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Reflections on Teknolust (2002)

“Is this some kind of weird fetish?”


Teknolust, originally released in 2002, is a stylized foray into a world where the digital seeps into the physical, you can video-chat via microwave, and there are at least four Tilda Swintons. Part sci-fi thriller, part epidemic story (just in case you weren’t feeling sated on that front), and part rom-com, with a brief dance break, this movie starts “out there” and only accelerates. 

“Is this some kind of weird fetish?” asks an unnamed date, as a red-lipsticked Tilda, whose necklace reads “Ruby,” carefully tucks their used condom into her bag. She smiles demurely and answers, “Yes.” After a quick cuddle, she leaves the man to bask in the afterglow and returns home to her sisters, Marinne (Tilda Swinton) and Olive (also Tilda Swinton), with her bounty. 

The three sisters were created by Dr. Rosetta Stone (I’ll give you three guesses), whose research on synthetic life and artificial intelligence has led her to secretly replicate herself. In a conversation with the vaguely slimy Professor Crick (John O’Keefe), she insists that her research is purely theoretical–even as he rhapsodizes about the financial possibilities it holds. Dr. Stone keeps her work from the world, electing to toil and nurture without recognition, rather than reap the possible rewards. In doing so, she turns a lucrative discovery into something more akin to self-sacrifice. Dr. Stone’s conscious decision to forgo gain and glory directly acknowledges both the massive economy that revolves around technologies with sexual and reproductive applications, and the other less obvious emotional realities of these technologies.

In order to survive, Dr. Stone’s “Self-Replicating Automatons,” or SRAs, must regularly consume Y chromosomes by injecting themselves with a serum derived from semen (and we haven’t even gotten to the part of the movie described as “bio-gender warfare” yet). Ruby, the apparent breadwinner, uses lines from the Hollywood classics she watches obsessively to pick up men in bars and harvest nutrients for the SRAs. She is careful to avoid attachments and other complicating factors that might expose her and threaten their safety. However, a strange illness is sweeping the streets of San Francisco. Men are complaining of unexplained rashes, computer crashes, and, apparently worst of all, sterility and impotence. A team convenes to investigate what Professor Crick calls “bio-gender warfare” (worth the wait), led by Agent Hopper (James Urbaniak), a man who hovers at the intersection of smarmy and dorky. Dr. Stone, working with Hopper, quickly realizes that there is a pattern emerging: the men who fall ill are Ruby’s conquests. The “digital STD” that she is unknowingly spreading threatens to lead the authorities right to Dr. Stone’s doorstep.

The digital interfaces that pepper Teknolust, such as Ruby’s online portal (based on a real project of Leeson’s) and Dr. Stone’s computer OS, have the potential to date the film–but they don’t. Instead, the hokey nature of the technology feels like a deliberate part of the overall aesthetic. The bright, blocky colors of Teknolust  are somehow both childish and sleek, much like the SRAs themselves. Each sister’s assigned color spills out from her, into her surroundings–Olive sips a green drink, Marinne buys a blue ball gown during her online shopping expedition, and Ruby carries red condoms.

Courtesy of Strand Releasing

Unlike many stories about scientists creating life by “unnatural” means, Teknolust doesn’t punish its doctor for “playing God.” As Dr. Stone struggles to hide evidence and protect the SRAs, she grows increasingly distraught. But when she expresses her frustration to the glamorously raspy Dirty Dick (Karen Black), the things she bemoans aren’t markers of moral retribution, but of motherhood. She feels like she never has enough time, she longs for independence, she worries constantly about her charges, and they require so much of her energy that she often feels there is none left for her. “Every woman deserves a face of her own,” she muses, as someone who has elected to share hers with three others. And yet, as she celebrates their birthday, she tells the sisters, “You are the company I waited so long for.” Her sentiments will ring familiar to many who have felt the conflicts of parenthood as both a blessing and a burden. Dr. Stone’s struggle is recognizable for women in particular, who have historically been yoked to the responsibility of child-rearing, and have at times felt it eclipse their identities.

In one of the only expository scenes of a movie that pushes viewers to fit the pieces together themselves, we learn that Dr. Stone lost her entire family to a mysterious virus. Ruby, Marinne, and Olive are not only Dr. Stone’s surrogate children, they are her sisters, her reflections, and her attempts to create a legacy for herself. She feels immense pride in them, even as she attempts to constrain them and they bristle at her restrictions.

Reproduction as a theme comes back again and again: in the computer viruses that infect Dr. Stone’s software, in the illness that propagates through the men, and in Dr. Stone’s assertion that creating the sisters was “as easy as making brownies.” And the theme of reproduction slips easily into replication, as Ruby’s love interest Sandy (Jeremy Davies) pirouettes through the xerox shop where he works, deliberately warping the images he’s meant to copy. 

“He’s what I need,” Ruby says of Sandy. “He feeds me.” Double-entendre aside (although it’s a relief to hear that Ruby is still getting those all-important Y chromosomes), the relationship between Ruby and Sandy has a sweetness to it that reveals Ruby for the romantic she truly is. In a story brimming with outlandish behavior, Sandy’s is achingly familiar. From his mumbled flirtations to his passion for internet porn (he first encounters Ruby through her online portal), to his exaggerated flourish as he presents Ruby with a doughnut, he resembles nothing so much as an awkward teenager–which is appropriate for Ruby who, despite her sexual escapades, is emotionally in her adolescence. Their love story dove-tails nicely with the eventual romance between Dr. Stone and Hopper, which serves to highlight Dr. Stone’s own stunted development.

In many ways, writer/director/producer Lynn Hershman Leeson is the real unsung focus of the film. The points of overlap between Teknolust and Leeson’s life and other work are numerous. Her legacy as an artist and filmmaker has only recently gotten appropriate attention, since a career retrospective exhibit in 2014 at the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany. Leeson has dedicated her life to exploring the relationship between reality and technology, not only through film, but also through performance art. At one point, she created an alter-ego whom she embodied so fully that she hired several others to portray her as well. The personality even had her own therapist. It’s easy to see how Leeson would have progressed from there, to the scene in Teknolust in which Dr. Stone insists during interrogation that Ruby is just a character she’s created, a way to spice up her life.

Teknolust takes on the effect of technology on sexuality and identity in a way that was cutting-edge in the early 2000s and has since been proven evergreen. As is often discussed today, the carefully curated identities we present online work to influence us just as much as we influence them. “She encrypts words, too,” says Marinne of Dr. Stone, pointing out a way in which her human creator is like an SRA herself. “When she says time, she means love.” Teknolust reminds us that technology and identity are locked in a perpetual feedback loop, one that Leeson was exploring before tech-thrillers like Black Mirror were even a glint in the eye of sci-fi. Teknolust has just been re-released by Strand Releasing and is available now.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Teknolust (2002)

  1. Such a weird-but-good movie. Your point about motherhood was really interesting

    1. Thank you! I think the inherent horror of creation is kind of predominantly a mom’s domain, ngl

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