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Trump, Gadhafi, computer utopian idealists... Adam Curtis’s new film tries to make sense of our current cultural moment.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Oct

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

“We live in a strange time.”

So begins Adam Curtis’s new documentary HyperNormalisation. It’s a deceptively simple statement that begins a twisted spiral down into the rabbit hole of our current historical moment.

The world that Curtis discovers bears some resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s famous story Through the Looking-Glass, but it bears an even greater resemblance to John Carpenter’s film The Thing. A world in which reality and fiction have so converged, it is like catching the alien invader mid-transformation, merging with its human victims in a semi-melted plasticity of meat, sinew, eyeballs and bits of hair.

One caveat, before we begin. If you’re already familiar with Curtis and his oeuvre you will know what is coming. If you are not, you may well find yourself shouting at the computer screen, “What the Hell?” Some of the assertions the film makes may seen a tad out there, but having watched not only all of Curtis’s films as well as many others that make reference to some of the events covered in HyperNormalisation, including Mirage Men, The Russian Woodpecker and All Governments Lie, I have absolute faith in his due diligence. Yes, the film presents conspiracy theories with same weight as historical fact, but before turning its audiences purple and apoplectic, it also asks that we delve deeper, look harder and question everything.

You could subtitle HyperNormalisation “The Power of Consequences.” The central conceit is that nothing ever really goes away. Things always come back, circling around on their makers, morphing into monstrous conglomerations of deceit and absurdity, a horrific intermingling of human and alien, returned to devour and destroy.

When I watched the trailer for it, I cannot deny that a surge of hope flared like a sunspot. If anyone could offer an answer for our bewildering cultural moment, it might be Adam Curtis. The man has fashioned an entire career out of mining the archives of the BBC to discover forgotten bits of history. It’s the kind of stuff you simply couldn’t make up, whether it was the family history of Maggie Thatcher (The Attic) or the successive waves of colonizing armies that have breached themselves on the mountains of Afghanistan (Bitter Lake).

In this new work, Curtis has set himself an immense challenge, namely to explain what the hell is happening right now. By the film’s end, after two hours and 41 minutes, you may not have clear answers, but you will have gone on quite a trip. Like Alice, or maybe one of poor suckers in The Thing, you may return quite changed.

Curtis begins his circuitous journey in two different cities — New York and Damascus. In 1975, New York City was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy. White flight and growing debt had resulted in a crisis of financial faith. And then, on one day in 1975, things simply stopped. At a regular meeting held by the city to issue bonds in return for loans, the banks failed to show up.

The city was forced to cede control to the bankers. Austerity measures were enacted, with thousands of firefighters, teachers and other civic workers laid off. The logic of the market was allowed to run the show.

As Curtis explains, one of the most extraordinary things that happened was artists, intellectuals and radicals didn’t fight back; they simply retreated. A new kind of individualism took hold. Footage of a rather twee Patti Smith talking about graffiti is used to illustrate his point.

In Damascus, another kind of power struggle was taking place between U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad over the future of the Middle East.

What these two events had in common was a new method of ordering and managing society.

And with that introduction, we are off to the races.

There is a lot of stuff wadded into HyperNormalisation, and I do mean a lot. From Donald Trump, William Gibson, computer utopian idealists, artificial intelligence, UFO conspiracies, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Jane Fonda, suicide bombers, Yakuza gangsters — the film trots along buoyed by Curtis’s alternately horrified and bemused narration. It is tempting to look for a towrope in the vast sea of information, and Curtis helpfully provides just such a through line in the form of Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

In December 1985, when terrorists attacked the Rome and Vienna airports, the U.S. accused Libya of being responsible, although European authorities maintained Syria was actually behind the bombing.

Curtis crafts a narrative in which Gadhafi then became a prop for western powers that used him whenever they needed a bogeyman, a lunatic at the head of a rogue state, to take responsibility for a series of horrific acts — from the Lockerbie bombing to developing weapons of mass destruction. Curtis blames the Lockerbie bombing on Syria — even though Gadhafi accepted responsibility and Libya compensated victims’ families. So too the film argues Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons program was largely fiction. Curtis backs up this claim with a BBC interview with Gadhafi’s son Saif, who states unequivocally that there was collusion between the Libyan leader and western powers, an agreement that the West would lift sanctions against Libya in return for Gadhafi’s co-operation.

Whether Gadhafi colluded in his own vilification is unclear. What is clear is that it did not end well for poor old Moammar. This Wag the Dog scenario had more in common with a movie plot than reality. But more on that shortly.

Back in the U.S., a new power was on the rise, prompted, Curtis asserts, by the coming together of the financial sector and corporations cementing their control through vast, yet largely invisible information networks. In this new realm, dubbed “cyberspace” by writer William Gibson, there were no rules, no hierarchy and no conventional politics. Utopian thinkers like John Perry Barlow championed it as a new day for humanity — and then two hackers who called themselves Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak broke into a massive computer system and published Barlow’s credit history online, dispelling the utopian puffery and revealing that cyberspace was in fact governed by “raw, brutal corporate power.” (A filmed interview with Phiber Optik lays out the entire story in all its delicious sangfroid.)

One of the most striking things about HyperNormalisation is that it reminds us how many strange things have happened and simply been forgotten. From Libya’s space program to the UFO hysteria that spread across the U.S., Curtis makes that argument that conspiracy theories, with their blurring of fact and fiction, are a form of something called “perception management.”

The idea is to tell dramatic stories that distract people from the intractable complexity of reality. It doesn’t matter whether the stories are true, since reality is just something to play with. The film’s title is derived from a Soviet writer’s attempt to describe the height of the communist empire, a period when the entire country colluded in a fake version of society. Citizens went along with everything their leaders said, because, as Curtis states no one could imagine any alternative: “The fakeness was hypernormal.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed another resounding indicator of the failure of politics to find a way forward. In the void of what was termed a “runaway world,” different systems of management began to pop up. The need to predict the future led to the development of things like the Aladdin BlackRock computer system that helps manage $15 trillion, seven per cent of the world’s total wealth.

Another of the most radical shifts in the development of artificial intelligence happened quite by accident when Joseph Weizenbaum built a computer system named ELIZA that simply mirrored back the questions posed to it by human subjects. The success of ELIZA led to the development of intelligence agents, systems that created feedback loops in which people were provided with reassuring information. These safe bubbles were designed to protect and soothe, along the lines of, “If you like that, you’ll love this.”

Whether it is Prozac, Facebook or BlackRock Financial, a myriad of systems for predicting and managing human happiness have come and gone. But the one thing that has endured is the sense that we are headed into a dark and dangerous future. It is an idea that is carefully stoked by popular culture and media. Curtis maintains that the blurring between reality and fiction is designed and purposeful. He illustrates his point with a montage of clips from disaster movies (all made before the 9/11 attacks) that feature people looking to the sky, as iconic buildings explode like confetti.

Movies and reality penetrate each other in even stranger fashion. Britain’s Chilcot inquiry into the decision to invade Iraq reported that intelligence officials feared a source’s story about Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon manufacturing was lifted from a crappy film called The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.

But the apotheosis of a made-up reality took on its wildest form inside Russia, thanks in part to the ideas of a man named Vladislav Surkov. Surkov, one of Putin’s closest political advisors, used avant-garde ideas from the theatre world to undermine and shape the political environment in Russia. The intent was to keep the electorate constantly confused by the ceaseless shape shifting so that no one knew the difference between what was real and what fake. As one pundit noted, “It is unstoppable because it is indefinable.” Behind the scenes, real power could be concentrated and controlled.

In the face of such confounding complexity and outright lies, a generation of people retreated into cyberspace, which had, as Curtis describes, become “increasingly sophisticated and responsive to human interaction.” But again, behind the screen, like a two-way mirror, simplified agents were watching and guiding your hand. In the words of the filmmaker, “Deciding what you should like and what should be hidden from you.”

Even utopian and revolutionary movements could be undermined by the very tools that brought them together in the first place. The rise and fall the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring revealed that social media could be used to organize people, but it didn’t give them a plan for the future, nor help envision a new type of society.

Perversely enough, as the film notes “the waves of fury that moved across the Internet” during the current U.S. election actually fed the very corporations that people were decrying. As one analyst quipped, “Angry people click.”

The critique of HyperNormalisation is that it is so fractured, so circular, that it is difficult to see the bigger point. The complexity almost gets away from the filmmaker. You are forced to go back and forth, toggling the cursor to jump back, searching for the connections between Donald Trump, Hamas and Hezbollah, Brexit and the refugee crisis. The film is not quite at the level of Curtis’s previous work The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap and most notably Bitter Lake. But after two, almost three viewings, I began to see the method in Curtis’s madness. In the midst of this deluge, there is no one answer, no master narrative at all. You twirl in place, distracted by eddying pools of culture — before being spat back out into the ongoing rush of history. The flood carries you along. As the film asserts in multiple feints and cul-de-sacs of narrative, there are no easy answers. And maybe there are no answers at all. Even Curtis himself seems unable, or unwilling, to offer any ideas about where we go from here.

But there is something.

The spirit of absurdity, disruptive, unpredictable, and oh-so-human is present and alive in HyperNormalisation. There is something incredibly liberating about this quality.

HyperNormalisation’s fractured and competing narratives seemed intended to destabilize and upend you so that no one dominant idea is allowed to reign. Instead, one is forced to contend with complexity, wrestle with it, sit on top of it, pull its hair and duke it out. It is not a passive experience.

The film does not offer a way out. But it hovers on the edge of something, some unpredictability, something that says when we least expect it, something that no one saw coming will wake us from the dream world in which we have all been sleeping.  [Tyee]

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