Sky Hulk

I, Gremlins Scholar

You may have heard of the Institute of Gremlins 2 Studies birdsite account and its accompanying online open access journal, the Quarterly Journal of Gremlins 2 Studies, which is yet to publish its first issue. One might argue it’s not a real journal, but I prefer to think that it is. So much so, I submitted an article (which has been accepted, thanks very much) but remains in publishing limbo (just like what happens in verified journals).

Anyway, herewith enjoy my submission. It’s the only thing of note I’ve written since the slow painful birth of my thesis, so it has a special place in my heart. Actually I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

Mundane dystopia: Automation and the Clamp Center

Gremlins 2: The New Batch warns of the consequences of yielding human space to machines and attempts to remind us that not all of humanity’s achievements are technological. The machine discussed here is the Clamp Premier Regency Trade Center and Retail Concourse (the Clamp Center) and its engineered, automated building services, being systems that control and change the relationship between humans and their immediate physical environs. The gremlins attempt to deliver this message of warning, but ultimately fail.

A recurring theme in films of the early 1990s was criticism of corporation-driven techno-utopianism, seen in for example in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Robocop 2 (1990), Universal Soldier (1992) and, of course, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). While these most frequently depicted technological futures in the exciting and dangerous arenas of law enforcement, the military and transhumanism, Gremlins 2 differentiated itself by focusing perhaps the most mundane and invisible of engineering disciplines, that of building services. Building services are the systems that provide for the safe and comfortable operation of modern buildings, and include climate control, lighting, plumbing, communications, security and vertical transportation (elevators).

Most scenes in Gremlins 2 are set within the Clamp Center, “the world’s most fully automated office building”. The Clamp Center invites its visitors to notice and be impressed by its building services, from “a revolution in revolving-door precision and efficiency” when entering through the Clamp Entry-matic to “the latest in security, communications and climate control”. It feels like the indoor design had been imagined as futuristic silver, but manifested as monotonous grey. The public address systems constantly draw attention to technology, as if worried that it would otherwise be ignored or become unremarkable. This portrayal of modern building technology illustrates a future where technology has overtaken architectural expression as the defining characteristic of a building.

Building services engineering is a special category of technology because it replaces human ways of making our immediate environs usable, safe and comfortable with machine control systems that abide by rule-based logic. Consider how climate control works in a building like the Clamp Center: temperature sensors located throughout each space (the office, the lobby) take measurements and send them back to a central computer. If a temperature is outside of the defined comfort range, the computer instructs the air conditioning system to send more heating or cooling to that space. The point is that humans take no part in this process. The opinions of Billy, Kate, Grandpa Fred, Forster or any other employee are irrelevant because the temperature sensors can’t sense nor parse them. In fact, it is irrelevant whether any human is present. As a result, the automated building disempowers people and imposes an encasement of deterministic control. Superficially this is harmless, and maybe feels empowering (“have a powerful day!”) but over time people come to rely on the machine to provide services and lose the habit of providing for themselves. Marla, the most natural inhabitant of the Clamp Centre, epitomises this effect: she appeals to the building for support as if it is her constant assistant, always following closely behind as she storms down the corridor.

A key difference between the human and machine ways of regulating physical surroundings is that we have preferences and expectations that are influenced by history and context, and that are subject to change. A machine could not sense the difference between two different contexts, but we can. For example, the physical environments in Mr Wing’s store and the Splice O’ Life laboratory may be wildly different yet equally acceptable because they each conform with what we expect. In architectural science this is termed cognitive tolerance; if we are not physically comfortable but we understand and accept the source of our discomfort, we are more forgiving, and as a result a musty, chaotic curiosity shop is more forgivable than a tightly controlled laboratory. The Clamp Center, as a machine, does not accept that there can be more than one truth. The machine works with a predefined set of inputs, all of which are things that can be measured, and does not appreciate any further complexities, nor does it consider any context. Its response is limited to things that can be instrumentalised to change the set of inputs – things like fans or lights, not things like the expectations or opinions of people. When Daniel Clamp tells Billy, “Bill, there’s nothing we can’t do in this building”, he means that there is no way in which the building cannot replace human ways of constructing reality with machine ways of controlling physical reality. The scenes set around Billy’s desk emphasise this imposition of control, from the grey of the furniture and fittings, the almost-complete absence of daylight, and the camera angled up to draw our attention to the air conditioning outlets and the grid of unnaturally-hued lights. To further emphasise Billy’s work area as a site of control, Forster identifies Billy using a bar code and, citing the employee manual, bins Billy’s personal effects including his painting of Kingston Falls.

Clamp’s machines forcefully occupy this contested space, usurping the human ways and then gaining further ground by providing services that are less and less necessary: voice-activated elevators and self-cleaning ashtrays are the newest innovations touted for the Clamp Chinatown Center. The Center announcements constantly interrupt with banalities even in the face of crisis (“the elevator doors have opened. Please watch your step”). The Center’s authoritarian administrative rules extend this zone of machine control. They eradicate the adornments that would normally be invigorating; not just Billy’s painting but also the art that must be “authorised and colour-coordinated”, the “unauthorised potted plants”, and there is an almost complete lack of daylight. After all, “people don’t want to be coming to work every day in a $200 million flea market”. Daylight in particular is symbolic of transcendent power because it can force its way into buildings. Notice how daylight streams through the blinds into Clamp’s top-floor office, and how it was weaponised to eradicate the gremlins. Daylight is also restorative as a source of stimulation, cleansing and Heraclitean tranquility. It is no accident that the first instance of escape by a gremlin is Bat Gremlin’s break towards daylight.

The yielding of control to machines, as exemplified by the Clamp Center, results in a replacement of the philosophical basis of control, from that of humanised reality to the single-truth physical determinism of machines. As a concept, human regulation of indoor space is a good example of one of Latour’s hybrid objects, partly explained by objective thermodynamics but also subject to historical biases and socio-cultural conventions. Of course, knowable physical reality as informed by the laws of thermodynamics is a valid component of experience, and sometimes we do need machines to make space habitable, safer and healthier. However, because we do not fully understand nor acknowledge the line between ‘need’ and ‘want’ (if there indeed is a generalisable line), we are easily seduced by machine determinism and we do not know how to use machines judiciously. Why would we not prefer the convenience of smart lighting, climate control and revolving door entry management? Hulk Hogan breaks the fourth wall to explain further, “people pay good money to see this movie! When they go out to the theatre they want cold soda, hot popcorn and no monsters in the projection booth!”. This scene is the most important to this discussion because he implicates the audience: we are just as easily seduced by modern comforts and conveniences as any of Clamp’s customers.

Despite its overreaching control systems, the Clamp Center was dysfunctional even before the gremlins arrived, as best demonstrated by Billy’s videophone which doesn’t even function for an internal call to Kate when he asks her to pick up Gizmo. The fact that Billy himself may well be the point of failure is irrelevant, because machine determinism must at some point converge with humanity, making machine dysfunction inevitable. This process renders machine determinism a hybrid object just like everything else, as surely as the jet of water from the cooler will hit a mogwai. This of course produces the film’s first major turning point, generating the new batch of dumber, meaner mogwai and setting an accelerating path of chaos, entropy and ultimately revelation. The Clamp organisation always conceded the imperfect nature of the machine, demonstrated by the hiring of Forster, whose job is to “get the bugs out of the building”, and to employ a surveillance team to police unauthorised employee behaviour. Clamp embraces the fascism implicit in surrendering to science and bolsters his organisation’s power in response. Ironically, the humans are now deployed in service of a machine that was ostensibly created to service human space.

Enter the gremlins. Their first act is to invade the air ducts and electrical switchboards – the zones that provide building services – in order to torment Gizmo. Later, they become the machine itself, firstly the services (their voices substituting for the lift alarm) and then the very source of the services when Electric Gremlin enters the current-carrying wires and gains omnipresence. The gremlins now inhabit territory that is inaccessible to humans but which exists to make the building habitable for humans. In doing so, they reveal the extent to which we, as humans, have yielded control over our own environments and sown the seeds of a creeping dystopian future operating on the terms of machines (it is only when our heroes exert some control over the machines that they have a chance. Luckily, Kate knows how to use the hold function on the phone system).

In interview with Grandpa Fred, Brain Gremlin discloses the gremlins’ manifesto. They want civilisation, but not the version sold by Clamp and bought by us. They want “the niceties, Fred. The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition […] The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries.” The gremlins’ purpose is therefore twofold – to lay bare the consequences of yielding control to machines, and to remind us that the true achievements of humanity are not the technological, but those that propagate harmony and peace.

At the same time as showing us the problem, Gremlins 2 bets on our inability to change. Although Clamp admits that the Clamp Center “…wasn’t a place for people anyway. It was a place for things. You make a place for things and things come”, his enthusiasm for the marketability of Clamp Corners, a simulacrum of Kingston Falls, betrays his true perspective. “I want to build it. This is what people want now, the traditional community thing. Quiet little towns, back to the earth.” Clamp does not recognise that authentic communities like Kingston Falls cannot be fabricated. Although he intrinsically understands humankind’s attraction to nature and natural ways of being – see also how he uses birds and flowers to symbolise life in his end of civilisation video – his redemption is not genuine because it is a doubling-down of his drive to commercialise space and place. The drawing of Kingston Falls is a symbol of Billy’s latent autonomy; it remains to be seen whether he will return to his home town or sell it out on the bidding of everyone around him.

Notwithstanding the dilemma that Billy is left with, the final scenes of the film suggest that none of the human characters will absorb the gremlins’ warning and take up a path towards more humanistic forms of progress. “No trip to New York is complete without a trip to the world’s most fully automated office building,” the building’s public address system reminds us after the new batch have been exterminated. Over-automation remains normal. Sheila Futterman is overheard asking Microwave Marge about a recipe, suggesting a hurry to return to trivial matters rather than confronting the difficult questions raised by events. Hulk was right.