2023, Movies

Time Bomb Y2K (2023, Brian Becker, Marley Mcdonald)

This is an amusing documentary about the Y2K bug and subsequent moral panic based almost entirely on archival footage. (This is a little bit of bad CGI, and that CGI might be deliberately bad.) However, the film doesn’t actually satisfy, despite making me laugh. I really wanted to watch this but it didn’t really give me what I was looking for.

I have a pretty good knack for detecting when someone has made their first feature film and I was right this time. Neither director has been credited with a feature prior to this one, and can you ever feel it when watching this movie.

But before I get to that, I will say that the movie is funny – well, the clips are funny – and also has some clips that are quite insightful. Watching this now, post-pandemic, I think there are also clear lessons about how everyone (usually, our elites in particular) always assume human beings will panic (i.e. riot) but they rarely do. Elite fears of panic are consistently overstated throughout history and we should just not listen to them. This film is a useful reminder of that. Moral panics are extremely common. Riots and uprisings due to panic are not.

I understand the artistic desire of creating a film made up entirely of archival footage. If successfully done, it would be quite the accomplishment. But that’s not what happened here. There are a couple of major problems with the way it was done.

The first is that, by using only archival footage, the filmmakers put themselves in a narrative corner. They cannot really tell the story (or stories) that are the most compelling, they can only tell the stories they can assemble using the clips they found. A narrator or talking heads would have let them tell deeper, more insightful stories about the technological bug and the subsequent moral panic. There are so many threads of stories here that could have been spun into a better film (or, even, a miniseries). But, instead, everything is surface-level, the level of news reports and home movies. And, as much as it’s funny, we laugh just at how silly all these people look in retrospect (in how they are dressed, in what they say and what their technology looks like.)

Another related problem is that, though this film is 84 minutes long, they apparently couldn’t actually find enough footage to tell the story well. There is one whole section (I believe during the 1998 chapter) which just repeats themes from the beginning of the film. But then there is the climax, which focuses for some bizarre reason on the ball drop in New York City. There is all this footage of the New Year’s celebrations and it just feels like they didn’t have enough actual content here. Again, this film is 84 minutes long.

As an aside: the way the end is handled is so typically American. The filmmakers focus on a time zone that is 17 hours behind the dateline to show that the Y2K bug amounted to some minor technical issues (and they don’t even tell us about more than one of those). They do this because it’s a movie focused on the American version of the story. But the moment the time changed in Kiribati, the results could start to become clear. New Zealand, Australia and Japan successfully transitioning to 2000 all are obvious places to conclude the problem was mostly solved. It would be a different story if the dateline were in the Atlantic, but it’s not. Focusing on Eastern, when most of the rest of the world had already successfully moved over to 2000, is typical American Exceptionalism. The only reason this would be germane is if the US had utterly failed to transition appropriately and more issues had occurred. Anyway…

Another nitpick is the score: the score is unnecessarily loud and distracting a lot of the time and, in a theatre in particular, really pulled me out of it.

Though I laughed, I found myself with more questions and answers, and really wanting to read the Wikipedia article on Y2K (which I did this morning) because I actually needed to. Though I admire the artistic ambition, I think the decision to go entirely archival really hampered the film from actually giving us a valuable documentary about the bug and the moral panic.


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