authors just don’t like so many vowels, even if it means awkwardly replacing one with a numeral).

While doing some research in the Oasis virtual library, Watts watches a playback of a pivotal scene in Halliday’s life–the resignation of his partner Ogden Morrow (played by Simon Pegg, cinema’s ever present nerd/sci-fi fanboy), which is later revealed to be over their conflicting romantic affections for the same woman. In his disappointment, Halliday muses the following out loud:

“Why can’t we go backwards for once? Backwards really fast, as fast as we can – really put the pedal to the metal.”

Upon hearing this, Watts manages to reason that it is a clue–as does the audience, upon whom it lands with an awkward thud–as to what to do at the next virtual car race to find the first of the three keys that point the way to the much ballyhooed Easter egg. Sure enough, instead of bursting forward into high gear, Watts kicks his virtual race car into reverse–really “putting the pedal to the medal,” of course–and is whisked along a hidden path that takes him to the finish line ahead of all the other “gunters” in the race. He therefore obtains the first key, gets his name and those of his crew on the big scoreboard, and receives a clue to the quest for the next key.

There’s no reason to rehash the entire plot here, nor do I wish to spoil it for anyone, but by this point readers who have yet to see the movie should have the gist of it. Longtime moviegoers will recognize many of the familiar Spielbergian tropes, the most prominent being young people of humble backgrounds battling against entrenched power. Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (played by cinema’s ever present bad guy Ben Mendelsohn), which makes the VR gear by which people access the Oasis, is willing to stop at nothing to take it over–such as exploiting a legion of debt-slaves to find the coveted Easter egg for him–giving the film its central conflict. And to be sure, this is a worthwhile theme to explore, but unfortunately the whole thing is handled in such a stunted fashion that it’s difficult to take seriously.

Then there’s the persistent flight into nostalgia throughout. James Halliday, who, like this writer, came of age in the 1980s, was hopelessly obsessed with the popular culture of that decade, and so he planted popular ’80s references throughout the Oasis, most of them visual, alternately glaring and subtle. At one point, Doc Brown’s legendary time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future can be seen traversing the screen. Spielberg was himself a co-producer of the 1985 film, but he avoids any further references to his own work of the period. No E.T. or Indiana Jones can be spotted anywhere on screen, perhaps out of Spielberg’s desire to avoid any appearance of egotistical self-tribute.

This element of the film, this wistful looking back at the ’80s that suffuses it throughout, simply undermines much of the story overall, and at one point offers some unintended commentary on Spielberg’s efforts here. (And one can’t help but be reminded that Hollywood used to produce much more entertaining fare in decades past.) Spielberg, of course, had no say in the matter as the decision was made for him by the author of the original novel (who also co-wrote the screenplay), but much of the nostalgia comes off as a clumsy parade of too-obvious pop references intended to flatter nerdy fanboys, who in their own smug, nerdy elitism probably won’t be all that impressed by them anyway.

Some of the specific choices in this regard are curious. At one point in their quest, Wade Watts and his youthful band of fellow “gunters” have to survive an impeccable virtual simulation of the foreboding Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological thriller The Shining, which, like Ready Player One, was also an adaptation of a popular novel.

I have been reliably informed that the book, which this writer hasn’t read himself, subjects our heroes to the world of Blade Runner, not The Shining. (I’ve also been told that the novel also takes a foray into the world of Rush’s classic 1976 prog rock album 2112, but, alas, that was excluded from the film version as well.) One suspects that the fairly recent release of Blade Runner 2049 precluded the producers of Ready Player One from obtaining rights for its inclusion in their film, and so they went for The Shining instead. It’s too bad, as using Blade Runner would have been so unbelievably “meta”–a dystopian future film making an extended reference to a dystopian future film made decades before–that audience’s heads may very well have exploded simultaneously all over the world, or perhaps they would have been sucked into some kind of “vortex” created by a “rift” in the “time-space continuum,” or some such thing.

The most curious thing about the choice of The Shining is that author Stephen King infamously despises Kubrick’s film adaptation of his work. He never liked the particular liberties the director took with his plot, nor did he ever care for Jack Nicholson’s nutty-from-the-get-go performance, or for Shelly Duvall’s acting like a “screaming dishrag” throughout. Ready Player One suffers from some acting problems of its own, with its often flat, shallow performances. The only times when Sheridan’s and Cooke’s characters display any chemistry between them at all are when the actors are voicing their animated avatars in the Oasis; in “real life” it feels as if they’re being forced into going on a blind date that neither of them wants to be on. And though Mendelsohn isn’t quite twirling his mustache, his evil CEO is too flat and predictable to be very interesting to watch. He doesn’t get to display much depth or complexity at all until the film has nearly ended. Rylance appears to be playing at someone’s stereotypical assumption of what an eccentric billionaire tech genius must be like, but he just comes off like a special needs adult in constant need of being shown to the bathroom.

That Ready Player One‘s screenwriters–one of whom was Cline himself–chose The Shining is either ironic or all too fitting.

Anniversary

This past February marked a rather ominous anniversary that I share with my wife.

No, I’m not talking about our wedding anniversary. I’ve never regarded that date as anything remotely ominous. My conclusion after nearly eighteen years of marriage is that marrying my wife was without a doubt one of the very few genuinely wise decisions I ever made.

It was in February twenty years ago, back in 1997, that she and I were face down in an alley with guns pointed to the backs of our heads.

Yes, I’m serious. That really happened.

The evening had been pleasant enough. I took my wife, who I had been dating for only about a month, out to dinner and then to a play. This was in Chicago, where we still reside today. A friend of hers, a local actress, had a role in the production, which was performing at the Victory Gardens Theater on North Lincoln Avenue. We enjoyed the play, and then the three of us all went out to a nearby bar for a few drinks. Being as young and indestructible as we were in those days, we were out quite late.

I’ll never forget that night for as long as I live.

It was about 3 a.m. when we parked my wife’s car. We had decided to go to my apartment, a place that I was sharing with some old college friends at the time, rather than to her tiny studio apartment. We drove around for a good fifteen or twenty minutes looking for a place to park. Finding an available space at 3 a.m. on the north side of Chicago is not easy. We finally found a spot on a street that ran parallel to the street I lived on, which was just one street west from where we parked.

It was also near a very well lit alley behind a major chain department store, which provided a shortcut to the street where I lived. I instinctively proceeded to walk past the alley, toward the major street in front of the department store. I thought it wiser to take the longer and more circuitous route around. I didn’t trust alleys at 3 a.m.

“Where are you going?” asked my wife. “Let’s just cut through the alley.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Do you think it’s a good idea to walk through a deserted alley  at this hour?”

“But it’s just as well lit as the street.”

I walked back to her and peered down the alley. She was right. It was entirely bathed in the light provided by the large lamp posts on either side. I reflected for a moment. It should only take a couple of minutes to walk through and reach my street on the other end, I thought. Sure, it would be fine.

“Okay.”

We had been walking through the alley for barely a minute, holding hands and having a chat about the pleasant evening we had just enjoyed, when the slow-motion film began playing before our eyes. Two hooded figures seemed to materialize out of nothing, running toward us from the direction of the street we were walking to. My first thought was that they were a couple of mischievous youths running around in the wee hours, and that they would run right past us in their pursuit of whatever youthful late night pleasures they were after.

But as the movie continued in slow motion, frame by frame, I saw each of them reach into the back of their pants and slowly withdraw handguns. They stopped us midway through the alley, the end of each barrel staring right into our faces.

“Get down!” one of them demanded in a harsh whisper. Seeing as how we had little choice, we did as they demanded.

My wife became very upset. As she and I laid facedown on the cold, snowy asphalt of the alley, a million different thoughts rushed through my mind as I debated with myself as to what I should do, if anything.  I managed to turn to look in her direction as she laid by my side. I saw the long barrel of a pistol held right to the back of her head. I softly reassured my wife that everything would turn out okay.

The young man who assigned himself to holding his gun at the back of my head repeated my words in mocking fashion as he searched my overcoat. Then he asked me if I had any money on me. As I had just spent whatever cash I had at the bar, I replied in the negative.

“If I find any money on you, mother——, and you’re lyin’ to me, I’m gonna blow your f—– head off!” I meekly assured the young man that I had nothing on me but some loose change.  

“Let’s just pop caps in they heads now!” said the young hoodlum who had his gun aimed at my wife.

“Nah, nah, don’t shoot ’em,” answered the hoodlum who stood over me, and who apparently was cast as the voice of reason, the “good cop,” so to speak, in this sordid drama.

These criminals probably took all of four or five minutes to rob us. But it felt like hours. And in that span of time, I contemplated all the possible outcomes of this scenario. There was a fleeting moment–and this was the first time in my entire life that I felt this, and thankfully I’ve never experienced it since–but there was a fleeting moment when I was convinced that my wife and I were about to die.

But then…

“You are not going to die. You are going to be okay. They will take what they want and leave.”

I can’t say that it was exactly a voice that I heard. It was more like a feeling than an actual voice. But somehow, something, in some fashion, communicated to me that if I didn’t make any attempt at heroics, we would get through this situation alive. Maybe it was some part of my mind that had completed a consistently rational assessment of what we were going through. Maybe it was something else.

Then again, maybe it was a voice.

“Now stay there and don’t get up until you count to 100!”

My wife and I started counting to 100 together. By the time I got to 7 or 8, I heard their footsteps trail away to the direction of the street at the west end of the alley, the street I lived on, then the sound of a car screeching away. Relieved, I gently took my wife’s arm and helped her to her feet.

We survived. We got to my place and called the police. An officer came and took statements from us.

And that night I told my wife for the first time that I loved her.

Now, all these years later, now that I’m in middle age and our son is nearly twelve years old, my mind often wanders back to that incident. Sometimes I find myself walking down that alley in my dreams, back on that cold winter night, and I see the whole thing happen all over again. I see my younger, late-20s self on the hard, icy ground with that young lady who was my wife, quietly reassuring her that everything would turn out okay as two young thugs lord over them, pointing guns at their heads.

How did I know that everything would be okay? Perhaps it was simple enough to reason out. We were in a large city, near a high traffic area, even for that late hour. We were right next to an apartment building, right underneath a window, possibly someone’s bedroom window. Surely our assailants understood that the sound of gunshots would quickly draw unwanted attention and the police could possibly be at their heels before they knew it.

But then again, the young man–the “reasonable” one of the two–who was threatening to blow my head off if he found that I was holding back a few bucks from him seemed a little too eager to prove something to his friend, and his friend likewise. It didn’t seem quite a statistical impossibility that either of them would choose to take his chances and shoot us. Perhaps that act would have carried some extra weight with whoever was waiting in the car in the street at the end of the alley.

I’ve never been one to be much for religion but the only conclusion I can reach is that I had faith. For whatever reason, I had faith that we would get through the ordeal and continue to live our lives.

When I think back on that time, I realize that I need to be reminded of that every so often–to have faith.

To believe that everything’s going to be okay.