Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis is known as something of a doomsayer. His latest six-part BBC documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head chronicles the intersections and parallels between the rise of right-wing populist conspiracy theories like QAnon, the opioid crisis, and the growing zeitgeist of political disillusionment of the early 21st century. When I first discovered Curtis’ work through clips of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace in college, my attention admittedly trailed off at Curtis’ repeated mentions of the late author Ayn Rand and I never picked the series back up again. But after finally taking in HyperNormalisation, his cult 2016 BBC doc exploring the historical antecedents of a post-truth world, I finally connected the dots to why his work is so highly lauded by some and deeply unsettling for others: It’s basically a three-hour version of the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
The basic thesis of HyperNormalisation is that, over the past 40 years, establishment politicians, myopic financiers, and technological utopians have systematically chosen to avoid addressing the material complexities of the so-called “real world.” Instead, they retreated into a radically simplified version of the world, one where heroic Western powers saber rattle with useful idiots rebranded as nefarious supervillains in order to dissociate from the harsh, paralyzing complexities of a political and social reality that they themselves conjured into being. It’s first grade, Spongebob!
Across the film’s sprawling 166-minute runtime, Curtis ping pongs between several points of interest, from the mortal ramifications of Henry Kissinger’s “delicate balance of power” philosophy and John Barlow’s libertarian manifesto of cyberspace to the cultural phenomenon of UFO sightings and suicide bombings. As you can probably guess, the film is not for the faint of heart. The film is characterized by Curtis’ idiosyncratic blending of archive footage juxtaposed with tracks by artists like Burial, Nine Inch Nails, and Ennio Morricone and the disquietingly detached solemnity of his authoritative voiceover narration. Bizarre historical tangents and non sequiturs inevitably circle back to the bigger points to devastating effect. And like Metal Gear Solid 2, HyperNormalisation comments on the uneasy distinction between what one considers “true” and what just simply feels good in our contemporary online world.
Game designer Hideo Kojima’s 2001 stealth-action sequel gained a reputation of subverting player’s expectations by introducing the character of Raiden, a then-new character to the series who replaced fan favorite Solid Snake as the game’s protagonist. But the legacy of the game’s climactic cutscene has taken on something of a life of its own in years since its release, elevating Kojima’s reputation from that of an auteur game designer to something more akin to that of an uncanny prophet of our modern era.
In Metal Gear Solid 2, players assume the role of Raiden, instead of the series’ longtime protagonist Solid Snake, who is playable during the game’s opening prequel mission who then promptly disappears before popping back up as a poorly disguised version of himself and — well, it’s a lot. The game also introduced the Patriots, also known as the “La-li-lu-le-lo,” a shadowy organization who aimed to control society through digital manipulation using social profiling, psychologically-targeted memes, and political subversion. Near the game’s finale, Kojima reveals Raiden to be a pawn of the Patriots. The former child soldier-turned-US special forces agent engages in a conversation with his commanding officer, who in truth turns out to be a skull-faced artificial intelligence created to facilitate Raiden’s mission throughout the game and keep him under control.
At one point Raiden asks the AI that if the Patriots are truly “immortal” and embody the “very discipline and morality that Americans [so often] invoke,” why would they want to take away individual freedoms and censor the internet? The Patriot AI then launches into an elaborate speech spanning nearly 12-minutes, touching on everything from evolutionary biology and the concept of “memes” before such a term had entered into popular parlance, before arguing that ultimately what the Patriots are attempting to do is not to censor and control content and information, but to save humanity from being engulfed in the detritus of gossip and misinformation created through the internet by creating what they call “context.”
“The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards the development of convenient half-truths,” the AI tells Raiden. “Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever “truth” suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large [...] We’re trying to stop that from happening. It’s our responsibility as rulers.”
What the Patriots AI in Metal Gear Solid 2 is describing essentially is a fictionalized form of “perception management,” the aforementioned coordinated tactic of selective disinformation intended to influence the emotions, motives, and behaviors of a specified audience; the very same real-world concept which sits at the heart of Curtis’ argument in HyperNormalisation. In MGS2, the goal of the Patriots’ perception management is to “save” humanity from itself; in HyperNormalisation, the goal is not so much to “save” humanity as it is to retreat from the mounting consequences wrought from a near half-century’s worth of foreign and domestic policy blunders brought about by the West.
HyperNormalisation is a fascinating, bewildering, and thoroughly engrossing 166-minute behemoth. It’s also, admittedly, the cinematic equivalent of a galaxy-brained take, seemingly nonsensical when glanced from a distance yet disquietingly coherent when viewed up close. Curtis’ grandiose scope and emphatic argument leaves its audience with a palpable aching sense of worry for how uncomfortably close to the truth it might actually be. La-li-lu-le-lo.
HyperNormalisation is available to stream on Amazon.