Cinematic Chat: “Glass Onion” and modern tech moguls

by Elsa Ying (’23) | February 3, 2023

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

This article contains spoilers.

After the success of his blockbuster mystery movie Knives Out (2021), director Rian Johnson returned to the film scene with Glass Onion in 2022, delivering a unique mystery set during the COVID-19 pandemic. Set on the private island of billionaire and tech company co-founder Miles Bron, the movie follows Bron and his close circle (politician Claire Debella, fashion designer Birdie Jay, scientist Lionel Toussaint, and incel streamer Duke Cody), along with a few surprise guests (ousted co-founder Andi Brand and detective Benoit Blanc), as they gather to solve a mystery. With Bron as a clear reference to the various tech moguls that have risen in the twenty-first century, Glass Onion presents a bold critique of these so-called geniuses we revere.

The film’s opening sequence alone highlights its main message. Each member of the inner circle, self-nicknamed “the Disruptors,” receives a mysterious wooden box from Bron with no instructions. Apart from its dictionary definition—disturbance or interruption—disruption has also been commonly used to describe a radical industry change brought about by technological innovations. Bron and his circle all seem to strive for disruption with varying levels of success; Bron is co-founder and now sole owner of Alpha Industries, Debella is pushing for the implementation of an alternative hydrogen-based fuel in her city, Jay is constantly vilified for various (often offensive) controversies, Toussaint is head scientist at Alpha and responsible for transforming Bron’ crazy ideas into reality, and Cody advocates for men’s rights amidst the rising popularity of feminist movements.

However, as the movie’s title suggests, their seemingly grand reputations are just facades hiding the truth, which is clearly visible from the Disruptors’ first appearances in the film. Similarly, each puzzle box is just a miscellaneous collection of optical illusions and common trivia, and the main characters depend on others around them, from Cody’s mother to Jay’s assistant, to solve the mini games. Furthermore, it’s later revealed that Bron hired someone else to make the puzzle boxes and had no part in their design or creation.

The only true “disruptor,” of both society and the audience’s expectations, is Andi, who takes a hammer to the box in the same sequence as the Disruptors. This unique solution also foreshadows the character’s role as a disruptor of society (as the true founder of Alpha) and of Bron’s facade (she throws the hydrogen crystal that blows up Bron’s island house, proving the instability of his alternative hydrogen fuel).

The film doesn’t try to hide the true nature of these characters, but rather puts them on full display right from the start, counting on the audience to fall for the fast cuts and suspenseful music to build their own perceptions of the Disruptors as special and deserving of their privilege. Like with the titular glass onion, we mislead ourselves into believing there is complexity when in reality, we have always had a clear view of the central truth.

Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that Bron works in the tech industry. Johnson builds his metaphorical glass onion—the deceptively complex mystery about the Disruptors’ past and the upcoming murder—while purposefully alluding to current figures in society, thus implying they also utilize a similar facade to gain undeserved acclaim. Elon Musk lends himself as an easy comparison: he has often been criticized and sued for false claims, business fraud, and unethical practices. Many also argue over whether Musk truly is worthy of the “genius” title, citing Musk’s dispute over his Tesla co-founder title, as well as his wealthy background and ensuing privilege.

While certainly making clear references, Glass Onion nevertheless refuses to make a moral judgment or convince the audience of a certain stance. Rather, it reveals the truth of Bron’s deception—paying off his friends to perjure themselves so that Andi would be ousted, and later murdering Andi—and provides an equally simple catharsis: Andi’s twin sister Helen, who has pretended to be Andi up until this point, avenges her death by breaking Bron’s many glass statues and tossing a piece of hydrogen fuel crystal into the debris. Instead of court convictions or press releases about Bron, the film allows Bron’s actions to stand for themselves; if the hydrogen fuel he had been advocating for and pushing Debella to implement were truly safe and ready to be used by the public, his house wouldn’t have burnt down spectacularly. However, Bron and Helen both know the danger of the fuel, which she uses against him.

Thus, Glass Onion argues that the truth will prevail, despite the wealth and privilege that often work against it. Even now, Musk faces rising backlash over his acquisition and handling of Twitter; in a recent Twitter poll the majority voted against his retention of his CEO position. There are many unresolved injustices in the world, especially when it comes to business figures and the trail of destroyed lives they often leave behind, but the film shows that their actions speak for themselves—often negatively, it seems.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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