After Hurricane Sandy made landfall in October 2012, I became one of the residents of Manhattan’s newest neighborhood: SoPo, the wonderfully NYC-esque portmanteau for South of Power. The dividing line was 39th Street, and everyone south of that on the island was without electricity for several days.
I stuck it out for a day or two, and I can still remember going to bed super early (I think it was 8 or 9 o'clock at night), because once the sun has gone down, there really isn’t much to do when you have no power, no Internet and no cell service.
This month, a new film about the power outage called "3rd Street Blackout" is set to begin production in New York. Helmed by first-time directors Negin Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf, the film focuses on a tech-obsessed couple who find themselves suddenly—one might even say forcibly—unplugged after Sandy. "We really want to look at our over-dependence on technology—what happens when everything suddenly goes analog?" Farsad has stated. "You start making eye contact. It’s weird."
The entertainment industry—which is being rapidly transformed by new technology—has long been keenly aware of the effects that tech has on our lives, and especially on the way we interact with each other. Plenty of films have looked at technology with a skeptical eye—from "Terminator" and "The Matrix" to this summer’s “Godzilla,” which is essentially a parable about the arrogance and naiveté of humankind’s reliance on and confidence in the machinery that we have produced.
This year’s Johnny Depp vehicle "Transcendence" took the horror route. When technologist and scientist Dr. Will Caster is assassinated, his wife Evelyn devises a plan to uploads Will’s consciousness into a quantum computer. But as she begins to question her cybernetic husband’s motives, she has to question—is the new Dr. Caster the Will who she knows? Is he even human? And is turning her back on him the same as turning her back on the flesh-and-blood man that she loved?
But films like "3rd Street Blackout" go one step further, asking not just whether we are over-reliant on technology (we are), but examining what effect that over-reliance has on our ability to connect with each other. Last year’s "Her," Spike Jonze’s luminous meditation on love and intimacy, offers a more positive, softer-lens take. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly, reeling from a divorce with his wife, finds solace in Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the super-intelligent operating system that powers his personal electronics. Theodore falls in love with Samantha, and they begin a relationship. Although (spoiler alert!) their love doesn’t pan out in the end, Jonze’s film posits that Theodore’s virtual connection with Samantha allows him to relearn, in a way, how to connect with humans again.
During Hurricane Sandy, it was fun to be unplugged. Chatting by candlelight, it was impossible not to feel like we’d stepped back through time into an era where our entertainment came from, well, each other, unmediated by the screens that dominate our waking hours.