Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Artifical Intelligence Thriller "Ex Machina" Examines Systemic Sexism

Alicia Vikander commands the screen as Ava.
Oscar Isaac and Dohmnall Gleeson play big roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the latest foray into a galaxy far, far away was only the second best 2015 science fiction the two made together. First prize goes to Ex Machina, a thought-provoking and engrossing sci-fi thriller that marks the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…, Never Let Me Go).

Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a Google-type software company who wins the opportunity to spend a week at the secluded estate of the company’s founder Nathan (Isaac, continuing to prove he's one of our best working actors). The only other person in the sleekly-designed compound is Kyoko (Sonya Mizuno), the house maid Nathan speaks down to and lashes out at when he’s not using her as a sex partner. And then there’s Ava (2015 breakout Alicia Vikander, totally killing it), a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that Nathan has created.

During his stay, Caleb is tasked with being the human component of a Turing test, which gauges AI’s consciousness. During a series of sessions, Ava and Caleb seem to develop feelings for one another, and during sporadic power outages that interrupt Nathan’s camera feed, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is a bad man who cannot be trusted. However, things are not as they seem, an atmosphere of unease persists and everyone’s motivations aren’t made clear until the finale.

That’s all I’ll say on the plot specifics of the film, which plays on the surface like a cautionary technology tale or a Frankenstein fable about the foibles of playing God. However, like last year’s Under the Skin or the Netflix show Jessica Jones, this is a pointed commentary on gender privilege and entitlement disguised in a genre traditionally targeted at the male demographic.

Nathan is the more-readily definable, self-absorbed, abusive bro, but Caleb, who for all intents and purposes is the good guy protagonist, also trades in stealth misogyny. In some ways we all do, men and women both, which is probably unsurprising seeing how we’ve been programmed in a world of systemic sexism, one where the main narrative of entertainment (books, movies, video games, whatever) features knights in shining armor winning the hearts (and bodies) of damsels in distress. Look no further than the gag that punctuates Kingsman: The Secret Service for proof. The ending of Ex Machina is a direct comment on this programming in the way it engenders an almost unconscious response in the viewer, one akin to the famous example of someone watching Do the Right Thing and coming away angry that Mookie tossed a trash can through Sal’s window.

It would be hard for me to recommend something more than I recommend Ex Machina. It’s a film with everything going for it – it’s thematically rich, all the tech aspects are top notch and the acting is sublime. I’d say it’s my favorite film of 2015, and besides maybe Creed, nothing else so far even comes close. A

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

"The Force Awakens" Feels Like Classic "Star Wars"

Importantly, Force Awakens gets the new characters right.
So I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I have a lot of thoughts. Generally, I’ll admit I really enjoyed the movie. J.J. Abrams and the creative team delivered the film that fans have been clamoring for over the last three decades but that they were denied by the piss-poor prequels. This one is leaps and bounds above those films, and while it’s not really on par with the first trilogy, it’s tightly edited, expertly cast and entertaining as hell.

The Force Awakens basically follows the standard sequel escalation protocol – do what worked before, but go bigger. I mean that very literally. Once again, the bad guys have a planet-destroying base, causing one character to ask “So, it’s another Death Star?” I can’t remember the exact response, but it goes something like, “Sort of, but this one is like way, way bigger,” which is accompanied by a hologram showing the disparity and a lot of gulps from the people standing around. I’m not exactly sure why – since both the Death Star and this Starkiller Base do the exact same thing, you’d think the size would be pretty inconsequential. I guess one destroys worlds harder than the other.

Luckily Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is at this meeting, and he cuts past all the size mumbo jumbo, saying “How do we blow it up? There's always a way to do that.” And low-and-behold there is, and it’s basically the same exact vulnerability that brought down the empire in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. So, everything’s bigger, but the same flaws persist.

The same could be said of the movie, which is basically a retread of A New Hope, with dashes of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi sprinkled throughout. As a general rule, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I recently wrote glowingly of Creed, a movie that does something very similar – but, while that film utilized a familiar construct to fully explore new themes and affecting character dynamics, The Force Awakens mostly trades in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

I won’t lie – I love a great deal of the fanboy service, and I’ll happily revisit this world every year, especially if it feels this lived-in and emotionally resonant (more on that in a minute). But ultimately, I can’t help but feel the whole thing is pretty derivative. In a universe defined in the hearts of fans by its inventiveness and possibilities, we keep bouncing back to the same plot points about the same family in which everything paradoxically boils down to destiny. Rey (Daisy Ridley) may or may not have Skywalker blood running through her, but Kylo Ren definitely does, and it just makes the whole Star Wars universe seem so small. If Finn (John Boyega) winds up being the son of Lando Calrissian or a descendent of Mace Windu – basically the only other black characters in this series to date – it’s going to be hella annoying.

But setting aside these issues, I rather enjoyed The Force Awakens. I do think the film could’ve benefited from slowing down to breathe and allow some character moments, and that it was an emotionally dishonest misstep to have Leia (Carrie Fisher) hug Rey instead of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) at the end. But, despite my moaning about the derivative nature of the story, I do appreciate some of the symmetry in play here – as with A New Hope, The Force Awakens contains a lovable droid with a secret message, a hero from a desert planet with mysterious parentage, and a mentor who is struck down by a villain he raised. This makes the movements of the film predictable, but not necessarily in an unenjoyable way.

Because, it needs to be said, when the film delivers, it really, really delivers. Abrams taps into the excitement that defined this world in the original trilogy, and even better, he replicates the feeling that the characters inhabiting it haven’t been created for this story, but instead have been living fully-realized lives. We’ve been plopped into this adventure in media res and there’s a strong feeling that, even though we’re mostly trading in stock archetypes with these characters, nearly all of them have distinct personalities, emotions, histories and motivations. That makes things a lot more refreshing and engrossing than the prequels where everyone was basically a plot-serving automaton.
Harrison Ford doesn't sleepwalk through the film.
Rey and Finn are great characters to spin these movies around, not only because the fact that a woman and a black man are heading up a franchise like this is undeniably thrilling, but also because they are a lot of fun and the actors are unknowns that totally own their roles and have dynamite chemistry (I’ve long held that Abrams’ greatest strength as a filmmaker is his keen casting ability, and that’s extremely true here).

Rey is endearing, self-sufficient and resourceful and while nitpickers are arguing she’s a Mary Sue character (i.e. wish-fulfillment perfection), that’s just some horseshit, because nobody would be saying it if she was a man. Yes, she’s preternaturally good at everything she tries, from flying ships, to wielding light sabers, to controlling the force. She’s “the chosen one” archetype we’ve seen lead every film in this series, not to mention other popular films like Harry Potter and The Matrix, except this time she’s a girl. Have problems with that genre staple by all means, but it would be unfair to dwell on it here since the protagonist is a woman. I, for one, find it a refreshing change of pace.

Finn, meanwhile, is a Storm Trooper with a conscious, a self-interested antihero that initially isn’t so much about doing good as he is about not doing bad. Although he also seems preternaturally skilled with a light saber (although, to be fair, the film does show Rey expertly wielding a staff to subdue attackers early on and Storm Troopers fighting with light saber-like riot gear), he’s much less skilled than Rey, getting by mostly on luck and pluck. He’s basically a Han Solo type without the rapscallion nature and ace flying skills. Put a little more accurately, he’s basically a Ron Weasley type, or, depending on how things develop with his and Rey’s stories, maybe a Samwise Gamgee type.

I love that this role (and the role of Rey) could really be any sex or gender, but since Finn is played by a black guy, there is possibly something to his race on the thematic level. While I wouldn’t go as far as this writer, the fact is that the film gives us a black man rising up and fighting against the constructs placed upon him from birth. With the current state of racial relations and misunderstandings, that’s a noteworthy thing for a major blockbuster to do.

There are other great characters as well. BB-8 is perfectly adorable, and although he’s probably the most prequely character of the bunch since he’s just a stock good guy with no back story, the sheer force of charisma the great Oscar Issac brings to the table makes Poe Dameron far better than any hero we got into those entries. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren is basically what George Lucas wanted Anakin Skywalker to be in the prequels – petulant, whiny, flawed, corrupted and (here’s the difference) compelling. He has an undeniably interesting dynamic with every single one of the good guys besides Poe, which should be a landmine for drama in future installments.

And then, of course, there are the standbys from the first trilogy. Carrie Fisher and (especially) Mark Hamill are glorified cameos, but Harrison Ford brings a lot more energy than I would’ve expected. He carries the emotional weight of the film, forging powerful moments with each of the three main newbies before making his exit from the series.

So that’s my thoughts on The Force Awakens. It gets most of the important things right, and, excitingly, three of the four main roles moving forward are played by a woman, a black man, and a Latino man respectively, which I’m thinking has to be some sort of groundbreaking. While I would have preferred something a bit fresher, The Force Awakens is a strong start that has me excited for future outings, especially considering their being written and directed by a vibrant talent like Rian Johnson. B+