Vision Machines

Apocalypse & virtual deterrence in Southland Tales

by Robin Manley

Illustration by Eliza Chen

published November 10, 2017

content warning: suicide

The world never quite ends in Southland Tales. When a nuclear detonation interrupts an idyllic suburban afternoon in Texas, Cold War faith in deterrence shatters across the screen. In the short fade to black, viewers can’t help but see intercontinental ballistic missiles swirling the globe—cultural anxieties over nuclear war erupting from their carefully guarded silos. But rather than dwelling on this symbolic apocalypse, Southland Tales moves quickly onto the next—in 2008, three years after the detonation of the bomb, disaster is at hand again. Sitting atop a permanent military turret overlooking Santa Monica beach, surveying the crowds through the scope of his rifle, the narrator Pilot Abilene insists three times over: “This is the way the world ends.” 

Released in 2006, Southland Tales is the second Hollywood film from Richard Kelly, director of the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko. Southland Tales frantically blends science fiction, comedy, and thriller into a ‘pop-satire’ that defies easy comprehension or summary. The world is embroiled in WWIII, driving a fuel crisis that has spawned the alternative-energy technology “Fluid Karma,” a sea platform that harvests seemingly unlimited energy from the motion of the waves but has slowed the rotation of the earth. A ‘neo-Marxist’ cell in Los Angeles wages war with the militarized American surveillance state—a battle the identical Taverner twins fight on opposite sides of. American film star Boxer Santaros has written an eerily prophetic screenplay, and has been caught in the political games of a presidential campaign. The cast is equally jarring, bringing together WWE wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, American Pie star Seann Williams Scott, vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar, teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake, and Saturday Night Live comedian Amy Poehler. Amidst its chaos, however, the film remains invested in American politics; the US conflicts with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea parallel many of those from the early 2000s, and the film’s expanded domestic surveillance apparatus is a product of the infamous PATRIOT Act.

Speaking with the Washington Post soon after the film’s release, Kelly claimed that he sought to grapple with “some of the biggest issues that I think we're facing right now, whether it's homeland security or alternative fuel or the increasing obsession with celebrity and how celebrity now intertwines with politics.” In spite of Kelly’s previous critical acclaim, the film’s far-reaching ambitions, and its ‘interactive release’ featuring six graphic novels and MySpace pages for many characters, Southland Tales tanked—receiving an overwhelmingly negative response at the Cannes Film Festival, and making under $400,000 on a $17 million dollar budget. Shane Danielstein was not an outlier when, in a review for the Guardian, he claimed that this was the worst film he had ever seen. 

Yet a decade later, in spite of its impressive failure, Southland Tales has recently seen a resurgence of attention. Sparked, in part, by a suggestion from Kelly in a March interview with Vulture that there may be an expanded re-release, critics have returned to the movie. Over the past two years, writers for Vice, Motherboard, Washington Post, IndieWire, and Inverse Entertainment have returned to Kelly’s maligned work, wondering whether it might speak to our moment of celebrity-politicians and an ever-expanding security state.


If the first apocalypse in Southland Tales is a crisis of physical destruction, this second is one of metaphysical alienation. The Fluid Karma technology, billed as a perpetual motion machine and used to fuel the American war machine, has a major unforeseen consequence: by slowing the rotation of the Earth, it has created a tear in the fourth dimension—located in the Nevada desert. Through the representation of a media-saturated post-deterrence world obsessed with prediction, combined with the metaphysical crisis of time that animates the plot, Southland Tales explores the consequences of the growing social importance of time and light.

In the eponymous final chapter of Paul Virilio’s The Vision Machine, the cultural theorist traces this general shift from the importance of space and matter to that of time and light: “After the nuclear disintegration of the space of matter, which lead to the implementation of a global deterrence strategy, the disintegration of the time of light is finally upon us… with deception finally defeating deterrence.” Though it is rarely referred to, the opening nuclear explosion reverberates throughout the whole film; the failure of traditional nuclear deterrence thematizes the transition to virtual warfare based on deception, prediction, and illumination. Virilio argues that war in the 21st century has transferred “from the actual to the virtual.” He traces this shift through strategies of military deterrence. Warfare, for some time now, has not hinged upon the masterful strategies, unique tactics, or deft maneuvers of seasoned generals; the atomic bomb introduced the logic of deterrence, in which opponents accumulate sufficient weapons to guarantee the total destruction of the enemy in conflict. Today, “the chief tack of warfare… is the elimination of the appearance of the facts.” Instead of the proliferation of nuclear warheads, there is a profusion of images and sounds of weapons, a focus on secrecy, dissimulation, and deception. Stealth vehicles coated in radar-absorbent paint, missiles that deceive tracking systems, electronic projections of weapons systems—a new “arsenal of dissimulation” has “overshot deterrence,” producing a “definitive split between the real and the figurative.” 

To say that war has been transferred to the virtual is to note that the relevant distinction is no longer between the true and the false—for images of weapons have their own reality—but between actual effects and virtual representations of them. As Virilio puts it, “This process is less to do with fake effects—once we accept the lie as given—than with the obliteration of the very principle of truth.” Success in the virtual war requires accurate perception and absolute knowledge.

When “winning is simply a matter of not losing sight of the opposition,” total illumination becomes the strategic dream: “The will to see all, to know all, at every moment, everywhere, the will to universalized illumination: a scientific permutation on the eye of God which would forever rule out the surprise, the accident, the irruption of the unforeseen.” Paired, then, with the tactic of deception and dissimulation comes that of observation, prediction, and simulation—a total mapping that anticipates every situation. The nuclear attack in Southland Tales demarcates this transition, depicting the sudden failure of the traditional logic of deterrence and staging the rest of the film within the logic of virtual war.

The real-time circulation of images and simulations of the near future in Southland Tales illustrate this logic of virtual warfare. A social logic of virtual power seems to motivate many central players in the film. For most of the film, the narrator—Pilot Abilene—sits atop a sniper turret overlooking Venice beach, accompanied by a computer display that provides him extensive bureaucratic and biological information about anyone in sight: names, birthdays, social security numbers, blood types, thumbprints, DNA sequences. Abilene not only surveils the activities of the beach but also taps into a seemingly vast network of information about the individuals in his gaze. His position draws an implicit equivalence between the transcendent, all-knowing status of the classical narrator and the watchful security apparatus: invoking the scientific permutation of the eye of God. This situation is paralleled by the position of Nana Mae Frost, the head of US-IDent—the newly centralized American surveillance agency—whose office chair faces a wall of monitors which display real-time video feeds from cameras throughout the city, live news broadcasts, television programming, police car dashboard cameras, camera-equipped glasses on agents, and, at one point, a live feed from the muzzle of a soldier's gun. Beyond Abilene’s position of oversight—which is ultimately limited to a single location and static position—Frost can jump between views and perspectives, occupying multiple simultaneously. The very premise of an integrated and all-powerful surveillance organization like US-IDent is that, through sheer quantity of information and processing, the government will know what is taking place before it does—a total simulation of the world.

While Abilene and Frost strive to fulfill the dream of total illumination, the neo-Marxist tactics of resistance operate on the basis of virtual weaponry. Their plots revolve predominantly around the political power of incriminating videos—staging videos of Santaros with ex-pornstar Krysta Now, as well as of a racist police officer shooting a biracial couple, the neo-Marxists take advantage of a constant news environment that pervades the film. These virtual scenarios are indistinguishable from real events; the dissidents are convinced the first film could be “a marriage killer… maybe even an election killer” for a senator connected to Santaros. Rather than a traditional political logic concerned with evaluation and comparison of principled, factually grounded stances on policy issues, politics seems to have shifted to a logic more closely resembling advertising agencies or reality television competitions. Like the contemporary arsenal of dissimulation that has replaced nuclear deterrence, political personalities and brands have replaced stances and ideals. 


The shift of deterrence and the primacy of the virtual in Southland Tales is bound up with the status of time, which is understood in terms of the division between real-time and delayed-time rather than a division between the past, present, and future. Virilio points to real-time telepresence technology—in which the image of an object captured by the camera corresponds to its virtual presence, available for engagement by a spectator—as an example of this new relationship to time. The future, through computational simulations, is folded into and extrapolated from the present, such that ‘real’ time contains not only the present but also the immediate future. This collapse of the future into the present is what enables the powerful technologies of simulation and prediction. ‘Real-time’ missile radars on military ships, for example, project the future of the missile by automatically calculating its trajectory and intervening factors—its explosive impact determined well before it takes place.

In an early scene, a news report can be heard from offscreen, explaining how claims that Liquid Karma is a perpetual motion machine are incompatible with the laws of thermodynamics. Indeed, such an eternal motion machine must escape entropy, existing outside the flow of time. Beyond simply slowing Earth’s rotation, the tear in spacetime produced by Liquid Karma might be a consequence of that violation of traditional, linear time. The film, it seems, explores this newly formed relationship of society to time, divided between real and delayed. Even before the tear in the fourth dimension is revealed, there is a connection between temporal rift and representational images. When Ronald Taverner—a member of the neo-Marxists—is first introduced, he has just discovered that his reflection in the mirror has an eerie delay, miming his movements just a moment after he makes them. His image, or virtual double, is out of sync with his actual body. The lag in his reflection disturbs him enough that he pulls out his gun, places it to his head, and then points it at the mirror. He shoots, but not before redirecting his aim to just below the mirror—a tacit acknowledgment of this emerging, material danger of harming his own image.

Moreover, Liquid Karma’s existence outside of linear time conceptually parallels the logic of real-time. The skeptical news report is just one instance of the real-time news coverage that permeates the film, relaying events and plot developments to the viewer as they take place; at points, the news report stands in for a visual representation of developments to the viewer. Events are granted significance by their relay in real-time. Taverner’s delayed reflection points to the integral tie formed between images and time; the delayed-time of his reflection calls into question his actual material existence. By standing in for, replacing, or covering-over their material counterparts, real-time images take on their own reality in Southland Tales. Events take place through the manipulation of images, live.


If, in our age of real-time news, reality television politicians, and virtual deterrence, Southland Tales provides a useful language for analyzing politics—despite and perhaps due to its chaos—then we can rightly ask what models of political dissent it presents.

The first model, embodied by pornstar Krysta Now, is a total embrace of and investment in one’s own commodified image: curating one’s brand, existing always in front of a camera, exposing everything. Remember, the “one undeniable truth” of the film: “nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now.” This strategy perfectly replicates—perhaps to the point of parody—the logic of time and light, and by excitedly fulfilling all of its demands, it may actually carve out a space outside of those demands. Carefully playing the role of the perfect, media-suffused subject who adores the camera, Krysta Now uses visibility as a disguise—actually shifting suspicious attention away from herself.

The second model is a potentially fatal insistence on the real, represented by suicide threats or taking oneself hostage. The film is just as cavalier about suicide as it is with ostentatious brands and nuclear warfare—self-harm comes off as just another element in its characters’ wargames. The image of a character holding a gun to their own head repeats throughout the film: when Taverner notices his delayed reflection; when an unknown man receives a draft card; when a US-IDent worker, obsessed with Santaros’ screenplay and impersonating one of his characters, demands: “if you don’t let me suck your dick, I’m going to kill myself;” when Santaros interrupts a party in a Mega-Zeppelin; and when, in the final scene, Roland Taverner points the gun at his twin Ronald Taverner, and then himself, as their ice-cream truck levitates above Los Angeles. 

Between these disparate scenes, the threat of shooting oneself functions as an act of reclamation, an exertion of the last power that one has available—one’s actual, material death. In this way, it forcibly retrieves power from one’s image; it insists on the agency of the individual; it refuses the total prediction and commodification of life. This power of the threat—without ultimately pulling the trigger—might lend some obscure sense to the otherwise inexplicable final line of the film: “Pimps don’t commit suicide.”

ROBIN MANLEY B’18 is floating in an ice cream truck.