Analysis of the ‘mass surveillance state’ vs. a tedious buddy comedy

Let’s face it, insists the thought-provoking new documentary Coded Bias: this country, along with most of the world’s developed nations, is under constant surveillance by its government. One of the principal tools for that ubiquitous spying is facial recognition technology, the object of scrutiny by filmmaker Shalini Kantayya—an associate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism who’s also a determined investigative reporter.

Putting aside for a moment the argument that unlimited high-tech police monitoring of the public is a violation of civil rights, there’s another basic flaw in the idea of randomly sorting through large groups of people in search of lawbreakers. According to the doc’s panel of concerned scientists and activists, current facial recognition algorithms are disseminating racial bias at dangerous levels.

For instance, the computers that collect all those faces have trouble sorting out women’s faces, and the faces of people of color. Basically, they all tend to look alike to the watchful robots. Because this brand of artificial intelligence was created by white scientists, there’s a bias toward male faces with lighter skin, asserts Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab. Chimes in journalist Meredith Broussard, “People embed their own biases into technology.”

Those biases often lead to incorrect matches and the accompanying injustices. An innocent person can show up as a wanted person. In the film’s most dramatic sequence—introduced by civil libertarian Silkie Carlo, head of the UK’s Big Brother Watch—a man walking down a London street is detained and fined by police for covering up his face in front of a surveillance camera van. The innocent man, visibly shaken, is not charged with a violent crime, but with impeding police intrusion into his privacy as he strolls through a public space.

Similar gaffes occur in Hong Kong, New York or anywhere facial recognition algorithms are allowed free reign. Those algorithms are now allowed to determine who gets hired and who gets housing; they’re even used for job evaluations. In China, a “social credit score” reflects what a person does or says (it apparently exists in the U.S. as well). “I’m very worried about this blind faith we have in big data,” says Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction. As the doc illustrates, George Orwell’s 1984 has come true … 36 years late. Director Kantayya’s rallying cry makes complete sense: “Data rights are human rights. “

Remember mumblecore? That quasi-genre of American comic cinema arguably originated in the early 2000s with movies by Mark and Jay Duplass, Andrew Bujalski and other filmmakers shown at the SXSW Film Festival—Greta Gerwig was frequently hailed as the ideal mumblecore female lead. Wikipedia describes the genre as having “naturalistic acting and dialogue, low-budget film production, [and] an emphasis on dialogue over plot.” But it could just as accurately be seen as the bald-on-laughs early work of neophyte filmmakers in need of help with their writing. Michael Angelo Covino’s laborious buddy comedy The Climb might be the missing link to those bygone days. In fact, it may very well be the last mumblecore movie—we can only hope.

Amiable but dumb Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and his argumentative best friend Mike (played by the director) have a long and accident-filled relationship involving a woman (Gayle Rankin), various ruined vacations, the usual horrible Thanksgiving dinner (is there any other kind?), a kidnapping and a farcical wedding ceremony. What’s with all the French-language pop tunes? Is the filmmaker trying to graft a little Euro-playfulness onto a screenplay that’s dead on arrival?

The Climb‘s release date was originally scheduled for March 27, 2020, but the film was held in pandemic limbo until now. Think of that as a delayed sentence. If we’re going to spend 97 minutes with a pair of thick-headed dolts, they should at least be cuddly and lovable instead of dull and annoying. See it if you must.

Coded Bias opens in Bay Area virtual cinemas Nov. 18
The Climb opens in theaters Nov. 13

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