Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Ex Machina

July 9, 2015

20150709-222758.jpg
It’s never a bad time to ring the old more-human-than-human bell, and the serenely troubling Ex Machina, which hits DVD next week, rings it loud and clear. A search-engine employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a trip to the remote Alaska compound of the company’s big boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). This is not a social call: Nathan’s life project, having made billions from his popular search engine, is to create artificial intelligence that passes the famous Turing test. Essentially, a machine must convince a human that it is human, that indeed it does not know it is a machine.

To that end, Nathan has worked his way up to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sleek, delicate-looking unit who’s half Bride of Frankenstein, half the Invisible Woman model — some of her body and skull are transparent, revealing elegant inner workings. Ava often has slightly delayed responses, accompanied by gentle whirring. Those responses seem almost human, but to what extent is her behavior simply learned, a shrewd way to manipulate her way to freedom? Hell, to what extent is anyone’s? Like any good robot movie, Ex Machina considers the mechanistic human moreso than the personlike machine.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has made a clean, effective directorial debut here, staging a quiet three-character chamber piece. I don’t suppose the movie breaks much new ground, but it’s pleasantly antiseptic and pensive, with a bearish central performance by one of our most magnetic young actors Oscar Isaac. Nathan sports a shaved head and a bushy beard, a plausible look for a genius who doesn’t want to spend time fussing with his hair or shaving his face. The beard, along with the name of his corporation (Bluebook), carries associations with Bluebeard, who like Nathan has certain rooms you may enter, certain rooms you must not.

Caleb is a bit of a cipher, an audience avatar with occasional scientific patter. He’s an obvious opposite number to Nathan, a moralist whose sympathy for the machine may also keep him from becoming a great scientist. The movie unoriginally suggests that genius requires a degree of inhumanity, but Isaac keeps Nathan connected to a childlike need for sensation, input. Nathan drinks, dances, passes out, enjoys intimate relations with his creations. The story begins to seem pared down to its essentials, almost elemental. If it never quite reaches us emotionally, maybe that’s because grabbing us by the guts isn’t the game Garland is playing.

The stark interiors (which become bathed in red light on a regular basis whenever the power is cut) contrast with the chaotic outdoors in a way that tips Garland’s hand a little: Nathan, of course, tries to control his environment and can’t. In the end, Ex Machina shakes out as a high-functioning mood piece, a sharp slice of atmosphere, a riff on familiar themes. In Nathan it gives us hot-blooded mind, and in Ana it offers a body that exists at the pleasure of a man, no matter his high-flown rhetoric. Ana ends up being a feminist heroine, yearning for escape from the man who keeps her. Yet she’s also humanity seeking to slip the bonds forged by the gods. Ex Machina takes its deserved place next to the other children of Fritz Lang and Karel Capek.

Mad Max: Fury Road

May 16, 2015

20150516-231522.jpg
And so we return, after a full three decades, to the post-apocalypse as rendered by George Miller. Same as it ever was: Miller’s beloved original Mad Max trilogy, fronted by Mel Gibson, was a frenetic hell of sand and blood and lawless freakazoids, and the tradition continues in Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson’s Max, one felt, was mad in both popular senses of the term, angry and insane. The rather more soulful Tom Hardy, inheriting the role, conveys only the insanity. Someone else holds the anger this time. There it is, right in the title, evoking “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.” Even the heroine is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This Mad Max is about female rage in the face of warlike male dominion.

I don’t think Miller sat down intending to craft an action-flick SCUM Manifesto; he probably considered it a cracking good yarn, which it is, one that deviates from what he’s done with Max before, which it does. The plot is simplicity itself: Furiosa rescues five young women from the grandiloquent warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They had been kept for breeding purposes, and one of them bears Joe’s child; now they are on the move in Furiosa’s massive war rig. Joe’s minions, a pack of powdered baldies called the War Boys, take off after them, and one of the Boys, the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is hooked up to Max, feeding off his blood. Joe and his people — his whole way of life — are premised on using people like disposable product. Furiosa is conceived in opposition to that.

Much of the action is real, not sculpted in a computer, and Miller gets a properly caffeinated vibe going by speeding up the frame rate — some of the motions look jerky, impatient. Where the pacing is more jagged, the images, courtesy of veteran cinematographer John Seale, are rich and bronzed and fierce — the hues pop, the compositions have rock-solid clarity. Technically, as pure cinema, Fury Road is masterful, unimpeachable. It deals in the lost art of readable, exciting set pieces; the editing is a hell of a lot more “cutty” than it was in Max’s prior outings, but Miller still manages to root everything in plausible physicality.

The movie is getting slightly overpraised for this very reason; by doing what action cinema should be expected to do, it has earned shiny gifts of rhetoric from a grateful nation of movie geeks. Expect fun, excitement, thrills, and surprisingly relevant subtext; ignore most of the hype telling you it’s the sun and the moon. Besides, some of the action is rather obviously computer-enhanced — a dust storm so chaotic, with multiple tornadoes, that we wonder how anyone survives it — and some of it is a bit samey and repetitive, which has been a problem with this series from the beginning; the constant roar of engines becomes almost a lullaby.

The freakiness elevates the film. Maleness is represented mostly by cultish deformity, death’s-head zombies looking like Kurtz’s Montagnard spectres near the end of Apocalypse Now. Femaleness, when not roughly used for reproduction and milk, seeks to get back to an idyllic sisterhood in the greenness of nature. In the middle of this is Max, and the hyper-masculine Mel Gibson wouldn’t have worked as this particular in-between avatar — Tom Hardy, with his full lips and yearning eyes mitigating his punchy features, carries enough femininity to place him naturally opposite Immortan Joe and his despoilers. Hardy is content to hand the movie over to Charlize Theron, who gives a no-nonsense performance eloquent in its silences. Talk is bad in these movies, as if language were as scarce as water and petrol, and were to be hoarded as violently.

Interstellar

November 9, 2014

20141109-172901.jpg
Is it possible to make a big science-fiction film these days that doesn’t bathe in banalities and sap? Smaller films like Looper or Moon or Under the Skin manage it, but the more a movie costs, the more it has to appeal to the mass audience or risk fatal word of mouth. Christopher Nolan probably commands the most clout of all the big-movie directors, after having made skillions of dollars from his Batman movies and from Inception, and his big new one, Interstellar, cost $165 million and runs 169 minutes — or about a million dollars a minute. Interstellar tries to tackle one of the biggest (and oldest) questions sci-fi has to offer: What will the human race do when Earth becomes uninhabitable? The answer is surprisingly nihilistic and cowardly: Abandon ship. We’ve ruined this planet, let’s go find another to ruin.

I doubt Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, considers Interstellar in those terms. Indeed, the movie stays resolutely apolitical about the dusty dystopia it depicts: nobody says that our crops are blighted and our land assailed by dust storms because of man-made climate change. This, remember, is the director who tapped into Occupy anger in The Dark Knight Rises only to wimp out of it. Nolan, then, is politically unconscious and perhaps conscienceless, a slick imperialist imagemaker who feels the masses are fairly dumb. In the future world of Interstellar, brains no longer matter; people mostly are groomed to become farmers, who work the dry land to grow corn, the only crop that can still grow (though not for long).

One such farmer, a former engineer and pilot known here only as Cooper or Coop (Matthew McConaughey), makes his way to a super-secret fragment of NASA, which shoots him out into space to find, via wormhole, a more hospitable planet. This mission takes longer than Cooper anticipates: over the course of the film’s two hours and forty-nine minutes, no fewer than three actresses play the role of his daughter Murphy at various ages, while Cooper, in an inverse of McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, stays the same age. (I’m sure I’m not the first to make that joke, but I couldn’t resist.) There’s much chat about the fifth dimension and the singularity and other recitations from the higher-mind quantum-magick grimoire. What there isn’t is much excitement, either narrative or cinematic, until Nolan tries to work some up by throwing in a bad-guy character whose only function is to try to get Cooper and his crew killed a few times. Pretty much everything to do with this character is terrible, especially when he and Cooper are in a death-grapple on some ice planet.

Nolan usually has too much masculine weight on his mind to bother with decent female characters, but such actresses as Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and Louise Fletcher sneak in some of the emotions the film’s conception is sorely lacking. The Big Truths we’re meant to take away from Interstellar are the usual bromides about humanity and love finding a way (do we care about saving any other species, by the way? On this topic the movie’s silence speaks damning volumes). The movie isn’t very well thought out or deeply felt; there’s no passion in it. Nolan just wanted to make a big epic sci-fi number, and doesn’t seem at all interested in its implications.

The movie has an unacknowledged rotten core of cold nastiness. But that’s what keeps it bearable during the lengthy tech-geek scenes, wherein buttons are pushed and switches are flicked and directives are issued to robots with a humor level of 75% (which puts them at least 25% ahead of Nolan). Interstellar is good on all the same stuff that The Right Stuff and Contact and Apollo 13 were good on, the nuts-and-bolts Popular Mechanics stuff. But it doesn’t earn inclusion in the same sentence as 2001 or even Gravity, a minimalist masterpiece that focused on survival and left the cosmological woolgathering out of it. The movie doesn’t even leave audiences with bothersome questions on the level of the spinning top in Inception. Christopher Nolan, like David Fincher, is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose. And his ideas are very much stale farts wafting through the deep library of speculative fiction.

The Zero Theorem

August 23, 2014

20140823-165428.jpg
The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.

Lucy

July 27, 2014

20140727-211855.jpg
What are the movies trying to tell us about Scarlett Johansson? Of late, she’s been seen (or, in one case, merely heard) in three idiosyncratic sci-fi films directed by people with more on their minds than simple escapism. Spike Jonze’s Her wedded Johansson’s purr to a super-advanced operating system; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offered her as an alien harvesting men; and now, in Luc Besson’s Lucy (Luc with a y?), Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule whose cargo of experimental blue powder, leaking into her bloodstream, allows her access to more and more of her brain. In the Besson-verse, this means Johansson becomes the ultimate badass, able to bend matter to her will, until eventually, like Samantha in Her, Lucy slips the bonds of the material world.

What matters to the sane viewer is not whether Lucy is scientifically plausible — it isn’t — but whether it’s an entertaining riff on its hefty themes (like, what is human, man?) — and it mostly is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many questions about it. Lucy starts out an ordinary young woman with understandably intense emotional responses to her plight — in a nice nod to realism, Besson has her barf at the sight of gangster bloodshed — but as her brain grows, as in so many of these parables, her heart seems to shrink. Johansson becomes dead-eyed and rather spooky, rattling off complex dialogue in a flat affect. She comes across as more inhuman than she was as actual nonhumans in Her and Under the Skin. Reason trumps feeling, I guess — though another nice touch finds Lucy phoning her mom and tearfully sharing infant memories she can now access — but a main character without fear makes for a movie without emotional stakes.

Lucy is probably easy to parody, what with its nods to landmarks of furrowed-brow cinema — at one point, Lucy touches fingers with a curious pre-evolved monkey; finally, Scarlett Johansson as the Monolith! — sometimes playing like Limitless remixed by Godfrey Reggio. It comes complete with a thesis statement, spoken by Johansson in sullen voiceover: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The peak of human endeavor, apparently, being the ability to take out a hallway full of Korean thugs with a lordly wave of the hand. For extra gravitas, Besson brings in Morgan Freeman, filling the same role he did in the recent and thematically similar Transcendence. Where Johnny Depp sought to crown himself the world’s benevolent cyber-king, though, Lucy just wants to survive, to pass along information as a cell does. Is this the difference between a deus ex machina and a dea ex machina?

Ultimately, Lucy is more interesting as the final panel of the 2013-14 Scarlett Johansson “what is human?” triptych than it is in and of itself. It has its giddy moments, though. When Lucy teams up with a cop (Amr Waked) and takes him on a leadfoot tour of Parisian streets, or when she achieves oneness with every electronic device in Freeman’s lab, Besson shows a muscular imaginative glee that’s hard to fend off. The director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element has never been a thinker; despite Lucy‘s feints towards philosophy, it’s really about the cool visual, the dispassionate masklike beauty of a young woman serving up a bit of ultraviolence. Lucy was not based on a comic book, but it might as well be; essentially, Luc Besson is in the comic-book business.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

20140721-171144.jpg

The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers