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The Dystopian Smile Behind The Emoji Movie

01/08/2017 12:19 BST | Updated 01/08/2017 12:20 BST

The Emoji Movie has been almost universally panned by critics. According to Charles Bramesco in The Guardian it's 'a force of insidious evil'; for Vox's Alissa Wilkinson it's 'less of a movie and more of an insult'; and for Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com it's 'a demonstration of artistic abdication at its most venal'. On Rotten Tomatoes, after the first 28 reviews had been processed, its rating was an unequivocal 0%.

So it's not very good, that much is clear. But the way in which it's not good - the reason people are finding it almost offensively bad - points to the dark paradox that underpin emoji, and that drive their role as the standard bearer for the future of communications technology. What, from one perspective, look like colourful, uncomplicated little symbols are also the advance guard for the way that technology - and, more importantly, technology companies - are taking an ever-greater control over the ways in which we relate to each other today. And in this sense, The Emoji Movie may in fact be the perfect fable for our time.

A week prior to the film's release its marketing department tweeted an advert parodying the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The advert showed a bright yellow female emoji smiling broadly from behind one of the restrictive bonnets worn by the handmaidens in the series. Atwood's novel is set in a dystopian future in which women are stripped of their rights by a totalitarian government, and ritually raped by the elite of society. Unsurprisingly, the tone-deaf use of this allusion in the film's advertising didn't go down well with the public at large. As a marketing initiative it was probably only just beaten for crass insensitivity by Pepsi's appropriation of anti-police-brutality-demo-chic earlier in the year. As one person on Twitter put it, 'Oh you've got jokes on the subjugation, rape and societal betrayal of women! Can't wait to take my kids!'

And yet the invocation of a dystopian world is, in fact, oddly apt. Since Trump's election there's been a resurgence of interest in this genre of literature. Parallels between today's politics and scenarios in The Handmaid's Tale or Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here seem shockingly close at times. But away from the high-profile circus of professional politics, the ways in which corporations, capitalism and technology are transforming the culture continues to have an equally important impact. And while not as explicitly unsettling, they nevertheless have worrying implications for society - implications of which The Emoji Movie, in its vapid, brightly-coloured way, is a perfect illustration.

Emoji have a split-personality in modern culture. On the one hand they are, without doubt, a very helpful resource for online communication. The way we write to each other on social media has a much more conversational quality to it than most of the other writing we do. But it also lacks the layer of meaning that's conveyed by tone of voice, gesture, glance and so on - all of which is integral to face-to-face conversation. Emoji offer a way of restoring this. Of simply and easily injecting some emotional framing back into the conversation.

Then there's the creative potential they offer. Social media has become a cradle for everyday language play: for meme-making, reworking and riffing off other people's messages, and so on. This is a major part of the social bonding that takes place online. And again, emoji, with their eclectic vocabulary and their pictorial quality, are a perfect resource for this.

So from these two perspectives, emoji are far from being a step back for civilisation, or a dumbing down of our culture. But there's another side to them as well. A side which is far more ambiguous. Unlike any other type of language we use, emoji's existence depends entirely on technology. It depends on technology and on the huge multinational corporations which produce that technology.

Although, in theory, emoji are public-domain entities, the whole system is regulated by a small consortium of representatives from Apple, Google, and the other major tech companies. And each of these companies produces - and owns - their own designs for emoji, which are constantly being updated as part of the general refresh cycles which keep people buying new phones every few years. Their existence, in other words, is tied directly to the marketing strategies of a handful of the biggest corporations in the world.

And this is what The Emoji Movie illustrates so painfully. It was almost inevitable that Hollywood would embrace emoji as a movie concept. In many ways they're ideal for adaptation into a drama. After all, they have a ready-made cast of stock characters who look like, and to an extent are based on, cartoons. Plus, of course, there are the commercial opportunities. You've got both pre-existing global character recognition, and a huge range of possible brand tie-ins to exploit. Unfortunately for The Emoji Movie, they went overboard on the second part of this equation, while failing to exploit the first.

Sony has some form here, with the equally shameless Angry Birds Movie from last year. But The Emoji Movie pushes the strategy to ever greater extremes. It becomes simply a conveyor belt of tech product placement, from YouTube, Instagram and Twitter to WeChat (for that all important Chinese market), Candy Crush and Dropbox (which is cast as a bizarre Shangri-La for the intrepid emoji adventurers). Even obscure apps like Crackle, which happens to be owned by the corporation that made the film, get their moment in the product-placement sun. And then, tacked precariously on top of all this, is an uninspired story that's meant to celebrate a message of 'unto thine own self be true' positivity of all things.

In the dystopian world of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the ways in which the totalitarian government controls the population is by controlling its language. By manipulating the meaning of words, they're able to manipulate people's thoughts and behaviour.

In the case of emoji it's not the government that has control over the content of the 'language'. It's corporations. They don't, on the whole, manipulate emoji in order to manipulate the political beliefs of the population. But they do co-opt them into their overall commercial strategies. Emoji, in other words, are a product, just like any other feature is. This is what The Emoji Movie exposes in such a disconcertingly honest way. And for something which has become such a ubiquitous part of modern-day culture, this co-dependence between language, commerce and technology could well prove to be a major turning point in the evolution of human communication.

What the long-term implications of this might turn out to be, it's difficult to say. If it's just having to put up with marketing vehicles like The Emoji Movie once in a while, that's not too much of a menace. But placed within the broader context - of the influence that social media now has on the circulation of information, of the threats that are accumulating for net neutrality - the idea that even the language we use online can be a corporate-owned commodity, this is something that has the potential, at least, to fundamentally alter our powers of expression.