Good Interests

Last year, when he wasn't trying to emote from underneath several inches of wrinkley latex, Guy Pearce gave the biggest TED talk ever. It was a dytopian future of TED: on a tiny stage in a stadium, an entrepreneur peddled his "idea worth spreading" with grave tones and allusions to Greek mythology.

Now he pitches the idea that human DNA "is destined for an upgrade," shows off a room-sized hologram of his brain, and says things like "the next iteration." He drops "mimesis" and preens, as if this word alone just solved the universe.

These touches are of course intended to set him apart in sliminess. Robert Downey Jr.'s problem is that he came from the same slime. Back when he was a part of the "party scene," he said "you've basically hacked DNA!"

He has anxiety attacks because "nothing's been the same since New York," apparently not alluding to 2001. He confides to Gwyneth Paltrow, "I experience things, and then they're over." Yet he's not relieved when the fake terrorist interrupts a TV broadcast (again) to tell the world "don't worry, the final lesson is coming"?

Doomsday didn't deliver, but the DNA-hack he was so excited about offers a kind of solution for his malaise. He can't sleep, and all of his activity is side-stepping "tinkering."

Him being a man, confessing these problems to his mother-accountant-wife, Paltrow, is a Big Gesture. Not only does his small admission of vulnerability nullify their disagreements, it earns him a big cookie, like a baby who finally pooed in the right place.

In any case, for him, time doesn't really pass. "Extremis" punctuates by exploding people.

While it was him who ended up in the spotlight, it was the slimy idea-slinger around whom a network organized. But the whole thing gets a bit too hot.

This is how Downey Jr. describes Extremis: "You know when a girl's straddling you and she glows from the inside, kind of orange?" The troubling substance is emphatically tied up with an interrupted sexual encounter. His innuendo-y puns leading up to the inventor's bedroom and his insistence on her bedroom are relentless. When the stuff blows up in the next room, an even more blatant visual joke lands on top of him in the form of his concerned body guard.

For being immortal, the Extremis-ists are awfully precarious. Extremis doesn't always "take", and explodes you instead. Pearce insists on a rhetoric of purification, and the film insists that the Extremis makes one more oneself, contrasting bare bodies with metal suits. For all their bare drive, they're oddly decentered, their rengerative and destructive power emanating from Extremis.

The hero and the villain compete at first for Petter Pots' interest. Hence Pearce's schmoozey holopowerpoint in her office.

While Pearce was busy getting connected, Downey Jr. isolated himself.

Rebecca Hall describes the process of becoming interested: "first you're all wide-eyed, then...[you get compromised]". Being a scientist is for her an accumulation of compromises. Yet the thing her compromises unleashed, Extremis, is a reversal of wonder cooling into scientific interest. Rather than being in between anything, you are the thing. Your body generates enough heat to melt things. Extremis is a nightmare of overconnectedness. A destructive rather than productive network.

Morality in this movie is a matter of how to manage your interests. The hero is preoccupied with how his hobby is more like an addiction, taking him away from his relationship.

When he says he's renouncing his "cocoon" of hobbies, he's towing the burnt remnants of his workshop. Is it possible to read his self-reinvention as anything other than the very fantasy that draws him back to the workshop? His whole life was organized around the energy-producing contraption which made time stand still near his heart, to keep a piece of shrapnel from penetrating it. He's repaired his damaged heart, and renounced his distracting shell. Can anyone survive on only what they ought to be?

11 May 2013