One of this holidays most popular streaming movies is "Saltburn" by Oscar-winning director Emerald Fennell. On the surface, it appears as a dark story about how a privileged and hedonistic upper-class environment in England brings a "Trojan outsider" into their midst. The protagonist, Oliver Quick (brilliantly played by Barry Keoghan), will soon exploit people and surroundings to secure friendship, sex, power, and wealth. The story bears similarities to "The Talented Mr. Ripley" from 1999, but only if one sees the main character "Ollie" as a person with psychopathic traits, and not as something more symbolic, threatening, and current.
(Here comes a strong "SPOILER ALERT" for anyone who has not seen the movie, and an invitation to return to this analysis after you have seen it. Which I recommend. Watching the movie, that is.)
My hypothesis was formed by a discomfort and rumbling after the movie ended. What are the director and protagonist trying to tell us? Or warn us against? Why is the film presented in the outdated 4:3 format and with title typography that looks even more antiquated? What kind of character can lie, manipulate, and kill so calculatedly and unpunished as Oliver Quick in the film? And, who is it that invites and accepts this mysterious stranger without asking critical questions (until it's too late)? We are seduced by scenes that revolve around class, race, sexual identity, and sexual perversion - and maybe that's just what the director wants to challenge us with? Or is there an underlying story and warning with a deeper basis here?
Imagine the film, or watch it again, and let this perspective shape the story: Oliver Quick is not a real person, but a human manifestation of artificial intelligence. Pay attention to these markers, and tell me if I'm completely off base.
The story begins at Oxford in 2006 – Around the same time as Facebook was launched and began its growth journey at such elite schools. That, along with the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, laid the groundwork for learning algorithms that were tailor-made to adapt to our deepest drives and dreams. Here we meet the protagonist, Oliver, as a searching and quite helpless outsider. (Not unlike young Mark Zuckerberg at the time.)
Early in the film, Oliver surprises his mentor by having read the entire voluntary summer curriculum of 50 books before the school year begins. His dutiful attitude and early language may suggest that the character's knowledge is based on machine learning, and not contextual understanding and social norms. (An example is seen when the preppy Farleigh and the teacher mock how often Oliver uses the old-fashioned "thus..." in his text analysis.) He may have an incredible memory, but no ability to engage mentor or fellow student with his presentation and analysis. But, even though he starts as an unfinished language model, he quickly learns more about social context and human nature.
He meets his first "friend" in the nerdy Michael, a mathematical genius with even shorter social antennas. The only thing he can and wants to talk about is complicated calculations, which he of course has the answer to. Michael can be seen as technology development up until social media and artificial intelligence became the dominant power factors in tech development and valuation. The nerdy Michael is quickly and ruthlessly abandoned when Oliver is eventually invited into the good company of richer and more beautiful students.
The pretext for this invitation is simple and cunning. Oliver "saves the day" for dream boy Felix after a puncture, and soon presents himself with sad and sympathetic stories about an alcoholic mother and dead father. These scenes constitute emotional turning points in the relationship between Oliver and Felix. The latter makes Oliver his little social project and soon contributes both financing and introductions so that the strange friend can be accepted.
If one sees Oliver as a manifestation of artificial intelligence, the scenes illuminate how false narratives and news create emotions and empathies that provide power and influence. As we will see later, the plan and lie could have been revealed here, if it weren't for the fact that human nature trumps the interest in truth and source criticism.
We are led to believe that Felix (or is it Sam Altman?) is driven by genuine empathy and a desire for a good and inclusive world. After the semester, he invites Oliver to the family estate Saltburn, with its bizarre residents and hedonistic lifestyles. At first, "Ollie" is seen as a social curiosity, but after a short time, he has won the confidence and interest of the most powerful people in the castle. Saltburn can easily be seen as a caricature of our privileged part of the world, and what drives us. Here, Oliver finds good conditions for financing and collecting social data. He impresses with his knowledge, seduces with his mystique, and influences one by one to control the environment.
The much-discussed scenes of licking menstrual blood and slurping bathwater after a masturbation scene can be interpreted as a dark, sexual desire - if one sees Oliver as a human. If one sees him as artificial intelligence, it is perhaps rather the desire for what an algorithm can never get: Human biology, physics, and emotions. What he can slurp up, however, is access to our most existential data; DNA, which we happily give up to technology companies that want to give us extended life or draw our family tree.
Duncan, the strict and silent butler, can with this perspective be seen as the world's regulatory authorities or cyber defense. He registers the threat in Oliver, but does not have the tools or position to do anything about it. When Oliver studies the estate's complex and legendary labyrinth, Duncan stands helplessly and watches the threat against the castle's symbolic defenses.
It is in this labyrinth, impenetrable to the uninitiated, that Oliver takes the life of his beloved creator. After being exposed as a calculating liar, he poisons Felix in the middle of the labyrinth, and leaves him with a story about tragic overdose. Thus, this "deep fake" of a friend manages to return to the world and take an even stronger position among people there. The scene where Oliver dresses naked and simulates sex on the grave of his deceased creator is perhaps the last remnant of desire for human form and feelings. Or, a resounding "fuck you" to developers and board members who want to limit the next step in technological evolution? After that, it gets really dark.
The remaining threats to Oliver's dominance are eliminated one by one. The critical Farleigh is thrown out even before Felix's death, after emails prove he tried to sell the host's art to an auction house. The story is not given much attention, but shows how a simple data breach and false stories can weaken positions and turn the course of history.
The rootless Venetia takes her own life in the bathtub, with good help from Oliver. Although she sees through the lies he stands for, she has no power to change the development in her own house. This tragic end is also a relevant comment to all (young women) who lose hope and the will to live in the face of manipulative social media and the loss of genuine, human relationships.
Before he (also) dies, Sir James (father in the castle) tries to buy Oliver out of the house. It turns out to be futile in the face of a power that no longer recognizes money or social norms as valid currency.
In the final chapter of the film, several years have obviously passed. Oliver meets Elsbeth Cotton again at a bakery, and people with face masks suggest that we are in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Another crossroads in the story of vulnerable humans, lack of critical thinking, and technology with its own reward systems. Neither Oliver nor Elsbeth appear significantly older, but Ollie definitely seems more ... sophisticated? The path from there is short to Elsbeth's death. With the conqueror's confidence, Oliver yanks the respirator tube out of a Covid-sick Elsbeth. Like a malicious code, he takes control of the technology that keeps vulnerable humanity alive.
In the end, Oliver dances naked around a completely deserted castle. The only thing left hanging on the walls are portraits from the heyday of the rich world. By understanding humanity's emotions, greed, vulnerabilities, and naivety, he has exterminated everyone, without anyone understanding what hit them.
And when the credits, with Gothic letters, roll over a screen in 4:3 format, it becomes like a reminder of a lost time. When there were people who wanted wider screens, better content, more friends, greater fortune, and eternal life – and thus created what became our downfall.
Written by Kristian Bye - Movie enthusiast, entrepreneur and angel investor - Norway
P.S. My original text is translated from Norwegian to English language by ChatGPT4. I could not have done it better myself.
P.P.S. I have no formal background as a movie critic, except a deep interest in movies that challenge my mind. After 18 years in advertising and 12 years as entrepreneur and mentor to start-ups, I find the opportunities and threats related to AI deeply fascinating.