A Hologram for the King is Tom Tykwer's adaptation of the 2012 Dave Eggers novel of the same name. The story follows Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) as he travels to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to try to outfit a hypothetical city with holographic telecommunications equipment. Alan's fish-out-of-water experience forces him to confront his longstanding unhappiness. As Alan walks a fine line between uncertain self-worth and personal growth, the film balances light humor and dark issues while giving deeper meaning to the term "outsourcing."
ScreenPrism spoke to director Tykwer about how the central themes operate in the film.
Discussing A Hologram for the King (2016) with director Tom Tykwer, I wanted to know how he developed the film's tone, which is a striking mix of lightness and darkness, and how he found that balance during the editing and pre-screening process. “Pre-screening is essential with an audience because it enables you to think as they do,” he said. “I go back to the editing [room] and I learn a lot about the film...I sit with [editor] Alex [Berner] and we whisper to each other all the time and say, ‘Oh my god it’s going much longer than I thought.’ I can be impatient with other people’s films and so suddenly, because I’m in the audience, I become impatient with my own film, and that saves it from being self-indulgent. At the screening, the lightness of the film did resonate, as well as its darkness. Its light and dark are an interesting mix.”
Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King (2016)
Some of the film’s moments of lightness can be attributed to the taxi driver Youseff (Alexander Black), the first Saudi native with whom Alan is able to connect. Youseff is aware of the cultural divide between himself and Alan. More importantly, he is aware of the absurdities that come with such a divide. He treats heavy topics like terrorism and execution lightly, deriding Alan’s expectations and opening the door to a comfortable friendship. Youseff asks Alan while turning up the radio, “Do you like Chicago?” To which Alan replies “Not in the winter.” Youseff yells over the music, “No, the band!” This is a great moment that pits cultural identities against each other in a light, nonsensical manner.
Interested in the film’s comedic bent, I asked Tykwer how he plays with stereotypes for humor. At one point, for example, Alan wakes up in a plane during a morning prayer, the only passenger not dressed in a kurta. He wrinkles his brow while looking at a religious gathering. Later he tries to engage in “normal” conversation, attempting to make elevator small talk or to speak with a driver outside of the hospital. Tykwer told me, “That’s what we call the fish-out-of-water concept… But I think the funniest part is hidden in the tragic parts of Tom’s character. The beauty is you see someone struggling — an old comedy concept, of course — and he is trying to fight the way he has learned to be. He has attached himself to a lot of rules, and he starts to fake a system of connection.”
Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King (2016)
The fish-out-of-water concept in A Hologram for the King is in contrast to the underlying tragic parts of Alan Clay’s psyche. The feelings of lightness and darkness are at odds throughout the film: in the jovial fantasy scene which begins the film sets a jovial tone; Alan may be in a dark place, but the powerful beams of desert sunlight illuminate his shadowy disposition. In his new situation, Alan is finally forced to face himself on a deeper level. Tykwer told me, “He is in a different situation and culture; through this [displacement], he learns how stuck he is. He has been wearing this mask for ages and if he doesn’t let go of the mask, he won't have any future. That is what he has to confront.” As he speaks with Zahra (Sarita Choudhury) for the first time, Alan alludes to the immense pressure, reduced energy and lack of excitement he has been experiencing. Later he recounts to his daughter via email an increased tenaciousness for life, a zeal that animates his body and soul due to his relationship with Zahra.
I asked Tykwer about the relationship between Zahra and Alan and its rapid progression over the course of an afternoon. He replied, “Alan sees [Zahra] and is able to trust her immediately. He finds himself speaking about himself in a more private way, which he hasn’t experienced in ages. [This] is something that happens with someone that you really trust and you didn’t expect to. You know it before you even know the person; you just start talking and you don’t know why. It’s like, ‘Why am I trusting you?’ but it’s very nice. I think it’s a pheromone thing. We separate ourselves from the rules of society and the rules of economy and rules of religion that identify us as separate. Suddenly that doesn’t mean anything because you meet someone and you feel connected.”
Tom Hanks and Sarita Choudhury in A Hologram for the King (2016)
Another major theme that traces its way throughout the movie is outsourcing. By moving abroad — an interesting move for a character who previously regretted the outsourcing of his workers — Alan is able to start a new life that is more rewarding than his old one, which was full of self-doubt, strife and economic problems.
Alan must distance himself from his embedded formula for what he looks for in a relationship. At the same time, he must get out of his own comfort zone, physically and emotionally. In the film’s aforementioned fantasy scene, Tykwer opens the film with Alan quoting “Once In A Lifetime,” the Talking Heads’ bitter assessment of the American Dream: “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself: Well... How did I get here?” Tykwer explains the relationship between Zahra and Alan by saying that Alan “is suddenly struck by this thing he is not looking for, a woman who doesn’t objectively seem to fit into any pattern of his zone of trained connection spaces. The only way out of his trouble is through ways outside of what his society has trained him to think.”
At the end of the film, Alan takes a new job in Saudi Arabia — after having accomplished the off-screen acquirement of a work visa — to support his daughter and himself. We see that Alan has learned to repeat the same tendency of exportation, which progresses from exporting the labor of his company to exporting his personal opportunity to grow. Once Alan leaves his old, superficial life behind, he can embrace a more open, personally fulfilling lifestyle.