The Final Cut

The Final Cut

I knew next to nothing about The Final Cut before I watched it, and thus was surprised that it turned out to be so relevant to an important aspect of my own life, namely that of making personal history movies telling people’s life stories.

This is a science fiction movie, presumably set in the future as it requires a certain not yet existent technology to have been around for well over fifty years, but it otherwise has the feel of being roughly contemporary.

The premise is that it has become fairly common–5% of the population is the figure mentioned at one point–for parents to choose to record their child’s life from birth or just before with a brain implant. This implant records all input reaching the brain from the eyes or ears, and it can later be viewed like any video. So the person’s entire life is recorded, always from their perspective. (Thus you don’t see the person himself very much in the footage, unless, say, they’re looking in a mirror.)

Upon death, the video footage of the person’s entire life is turned over to a video editor, or “cutter” (the main cutter in this film is played by Robin Williams), who makes a sort of memorial film out of it for the funeral. Cutters must adhere to a strict code of conduct, since it requires enormous trust for a family to turn over all this footage to them. (They have to be in the fraction of 1% of the population that wouldn’t spend the whole time voyeuristically looking at all the sexual or other personal things the person did in his life, in other words.) The family gives the cutter some ideas of the general structure they’d like for the film, and mentions certain events they’d like him to look for in the footage to include, and then the cutter uses his own artistic ability from there. Naturally the films turn out to be heavily sanitized and celebratory of the people’s lives.

Well, needless to say, given that my mind is very much on making personal history films these days, I was more than a little interested in this basic concept. I spent a lot of time throughout the movie reflecting on all the ramifications of such a technology existing.

One of the challenges in science fiction is always plausibility. You want to create a world that differs in some one or several respects from the real one, and yet have it all hang together. You know, you want the world you depict with these implants to be a believable version of our world if that technology were added to it.

I’d give this movie a mixed score in that regard. I have to say a certain number of my “Yeah, but…” moments were eventually addressed fairly well. For example, one of my first thoughts when the main concept was introduced was that it would be utterly impossible for the cutter to ever complete a job. One of the first things I do with any video job is to familiarize myself with the available material by watching the footage all the way through at least once. So in this case, that would mean an entire lifetime for just that step, and you haven’t even started editing yet. So a project as a whole takes many times what that one step would take.

They indicate later, though, that the computer technology associated with the implants has an extraordinarily fine-tuned indexing system of overlapping categories. If you wanted to skip, for instance, all the time the person was asleep, you could delete all that at one stroke without having to watch it all. If the family asked you to include his experience on a deep sea fishing trip at age 16, you could bring that footage up almost immediately through the indexing system.

Realistically that doesn’t completely solve the problem (being generous, maybe it means a project like this would take five years to complete rather than several centuries), but it helps.

And the movie does OK with some aspects like that that I initially found hard to swallow. But then there are other things that still strain belief.

One is just that socially, politically, legally such technology could ever get off the ground. Granted, one of the main elements of the movie revolves around the fact that there is a significant protest movement against the implants, but I think in reality there’d be a lot more opposition than that.

It’s hard to believe 5% of parents would think such a maximal invasion of privacy lasting their child’s entire life is a good idea. Nor would any even minimally sane legal system allow them to make that decision for their child. Plus of course it’s also horrifically invasive of the privacy of everyone the person sees or hears their entire life, and obviously the parents have even less standing to make that decision for all those folks.

And if such a thing did exist, what are the chances it would serve no purpose except to enable some editor to make a ninety minute memorial film to show at the funeral? I mean, I believe what I’m doing with my personal history films is important, but it’s a pretty quaint little activity compared to what technology like this would really be used for. It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be used extensively by law enforcement for instance, among other mostly nefarious possibilities.

So science fiction in general requires some leap of faith, but sometimes it’s skillfully enough crafted that that leap isn’t too jarring, and other times the whole thing’s laughably implausible. This film fits somewhere in the middle. It probably did a no worse than average job in making a world with this technology believable.

I stayed pretty interested in the movie the whole way through, but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that the way the main concept overlapped with my own life was predictably intriguing to me. But beyond that factor, how was the movie as a movie?

I think I’d say just OK. It was a bit slow for a science fiction thriller kind of thing, though not horribly so. The main plot was not real compelling for me. In a nutshell, the anti-implant folks are trying to steal an implant of someone from the company who makes them who just died, with the intention of finding something evil and embarrassing from his life, and publicizing it so that the scandal destroys the company and puts an end to the technology.

But my thought was, big deal. Everyone has some things–no doubt multiple things–in their life that would be embarrassing, that would show them in a very bad light, if publicized. And people know that, so it’s not like the public would be so outraged to discover something bad this bigwig did that they’d destroy some company he’s associated with after his death.

In reality they’d have been outraged by the technology long ago, and the company would have never gotten going in the first place, as noted above. I believe a revelation of this guy’s misdeeds would be neither necessary nor sufficient to generate a backlash that would bring down the company.

So overall, I would say the main science fiction concept at the heart of The Final Cut is highly thought-provoking (though in part for reasons personal to me). I’ve really only scratched the surface in discussing the ramifications of the technology that are addressed in the movie and/or that it caused me to speculate about. All quite interesting stuff.

On the other hand, the execution beyond that initial idea I thought was only mediocre.

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