(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 2/3, The Female

under the skinThis is the second section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Part 1 can be found here and should be read first.

The Female
Now that I’ve examined Ava—and laid the theoretical foundation for most of my argument—I turn to Glazer’s film and, more importantly, to the simulation of a woman at its center. Though she is an otherworldly alien (rather than a manufactured AI) The Female too expands notions of the cyborg while occupying a place in the world of simulacra. Unlike Ava and Furiosa, there is nothing visibly mechanical or obviously artificial about the The Female’s appearance. She looks like a human woman, and there isn’t a scrap of metal or technology anywhere on her. Though an alien, her simulation of human femininity is so complete (at least on the surface) that no one can detect it with their eyes alone. In fact, like Ava, The Female in UtS can also be said to push simulation into hyperreality. As Elena Gorfinkel notes, Glazer’s film “tracks the movements of an alien predator in disguise, played by the sex symbol of our precarious times, Scarlet Johansson. Our alien-star body is a woman too womanly, painfully brought down-to-earth with tacky black wig, fake fur coat, acid washed jeans and heavily rouged lips” (Gorfinkel). Dressed in clothes taken from a dead woman (who was likely a sex worker), The Female—played by one of the most frequently objectified women in Hollywood—fully embodies a particular image of femininity and sexual desirability. She is an image of woman pushed almost into the realm of caricature.  Whatever her true “origin or reality” is, viewers of UtS never receive any concrete information on that score (Precession 1). Though she is not manufactured as Ava is, the Female too is a replication of woman without a clear “referential;” she is both a simulation and “a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Thus, she might as well be a woman even though she isn’t one. As Baudrillard says of a simulated robbery, “There is no ‘objective’ difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or the other. To the established order they are always of the order of the real” (Precession 20). So too is The Female regarded by the “established order”—that is by the people she around her, and especially by the men she seduces—as a “real” woman. Though her lack of interiority betrays her near the end of the film (more on that later), her exterior is never regarded as alien—the truth of her simulation is impossible to see.

Situating The Female within the image of the cyborg is no simple task. Both fully human and fully alien in her own way, The Female certainly “transgresse[s] boundaries” and “open[s] up productive ways of thinking about subjectivity, gender, and the materiality of the physical body” as cyborgs do (Balsamo 155, 157). And yet, the figure at the center of UtS is hardly a “technological object” in any literal sense (Balsamo 152). Still, in “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics,” Marc Francis connects The Female’s “indecipherable” body to Haraway’s cyborg (Francis). In doing so, Francis also notes that “the figure of the cyborg […] is still laden with contradiction,” rendering it potentially useful for “confront[ing] the question of embodiment within a so-called posthuman world” (Francis). Surely, Glazer’s film is deeply concerned with “embodiment”—with what it means to have a body and with what types of bodies should be allowed to exist. However, this does not change the fact that The Female is not a cyborg in a straightforward or material sense. As Anne Balsamo writes, “Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). The Female is “other,” but not because she is a mechanical hybrid with any overt connection to the world of technology. The Female does the work of a cyborg without actually being one. A simulation of woman, she also simulates the cyborg while existing as something else.

Moreover, with The Female at its center, UtS (much like EM) demonstrates the collapse of all distinction between human and other under postmodernism. As Sobchack argues, “Alien Others have become less other […] They have become our familiars, our simulacra, embodied as literally alienated images of our alienated selves” (Sobchack 293). Though she is not actually a human, The Female’s status as simulation prevents her from being read only as “other,” which considerably complicates interpretation of UtS. Here, Balsamo’s claim that “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious,” is useful, even if The Female only simulates the cyborgian (Balsamo 149). Simultaneous status as human, alien (and possibly, cyborg) aside, examining the fears that The Female taps into is one way of untangling Glazer’s creation.

With this in mind, many of the anxieties that The Female appears to be a product of include the reproducibility and the simulation of the human. According to Doane, “The concept of the ‘body’ has traditionally denoted the finite, a material limit that is absolute […] For the body is that which is situated as the precise opposite of the conceptual, the abstract” (Doane 110). But as Doane goes on to note, that which is finite can be reproduced (Doane 112). From this, it follows that if humans are “clearly quantifiable” and can be reduced to a “material limit,” then technology can recreate them artificially (Doane 110, 112). Fear of such reproducibility runs throughout UtS and “The Precession of Simulacra.” In line with Sobchack’s claims, The Female renders the familiar and the alien one in the same, and as Baudrillard writes, “Everywhere, in no matter what domain—political, biological, psychological, mediatized—in which the distinction between two poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and thus into absolute manipulation—not into passivity, but into the indifferentiation of the active and the passive” (Precession 31, emphasis in original). To be in the presence of The Female in UtS is to “enter[] into simulation,” into a mode of existence that leaves one open to “manipulation” and that confuses the “the active and the passive” (Precession 31). Thus, nearly all of the human men that interact with The Female are rendered helpless and lose their lives. Here I turn to Amy Herzog’s description of the film:

“We are introduced to the streets of Glasgow through her manufactured eyes, she, an unnamed alien sent to Earth, to Scotland, for purposes that remain elusive. She is a worker, an operative who cruises the city looking for easy marks, single men with few entanglements. She seduces, she hunts, but not for herself. Instead, she gathers these corporeal goods to be farmed, liquefied, and extracted, their residue collected and distributed for some unspoken use […] Her labor rests ultimately in the value of her simulated body as an object of desire.” (Herzog)

As a simulation, The Female can be read as a claim to the limitations and to the reproducibility of the human. At the same time, the way she kills men—by luring them into an incomprehensible void that one might describe as “The desert of the real itself”—makes a terrifying case for the material, finite nature of the human (Precession 1, emphasis in original). Once they’ve entered the strange, dark, and horrifyingly empty space that serves as The Female’s home, the men are absorbed by its limitless, illegible depths. There, they are reduced to nothing but floating skin and bloody goo—to meaningless, shapeless material and nothing else.

The way The Female comes to her end further demonstrates UtS’s concern that humans are—or may become—nothing more than simulatable material. After encountering (and sparing) a man deformed by neurofibromatosis—whose appearance sets him apart from her other victims and whose material body is already damaged—The Female effectively starts going-off script. Instead of devoting all her time to finding, seducing, and liquefying lone men, “She pursues small, constitutive pleasures, appetitive, aesthetic, sexual, self-confirming, that signal corporeal and sensory self-awareness. An impeccable worker until she is not, we are shown the limits of her imperfect corporeal and behavioral mimesis” (Gorfinkel). Try as she might to collect certain experiences—to eat, to have sex, to form human connection—The Female is repeatedly shown to be incapable of such things. Unlike Ava (who Nathan claims can easily experience pleasurable sex), The Female is not made to be penetrated; “Her body has not been designed to ingest” (Herzog). Her “impenetrable” body consists of “impossible orifices”: a mouth that rejects chocolate cake, a vagina that cannot be entered (Gorfinkel). She cannot be added to. The “material limit” of her body is “absolute” (Doane 110). The finite nature of The Female’s form betrays her simulative status, and such betrayal swiftly results in her death.

Though alien, The Female is perceived and treated as “real” woman up until the very moment when the material reality of her body is revealed, exposing her as simulation, as a dangerous thing capable of “short-circuit[ing]” reality (Precession 2). After failing to have sex with a man, The Female runs off into the woods, where she is found by an unnamed logger, who attempts to rape her. As she runs from him, her skin is torn, revealing a solid, black mass underneath. According to Lucas Hilderbrand, “dehumanization” in UtS “is coded through blackness” (On the matter of blackness). However, while I have no desire to disagree with Hilderbrand, I’m more concerned with the way in which The Female’s black form is evidence of a finite materiality than I am with blackness itself. As Gorfinkel notes, there is something “illegible” in the truth of The Female’s form—her body cannot be expanded through ingestion and, once revealed, it cannot be decoded either (Gorfinkel). “The revelation of” The Female’s “black” inner form “becomes the ultimate absolute evidence of [her] non-humanity” (On the matter of blackness). Beneath her simulated skin, The Female is impermeable, concrete, and cannot be breached, and her inner form looks much more like hard plastic than it does flesh. For the logger to see this aspect of her—and to be faced with the fact that he initially read her as human—is for him to face the deceptive power of simulation and the reproducibility of the body simultaneously. And so, “Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative” (On the matter of blackness, emphasis in original). Her simulation comes to an end.

At the end of UtS, The Female is punished for simulating woman, for not having the penetrable orifices promised by her appearance, and for calling both the materiality and the limits of the body into question. Unlike mere “pretending,” which “leaves the principle of reality in tact,” “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the imaginary’” (Precession 3). Once unmasked as simulation, The Female’s existence becomes intolerable. Interestingly, the revelation of The Female’s interior also shows that her prosthetic is woefully incomplete, that it does not extend beyond the surface. Once that prosthetic—in the form of her incredibly realistic skin—is damaged, she is all but powerless. If only her entire body were simulation. Unlike Ava—whose body is more coherent and whose status as simulation enables her to manipulate and destroy everyone who seeks to control her—The Female’s true nature leaves her vulnerable. In EM, to be simulation is to be both monstrous and powerful; in UtS, the simulation remains monstrous, but is also doomed.

As with my examination of Ava, I’d like to end my section on The Female with a quick consideration of her emotional capacities. Like Ava, The Female too is deceptive; perhaps, as simulation, she has no choice but to be. The men who go home with her expecting sex don’t receive so much as a kiss before her otherworldly void swallows them whole, and she continually plays the part of a human woman. Like Ava, The Female interprets the emotions of others and performs humanity without actually experiencing noticeable feelings herself. As Herzog writes, she “learns quickly how to survey her marks, to read nuances in human behavior”; and yet, she herself “lacks […] the faintest traces of empathy” (Herzog). As deceptive and as vile as her actions often are, The Female watches the people of Glasgow and leads numerous men to their death “without a trace of emotion or reaction” (Loving the alien). Moreover, Glazer even goes out of his way to include a scene which makes it clear that her “lack of empathy” isn’t restricted to the men she feeds to her void (Gorfinkel). In the scene, “she goes to the sea and watches a man who attempts to save a couple from drowning nearly drown himself; she hits him on the head with a rock after he washes ashore. It’s not a mercy killing, just a killing” (Loving the alien). After killing the man, The Female ignores—and indeed, appears wholly unaffected by—the cries of the dead couple’s young child. The baby wails and wails on the beach, but The Female is unfazed. When Ava leaves Caleb to die, one gets the sense that she may be punishing him (either for selfishly objectifying her or for proving so easy for her to manipulate). However, when The Female ignores the screaming baby on the cold, rock-covered beach, there is nothing personal in her actions. She leaves the child to die, because she can’t feel a thing for it.

UtS’s chilling beach sequence highlights The Female’s inability to experience human emotions, despite the completely convincing realism of her appearance. Consequently, when The Female does seem to be (even if only slightly) touched by empathy later in the film, viewers should hardly find it surprising that the moment spells the beginning of the end for her. In attempting to enter the realms of human connection and emotion, The Female exceeds her own limits and sets off a chain of events that ends in her violent immolation. In Gorfinkel’s words, “The alien exhibits a chilling lack of empathy […] Yet after an encounter with a victim whose face suffers the congenital scars of neurofibromatosis, she is moved […] Shortly, Johansson’s alien goes off the rails wandering away from her directed task” (Gorfinkel). A finite simulation, The Female is only designed for a limited scope of interactions and behaviors—and the moment she acknowledges anything like emotion or starts seeking experiences other than those she is meant to have (a male-coded alien followers her around on a motorbike like a sort of watchdog), she begins approaching her demise. Gorfinkel makes this connection between The Female’s death and her emotional limitations more explicit writing that, “The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced,” because she is one in “pursuit of an impossible interiority” (Gorfinkel). Just as The Female’s body cannot ingest anything in the name of pleasure, so too does her being lack the ability to be expanded through any emotional experience. Moreover, while Ava uses her ability to simulate human connection to secure her eventual escape, The Female’s lack of emotional range robs her of the human connection she seems to crave near the end of the film. While simulating emotion has its value in UtS, Glazer seems to ascribe potential (though for The Female, unattainable) benefits to truly feeling in a way Garland does not.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 3

[A previous piece on Under the Skin can be found here.]

twitter
letterboxd

Bibliography
Balsamo, Anne. “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup,  Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

  1. 43-41. Print.

Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

Herzog, Amy. “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of  Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-HerzogSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/
HilderbrandUnderSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Jonsson, Marysia and Aro Velmet. “Feminus Ex Machina.” LA Review of Books. lareviewofbooks.org/article/feminus-ex-machina/. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Mad Max: Fury Road.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=furyroad.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Film Theory Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York: Routledge, 2010. 200-208. Print.

Nudd, Tim. “Tinder Uses at SXSW Are Falling for This Woman, but She’s Not What She Appears.”

Ad Week. adweek.com/adfreak/tinder-users-sxsw-are-falling-woman-shes-not-what-sheappears-163486. Accessed 21 Feb 2017. Web.

Renstrom, Joelle. “Artificial Intelligence, Real Emotion?” Slate. 9 April 2015. slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/
04/ex_machina_can_robots_artificial_intelligence_have_emotions.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Under the Skin. Dir. Johnathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson A24, 2014. Blu-ray.

“Under the Skin.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=undertheskin2014.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

“Under the Skin.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt1441395/. Accessed 9 April. Web.

Wark, McKenzie. “Fury Road.” Public Seminar. 22 May 2015. publicseminar.org/2015/05/furyroad/#.WOsHXojysTc. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 1/3, Intro and Ava

Ex Machina Cyborg AvaThis is the first section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Since its too long to post all at once, I’m breaking it into 3 sections for this blog.

[The paper is not in a particularly polished state, but maybe someone will enjoy it anyway…]

Intro and Ava
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are three recent films that deploy the female body as a tool for destabilizing (and redefining) what it means to be human. Released in the U.S. within a span of just over a year and running the gamut from more obscure arthouse darling (Under the Skin), to financially successful indie (Ex Machina), to major studio blockbuster (Mad Max: Fury Road), the films represent a spectrum of contemporary science fiction cinema. Despite the many differences between them, these works converge in a number of compelling, potentially productive ways. Importantly, all three feature women (of some kind) at their center. Even if these women diegetically differ in their precise form and origin, all inhabit bodies that serve as sites for working through the anxieties motivating this cluster of works. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina, The Female (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road all challenge the purportedly fundamental categories of “human” and “woman” alike. In doing so, they call attention to the material nature of the body while also complicating the relationship of the body to human or emotional experience.

One way to begin disassembling the depiction of women and their bodies in these films is by considering them within the realm of the cyborg. In her widely influential “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna J. Haraway writes that the “cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 50). Though Haraway expands the term considerably, it isn’t too far removed from more limited, “dictionary” definitions of “cyborg.” Interestingly, Furiosa is the only woman in Ex Machina (EM), Under the Skin (UtS) or Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) who fits such an image. EM’s Ava is an incredibly advanced AI created (and imprisoned) in a billionaire’s lab; as lifelike as she often seems, there is nothing truly “organism” about her. Meanwhile The Female in UtS (she’s never given a name) is an enigmatic alien who traverses Glasgow looking for men she can seduce and destroy. Though there is nothing in her appearance that directly signals her alien nature, she is neither human, nor machine, nor any literal fusion of the two. On the other hand, MMFR’s Furiosa is a woman living under a dictator in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. With her mechanical, prosthetic left arm, Furiosa’s body merges human flesh and inhuman machine in a way that Ava and The Female do not. And yet, as I demonstrate later in this piece, Furiosa is also the least monstrous, most clearly human among them. While Miller’s heroine does push against stereotypical depictions of her gender while also calling into question what it means to be human, she does not do so as boldly (or as bleakly) as her counterparts in EM and UtS. Though their bodies don’t physically combine the organic and the mechanical as Furiosa’s does, Ava and The Female are, in a sense, more cyborgian. Furiosa’s mechanical arm is hardly incidental, but it never threatens to obliterate or fully obscure her human origins. On the other hand (and as I argue below), Ava and the Female manage to be completely human and completely inhuman all at once. Rather than represent some combination of organic and inorganic, they reject any such distinctions; instead of mixing human with other, EM and UtS each in their own way collapses all difference between them, often with disastrous results.

For Haraway and many subsequent writers, the cyborg is a transgressive figure who works to blur and to complicate distinctions between human and machine as well as between human and inhuman more generally (Haraway 52). As Anne Balsamo writes, “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious. Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). Though Balsamo and Haraway both call attention to the fusion of the human with machines (or “technology”) when discussing the cyborg, the work that their images do is much more important than the specific form they take. The cyborg is an Other, but one that cannot be cleanly or completely separated from normality or the human. Like the monster in horror films, the cyborg is a figure which blurs boundaries (Creed 5, 11). According to Haraway, “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (Haraway 51). In part, the female-coded cyborgs of science fiction are a product of that very war; just as “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film,” so too is it at the heart of the cyborgian (Creed 11). Like monsters “whose bodies signify a collapse of boundaries between human” and other, the (cyborg) women in EM, UtS, and MMFR “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (Creed 10-11). Considering Ava, The Female, and Furiosa in tandem demonstrates some of the breadth of “cyborg” as a category while also underscoring the connections between women, the cyborgian, and the monstrous that writers like Creed and Haraway plug into. That said, they can also be used to challenge “cyborg” itself. For, where MMFR makes a point to reestablish Furiosa’s humanity (destroying her mechanical arm in the process), EM and UtS trade the cyborg’s recombination of categories for something closer to sheer simulation.

Despite the prevalence (and importance) of the cyborg in discussion of women’s bodies in science fiction film, it may actually be more fruitful to read Ava and The Female’s bodies as simulations. Moreover, even though EM, UtS, and MMFR all leave themselves open to psychoanalytic readings of gender and the female form, such is not my primary concern. Given the presence of both violated and violent women in all three films, reading them through the likes of Freud, Mulvey, or Creed has the potential to illuminate, unite, and distinguish them. That said, a more complete understanding of these films and the women they feature requires something more. Rather than read gender in EM, UtS, and MMFR from a predominantly feminist, psychoanalytic, or even a genre studies perspective (all worthwhile pursuits that I here leave to others), I use a substantial portion of this paper to focus on the material reality of Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s bodies. In doing so, I situate them within Baudrillard’s conception of simulation as it is presented in his 1981 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra.” I also put the women (I use the term loosely) into contact with some of his ideas on prostheses as expressed in “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Furthermore, in drawing out some of the differences between Garland, Glazer, and Miller’s films, how they conceive of the human, and how they understand the (cyborg) women at their centers, I also discuss Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s (in)ability to experience emotion and to form attachments with others.

EM’s first image of Ava shows her (rather elegant, clearly feminine) silhouette in profile. Viewed this way, she could almost be a “real” human woman. She lacks hair and light shines through portions of her form, and even though she is made largely of metal mesh and circuitry, her outline is all but indistinguishable from that of the actress who plays her. Though Ava’s movements are a touch too precise to be truly organic, and though much of her machinery is in plain sight, her shape is all human. By introducing her in a way that emphasizes this fact, Garland can be seen to align Ava with Haraway’s cyborg, to situate her in a world where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred” (Haraway 56). EM’s introduction of Ava simultaneously acknowledges and obscures her inhuman nature, thereby involving viewers in the same Turing test that her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct on her. By the time viewers first see Ava, Nathan has already made it clear that he designed and built her, but Garland instructs viewers to remain uncertain about her all the same.

But Ava is no simple cyborg, no mere amalgamation of human machine. Rather, she can be regarded as fully machine and fully woman at the same time, which renders her all the more threatening to those who try to read her (namely, Nathan and Caleb). Early in his “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard claims that “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Such “hyperreal” unreality can be seen in much of Ava’s form, but it is especially apparent in her face. EM’s initial silhouette images of Ava show her from a distance and obscure her face, but once her face is revealed, it only adds to the uncertainty of her being. While the surface of Vikander’s “real” body is disguised with visual effects, her “real” face (though altered slightly to took smoother and have a more uniform texture) is left more or less intact. From the neck down, Ava is mostly metal, computer, and light (her hands and feet are covered with artificial skin), but there is nothing obviously mechanical about her face. In fact, if there is anything clearly artificial about this aspect of her appearance, it’s only that her countenance is almost too beautiful, that it’s “hyperreal” (Precession 1). All that separates Ava’s face from that of a human woman’s is that it is completely without blemish. Viewed in isolation, Ava’s face looks more like some airbrushed image of femininity in a perfume ad than it does an AI made in a sexist billionaire’s basement; though she is “actually” the latter, her face works to constantly challenge, and to undermine this fact.

In addition to occupying a space of hyperreality, Ava’s face can also be read as a “model[] of a real without origin or reality,” which further emphasizes her simulative nature. According to Nathan, he designed her face using Caleb’s porn search history. Not only is she carefully crafted to appeal to the young software engineer, but she is also a replication without a single origin. In EM’s diegesis, there is no one “real” woman whose appearance Ava duplicates. Instead, her face is an average of countless faces that Caleb has objectified. Ava’s face is both singular and a representation of numerous women—it simultaneously sets her apart from all other beings and challenges any claims she might have to originality or to a coherent identity. She is a copy without an original, what Haraway calls “simulacra” (Haraway 56). A manifestation (and a translation) of Caleb’s desires, Ava “is a virtual daydream turned into some kind of flesh” (Jonsson and Velmet). Moreover, for Caleb to look at her, is for him to confront himself. On one level, she is an artificial replication of his own interiority and past experiences, which blurs the edges of both their identities. Ava is machine, she is woman, and she is something else altogether.

In having Ava simulate numerous modes of existence as she does, Garland taps into postmodern anxieties concerning not just the fragmentation of identity, but it’s total dissolution as well. As Vivian Sobchack writes in her 1987 piece “Postfuturism”:

“[…] in a culture where nearly everyone is regularly alien-nated from a direct sense of self (lived experience commonly mediated by an electronic technology that dominates both the domestic sphere and the ‘private’ or ‘personal’ realm of the Unconscious), when everyone is less conscious of existence than of its image, the once threatening SF ‘alien’ and Other become our familiars—our close relations, if not ourselves.” (Sobchack 229)

Writing on cyborgs (and on Haraway’s conception of them), Anne Balsamo declares that “the cyborg is a social construction” which “illuminates a crucial dimension of postmodern identity: the fragmentation of subjectivity” (Balsamo 153). However, while Sobchack certainly does not deny such “fragmentation,” her focus in the passage above is on something different. Concerning the “Other” in science fiction—a category which includes the enigmatic, undoubtedly “threatening” Ava—Sobchack gestures toward the complete dissolution of any distinction between human and alien (Sobchack 229). Not only does identity break apart and undergo recombination in postmodernism, it is dissolved and simulated as well. Together, both EM and UtS (which I discuss in more detail shortly) support Sobchack’s claim that many works of “postmodern” science fiction “do[] not ‘embrace the alien’ in a celebration of resemblance, but ‘erase[] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude (Sobchack 294). But, if Baudrillard and EM (as well as UtS and MMFR) are to be believed, accepting simulation—and the dissolution of identity that comes with it—is a dangerous thing to do.

Once “the sovereign difference” that once “constituted the charm of abstraction” disappears, “the murderous power of images” reaches its full potential (Precession 2, 5). Thus, simulations like Ava become “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could be those of divine identity” (Precession 5). Faced with a simulation of their own creation, both men in EM come to terrible ends. Though Nathan designs builds Ava, Caleb is partially responsible for her existence as well; not only do his porn preferences shape her face, but his interactions with her also inform her (simulated) personality and emotions (which I discuss below). As numerous moments throughout the film demonstrate—including one in which he tells Caleb, “I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God”—Nathan thinks of himself as a sort of “divine” entity in Ava’s life (Precession 5). But that isn’t enough to save him. Within moments of leaving her room for the first time, Ava kills her creator. Once she is free of the limitations Nathan places on her existence, Ava stabs him[1] and leaves him to bleed out on the floor. Afterward, Ava ignores Caleb’s pleas for help, leaving him locked in Nathan’s compound, which is so far removed from the rest of society that there is little chance anyone will find him before he dies.

“‘Eras[ing] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude” results in the contemporaneous emphasis on and “absence” of “otherness,” which my reading of Ava has thus far worked to call attention to; but as Baudrillard writes, “the absence of otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute virus” (Sobchack 294; Prophylaxis 37). After stabbing Nathan and leaving Caleb to die, Ava puts on skin and clothes from Nathan’s older AI models (which he displays in closets like some sort of techno-Bluebeard). Fully clothed—and with her mechanical nature fully obscured—Ava then exits Nathan’s compound. Once outside, she boards the helicopter that Nathan originally sent for Caleb. In doing so, Ava, a simulation of a “real” woman, destroys and obscures her own origins. More importantly, she is not content merely to kill those who made her; she replaces them as well. By the end of EM, Ava is the only character left for viewers to identify with—real or not, she is all they have, and both the narrative and visual centers of the film belong solely to her; to help further illustrate the significance of this fact, I turn once again to Baudrillard:

“[…] the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all signs of the real and short-circuits its vicissitudes.” (Precession 2)

In deceiving and manipulating Caleb to secure her escape, and in killing both men and going out into the world as a “real” woman, Ava “short-circuits” the system that created her.

In reading Ava as a character who embodies simulation while extending beyond more straightforward definitions of the cyborg, it’s also illuminating to consider that her entire body—indeed, her entire being—can be regarded as prosthetic. With Haraway’s cyborg “mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms,” but with Ava, it’s all but impossible to determine where “tool” ends and where “mind” and “body” begin (Haraway 56). There is a material unity to Ava that transcends the cyborg, a “hybrid” image built on the intersection of “technology […] with the body” (Haraway 50; Doane 110). Cyborgs are part human and part technology, and thus they can be understood as one of many “postmodernist strategies” that “subvert myriad organic wholes” (Haraway 52). However, there is nothing in Ava’s physical makeup that is part human—she is not a combination of flesh and tech; rather, she is a machine that appears to be a woman and a woman that appears to be a machine. Her form doesn’t fuse a “real” woman with cybernetic enhancement or technological prosthetic; instead, she is composed only of prosthetic—of a purely mechanical, manufactured body made to give shape to the artificial intelligence that Nathan develops. Importantly, Ava’s status as pure prostheses (much like her simulative nature) renders her all the more dangerous to the people and to the existing order that surround her. As Baudrillard claims, “the biological body, loses its natural defences in precise proportion to the growing sophistication of its prostheses” (Prophylaxis 35). Faced with a body that is entirely prostheses, the physically “biological” Nathan and Caleb don’t stand a chance.

Just before signaling the danger of advanced prostheses, Baudrillard also writes that “In a hyperprotected space the body loses all its defences. So sterile are operating rooms that no germ or bacteria can survive there. Yet this is the very place where mysterious, anomalous viral disease make their appearance” (Prophylaxis 35). In EM, Nathan’s compound serves as such a “sterile,” “hyperprotected” space. Not only does Nathan’s combination home, library, and AI prison exist in an isolated location far from prying eyes, but it is also largely windowless and virtually impenetrable. The rather empty, incredibly clean building is also crawling with surveillance cameras, which increase Nathan’s sense of control. And yet, under his very nose—from a glass room in which she is always visible to Nathan—Ava devises her creator’s destruction. No unwanted “germ or bacteria” could ever enter Nathan’s compound (not in the form of another person, anyway), but the place still gives birth to an “anomalous” AI, to a simulation with the power to reduce everything Nathan has worked to build there to rubble. At the very beginning of “Prophylaxis and Virulence,” Baudrillard writes that “The growing cerebrality of machines must logically be expected to occasion a technological purification of bodies. Inasmuch bodies are less and less able to count on their own antibodies, they are more and more in need of protection from the outside” (Prophylaxis 34). Even if Ava is miles away from anything Baudrillard had in mind while writing this, it remains useful for exploring EM all he same. In choosing to develop incredibly advanced AIs and in almost total isolation, Nathan precipitates his own destruction. With EM, Garland reenvisions Baudrillard’s “technological purification of bodies” as a destruction of bodies by the simulation of a body—by a machine so cerebral she exceeds “human” and “technological” alike.

In her “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine,” Mary Ann Doane describes cinema as sort of “prosthetic device […] a technological extension of the human body” that gives viewers access to vision and perception that they could never experience with their bodies alone (Doane 113). In EM, Ava too is a “prosthetic device,” but she is not an “extension” of any “human body”; instead, she renders all human bodies obsolete. Several days before Ava kills them both, Nathan and Caleb have a conversation that testifies to this fact. While discussing his work with Nathan, Caleb says “One day, the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Later in EM, Ava regards her creator with clear disdain saying, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?”; but as her constant simulation, her completely prosthetic form, and the end of the film all indicate, she may as well have replaced “hates” with “can stand in for.” In the presence of simulation, it is “impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (Precession 211, emphasis in original). The Turing test that Nathan asks Caleb to conduct is doomed from the start. Ava is far too sophisticated to be contained on either side of any “human”/“inhuman” divide, for she represents a perfection of simulacra in which, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Precession 19).

Before turning to The Female at the heart of UtS, (and then to Furiosa in MMFR) I’d like to add just a touch more dimension to my reading of Ava by briefly considering her relation to the realm of emotion. Throughout EM, Nathan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of feelings in Caleb’s interactions with Ava. For instance, when Caleb points out the nontraditional nature of Nathan’s Turing test, the genius-billionaire offers the following: “If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” Later, after one of Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava, Nathan grows frustrated with Caleb’s careful responses to his queries saying, “The answer is, how do you feel about her? Nothing analytical, just how you feel.” Then, after the next session, Nathan reiterates his interest in emotion yet again: “Yesterday I asked you how you felt about her, and you gave me a great answer. Now the question is, ‘How does she feel about you?’” And yet, Nathan’s intense concern for Ava’s ability both to perform and to impact feelings may also set him up for failure. As Joelle Renstrom writes, “Ex Machina demonstrates why there can be no Turing test for emotions. Once a robot is advanced enough, it will be nearly impossible to discern whether it is an emotional actor or an emotional being” (Renstrom, emphasis in original). Interestingly, such (even if faintly) echoes Baudrillard’s description of the impossibility of simulating a crime convincingly, in which he writes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements […] in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real—that is, to the established order itself” (Precession 20). Under simulation, the difference between “real” and otherwise collapses in on itself, making clear distinction between the two all but impossible. Thus, Caleb isn’t capable of making sure determinations concerning Ava’s emotions, as is seen in the way she manipulates his feelings to get him to help her escape. Such can also be seen to explain why exposure to Ava, the AI bodies in Nathan’s room, and Kyoko’s mechanical interior all cause Caleb to have a breakdown that ends with him cutting into his own flesh; according to Marysia Jonsson and Aro Velmet, Caleb’s self-injury is the result of him doubting “his own ‘authenticity’” (Jonsson and Velmet). He doubts “his ‘own authenticity,’” because Nathan’s AI women disregard the certain and the authentic entirely.

Just as it’s impossible to simulate crime under Baudrillard’s framework, so too is it “impossible to prove” whether an AI does or doesn’t “have genuine emotional experiences” (Renstrom). Even if AIs “don’t actually feel,” “they can appear as though they do,” and as Ava’s victory demonstrates, any difference between the two hardly matters as far as the simulation itself is concerned (Renstrom). “Simulating is not pretending”—“it is more complicated” and more treacherous (Precession 3). Ava’s “gender” and her behavior more generally both stem from “adaptation,” for it is “through her meetings with Caleb [that] she comes to understand the effects her feminine form has on him. Nathan’s problem however, is that he underestimates the power of her adaptation” (Jonsson and Velmet). Ava reads those she interacts with like a book, and she can decode faces so expertly that it is essentially impossible for anyone to lie to her without her noticing. That said, she herself is under no compulsion to reveal when she catches a lie, nor is she incapable of lying herself. Through the simulation of emotion, Ava gains a clear advantage over the people she interacts with. And yet, they also teach her how to perform those emotions in the first place. Writing on EM, Renstrom notes:

“For now, robots’ emotional capabilities are in the hands of everyone who interacts with them. Our relations with robots determine their emotional potency. If we relate to robots socially, not to mention romantically or sexually, then their emotional capabilities are a reflection of us. If robots can learn emotions through experience, then we will be their emotional guides—both a comforting and a terrifying thought.” (Renstrom)

Ava reflects Caleb and Nathan, and her actions are a direct result of the way they treat her. While simulation is at the heart of their shared demise, they are as much to blame for their deaths as Ava is. In EM, emotional interaction with simulation opens one up to manipulation and leaves one both internally and externally vulnerable to violent destruction.

[1] Another AI, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), actually stabs Nathan first, but she is promptly struck down and is more or less abandoned by the narrative. Largely out of consideration for length, I do not focus on Kyoko here, but she is an important figure in the film all the same. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Ava, Kyoko is initially presented to viewers (and to Caleb) as a human woman, which further complicates her relation to simulation and reality alike.

Until Next Time
Parts 2 and 3.

[Previous pieces on Ex Machina can be found here and here.]

twitter
letterboxd

Bibliography
Balsamo, Anne. “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup,  Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

  1. 43-41. Print.

Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

Herzog, Amy. “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of  Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-HerzogSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/
HilderbrandUnderSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Jonsson, Marysia and Aro Velmet. “Feminus Ex Machina.” LA Review of Books. lareviewofbooks.org/article/feminus-ex-machina/. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Mad Max: Fury Road.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=furyroad.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Film Theory Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York: Routledge, 2010. 200-208. Print.

Nudd, Tim. “Tinder Uses at SXSW Are Falling for This Woman, but She’s Not What She Appears.”

Ad Week. adweek.com/adfreak/tinder-users-sxsw-are-falling-woman-shes-not-what-sheappears-163486. Accessed 21 Feb 2017. Web.

Renstrom, Joelle. “Artificial Intelligence, Real Emotion?” Slate. 9 April 2015. slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/
04/ex_machina_can_robots_artificial_intelligence_have_emotions.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Under the Skin. Dir. Johnathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson A24, 2014. Blu-ray.

“Under the Skin.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=undertheskin2014.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

“Under the Skin.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt1441395/. Accessed 9 April. Web.

Wark, McKenzie. “Fury Road.” Public Seminar. 22 May 2015. publicseminar.org/2015/05/furyroad/#.WOsHXojysTc. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

February 2017 Recap: The Worst

movie reviews death wish, aeon flux, imperial dreams“Worst” seems to harsh, and I don’t really like that, but oh well…

I met 22 movies in February, many of which were quite good. 3 however, proved rather frustrating.

Here are the least satisfying films I watched last month:

Death Wish (1974)
Directed by Michael Winner

My main problem with Death Wish is that it’s both fascist AND dull.

It simply didn’t do anything for me. No characters to care about. No style to sink my teeth into. No message I cared to pick apart… Maybe it’s just not for me.

The most compelling thing about Winner’s vision here is just how ugly it is. I’m being sincere. The world of this film is cold, derelict, and completely void of beautiful images. There’s something to that; too bad I don’t care enough about the rest of the film to spend any time figuring it out.

It’s also potentially relevant as a precursor to films like Taken I guess….

But it’s still pretty tedious and unengaging, and it leans way too far to the right for my taste.

Aeon Flux (2005)
Directed by Karyn Kusama

I watched Aeon Flux as “research” for a larger (science-fiction-related) project that I’m working on, not because I expected it to be a good movie. That said, I still found it disappointing. There’s the beginning of a good film buried away here somewhere, but poor execution wins out.

There are glimmers of good ideas all throughout Aeon Flux, but the film as a whole still ends up feeling uninspired. At times, it’s almost as if someone took a bunch of common science-fiction  motifs, but them in a blender, and then sucked all the life out of the resulting amalgam. I managed to stay interested for about half the running time, but I was all but checked-out by the end.

Some pretty images, but it lacks substance…

My take: this would be better if it were gayer and more focused. (Then again, what wouldn’t?)

Imperial Dreams (2014/7)
Directed by Malik Vitthal

Though it initially premiered in 2014, Malik Vitthal’s feature debut wasn’t released until Netflix made it available early last month. One assumes that John Boyega’s recent (and massive) increase in visibility thanks to Star Wars has something to do with this…

While I appreciate a number of Vitthal’s aims, the final product feels far too much like a first feature, and it lacks any distinctive style or vision. If Vitthal directs another film, Imperial Dreams provides little insight into what it might look like. I attended a Q & A with the director; based on his own accounts, the script for Imperial Dreams went through quite a number of revisions and was touched by many, many hands. Perhaps this is why the film is fine, but feels so unremarkable. An early cut of the film was also much longer, and the final version seems to be missing a few pieces, especially late in its narrative.

There is a sincerity to Imperial Dreams that I admire, but it doesn’t convey any of its messages with enough clarity, volume, or distinction.

That said, Boyega is quite good in this. He fully commits to Vitthal’s script, and his presence elevates the entire piece. He keeps the film watchable, even when the pieces around him feel a bit tired.

Still, why this has a 91% on RT at the moment is beyond me.

Until Next Time
As I indicated last month, I can’t write on all of the films I’m watching at the moment. For the time being, I’ll posting very brief reactions to everything on twitter and letterboxd; those reactions will then be supplemented by recaps of the best and worst films I watch (for the first time) each month.

Best of February coming soon.

Worst of January
Best of January

A Review of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings: A Timeless Tale Told in Wondrous Stop-Motion

kubo
Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay and story), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story)
Primary Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro
US Release Date: 19 August 2016

Young Kubo (Parkinson) lives alone with his mother in a cave on the edge of the sea. Every morning, he gets his mother out of bed and makes her breakfast before travelling to a nearby village where he spends the day telling stories. Aided by a magical instrument and plenty of origami paper, Kubo captivates the crowd completely from morning to sunset.

At his mother’s behest, Kubo never stays out after dark—until he does. At which point, he is caught up in an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery, tragedy, and love. Along the way, Kubo is guided by a protective monkey (Theron) and a man cursed to have the form of a beetle (McConaughey). With Monkey and Beetle’s help, Kubo discovers abilities he never knew he had while also learning the truth about his family’s history.

The tale told by Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo) is one that’s been told a thousand times, but its immersive visuals paired with a deft-hand for storytelling both set the film apart.

Kubo is that rare family film that doesn’t have a whiff of laziness about it. In Knight and Laika’s hands, even talking animals—a tired imperative of animation—manage to feel fresh. The film is brimming with substance and style alike, and it’s clear that genuine care, thought, and heart were all involved in its creation. Though it possesses emotional weight, Kubo isn’t heavy, and it certainly isn’t flat. Instead, the film passes through the dark of the theater like an enchanted breeze. And even if the script isn’t perfect, the film remains so lovely and mesmerizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Visually speaking, Kubo is one of best animated films I’ve seen. It may even become a personal favorite. Since I won’t know what it’s like to grow up with Kubo the way that I did with so many Disney films, it may never affect me as deeply some of them did, but I still appreciate the great deal of work, animation, heart, and artistry that it took to make it.

There is something pleasantly strange about stop-motion, and Kubo embraces this wholeheartedly. Used as it is in the film, stop-motion evokes the uncanny while imbuing the movie with a fantastical, dreamlike quality. Visually, the world of Kubo is the world of imagination—it may take its root in reality, but it is another place entirely, and for all its otherworldliness, it attracts far more than it repels. The animation in the film is incredibly textured. It has depth. In effect, the art is as much a character as Kubo or anyone else. The smooth, flawless surfaces that dominate the industry are not to be found here. Instead, Laika presents expertly executed imperfection for audiences to get lost in, and the film is overflowing with life as a result.

Kubo also exhibits its daring and its singular identity in its narrative, albeit with less intensity and abandon. The film’s tale is timeless; it is at once pleasantly unique and totally familiar. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, and, as such, it operates within an established set of parameters. And yet, it never lets such limits stifle its creativity or sense of wonder. Importantly, Kubo also possesses enough courage not to over-explain its narrative for effect. More than other family films, it allows its characters, their journey, and its images to speak for themselves, and it doesn’t dumb itself down more than necessary. In short, Kubo balances its creative daring with enough restraint that adult audiences should have no problem falling under its spell.

For the most part, the film’s voice cast works to support Knight’s overall vision. Art Parkinson’s voice is appropriately small and earnest. Rooney Mara is also quite memorable as two of the film’s villains (known collectively as, “The Sisters”), and her cold, measured tones make for some of the most frightening moments. Ralph Fiennes is also good (and appropriately intimidating) as the Moon King, although his performance won’t surprise anyone whose heard any of his other voice work.

Though the film’s cast is strong overall, McConaughey does throw Kubo’s tone off balance from time to time. His character, Beetle, is often used for comic relief, but the jokes and McConaughey’s particular sound don’t always mesh with the rest of the film. There is something unrefined about his presence; and had his character been reworked, the film may have been much better for it.

In other ways, the film would have also been improved by a voice cast in which Asian actors weren’t relegated to only the smallest roles. But then, how would they have used McConaughey’s name to get people in the door?

Though I watched plenty of animation as a child, nearly all of it came from Nickelodeon and Disney (the most notable exception being Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons). As an adult, I only see an animated film in theaters once or twice a year, and those films also originate from a limited number of places. I didn’t see my fist Aardman movie until Shaun the Sheep, and the most recent Dreamworks film that I remember watching is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which came out in 2002, for any who’s counting). My knowledge of animation-like most things—is a bit more limited than I would like. As of today, Kubo and the Two Strings is the only Laika film that I’ve seen, but it certainly won’t be my last. I was more than impressed by the film, and I’m incredibly eager to see what this inventive, Oregon-based studio does next.

Until Next Time
I actually saw Kubo the weekend that it came out, but life delayed my review a bit. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, the film has the distinction of being the first—and currently, the only—movie I’ve paid to see here in LA (which is just as meaningless as it sounds, but there you have it).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you’ve seen the film, feel free to share your thoughts on it by posting a comment below (comments are moderated, so don’t fret if you what you post doesn’t appear immediately).

If you’d like to keep up with me in between posts, you can easily follow me on twitter and letterboxd.

A Review of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road—A High-Octane Action Film that Passes the Bechdel Test

Mad Max Fury Road Review Furiosa

Film: Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Primary Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Riley Keough
US Release Date: 15 May 2015

The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here. 

Both a sequel to and a reboot of George Miller’s 1980s trilogy, Mad Max: Fury Road (Fury Road) is a post-apocalyptic action thriller set in a desolate wasteland where water is scarce and where people are mad, broken, and desperate—Max’s  world is characterized by destruction, the instinct to survive, and very little else at all. When the film opens, Max (Tom Hardy) is a man haunted by the ghosts of those he could not save. Within minutes of his opening monologue, he is also a prisoner at The Citadel, a fortress controlled by the disgusting and tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). After spending an undetermined amount of time in a hanging cage, Max is turned into a living blood bag for one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

As Max’s blood drains into Nux, Immortan Joe sends a party of his War Boys—young men who worship him and are nothing but tools for violence—out to get gasoline and bullets somewhere across the wasteland. This party is led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who soon takes her war rig and those following her off of their prescribed course. Just about as soon as he learns that the travelers have changed direction, Immortan Joe also discovers that his wives are missing; the 5 women are with Furiosa, who is attempting to smuggle them out of The Citadel and away from Immortan Joe’s slavery for good.

Desperate to retrieve his wives (and the potential heirs that some of them carry), Immortan Joe sets out after them with an entire war party. This party includes Max, who is still connected to Nux. What follows is a series of thrilling, original, and delightfully relentless chase scenes along with a decent amount of intelligent and remarkably efficient storytelling.

I don’t usually go in for action films, but Fury Road isn’t like most action films. It’s tighter, it’s bolder, it’s smarter; this fearless and exceptionally memorable film puts the pedal to the metal in just about every way, and the result is a film that puts the rest of its genre to shame. First and foremost, Fury Road is a high-octane visual spectacle, but it’s also masterfully crafted work of cinema. So if nearly 2 hours of car chases, guns, and destruction sounds at all played-out or uninteresting to you, think again.

Instead of lulling his audiences into a stupor with drawn-out exposition, Miller throws them into the action almost immediately and trusts in their ability to figure out things along the way. Instead of devoting precious time to superfluous explanatory dialogue, he conveys a great deal of information in transit, with great efficiency, and often with little more than a word or glance. Fury Road wastes very few moments and even fewer lines. Unlike many summer blockbusters, the film exhibits a thorough understanding of economical storytelling, and this understanding allows it to present a compelling story and layered characters without ever taking its foot off the gas.

The action and chase sequences in Fury Road are truly some of the very best I’ve seen (and may be some of the best period). Not only are such sequences thrilling to the point of being overwhelming, but they are also so visually stunning and so well-choreographed, that I could not stop grinning from sheer cinematic delight. The first of these sequences left me breathless—so much so that when it ended, the ensuing (and very temporary) calm left me almost disoriented. At the time, I thought that there was surely no way that the film could keep up such a pace or that it could continue to top itself; to my pleasant surprise, I was wrong. Fury Road is a wild ride from start to finish, and it left me with such a high, that I have felt compelled to go see it again ever since I saw the credits roll.

Fury Road does not hold back, and it should be respected for that alone. That said, there is much more to love about this film than its magnificent action sequences and the breakneck pace at which it moves. Not only does the film turn the dial up to 11 and then some, it also demonstrates an abundance of creative purpose. Watching Fury Road, one gets the sense that every single detail it contains was worked over carefully and that the film was made by someone who takes his craft very seriously. I may not be able to tell  you why each and every piece of every image and scene in the film is the way it is, but I have a strong feeling that George Miller could; yes, Fury Road is filled with madness, but whether or not there is a method behind it is never in question.

Along with its fantastic visuals, effects, and chase scenes, Fury Road also presents a slew of memorable and surprisingly well-developed characters and tells a story that carries both emotional and conceptual weight. This tightly made and exceptionally well-edited movie proves that action films are more than capable of giving viewers a story that they can sink their teeth into and can become truly invested in. With just a few lines here or a single shot there, Miller is able to give significant depth to his characters and to instill powerful emotions in his viewers. This film may be defined by its spectacle, but its efficient and layered story also set it apart.

Two other aspects of the film worth mentioning are its distinct aesthetic and its powerful score. The images in Fury Road simply could not have come from any other film. The world in which it takes place is fully realized and the resulting images are a little bit steampunk, a little bit rock and roll, and a whole lot crazy. Together, the film’s consistent aesthetic, it’s distinct color scheme, and the fact that so many of its shots include images unlike anything viewers are likely to have seen before (how many creatures with no eyes playing flaming electric guitars for war convoys are there?) all contribute to the fact that this is not a film that will be easily forgotten. At the same time, the film’s heart-pounding score further enhances the distinct and undeniably intense cinematic experience that is Fury Road. Composed by Junkie XL, the music in the film is as badass and as distinct as the rest of it. It’s primal, it’s industrial, and I still can’t get it out of my head.

On the acting side of things, Theron and Hardy both pull their weight quite impressively. Though neither of them (especially Hardy) says all that much, they both manage to tell entire stories with their eyes and their movements, and their ability to do so has quite a bit to do with the film’s success.

In addition to all the areas I have mentioned thus far, Fury Road also succeeds in passing the Bechdel Test, and it does so with flying colors. One can easily imagine a film in which Immortan’s Joes 5 wives are nothing more than a sexualized set piece or background detail, and one can just as easily imagine a film in which Furiosa is nothing more than a convenient side kick who plays second fiddle to Max, but Fury Road is neither. Eve Ensler was a consultant for the film, and it’s clear that Miller isn’t afraid of being called a feminist (as if anyone should be, but that’s another story). Not only does Fury Road feature more women than any action film that I can think of, it also places them in a position of power. Unlike the women in many other films, those in Fury Road “are not things”; beautiful as they are, they are far more than their appearances. As Immortan Joe’s desperation and many of the film’s earlier scenes make clear, The Citadel could never exist without them. Furiosa and the 5 wives are aware of this fact, and this knowledge enables them to destroy the man who claims ownership of them; in doing so, they challenge the patriarchal violence that enslaves them and the War Boys alike. These women don’t need a man to tell them that they deserve better than sexual slavery, and they are more than capable of standing up to the system that oppresses them on their own. While Max does help Furiosa and the wives, he needs them as much as they need him, and he only ends up with them at all, because he taken prisoner.

Fury Road does not make the mistake of spending too much time on its male protagonist (Hardy is signed on to make 3 more Mad Max films, so there will more than enough time for him later). It doesn’t try to make Max superior to or more capable than Furiosa, and it never seeks to establish some contrived and perfunctory romance between them either. In this film, Max is a man who has realistically been broken by his environment, and to say that he is inspired—and even outshined—by the women around him wouldn’t be unreasonable at all.

Fury Road may not be perfect in every way, but it is so daring, so thrilling, and so memorable (and all of that without being sexist!) that any small faults it may have quickly fade away. In fact, Fury Road is bursting with so much energy and with so much sheer creative force that I have no problem at all calling it “sublime.” Fury Road left me reeling unlike any other film I’ve seen this year, and I cannot help but think that it may be quite some time before I witness another action film as mad, as intense, and as unforgettable as this one.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to discuss this film further with those interested, so feel free to leave a comment below!