Credit: Robert Viglasky/Netflix
by Morris Yang Featured Film Streaming Scene

Heart of Stone — Tom Harper

August 14, 2023

The age of streaming is the age of accelerated attention — attention caught, swept away, and crystallized in breathless signification. Breathless, because what underlines this signification is a fundamentally airless enterprise, easily substituted and interchanged among colors, icons, and patterns of recognition. It’s no coincidence, in fact, that artificial intelligence and our entertainment strictures are symbiotic: the unreality of AI is more fantastical, more scalable, and — to some — more real than real life. With the promise and threat of wholly synthetic visions on the horizon, there will be filmmakers, some of the avant-garde, to experiment with the fluidity of image and sound now afforded them. Entertainment at large, however, will simply adopt these frameworks as designed; that is, for capturing the attention economy and its nameless consumers.

That the attention economy is captured suggests some spark of captivation and subjective pull. In reality, capture draws on its more pessimistic connotations, passivity and submission. It subordinates the attention to pre-packaged inserts, algorithmic qualia fluttering by and swiftly forgotten. There’s a sharp irony in the title of Tom Harper’s latest, a Netflix original feature billed as a Mission: Impossible-type franchise-starter with renewed technophilia and feminist vision. Heart of Stone, a play on the ubiquitous deck of cards, ascribes a life-force to what inevitably remains inanimate. Headed by Gal Gadot (synonymous with her Wonder Woman persona), the film postulates a world of spies and rogue treachery, kept in place only by a peacekeeping syndicate dubbed the “Charter” which, in the vein of John Wick, knows and sees all. Except that in this case, the knowing and seeing are literal: the Charter has a device called the Heart, which has tapped into virtually all the world’s communication circuits and oversees every corner, movement, and scenario.

Gadot plays Rachel Stone, a Charter agent firmly embedded in an MI6 team as they work to extract and interrogate an arms dealer in the Italian Alps. She’s the archetypal tech geek, inexperienced in worldly violence (her teammates tell her not to leave their van) but intimately acquainted with the intricacies of digital espionage. The opening montage, where our dealer is captured but unsuccessfully questioned, features a host of plot turns and almost implausible stunts which quickly establish otherwise, having Stone barrel down the mountains in freezing dark with a parachute, a motorcar, and some lightning reflexes abetted by the Heart’s sensors observing her environs in real time. She evades her colleagues’ suspicion for the time being, and is on her way to tracking down one Keya Dhawan (Alia Bhatt), a 20-something computer prodigy who has allegedly pinpointed the Heart’s vulnerabilities to sabotage it, when the usual loyalties are tested and Stone finds herself out in the open, tasked with restoring order and omniscience in a morally impervious universe.

But Heart of Stone is too cookie-cutter and uninspired to begin fleshing out these thematic components. It isn’t even exciting from a kinetic standpoint: bodies and frames careen down slopes and across tight indoor spaces, while the corny mic-drops (“What are you, a hundred years old? It’s called culture”) further diminish the stakes without injecting a shred of irony. The central conceit, too, is textbook utilitarianism: the Charter’s “moral metric,” Stone’s boss tells her, is to “maximize lives saved,” following actionables derived from “pure and objective” calculations. Despite Stone’s misgivings toward her cause and her eventual heroics beyond the Heart’s purview, she’s a thorough nobody, lacking motive and backstory, but also emptied of the visceral charisma that Ethan Hunt and James Bond exemplified throughout their careers. It doesn’t help that, in Netflix’s bid to boost their earnings report, they’ve capitulated to the girlboss formula without even mastering its basics; so piss-poor are its tropes, and so anodyne its ideological tensions, that Heart of Stone could perversely be fed into machine learning databases to inspire products with greater AI verisimilitude.

Some 60 years back, the British TV series Doctor Who aired a serial titled The Keys of Marinus, in which a computer named the Conscience of Marinus maintained law and order through similarly impartial derivations of utility and proportionality. At the advent of the sci-fi explosion following dreams of lunar colonization and galactic travel, such visions represented the nostalgic pursuit of physical and ethical certainty. Today, they reek of phony corporatism and Metaverse shilling. What’s plaguing Heart of Stone isn’t quite the fact that it brings up the utilitarian question with respect to data and surveillance; it’s more that it doesn’t quite bring up this question as it imprints the shadow of the latter’s buzzwords. Total control, as the vastly superior Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One would know, begets total resistance: kinetic, potential, even the forged nothingness of air. Harper and co., in painfully antithetical fashion, relinquish this dialectic for the contrivances of a streamable heist, endlessly digestible but equally dispensable.

DIRECTOR: Tom Harper;  CAST: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  IN THEATERS & STREAMING: August 11;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 3 min.