On Monday night, I sat in a dark theater, staring up at the movie screen, asking myself a perhaps-unanswerable question: What exactly does Hollywood think an “algorithm” is?
By definition, an algorithm is a set of operations (often rendered in code and meant for a computer) designed to solve a problem — calculating a number, showing you information based on data a device has collected about you, finding the answer to a question you’ve asked, or some much more complicated sequence. It’s a little black box into which you shove a set of parameters and boom, out comes a solution.
But Hollywood seems to have a much weirder and more mystical conception of algorithms. No surprise, since the movies and computers have never really played well together — see any movie about hackers made before the 21st century or the long-running trope of technologically improbable “computer, enhance” commands. Run through the screenwriter’s filter, computers and code get squashed into vague, implausible fantasies that bear little resemblance to reality.
Here in 2021, “algorithms” are the latest mysterious force to mess with our lives, as attractive to screenwriters as mainframes and “the world wide web” once were. There’s been a rise in the use of algorithms as integral parts of a story, some more plausible than others.
In 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, a character named Yesss (voiced by Taraji P. Henson) is the “head algorithm” at a video-sharing website called BuzzzTube (you get it). In that universe, her main task is to spot trends and create them — something that is partly accomplished algorithmically in the real world, though with significantly less emotional intelligence than Yesss displays.
In 2020’s Tenet, the “algorithm” is a weird cylindrical gewgaw created by a scientist to ... well, I won’t spoil it, except to say that it involves messing with physics, and it is not exactly what I think of when I think of an algorithm. (Then again, I’m not a scientist from the future.)
And now in Space Jam: A New Legacy — the movie that provoked my Monday-night musings — an algorithm pops up yet again. As in Ralph Breaks the Internet, it takes the form of a character with the hokey name of Al G. Rhythm, played with tremendous and admirable vim by Don Cheadle.
Al G. is the movie’s villain, an artificial intelligence — which in real life is slightly different from an algorithm — who is tired of being downplayed and ignored by the executives who run Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. is the studio that produced Space Jam: A New Legacy, and the film does not want you to forget that.) Poor old Al operates a “serververse” called Warner 3000 and is scheming to run the whole company, whose human executives (played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun) are ready to more or less hand it over to him if his ideas prove profitable enough.
Into this weird situation fall NBA star LeBron James — playing himself — and his son Dom, played by Cedric Joe. (Point of order: Real-life LeBron James does have a wife and three children, but outside of LeBron, the members of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s James family, none of whom share names with his real-life family, are played by actors.) LeBron is intent on driving his sons toward working hard on their basketball fundamentals, even though Dom, who seems like kind of a genius, is way more interested in coding and creating video games.
One day, LeBron and Dom are at the Warner Bros. backlot for a meeting with studio execs and, via screen, Al G., who wants to insert LeBron’s digital likeness into all kinds of Warner Bros. properties. (This bit seems ripped directly from the season two episode of 30 Rock entitled “SeinfeldVision” or more darkly from the 2013 film The Congress, or more darkly still from our terrifying future.) Boosting Warner Bros.’ back catalog with cameos from the basketball star is Al G.’s plan for finally earning the respect he deserves from the company. LeBron is not interested.
However, through a series of unfortunate events not really worth recounting, LeBron and Dom get sucked into Al G.’s serververse and from thence into Warner 3000, which is sort of like a universe — one might say a cinematic universe, eh — populated by little planets on which the various properties owned by Warner Bros. live. There’s Harry Potter! There’s Austin Powers! There’s Wonder Woman! The gang’s all here.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is still a sequel to the first Space Jam starring Michael Jordan, so you know it will somehow end up being about Bugs Bunny and the world’s current best basketball player duking it out against evil villains in a game of hoops. Al G. is the one who sets up that game, managing to enlist Dom in his master plan, and the stakes are high: If the Tune Squad (LeBron plus the Looney Tunes) wins, they get to leave Warner 3000 and go home. If they lose, everyone watching the game — including all of LeBron’s social media fans who’ve tuned into the livestream — will get sucked into Al G.’s algorithm-driven world forever.
Little of what Al G. does in Space Jam: A New Legacy really has anything to do with algorithms. But if you want to try to cram him into that mold, the problem, from Al G.’s algorithmic perspective, is that not enough people are trapped in Warner Bros.’ vast catalog of intellectual property (IP) on a continual basis. The solution is to make sure they never get out. His job is to figure out how best to hold them captive.
So if audiences feel trapped while watching the nearly two-hour movie, well, maybe that’s on purpose. To be fair, it’s not all unpleasant. The joyride through the Warner Bros. IP universe is not quite as soul-busting as the trailer led me to believe it would be, though I suspect it benefited only in comparison to my expectations. LeBron James is a decent actor, and definitely gives a better performance than Michael Jordan did in the original movie 25 years ago. Cheadle, who would have been more than justified in phoning it in, is instead gnawing on the scenery. There is exactly one very funny joke.
Yet Space Jam: A New Legacy is an oddly oblivious movie, the kind of studio film that seems halfway aware that it’s sort of critiquing a problem its existence also exemplifies. In this case, that’s the ever-spooky “algorithm.” Years of kinda-joking, kinda-worrying about algorithms spying on us and tailoring our online experience and consumption habits to our liking — on Netflix, Facebook, TikTok, wherever — have finally surfaced in our collective subconscious (a.k.a. pop culture). We’re aware that more and more of our choices are not just feeding data to an algorithm but are shaped by that algorithm, and it freaks us out. I recently joined the TikTok masses and was chagrined at how quickly the app learned exactly what I wanted to see (workout videos, hacks for cleaning my shower) and what I definitely didn’t want to see (couples doing cute dances in sync, because I’m a grinch).
I’m aware that TikTok wants to make me buy stuff, just like Instagram does; it feels sentient, even if it’s “just” an algorithm doing its thing. I’m even more aware that algorithms are a big part of radicalizing people toward extremism. That makes them kind of scary.
Assuming we’re experiencing a mounting unease with the idea that algorithms are starting to run and ruin our lives, I think Space Jam: A New Legacy is best viewed as an apocalyptic movie, or maybe horror. That’s not what it’s billed as. In fact, the concept seems to be “make a two-hour commercial for HBO Max,” the streaming service that houses the many IPs owned by Warner Bros., which in turn owns HBO. This Space Jam installment is extremely bent on making sure you know how many of the properties you love belong to the WB: the Harry Potter movies, King Kong, Game of Thrones, Superman, Batman, Casablanca, The Iron Giant, Yogi Bear, The Mask, Mad Max: Fury Road, It, and, of course, Looney Tunes. Plus, a lot more.
Warner Bros. likes to broadcast frequent reminders of this. Its Lego movies delightedly traffic in existing IP. Ready Player One wallows in it, gleefully, and the result is even more dystopian than intended.
In this case, it’s clear the intent is to keep audiences hooked on HBO Max specifically — mostly because of repeated references to the Matrix movies and their characters, which none of the children who are presumably in Space Jam: A New Legacy’s target audience are likely to have seen. (Though I’m guessing that’s true for the Conjuring characters who pop up in the background, too.) Why keep talking about Trinity, then? Oh, because there’s a fourth Matrix movie coming out this fall, which will be in theaters and on — you guessed it — HBO Max. (That the Matrix movies are also kind of about beating malevolent algorithms seems lost on Space Jam: A New Legacy.)
I have nothing against HBO Max as a streaming service. Its library is full of films and TV shows from those mediums’ respective golden ages, and it puts some other streaming services (cough, Netflix) to shame. But that’s all beside the point.
What made me repeatedly groan as if an Acme-branded anvil had fallen on my toe is the way Space Jam: A New Legacy inadvertently understands and then ditches what’s so scary about algorithms. It’s absolutely frightening to imagine being trapped in a world where algorithms are in charge of all the “content” we can see, not just because they’re suggesting that content to us but because they’re creating it, too. Or at least because they’re strongly influencing the direction in which the money flows.
But that’s where we live now. Our cultural landscape is already heavily moderated by algorithms. It’s not just Netflix suggesting shows and movies (and even changing their thumbnails) based on what it knows about you or TikTok serving hyperspecific videos to tickle your brain’s pleasure center. It’s also Netflix (and plenty of other companies) using data to make decisions about what content it will produce next, which inevitably leads to more movies that feel like they were generated by a Mad Libs. It’s an increased leaning on algorithms and AI and deepfake-style technologies to create movies that will maximize profit or steer away from having humans involved in the filmmaking process. It’s letting code turn our individual preferences and tastes into commodities to be sold and catered to, rather than risking the possibility of challenging us and showing us something new.
Oddly enough, Space Jam: A New Legacy’s final message is that you need to be you; that good parenting is all about nurturing each child’s individuality and letting them stretch their wings and fly. But that’s just the opposite of what happens in the film, which posits that you get to be you as long as you don’t care about branching out beyond intellectual property that Warner Bros. already owns.
The original Space Jam movie was about IP, too — that of the Looney Tunes, who were fading into irrelevance at the time, as they are now, and that of the branding-savvy Michael Jordan, who was fighting to return to form after a rough patch in his public image. But the “new legacy” this installment maps out feels portentous, in an end-of-history way. Repurposing, recycling, and rebooting existing IP to make more money is an old strategy, but this movie feels like a crystallization point. It reinforces the idea that current IP exists mainly to cannibalize existing IP, forever and ever, till the end of the age.
I mean, look: Is this really want you want from the movies? Is this really where we want American entertainment to head?
Maybe it is. The box office — where franchise films get blockbuster billing and original titles struggle to break through — suggests as much.
That, in itself, suggests the algorithm is winning. Devious Al G. has figured out how to trap us in his serververse, after all. We’re all playing basketball in the algorithm’s world. Perhaps, at this point, it’s what we deserve.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.