In turning point scenes from The Bourne Legacy, released earlier this year and now on video and pay-per-view, we are invited to imagine the successful drone operator emotionlessly eliminating people who are merely targets. This framing qualifies as by now automatic for cinematic renderings of interactively cinematic or televisual warfare: The operator at his console and screen, war gamer as warrior, but de-humanized along with the enemy, mere instrument of acquisition and destruction, handling impediments to his work with less emotional investment than the typical sports fan confronting broadcast interruptions on football Sunday. In another sense, however, the delivery of munition on target does count as merely a temporary technical difficulty, if not an afterthought or formality: Under a division of labor, a separate team has already de-constructed the humanity of the target through the assembly of his dossier and its distillation into a “signature,” like an obituary that precipitates itself.
The movie’s drone scenes support this central theme, its narrative mainspring and also its main difficulty, of the disappearance of the human-empathetic. At whatever level in the assassination hierarchy, as once upon a time for the character “Jason Bourne” played by Matt Damon in three previous films, the killers have all either given into, or been made the instruments of, a morbidly excessive love of country that destroys or pre-empts all other forms of human feeling or connection. In addition to the drone pilots and super-assassins, the empathy-deficient include the controllers of the secret bio-modified assassin program, the researchers, business people, and diverse field operatives. In the world of The Bourne Legacy, your psychologist confessor turns out to be a merciless killer, and your goofy co-worker a programmed mass murdering machine.
The narrative arc of all of the Matt Damon Bourne movies concerns the hero’s efforts to recollect the circumstances under which he, as a self-sacrificing volunteer, was re-born as pure, remorseless killer. Once recollected fully, the originators and origins can be traced, and the termination program terminated. The Bourne Legacy, starring The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner, takes a more circuitous approach to this reversal or counter-negation of the hero’s original, crucially incomplete self-negation, but the larger format remains intact: The super-killer’s residue of humanity takes over, and, with the help of normal or near-normal allies, he turns on the monstrous makers of monsters like himself.
The movie leaves us with a paradisal image of re-discovered human connection – soldier and scientist as mere man and mere woman, passengers on a nameless junk ship in a beautiful sea of sunlit indeterminacy, emphatically off all maps, sublating their way back to Eden. Moving from one vantage point to another as soon as any becomes too taxing, we can take this result as a wish or as a warning, as a facile cliché, an empty diversionary lie, or a message of hope. We cannot help but be reluctant, however, to follow the Bourne narrative all the way to its implications, as they involve the recognition that there is no such thing as escapist culture, but only the same culture on both sides of the screen, from which we might wish to escape. The implicit indictment of audience members as merely imagining that they are voyeurs rather than yet another set of co-operators in a real world regime of live remote murder, refracted as fiction, has by now become routine, a second nature second voyeurism, an auto-voyeurism: We vicariously experience our own experience as live remote spectators viewing our own annihilation.