Technology and authenticity in The Incredibles 2: A hidden message?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018
by Cameron Shelley

I had the pleasure to see The Incredibles 2 this weekend.  It was an enjoyable movie and a worthy sequel to the original Incredibles, in spite of the 14 years it took to bring out. (Spoiler alert!)

As with the original movie, an important theme of the sequel is the relationship between technology and the self.  The first film featured a conflict between superheroes and a hyper-technological villain named Syndrome. 

Syndrome's story was that he grew up admiring Mr. Incredible and wanted to emulate him.  However, Syndrome lacked any innate superpowers.  Instead of resigning himself, Syndrome grew frustrated and became a high-tech weapons developer, kitting himself out with technology that enabled him to imitate having super powers.  Indeed, his development program involved testing his devices against the powers of real superheroes, often with lethal effect. 

As Mr. Incredible put it, "You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could pretend to be one?"

Note that the dichotomy between real and pretend heroes coincides exactly with the dichotomy between innate powers and technological ones, that is, between nature and artifice.  In becoming a techno-superhuman, Syndrome became a mockery of a hero instead of a real one.

The sequel also features this theme prominently.  In The Incredibles 2, the villainous Screenslaver uses hypnotic signals transmitted to people via their TV (and other) screens to take control of their actions. 

As he is being tracked down by Elastigirl, Screenslaver delivers an interesting critique of the impact of screens on people's lives. 

Their screens, he claims, distance people from their proper lives.  They replace real experiences with simulated ones, ones that may be more appealing in some sense but deprive them of authenticity.

For example, he remarks, "You don't talk, you watch talk shows. You don't play games, you watch game shows."

The extent of this problem is shown by the fact that no one is exempt from it.  People, both normal and super, cannot resist hypnosis by the Screenslaver's flashing lights.  Its ultimate expression are the special glasses that the Screenslaver uses to establish persistent control over people, glasses that appear not unlike virtual reality goggles.

By intermediating between people and lived experience, screens alienate them from their authentic lives, exploiting a psychological weakness that people are powerless to resist. 

Who would exercise such villainous power?  Corporations, the Screenslaver explains: “Travel, relationships, risk, every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you ... so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can't bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat, and participate in life.”

This critique of simulative technology echoes current concerns about how our screens rule our lives.  Consider Tristan Harris's argument that social media (and other online services) tend to exploit people's psychological susceptibilities in order to monopolize their attention. Technology should be helping people to achieve their goals, he argues, instead of gluing them to their screens in order to maximize profits.

Of course, this critique leaves the audience in an odd place.  Is it not hypocritical, at least, for a movie to tell audiences that screen experiences are poor substitutes for real life, making them lazy and stupid, while enriching giant companies, such as the Disney corporation?  I can almost hear the Screenslaver's take on this point: "You don't move, you watch movies."

At this point, the story introduces a twist.  The Screenslaver and his machinations turn out to be a hoax perpetrated by Evelyn Deavor, technical mastermind of the DevTech Corporation.  (Go women in STEM!)  Her plan was to set up a straw-villain for Elastigirl to vanquish, thus encouraging all superheroes to come out of the woodwork.  (They had been made illegal in the first film.)  At that point, Evelyn could use the hypnotic technology to take control of the superheroes and have them attack Municiberg, thus discrediting them once again.

Her reasons for doing so relate to her father's death at the hands of burglars while awaiting rescue from his superhero friends: "Because you have some strange abilities and a shiny costume, the rest of us are supposed to put our lives into your gloved hands. That's what my father believed. When our home was broken into, my mother wanted to hide. Begged my father to use the safe room. But Father insisted they call his superhero friends. He died—pointlessly, stupidly—waiting for heroes to save the day."

(Perhaps her father should have moved the special telephones to the safe room, but I digress.)

So, superheroes and screen technology are much the same: Something that promises to enhance life but that ends up taking away people's ability to truly live. As Evelyn puts it, "Superheroes keep us weak!"

The film does not do a great deal to rebut this critique.  The superheroes win, of course.  The self-driving Incredibile is instrumental in their cause, thus suggesting, perhaps, that technology may be genuinely enabling, at least, sometimes.  Yet, as Evelyn points out, her defeat hardly means that she is wrong.  Indeed, the victory of the superheroes over Evelyn and her high-tech gadgets reaffirms that nature is superior to artifice and that normal people are weak by comparison, whatever their technological prowess. 

Even so, Evelyn's downfall (if that's the right word) demonstrates not that technology inevitably undermines the authenticity of life.  Instead, her fate is due to her unshakeable belief in this notion.  Fixated on people's weaknesses, she invents things that exploit them.  The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Had she made different choices, applied her inventions differently, the outcome might be much different.  Perhaps she could have invented a better form of hypnotherapy, for example.

As Evelyn's brother Winston notes, perceptions are important.  People's perceptions of technology influence how it affects their lives, as does the technology itself.  Perhaps this is the hidden message in The Incredibles 2.

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