"Hotel Artemis" - A Review and Cyberpunk Analysis
Silver Spook AKA Christian Miller
Hotel Artemis is a cyberpunk indie film tour-de-force that got nowhere near the recognition it deserves, slipping under a lot of radars, including mine. So here's me doing my small part to remedy that.
Hotel Artemis, written and directed by longtime franchise writer Drew Pearce, takes place ten years in the future, where riots over water privatization have ravaged Los Angeles. The Nurse (Jodie Foster) runs a high-security secret hospital for criminals that hovers precariously on the brink of chaos, bound by a heaping helping of anonymity and trust.
Artemis shares a lineage with Bladerunner in that it is a British auteur's cyberpunk vision using the Art Deco husk of Los Angeles as a scaffolding to layer a dystopian hi-tech future onto. In 1982 it was Ridley Scott that set his way across the pond, and this time, it's Drew Pearce, writer on Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible 2, making his directorial debut.
Hotel Artemis has 'cyber' in spades. It's got the hi-tech microwave scalpels cutting open low-life bank heisters. It's got hi-tech Black Mirror-esque cornea-implanted video cameras that get 8G reception through meters of reinforced steel. It's got low-life Molly Millions razorgirl-analogs using said ocular cameras to make snuff films for lower-life well-heeled pervs, two thousand miles away via satellite livestream.
It's a film unstuck in time. Jodie Foster plays a septuagenarian once-hippy turned-diehard-urban den-mother, known as "Nurse". She awakens to the Papa's "California Dreamin" on an archaic record player. After getting a frumpy grandma-cardigan that's as time-faded and threadbare as a Velveteen Rabbit, she goes to work playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on a cassette tape -- slightly less archaic than the record player by two decades, give or take. She listens to 60's counterculture rock on 80's lo-fi in the 40's-style Hotel revamped into a 2028-future hospital for LA's criminal underbelly, complete with 3D liver printers and eye-rebuilding medicinal nanotech.
There's an exquisite layering of time periods, strata of technology and culture existing naturally on top of each other -- with the newfangled gizmos as just a sci-fi icing on a fully-realized world-cake. This degree of verisimilitude is perhaps the greatest achievement of Hotel Artemis that few cyberpunk sci-fi or speculative fiction works ever manage. Most instead hyperfocus on The Astounding Capital-F Future's Blasters Holodecks and FTL Spaceships as in trad- space-centric sci-fi, or the shiny badass cyberarms, flying cars, wired, biochips and trodes in every orifice, cyan-and-magenta Photoshop filtered generic Tokyo-scape, and 100 foot holo-geishas as in schlock cyberpunk.
Artemis' degree of lived-in, thought-through speculative realism alone, more than makes up for some of the wandering story and under-utilized tensions and actors oft complained about in other reviews. But add to this several endearing performances, and a 'soul-first, money-later' spirit that permeates the entire picture, and it's clear there's a future-cult-gem of neo-noir genius buried beneath a tidalwave of mainstream audiences disappointed they didn't get a generic marvel movie, or critics paid by the actual Wolf Kings of Hollywood and the entertainment-industrial-complex, who have certain members of Hotel Artemis cast on, if not the black list, the 'very dark grey' list.
(Pearce has himself acknowledged that he had specifically gone into 'Artemis' with the mantra, 'this is an indie film that not everyone will like, but some people will love it to death' - in particular his seventeen year old self. My seventeen year old self stands in solidarity!)
Obviously this resonates with me, having spent 2 ½ years working on Neofeud, a cyberpunk adventure game labor of love that is quite decidedly not for everyone. Firstly, a LucasArts / Sierra-style point-and-click that is niche AF, and secondly the 'postmodern impressionism' art style I was aiming for is admittedly love hate. But for my own twenty year old angsty Gibson-guzzling, Bladerunner binging and Deus Ex-devouring self, Neofeud would've been the best thing on the planet.
As a native Hawaiian, I'm intimately familiar with hotels (and I also have issues with aspects of Big Tourism that's colonized my homeland but that's one of my frequently digressed digressions so feel free to binge that rant elsewhere in my 'Tube catalogue of extended livestreamed diatribes).
Hotels are sanctuaries from the daily grind of dayjob drudgery. They're places of luxury -- exclusive clubs for a wealthy, privileged elite, and if you've the rare fortune to have a stable job with mysterious things called, 'vacation time', you average Joe or Jane might get to visit an economy-class hotel, two weeks out of a year, if you're lucky. Hotels are places of anonymity -- also a privilege in our world of Big Brother-centric surveillance capitalism and AI where Facebook, Google and China are in an arms race to build automated wardrone skynets and train world-dominating economic Hal 9000's with your every text message selfie-cammed micro expression, and online purchase.
But in this fairytale land called 'Richistan', that has none of that, that houses World Economic Forums in reclusive Swiss mountain ranges, idyllic Waikiki penthouse sunsets and private beaches. In this 'Elysium' of the elite no one asks questions when you walk in on the red carpet and check in, and the concierge would be remiss to give away patron data.
Hotels are homes for the moneyd homeless. The post-geographical cosmopolitan jet-setters doing Goldman Sachs bidding over powerlunches, smuggling Ono Sendai hacker decks and Maas-Biotek prototypes in titanium briefcases, or assassinating corporate big-wigs (the latter is the business of certain Hotel Artemis' members). Hotels are a country whose name is opulence, whose national past-times are, 500 dollar hookers, high-thread-count sheets and four-star room service, whose citizenship card is a platinum rectangle with the word VISA on it, whose anthem is neoliberal doctrine, and whose membership requires fealty to megabanks, megacorporations, and the megarich -- all of which are fundamentally criminal entities, not unlike the occupants of Hotel Artemis.
Cyberpunk is criminals working for bigger criminals, and Hotel Artemis has that in spades also.
Hotels are for those who do Nice, Honolulu, and Acapulco in a span of 48 hours.
According to Pearce, the initial inspiration came from visiting LA during the California droughts. Two years later, Flint Michigan taps spouting lead and carcinogens, 37 US cities and over 3000 communities in America without potable drinking water as part of our cyberpunk dystopian present, and Hotel Artemis is barely science fictional.
Is Hotel Artemis cyberPUNK?
Yes, there are punk elements.
The most punk aspect of Artemis is undoubtedly the Jodie Foster character.
We discover that the 'Nurse', through musical tastes, ideological choices and backstory, is fundamentally a child of the original subversive movements of the 60's -- the Civil Rights Movement, the spiritual predecessor of punk before it was suppressed, destroyed and co-opted by 'The Man' as the boomers called it then. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, shortly before taking a 30-06 round to the head, that 'There can be no racial equality without economic equality'. And then, as Rage Against The Machine says in The Matrix' credit's song, 'Then came the shot'.
A single working parent without a high school diploma could support a family of four with food, adequate housing, and healthcare in the mid-20th century in America. As we all know, that 'golden age of aquarius' has been in steep decline ever since, with half of the country at or near poverty, and millenials with Ph. Ds barely scraping by at Starbucks, uberdriving, dog-walking, and instacart gig-economy jobbing just to afford a closet above a methlab or a 'cyberpunk' coffin apodment at age 37 like Seattlites in Amazon's home city. The technically savvy are programming in sardine-packed into flop houses, attempting to be the next startup / crypto Zukerberg, or win the killer-app Hunger Games before the Go-Fund Me for their insulin dries up. (Fun fact: the average family of four in the US now pays around 30,000 for health insurance BEFORE being slammed with countless hidden fees and charges. Outrageous healthcare costs are a #1 reason cited by teachers striking like wildfire across the nation)
Hotel Artemis functions as an exclusive healthcare club, an exclusive 'potable water club' and exclusive high-security home for wealthy criminals who've enriched themselves looting other people (and sometimes killing them). It's quite resonant to the cyberpunk present we live in, in which a criminal business and political elite have robbed the majority of us blind and left us to rot like a homeless runaway teenager bleeding out from a drug deal gone bad in a ghetto with poison for tap water.
Foster's Nurse is that good Samaritan, who took in those desperate and dying street kids, healed their wounds, and served as a surrogate parent. That is the relationship that Bautista's character, Everest, the hulking orderly, has with Nurse. He will smash your face in with his medikit, but he's like a giant little kid with her. It is one of the strongest chemistries of the film, a believable adopted mother-son relationship, right down to Nurse telling Everest to 'take the long way to get some exercise' when she has him kick an unruly guest out of the Hotel. ("Visiting hours are never!" -- Bautista has all the best zingers)
Everest is no stranger to the violence and the brutality of American street-level poverty. He reminds the clientele that he is a 'certified healthcare professional' and if you talk about fight-club- sorry.. I mean the clandestine criminal hospital, Everest will hunt you down and 'un-heal' your ass.
At the same time, Everest is completely loyal and cares deeply about nurse -- always addressing her respectfully with 'yes nurse' even when he disagrees -- because she was the only who was there for him when he was lost in the brutal concrete jungle of cyberpunk dystopia that is the US present and future.
It later becomes apparent Foster's character had taken in countless other street kids, like Everest, and had worked to heal the healthcare-less at a free clinic, until it was shut down.
This aspect of Hotel Artemis personally resonated the most with me, as someone who grew up a person of color in a US ghetto. I later went on to become a STEM teacher for inner-city kids and a social worker. Fundamentally, I was a surrogate parent for countless homeless, marginalized, parentless children whos parents were zonked out on meth, incarcerated, or just working so many jobs to keep the family afloat they just weren't around. These kids I was working with were like Everest, who saw their only possible future as becoming a drugdealing criminal, an Ice Cube-like rap star, or both. They were all striving to follow the footsteps of the Wolf King and the rest of the Hotel Artemis' residents -- as affluent globetrotting badasses. But the reality was they'd mostly end up in the prison-industrial complex making Whole Foods products and fighting California wildfires for 72 cents an hour.
I worked with several foster parents, many of them aging-hippy white ladies just like Jodie Foster's character. One in particular, she had the same frazzled grey hair, faded tye dye so ancient it might've survived Woodstock. I was teaching a Lego Robotics class to about ten kids, many from low-income housing and foster kids -- there were two Native Hawaiians, a few Filipinos, mixed-race, and an African American. Side note: Bautista is half Filipino half Greek, and grew up in poverty in one of the most horrifically unequal areas of the US -- Washington DC. Bautista once recalled himself and his sister surviving for a week on a pot of burned beets with their single mother.
A lot of the kids I was teaching gave me flak and insisted on pretending to be Kanye West and trying to rap battle me (I occasionally obliged them and had to kick their butt to settle them down and win some respect). But eventually, we got to working on building Lego robotic arms (cause you've got to prime kids to grow up cyberpunks early!) I helped them engineer and program self-driving Lego cars, beating Tesla and Google to the punch by a decade.
But at the end of the first class, this old white lady in her Birkenstocks and a frayed old flower-sweater, very much like Jodie Foster's character came in through the door.
"Ok boys, time to go!" she said. And about 2/3 of the class got up saying, "Yes, mom" in a tone just like Dave Bautista's "Yes, nurse", and all the black and brown kids all flocked to her and gave her a big group hug.
Everest's and Nurse's relationship is really the soul of this movie, and it is more true to reality than almost anything I've seen in the cyberpunk and adjacent genres. While American cinema and AAA games often demonize or glamorize criminals, (the latter is common in cyberpunk), most actual 'criminals' in my experience are people who are 'prisoners of their own devices' as a certain Eagles song about a hotel goes. They're people with limited options, often due to poverty or marginalization, forced to try to survive by often illegal means. Whether that's robbing banks, selling drugs or boosting cars (one of the smartest kids I taught was a literal grand theft auto convict who grew up poor and brown). 'Poverty is the worst form f violence' as Ghandi correctly put it. It isn't glamorous, it is ugly, and it is wrong. It is a wrong done to millions of people, a particularly egregious wrong in the richest country on Earth like the US.
The work to remedy is also as unglamorous and often unnoticed as a little drab frazzly grey-haired old lady -- but it is the real work. Jeff Goldblum plays the Wolf King 'owner of half of LA' and there's a scene where Nurse is healing his wounds, and she refers to him as 'just another ex-con hippy who traded beads for bullets'. In that moment the history of America, perhaps the world, is boiled down to a microcosm. Six decades have passed since the Assassination of JFK and King, and one flower child his sold out, bought into 'greed is good' mantra of the 80's and made billions of dollars profiting as the country falls into squalor, the environment burns, water riots and chaos dominate. The other is still doing the hard but necessary social work of providing for those less fortunate even when it was 'uncool', was the safety net for those falling through the gaping cracks, healing the healthcareless. If the ratio of true-punk nurses to sell-out Wolf Kings were greater, we'd probably be in less of a global mess, right now.
Sterling K. Brown plays Waikiki, a bank heister and his relationship with his less-competent drug-addicted brother is another strong point. The brother gets them in trouble and nearly gets them killed on multiple occasions, but Waikiki stays by his side.
But on top of the heavy subtance, Artemis practically oozes style and flair. There are a fair share of action including Mexican standoffs with 3D printed guns, assassinations via coffee cup (Riddick would be proud) and Boutella (famous for kicking deadly ass with ninja-sword legs as 'Gazelle' in Kingsman) is amazing as a physical actress -- a great scene with her taking on a mob of LA gang underlings is nineties-action flick quality.
But what Artemis DOESN'T show speaks volumes, and is in senses more bold than what it DOES. A massive showdown with Bautista wielding an axe is merely implied, a bank vault goes uncracked (much to the chagrin of the drilling specialist). Oft slammed by critics for 'missed opportunities' on the contrary, I think fully revealing these would be easy, predictable Hollywood cliché, and thinking about it in retrospect, wouldn't've added much. (The film was also shot for $15 million, or about 1/3 the going rate for a major Marvel action star, and given this A-List of Bautista, Foster, Brown, and Goldblum, there was obviously some pro-bono work hours put in here.)
What is Punk?
"Punk subculture originated out of working class angst and the frustrations many youth were feeling about economic inequality and the bourgeois hypocrisy. It was primarily concerned with concepts such as pro-working class, egalitarianism, humanitarianism, etc." the inherently infallible truth arbiter, Wikipedia, tells us.
Foster's character didn't have radioactive green Mohawks, sleeveless jean jackets, or safety pins and studs everywhere, but her character was the most actually punk in the 'substance' sense. Nurse actually did humanitarian work, helped people who actually needed it, often at her own peril -- such as Everest and an injured community liaison officer. The latter act could've gotten her killed given the LA criminal godfather (played by Jeff Goldblum) owns this future-tech hospital for the criminal elite.
She's also got the 'cyber' in cyberpunk covered with all the 3D printed organs, laser-exactos, and even a broken bone-mending spray based on biohacked coral polyps. (Director Pearce describes this in detail, and experts on the movie ranged from NASA to SpaceX. The research on the movie is one of its highest points.
While its neo-noir lighting and fixtures, whodunit slow-burn sensibility and post-genre originality may not be everyone's idea of a silver screen weekend getaway, for those who fans of true cyberpunk, and tour-de-force from-the-heart indie filmmaking if you check into Hotel Artemis, like the Eagles Hotel California says, 'you'll never leave'.
(Drew Pearce probably wanted to get that song in the movie but couldn't afford the rights, so imagine it playing over the credits!)
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