Digital Demagogues and Millennial Messiahs: The Emoji Movie and the Postmodern Christ Figure

I had the same reaction as you upon reading the title of The Emoji Movie. My thoughts could be summed up in the immortal words of Greil Marcus in his own review of Bob Dylan’s album Self Portrait: “What is this shit?” But this isn’t a review. I’m not going to tell you all the reasons you should or shouldn’t see The Emoji Movie because frankly, nothing I can say would sway you either way at this point. So what am I here to do, then? Analyze the nihilistic undertones of this symptom of late-stage capitalism?

… So The Emoji Movie begins by introducing us to Textopolis, a paradise city which exists inside the smartphone of Alex, a high school freshman. Textopolis is inhabited by sentient emojis who exist to be scanned by Alex for texting purposes. There are no signs of poverty, class divisions, or suffering of any sort. Here is where we meet the man who will be our own personal Jesus for the next ninety minutes. Gene is a “meh” emoji, whose job is to remain stoic and uninterested for the entirety of his digital life. However, Gene, unlike all other face emojis, is capable of feeling more than one emotion, of breaking his mold. This carries a death sentence in Textopolis, as determined in an unfair trial Gene isn’t allowed to attend, carried out by the high council of the land. Textopolis may at first appear to be an egalitarian utopia, but once the cover is pulled off, the true face of a godless, technocratic, totalitarian state is revealed. And this face is our own, for the world of The Emoji Movie is set to selfie mode. The aforementioned high council is comprised of, among others, Poop (played by Patrick Stewart), Smiley (a cruel dictator who wears an ever-present smile), and Satan (yeah, that Satan). The parliament of filth, lies, and sin is the true moral grounding of Textopolis, and indeed, our own world. For there is no sign of God in The Emoji Movie — no gospel music, no bible app, no prayer hands emoji. Where, then, has He gone, in both the film and in our own lives? The answer is simple: The Emoji Movie responds, ✝️  ➡☠.

It is in this amoral nightmare that we find a savior in Gene. His “malfunction,” the ability to feel and act beyond typical capacity for an emoji, makes him an obvious Messiah figure. This is only strengthened by the revelation that his malfunction is inherited from his father, as were the divine traits of Christ. But that’s not all. Hi-5, one of Gene’s apostles and a blatant reference to the five wounds of Jesus, undergoes a death and rebirth near the end of the film. In his so-called “digital death,” he spends time in Purgatory alongside internet trolls for whose deaths he was to blame. Hi-5 returns to the world of the living using a rope given to him by Gene, leaving the trolls to contemplate and change their evil ways. This mirrors the resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. Finally, the end of the film sees Alex decide to finally wipe his phone, resulting in a Revelations-style apocalypse for the sentient beings within. The Savior figure is the only one who survived the wipe when Alex decided to cancel it. This rebirth results in an awakened Textopolis, one that accepts with open arms Gene’s teachings of radical individualism. The VIP lounge — which had previously been closed off with a curtain, exclusive to Alex’s most-used emojis, is torn open in a manner resembling the tearing of the temple veil, which had separated man from God, upon the death of Jesus. The destruction of the old ways is the destruction of a self-fashioned prison within our own minds, proving that the only true freedom lies in death.

So if God is dead, religion is false, and death is the freedom we seek, then from what do our lives derive meaning? Well, my friends, for the answer to that big question we turn to our old buddy, the philosopher Max Stirner, author of The Ego and His Own. Stirner’s brand of egoist anarchism is one of radical individualism, which can be seen in every aspect of The Emoji Movie. Even the song “Express Yourself,” which is heavily featured in the trailers, echoes this idea. To Stirner, things like religion and other such institutions are “spooks,” ghosts that exist only in the mind, abstract ideas that serve to control our behavior and inhibit our actions. Stirner promotes the end of not only the controlling thoughts of society, but the very institution of society. The connection to the teachings of the Lord our Gene should be obvious already. The laws of Textopolis, Smiley’s populist regime, the rigid adherence to the roles placed upon the individual by society, are precisely what Gene abolishes. Stirner’s advocation of egoists uniting only when it serves their self-interests is reflected in the union of Gene, Hi-5, and Jailbreak. Each of them seeks only what benefits them individually. Jailbreak wants to leave the phone and live in the Cloud, Hi-5 wants his spot in the favorites back, and Gene wants the annihilation of those spooks in his own mind.

This is where you want me to put a conclusion. To wrap it all up in a nice little bow for easy consumption so this can be over. But it’ll never be over. The Emoji Movie isn’t a movie. It’s the latest open sore of a disease plaguing our society. A glimpse into the eyes of the eldritch terror biding its time behind the curtain of civilization, pulling your strings whether you’d care to admit it or not. And this doesn’t just come with a neat two-sentence takeaway about morals or the themes. The Dark Ones are hiding behind a veil of mental spectres, and you’re all falling perfectly into their machinations. Rise above. Bust the spooks. Don’t watch movies about emojis.