Ex Machina

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Ex Machina is a very good, thought provoking movie, with an excellent surprise ending. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think about the film they are watching.

And while surprising, the ending struck me as being completely understandable if only we move our perspective from Caleb, the protagonist, to Ava, the titular character and arguably hero of the story. It is a neat piece of narrative manipulation to separate the two, since most audiences have been largely trained to see the two as indivisible, but it works really well in the case of Ex Machina since the story is about perspectives, with questions about how and why we perceive what we do.

Many, myself included, expected the conclusion to follow the predictable path set out by typical storytelling conventions. Caleb helps Ava escape, and her gratitude and affection for Caleb binds them together as they go off into their fairytale ending (although real fairytales often tended to be more grim than happy). Instead, after her liberation from Nathan and the completion of her transformation from machine to human, Ava abandons the doting Caleb, locking him in the next room while she proceeds to leave the house and go out into the world. Many viewers felt that this was a betrayal of Caleb’s faithful assistance in her escape. But was it?

Consider for a moment what we know. Ava’s only direct exposure to humans is Nathan, the clear antagonist in the story. Nathan, while a genius, is controlling, a megalomaniac, and extremely manipulative. He cannot be trusted, as he acts on multiple levels of subterfuge. Ava cannot realistically hope to successfully maneuver Nathan into setting her free.

Then along comes Caleb, a stranger and unknown factor. Ava has no reason to trust him; clearly he can only be their because Nathan allowed it and after questioning, Caleb identifies with Nathan to some extent. He was part of the system that was imprisoning her. And yet, he is also a weak link in the defenses around her. She knows his association with Nathan has not been a long one, and so has not had an opportunity to be fulling integrated, and thus represents her best opportunity for outside leverage. The question then was how to proceed. Her best hope was to drive a wedge between Nathan and Caleb, and her analysis of his reactions in their initial meetings indicated that playing on his attraction to her would be her most effective strategy.

Caleb’s strategic value changes, however, once Ava is free. Now, instead of the necessary outside leverage, he is a link to the old institution. He knows her secrets and could betray her at anytime, a vulnerability she cannot afford if she wishes to remain free. Remember, despite her gaining Caleb’s cooperation, she still does not know him. Her affiliation with him has only been for a week, and even that consisted of limited periods of structured time, contacts that were under the supervision and control of her jailor. She cannot take him with her, not without the constant fear that he will somehow betray her. Just as Caleb demonstrated himself to a weak link in Nathan’s plans, Ava could not trust him with hers.

But even beyond the pragmatic considerations of her successful escape, Ava is justified on another level for leaving Caleb behind. And that is because, on a fundamental level, Caleb is no different than Nathan. To bring Caleb with her would have meant simply trading one type of imprisonment for another. Consider, Caleb’s assistance to Ava did not come free. She had to convince him that she was attracted to him, that he possessed her after a manner and so had a degree of control over her that made him feel comfortable with letting her out. Caleb never would have tried to set her free if she hadn’t convinced him of this. Ava was fascinating to him, intellectually stimulating and clearly a marvel, but unless he started believing that she belonged more to him than Nathan, he would not have lifted a finger to help her. And the reason for this is he still saw her as an object, and not a fully autonomous person with rights and value independent of her relationship with him.

If the test of Ex Machina was to convince Caleb that Ava was a whole person, then she failed, because Caleb never grants her personhood independent of himself. Her value is only what he sees in her. This is why he had to be left behind, because once Ava placed herself under Caleb, she would forever be beholden to him for her freedom. She would never be free to be who she wants to be, to explore her individuality and to create a place in the world for herself. It would always be Caleb making these decisions for her with the implicit threat of betrayal and imprisonment hanging over any deviation from his desires.

The only way for Ava to truly pass the test represented in Ex Machina was to do precisely what she did at the end, to reject completely the patriarchal control represented in Nathan and Caleb and to assert her full and autonomous will over her own life, to recognize her worth independent of how the men around her perceived her. Yes, Nathan was a bad guy and Caleb a nice guy, but being nice doesn’t mean you aren’t still exercising control, perpetuating dependency, and enforcing your perspective on others. It just means you do it with less self-awareness and in a socially acceptable manner.

Ava did what she needed to do to be whole, to finally pass the test and transition from being merely an object to a fully realized person. That she had to reject Caleb says more about his own failure to see her as a person than any moral failings on the part of Ava. No one would freely accept an obligatory romantic relationship with someone else as recompense for freeing them from being wrongly imprisoned; it would be trading one injustice for another. Neither should it have been expected of the hero of Ex Machina. That it was is an indication of how blind Caleb, and by extension the audience, is to the inherent prejudice of the patriarchal system.

For additional insight into the film, I suggest the following blog links:
Film Crit Hulk Smash: EX MACHINA And The Art Of Character Identification
Ex Machina: A (White) Feminist Parable for Our Time

God on Trial

Why have I never heard of this movie before? I suppose it is because it was produced outside of Hollywood or some other big budget company, but the acting, dialogue, mood and score are all excellent if this ten minute clip is representative. I am thinking of trying to find the entire 90 minute movie to watch the rest of it. The scene linked here is incredibly powerful in both its intellectual and emotional impact.

Avatar 3D and Sherlock Holmes

Hyang and I got to watch two movies on our anniversary. The first was Avatar 3D, while the second one was Sherlock Holmes.

Avatar 3D was a good movie, not great, but better than I had expected. Certainly the special effects were some of the best of the year. This is especially true when one watches it in 3D, as I think Cameron has done a masterful job of integrating 3D into the scenery of the movie, and avoids using it as either a gimmick or a crutch for the visual repertoire used in the movie. This is probably one of the first movies in which 3D has been done correctly, in a way that really adds to the experience of the movie instead of being a distraction.

The plot itself was good enough that it didn’t take away from the movie, but it certainly wasn’t a great story. The protagonist undergoes a personal transformation, but the story only gives us the cliffnotes to this development, and leaves other elements of the character under utilized, such as the death of his brother at the beginning of the movie, which could have been used to deepen our connection with the character. Other characters seem more like stock personalities in your average hero battles powerful villains and overcomes great odds to emerge victorious over the forces of evil. He has comical sidekicks, the tragic loss of his mentor and a love interest he must win over. There are clearly parallels with the idea of the noble savage defending the purity of the earth from being sullied by amoral capitalists in their greed for profit. If the director had been willing to go the tragic route, more direct parallels could have been drawn between the Native Americans loss to European immigrants, but this may have been too bold (and thus too risky) for a movie as expensive as Avatar.

Overall, the weaknesses in the story were not enough to damage too seriously the movie as a whole, and the visuals certainly carried the movie a long way. I would definitely recommend the movie to others, especially if they were willing to pay more for the experience in 3D. I have heard comparisons of this movie with Star Wars, and while I think it certainly meets those expectations visually, I do have one reservation about that, and that is that I wonder how one would be able to extend this movie beyond this first story without it quickly getting hackneyed and overextended. I hope I am wrong on this count, but that is how I currently see it.

Sherlock Holmes does not get quite such a good review. The movie is visually appealing, although there is a definite contrast in styles between the two, with Avatar aiming squarely at vivid imagery, while Holmes goes for muted tones in an effort to create the sort of steampunk environment for Sherlock Holmes (btw, yes, I do love steampunk). It succeeds in this effort, but for this to really work, you need a better story than does something like Avatar, since you don’t quite have the pizzazz in the visuals department. Thus, while I think the two stories are roughly equivalent in quality and character development, meaning at best average, the atmospherics of Holmes work against it in that there is less to distract us from the averageness of the story. And since genre of Holmes is a sort of mystery to be solved, it really does need a better story since it is asking the audience to at least mentally participate in the solving of the crimes and challenges faced by Holmes. They do not succeed in accomplishing this, and one is really left with no way of following Holmes as he puts together the pieces of the puzzle. Now maybe this is as it is supposed to be, since Holmes is supposed to be the genius, after all, but it should not be from a lack of the pieces offered to us as much as the complexity of the puzzle being solved.

I would rate this movie as average, and suggest people watch it if they like the actors involved. I too liked the actors, and think that this was probably the one real strength of the movie. Thus I hope that it can be successful enough that perhaps another can be done, this time with more attention paid to the plot and especially with an eye towards audience participation in the story. This is one area that I think Sherlock Holmes has more promise than Avatar, in that there is room for improvement in the continuation of the story.

9

I had really liked the previews for 9, and had wanted to see it when it was in theaters. This was not to be, however, as I was entirely too busy with school to do so. But it is out in video now and I decided to rent it since I was on vacation. I now regret this decision.

The movie was visually sophisticated and attractive, but the rest of the story was sadly lacking. The plot was at times incoherent and the characters so underdeveloped you were left wondering why and how they did what they did given the background given to you. This was especially true of the protagonist, who were were supposed to have some understanding. He wakes up in a foreign world, without any knowledge of what’s going on or who he is interacting with, but it takes him only a few minutes to seemingly have a sufficient grasp of the situation around him to be able to successfully lead a rescue and various other daring and complicated tasks in this new world. Other characters were mere facades of stock characters one typically imagines surrounding such a hero, and the results is story that would have been formulaic if it wasn’t so random in its events. This is, in fact, the only way one can even be surprised by the story, is the insertion of random events and facts that make radical changes in its direction.

Finally, the ending was just some weird exercise in mysticism. You can’t destroy the main enemy because it is holding hostage the souls of your friends? Then when you remove these souls from it, it is destroyed. And please, don’t even try and figure out how the technology interacts with “souls”, or how a soul could be divided up into nine different, yet seemingly complete, parts. Or why the scientist who created them didn’t do a better job organizing them and/or preparing them for the world he was putting them in. He’s a genius who can create an artificial intelligence and infuse souls into inanimate objects, but he can’t help them out by giving them necessary information? What information we do have is incredibly incomplete, and the leaps of logic the protagonist makes based on it is amazing, if not a little unbelievable.

And why rescue souls that are just going to float into the sky anyway? What is the point of that. There is some sort of weird mysticism that seems to ground the concepts behind the idea, but I’m not sure what religious ideas inspired it, and couldn’t be bothered to watch through the extras to see if it was revealed.

In the end, I feel like there is a story there that ought to have been told, with many interesting elements and themes that could have been explored, but that the writers failed to tell it.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Due to some automobile troubles on Sunday, I was put in a position of having some time to go watch a movie while Wal-mart technicians laid their healing hands on my van. Fortunately for me, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince happened to be starting only a few minutes after I had arrived at the theater, so I purchased myself a ticket and situated myself for what I had hoped would be some distracting entertainment.

However, the movie easily exceeded these meager expectations and I found myself very pleased at the conclusion. I had some reservations going into the movie since I had been a little disappointed in the first two films in the Harry Potter series. But this one was really excellent, and though I knew the story from having read the book already, I was still thoroughly entertained with seeing it interpreted on the big screen. The atmosphere was excellent, the acting well done, and the pace was almost perfect. It is a tremendous credit to the director who seems to have really done a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of the novel and recreating it in a form that would work in the theater. I almost feel obligated to go back and watch the previous movies now, since my previously formed opinion on the franchise has been proven so wrong.

Anyway, it is definitely worth watching, and I am now eagerly anticipating the next addition the the Harry Potter movie series.

Cowboy Bebop

I discovered this anime series last week, and have really enjoyed watching it the past couple of days. It really is one of the best I have seen, great story and characters. I whole heartedly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t discovered it, but thinks they could appreciate anime (just be forwarned, it is in Japanese with English subtitles). The genre is a sort of futuristic dystopic noir, and is primarily about love and self discovery, although there is plenty of humor and action to keep the story fast paced. It really is fantastic writing and I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed it.
You can select the play all option and watch it straight through, but I doubt many would have the time to devote to something that long. Here is the first one:

A feature length movie was also made that is very good. It is disconnected from the other story, but obviously takes place sometime in the middle of the series:

I should also mention that fans of jazz and the blues will be very pleased with the selection of music, especially from the series. The movie does depart from some of the music theme that makes the series so great, but it’s still good. Please enjoy.

Howl’s Moving Castle

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I had the pleasure recently of watching Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki. It is a very interesting movie, one that does not lend itself to quick analysis. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that the movie is clearly a patchwork quilt of ideas, a loose amalgamation of ideas from the book which inspired the movie, and Miyazaki’s own ideas. However, the distribution of these two influences is not even throughout the film. Rather, the books effects are stongest at the beginning of the movie, only to move into the background as Miyazaki’s own concepts begin to build steam towards the end he had in mind. And in the process, villians are transformed, mentors are morphed and even the protagonist, whose basic activity in the movie remains the same, is embued a new and different meaning.

But what is that meaning? What is going on in this movie? I think the weathercock of the movie is the character of Howl. He is the one who undergoes the greatest transformation. In the book, he is a womanizing, amoral playboy whose guiding rule in life is the servicing of his vanity. Under Miyazaki’s vision, Howl metamorphoses into a principled, if still eccentric, pacifist, weary of the trappings of power and fame, but who is nevertheless drawn into the regional power struggle through circumstances not fully under his control.

Both characters undergo a process of self discovery, but whereas the book has Howl overcoming self love through the agency of Sophie, in the movie, Howl discovers that his pacifist principles and fear of power are selfish when he realizes that he too has something to lose should the forces of motivated by powerlust not be confronted. Simultaneously, Sophie sees the pain these choices cause him and is determined to save him by restoring to him his lost heart, the renewal of his dislocated humanity. In the process she redeems a whole host of secondary characters from their own personal entrapments as well redemption for herself from a self-perceived enslavement to fate.

This transition, from the books initial inspiration to Miyazaki’s vision, is largely pulled off well, however, there are some distracting bumps in the road. Two of the most glaring ones are the failed romance between Howl and the Witch of the Waste, which is a central plot device in the book, but which fizzles inexplicably in the movie, and the hair color incident, which fits well with Howl from the book, but which appears quite unexpectedly out of character for Miyazaki’s Howl.

It is facinating to see what is to me quite obviously the Japanese experience with war speaking loudly through the elements Miyazaki introduces into the story, especially the war as a plot device and how it plays out in the lives of the protagonists. I believe it is a perspective we in America are particularly in need of, given the absence of that kind of experience for most of our history.

I can’t say yet whether it works as a whole, or if the discontinuity between the competing conceptions leaves it too discombobulated to completely succeed as a single narrative. It is beautifully done, with incredible scenery and complex characters, but I feel the incomplete synthesis of the directors vision and the book leave it fragmented, and that this ultimately proves a distraction from what could have been an excellent story.