It’s hard not to have fallen in love with Strange Days right off the bat. Set against the backdrop of the last night of 1999 (but released in 1996), the heart of the movie is not the futuristic-but-plausible S.Q.U.I.D. but the intersection of paranoia an prophecy. It’s LA, it’s effectively the last timezone on the planet, and it’s only getting later and later. Have the LAPD really released kill-squads onto the city streets. And if so, what exactly are these kill-squads meant to be cleaning up?
Strange Days was glitter and glam, and a subtle and beautiful revision of Bruce Sterling’s beguilingly compact definition of cyberpunk—“high tech, lowlife”. Rather than the early ‘80s vision of cyberpunk (visualized so vividly in ‘90s movies like Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel), Strange Days opted for another direction.
The logic was simple in the days of the Bruce Sterling-Bill Gibson collaborative fiction “The Difference Engine”, and in the days of Gibson’s own first trilogy where the Tessier-Ashpool family reimagined feudalism as a kind of corporate dynasty. The logic was simple—you get Street, and you get Suits, almost as a kind of social caste you were born into. If you were Street, you were honest enough about being unsophisticated. If you were a Suit, you really were culturally sophisticated, well-educated, able to conceive of distant ideals and able to realize them. Both sides had their various avatars of human compassion and inhuman violence.
Like the Vikings who settled the northeast of the British Isles, the cast of Strange Days found themselves amid a cultural sea-change. Rather than the hardline division between Street and Suit, Strange Days showed how the Street was beginning to assume the cultural modes of the Suits, and vice versa. Imagine it as “the guns, and the money, and the shame of life”, as the eponymous song put it. It’s the world of Hunter S. Thompson’s “A Dog Took My Place”, the world of Legs McNeil and Jennifer Lawrence’s the Other Hollywood, the world of James Ellroy. Framed by a POV-character who is both a burnt-out narc, and dealer in exotic, illegal wares (the techno-fetish S.Q.U.I.D. tapes, not regular-fetish drugs), Strange Days is uniquely an LA story, a vision of the tantalizingly-near future that is simultaneously Babylon, and Armageddon.
The vision Strange Days executed in the genre of cyberpunk might seem at first blush to be an outlier. But in truth, the movie has deep connections with the zeitgeist of the ‘90s. Chris Carter’s equally magnificent TV shows X-Files and Millennium would examine vast arrays of social dysfunction through the lens of something older and more mysterious than could be imagined, writhing just beneath the surface of the modern world. Prophecy again, mixed in with paranoia. Yeats’ blood-chilling lines that end his poem “The Second Coming” seems fitting here; “What rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
Even the world of nonfiction became embroiled in this defining spirit. Even now, Hancock & Bauval’s works (Fingerprints of the Gods, Keeper of the Genesis, the Mars Mystery) spring to mind in this regard. But popculture itself certainly seemed wholly infused with this strange mix of prophecy and paranoia—from videogames like the Tomb Raider and Gabriel Knight series to grand theories like Jesus Christ having begotten children (as chronicled in the nonfiction the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the fiction the Da Vinci Code), to scifi writer Arthur’s documentary TV show Mysterious Universe.
More or less since the summer with Justice League and since last winter with Aquaman Geoff Johns has positioned the books’ various heroes to be able to deal with exactly this cultural outbreak. It’s not that Aquaman has been hunting down Atlantean relics. It’s not that the League had to face off against David Graves, ancient prophecy author turned superhero chronicler. It’s not that man-of-science-turned-tomb-raider Dr. Sivana caused the right conditions for Shazam to manifest on the mortal plane.
Of course, “Throne of Atlantis” will be all of these things, but more. What sets the good of the “eternal mystery” genre apart from the purely accidental is the treatment of the human in relation to both the superhuman and to eternity. The art of the genre doesn’t lie in ancient mystical prophesy, but in the human apprehending these mysteries. It’s instructive to note that many who have encountered the writings of Graham Hancock have done so by first encountering his Fingerprints of the Gods, and only subsequently discover his earlier work the Sign and the Seal.
Not to diminish the role of Hancock’s coauthor Robert Bauval, but Fingerprints tells a movingly human tale of a supposed antediluvian supercivilization, the denizens of which found a way to encode their advanced knowledge when faced with catastrophic climate change and the destruction of their world. Borrowing its title from the Bible, the closing chapter’s “Like a Thief in the Night…” reads like a parable. It supposes, and elegantly articulates the story of a supercivilization that time and again reaches a pinnacle, only to be brought low by planetary shifts. But each time, manages to smuggle its knowledge out in hyper-accessible codes that will eventually be read by the knowledge-elite of civilizations still to come. The Sign and the Seal reads more like an academic detective novel with Hancock himself brachiating from one clue to the next all through southern Europe, on to the Mideast and eventually into Africa.
At its best, at its most poignant, all of the eternal mystery genre that spans both fiction and nonfiction always points to the human apprehending the infinite. This is the true magic that lay in both X-Files and the far darker Millennium, the real magic at the heart of Gabriel Knight and Tomb Raider and Hancock’s collaboration with Bauval and the various and sundry novels of Dan Brown.
It’s easy to read into “Throne of Atlantis” a latent success, just waiting to burst through the surface, because we’ve already read both Justice League and Aquaman for a year now. We’ve read the “Shazam!” backup stories in Justice League and we’ve seen a working through of noir modes of social dysfunction to get to a point of shouldering an awesome responsibility, and superhuman power. We’ve Aquaman’s battle against reverting to his older, more violent modes of engaging the human world, while at the same time protecting The Others. David Graves’ physical and spiritual decimation of the Justice League was poignant because of his broken human connections, not in spite of it.
“Throne of Atlantis” kicks off in the just-released Aquaman #14 leaps from Justice League issue to Aquaman issue and back again from now until February. It is the story about the mythical, the mystical, the otherworldly and how the pinnacle of the human form, the superhuman, leverages that in the service of apprehending eternity.
If there’s a tale to be told here it is a hauntingly moving one, hinging on human frailty and the desperate act of overcoming what appears to have already been fated. In no way is it a tale in a similar vein to the pure intellectual titillation of wondering whether or not Christ may have begotten heirs. If anything, it is the high art of Led Zeppelin who at a time when the band’s creative frisson is tearing them apart, and at a time shortly after vocalist Robert Plant losing his young son Karac (buried at age five), produce the uncharacteristic and yet difficult to ignore, difficult to forget “All of My Love”.
“Yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time”, Plant sings, legend has it the vocals were laid down all in one take. And perhaps that, and that only, is the perfect soundtrack for you to enjoy a preview of Justice League #15, the next chapter in “Throne of Atlantis”.