What was the 10s’ as a decade? My pat answer: a seismic shift in American culture. What used to be nerd culture went mainstream, or more accurately, became gentrified. The Internet Lost Its Joy. Smartphones and social media fed off each other, stuck in one gigantic circle-jerking feedback loop. We are all online all the time. No such thing as AFK.
We probably won’t get a clear idea until the 10s decade is well behind us in the rearview mirror, where we can clearly identify its borders and map its contours. But who’s got the time to wait? In this blog, films released between 2010 and 2019 will serve as a Rorschach inkblot test of the zeitgeist, and the following films function as the more successful ones that captured the unique undercurrents that belong to the decade. And those undercurrents have already been outlined at some length on this blog.
Old Empire’s Last Gasp: The Social Network (2010)
In 2010, the final exhalation of Old Empire left us two of their signature films in The Social Network and Inception. Bret Easton Ellis was the first to point out that the Old Empire, embodied in the figure of Aaron Sorkin, the screen writer of the film, who reduced the creation story of Facebook, the ne plus ultra artifact of Post-Empire, to the revenge of a petulant college kid who just got rejected. While Sorkin may have got it wrong, the film itself also became an artifact, and eventually a quaint throwback where creation myths must always have devils.
As for Inception, (easily my favorite film of the decade) it also served as the updated version of the Matrix, eXistenZ, and Dark City, in which reality is not what it seems. A Bond film stuck inside of a heist film executed by the mastermind director Christopher Nolan. His body of work demonstrates an obsession with time, but Inception embodies time as a storytelling tool. Moreover, the protagonist Cobb seemed ever more of a stand-in or surrogate of Nolan, albeit a self-contradictory and unreliable one.
Post-Irony: Detention (2011)
We used to be scared of slasher films. Then the market became saturated and we saw far too many. Eventually by the nineties, we could only enjoy them ironically and self-referentially. After the high school film genre peaked in the eighties, it had gradually declined into exhaustion by 2011… and along came Detention. In this decade, the Irony of the postmodern thinkers of the nineties had imploded, leaving behind a new immanence. But this doesn’t return us to the Sincerity of Old, but a new one at the end of Irony. In Detention, the Mean Girl is eliminated within the first 10 minutes, leaving room for the dorky protagonist to ascend. But her ascension isn’t a teen staple. The entire film is essentially a well constructed self-referential joke, with the customary nods to Hughes as a genre.
All hierarchies of reflection have collapsed due to the leveling power of Irony. No longer is there an ontological privilege of reference, and no more self-referential jokes. No difference whatever left between reality and the mediated representation of that reality. Representation has cannibalized reality, or the map has replaced the territory. Hyperreality has mutated into a new Laurelle realism. Holy Motors also expressed the same shift of Post-Sincerity.
Cosmic pessimism: Prometheus (2012)
The visually and conceptually ambitious film Prometheus turned out to be a critique of the human species. The underlying message revolves around sacrifice and the all-too-human greed for knowledge. The Engineer who first appeared in the beginning of the film sacrificed himself with a black goo that disintegrated his body to DNA molecules in order to create new life. The scientists Shaw and Holloway discovered evidence that the same Engineers had visited the human race over the course of its ancient past, and help shepherd its civilization. But at some time in the past this relationship changed. Upon arrival at the mysterious planet, once human beings encountered the black goo, it exposed their inherent flaw: selfishness. The goo changed only when humans entered the cave with the giant murals and the giant head. The narcissistic centenarian Weyland selfishly demanded more life from the last existing Engineer, who then contemptuously killed him. In the end, the lone survivor Doctor Elizabeth Shaw missed the irony of the android David’s question about her desire to find why the Engineers changed their minds. He himself already understands the ultimate disappointment regarding his own creation by humanity. Why? Just because we could. Therefore man is a failed species that needs to be exterminated due to its flaw of selfishness.
Sci-fi nihilism: Ex Machina (2014), Annihilation (2018)
Somehow, Alex Garland became scifi’s voice with two classic films in Ex Machina and Annihilation. In Ex Machina, Ava, the created being, after killing off her creator, replaces her skin and observes herself in the mirror. This scene becomes the new Turing Test in which she passes the test of being human, and leaves the compound to join human civilization. What is Human, indeed? The survivor of Annihilation, Lena, faced the alien, the so-called “Shimmer,” but was unable to explain it to her superiors. She encountered a crocodile, a bear, beautiful trees and flowers. She only saw metaphors. And metaphors are our only defense against the unknown. Lena knew that there was no bear. It did not matter what the alien was made of or where it came from or even if it was truly an alien at all. We are stuck with metaphors – our only relations with the unknown.
Toxic Masculinity: Nightcrawler (2014), Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
The pervasive shadow of constructed masculinity haunts the male protagonist’s every move, and the deeper into the construct the protagonist leans, the more horrifying the film reads. One of the major elements of toxic masculinity is a mastery of manipulation and con artistry, and nobody did it better than Louis Bloom from the Nightcrawler. He weaponized his entitlement by using middle management jargon and libertarian bootstrap logic into advancing his career and bullying his coworkers. The horror is that Bloom gets away with such reprehensible acts.
In the phenomenally visceral Mad Max Fury Road, a paean to feminism, toxic masculinity is embodied in the antagonist Immortan Joe, a despot who fancies himself a demigod that rules with fire and blood over one of the last sources of water in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When Furiosa liberates Joe’s harem and flees for the Green Place, she expresses a desire to be free, whereas almost every male character, from the incel-like War Boys to the allies the People Eater and the Bullet Farmer, expressed a desire to belong instead. True heroism, such as those of Max and the escapee Nux, consists of support and sacrifice. Furiosa’s War Rig pushes forward in their escape, for the sake of a better reality than the ones they know. Who killed the world?
Others: Daniel isn’t Real
Post-Racial Imperialism: Get Out (2017)
A prescient film that rode shotgun on the post-racial lie of Obama America, Get Out continued the tradition of films (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead) that employed genre to address social issues. And Get Out addressed the typical micro-aggressions committed by white progressives as well as their admiration and eventual assimilation of black bodies. The protagonist Chris, with great reluctance, visits his white girlfriend Rose’s parents in the country, where he discovers that her self-styled liberal ingénue is but a mask of a cunning racial predator. In a never-was innocent America, Get Out exposed the white racial innocence that confused what they might like to be with what they actually are. As a smash hit, Get Out successfully launched the new genre of social thriller that takes an unflinching look at the horror of society.
Others: Sorry to Bother You
Post-Empire: Joker (2019)
A somewhat controversial film, the social horror Joker turned out to be the best evidence of professor Ben Saunder’s assertion, that every generation gets its own Joker. Where other versions reflected their time, the 2019 version reflects our failed Post-Empire society, in which the causes are legion: collapsing healthcare, lack of empathy, frustrated sexual desire, and a nihilistic political ideology that kills off society’s established figures. The protagonist Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden disabled man, is pushed to the zero point, and finds liberation as a rogue clown. Once he arrives at the realization that his life is nothing but a comedy, nothing can hurt him anymore.
Others: Black Panther, Avengers: Endgame
It is quite fitting that the 10s decade opened with The Social Network, and ended with the Joker. They serve as bookends that indicated the ongoing transition from Old Empire to Post-Empire, as the Baby Boomers generation relinquish control to subsequent ones in Generation X and the Millennials.