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

imperator furiosa cyborgThis is the final section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Parts 1 and 2 should be read first.

Furiosa and Conclusion
I’ll now devote the final section of this paper to considering some of the ways in which MMFR uses the (cyborg) woman Furiosa to present an alternate, more optimistic image of simulation and human emotion. Though Miller’s film has numerous things in common with EM and UtS (including important thematic concerns), it also presents simulation in a less monstrous light, while pointing to genuine emotion as a means of rediscovering one’s humanity. Consequently, even though she is physically a cyborg (her body combines human flesh with metal machinery), Furiosa doesn’t work to erase the boundaries between human and inhuman as Ava and The Female do. Despite the differences between them, EM and UtS are both infused by Baudrillard’s pessimism in their own way. On the other hand, MMFR acknowledges such pessimism but also seems to combine a touch of the defiant hopefulness of Haraway with something that resembles more classic humanism instead (Haraway 57).

Where Ava is presented as an AI simulating woman and where The Female is presented as an alien simulating woman, Furiosa is presented as a human—albeit in a harsh, inhumane world. And yet, even though she is a “real,” flesh-and-bone woman in a way Ava and The Female are not, Furiosa is also far less overtly feminine. With her lean frame, shaved head, practical clothing, and dirt-streaked skin, Furiosa stands in direct contrast to the softer, more overtly sexualized women in EM and UtS. Where Ava and The Female both embody conventional, stereotypical femininity to the fullest as part of their simulation, Furiosa is not especially feminine in any visual sense, which is why some have called her a “degendered hero” (Wark). Put another way, though there is a hyperreality to MMFR’s overall aesthetic, it does not extend to Furiosa’s body in a way makes her a hyperreal simulation of woman like her counterparts in EM and UtS.

In addition to simultaneously being more (literally) human and less (visibly, traditionally) feminine than Ava and The Female, Furiosa is also more cyborgian in a strict, material sense. Furiosa’s missing left forearm and hand are replaced by a complex metal prosthetic that she wears via a harness that attaches at her shoulder and waist. Though artificial, the prosthetic is part of her and is crucial to her ability to do her job driving Immortan Joe’s War Rig. Moreover, Furiosa’s deep connection with the War Rig—she knows the machine intimately and designed its kill switches—could be read as further evidence of her cyborgian nature. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, she interfaces and must be in-sync with the large machine—itself a combination of various vehicles—which can also be thought of as a sort of prosthetic. Importantly however, Furiosa’s cyborg nature doesn’t set her apart from those around her in any especially significant way. As McKenzie Wark notes, in MMFR “The good and the bad guys are crippled […] All are cyborg characters, mixtures of flesh and tech, dependent on systems and apparatus” (Wark). While I do not mean to suggest that the use of cyborgian recombination and of cyborg imagery in MMFR is insignificant, it is not a mark of difference either. While Furiosa is literally cyborgian in a way that Ava and The Female are not, she is also a cyborg in a world where the fusion of metal and flesh is commonplace; therefore, in reading her against the rest of MMFR, it is necessary to consider other aspects of her being. Reading Furiosa’s physical body is worthwhile, but her body alone does not define her to the same extent that Ava’s and The Female’s do.

That said, the fact that Furiosa sheds her prosthetic arm before MMFR’s end does provide important insight into Miller’s larger purposes for her character. Ava is fully prostheses to an extent that she would not exist at all without it. Similarly, while there is more to The Female than her prosthetic skin, she is destroyed as soon as the non-prosthetic portion of her form is revealed. Furiosa’s arm doesn’t lack “sophistication,” but it isn’t all-encompassing in the way Ava’s and The Female’s are (Prophylaxis 35). Moreover, it is not necessary for her survival either; in fact, it is by shedding it that she secures her victory over the ruthless, sexist dictator Immortan Joe. Reading Ava and The Female in conjunction with Baudrillard reveals that they are particularly threatening and monstrous, in part because their entire outward appearance can be figured as prosthetic. Furiosa however, is a much more straightforward hero—she never kills anyone the audience might have sympathy for—and does not rely on her prosthetic for existence or survival. While her metal arm makes her job easier, she can remove it; more importantly, she can also live without it. When Furiosa kills Immortan Joe in a chase sequence near the end of MMFR, her metal hand latches on to the mechanical mask that helps him breathe. Furiosa’s prosthetic then gets caught in the wheels of a vehicle and is torn from her body, taking Immortan Joe’s entire face along with it. This moment represents the dramatic climax of MMFR, and essentially secures victory for Furiosa and the film’s other protagonists. Moreover, from this moment on, Furiosa is not shown with a prosthetic again. When she and “wives” she helps rescue retake The Citadel in the film’s final scene, Furiosa’s amputated arm is in full view. Thus, MMFR’s most ecstatic, most hopeful moment calls attention to its protagonist’s ability to move past her own prosthetic, thereby rejecting any simulation it might be seen to represent. Though it does help her kill the film’s primary villain, it is not an integral part of her. Rather than become full cyborg or simulation, Furiosa chooses another path altogether. In contrast to Ava and The Female, Furiosa is human first, cyborg second, and hardly simulation at all.

Furiosa’s ability to relinquish her prosthetic and to survive without it makes Immortan Joe’s death possible, but so too does her ability to connect with other women while embracing her own past. Discussing what he sees as a dangerous situation in which society is becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated, Baudrillard writes, “we are already living in a bubble ourselves—already, like those characters in Bosch paintings, enclosed in a crystal sphere: a transparent envelope in which we have taken refuge and where we remain, bereft of everything, yet over-protected, doomed to artificial immunity, continual transfusions and, at the slightest contact with the outside, instant death” (Prophylaxis 35). While such a dark description of “contact” holds in EM—in which Ava kills Nathan as soon as she is free of her room—and in UtS—in which nearly every man The Female brings home is destroyed—it is only partially true in MMFR. At the beginning of Miller’s film, Furiosa can be read as largely cut-off from herself and others. She grows up as Immortan Joe’s captive and lives as his tool, a situation which likely caused her to deny much of her identity, including her gender. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, Furiosa is constantly surrounded by men and boys and feasibly never interacts with women until she helps the wives escape. Furthermore, it is only after she unites with the wives, bonds with Max, and reconnects with the all-female Vuvalini that Furiosa kills Immortan and takes the Citadel (surrounded by other women). As long as Furiosa is isolated from other women and lacks personal connections, Immortan Joe can use her to do his bidding. However, once that changes, contact with her—for him, anyway—means “instant death” (Prophylaxis 35).

In MMFR, interpersonal connection and contact are not only possible for the film’s deadly female protagonist, they are empowering as well. Ava doesn’t form any genuine (i.e. non-deceptive) bonds with anyone else, and it remains somewhat unclear if she will be able to (or if she even wants to) outside of Nathan’s compound. On the other hand, The Female briefly attempts to connect with others, but fails almost entirely and loses her life. Furiosa however, bonds with numerous characters over the course of the film, thereby expanding the scope of her existence and her emotions well beyond that which is more simply reproduced. As I’ve already shown, the idea that a finite being can be manufactured and reproduced helps illuminate the simulative nature of Ava and The Female (Doane 112). However, unlike Ava—whose emotional capacity remains somewhat ambiguous—and The Female—who tries but fails to expand herself through both emotional (and physical experiences) Furiosa possesses an emotional capacity and depths of memory that cannot be reduced to mere material. And, through her emotions and memory, Miller establishes her as a being who transcends her physical form in a way the women in EM and UtS do not.

Unlike Ava and The Female, Furiosa has a past—and acknowledging that past helps her achieve a future. Rather than her prosthetic arm or her ability to throw reality into chaos through simulation, what sets Furiosa apart (other than the fact that she is the only female driver Immortan Joe seems to have) are her moments of grief, her intense feeling, and the way she sacrifices herself for others. Notably, these aspects of her being are expressed through her physical form, as Bilge Ebiri demonstrates in his piece, “‘This is Our Furiosa.’ Mad Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” In the piece, Ebiri focuses on “one of the film’s rare quiet scenes,” a moment in which Furiosa remembers the day she and her mother were initially taken from the Vulvalini (a tribe of all women). The scene comes at a point in the film before which Furiosa (and viewers of the film) have not yet “had a chance to slow down and reflect”; but as Ebiri notes, that the moment is “so adrift amid the madness” emphasizes it, providing “added depth” (Ebiri). MMFR moves at a much, much faster pace than EM and UtS making it all the more significant that Miller devotes the film’s few slower moments to memory, emotion, and interpersonal connection. As Furiosa opens up and recounts both her kidnapping and her mother’s death,

“[…] the Vuvalini reflexively perform a quiet, brief mourning gesture – holding a hand up, grabbing at the air, and bringing it to their chest. After seeing them, Furiosa herself slowly does the gesture as well […] As she grabs at the air, her haunted eyes watch her own hand, as if she were seeing it for the first time. Her face is that of someone remembering something that was once probably very much part of her—not just her mother, but this whole Vuvalini ritual, and the sense of belonging it implies. She’s re-learning, in other words, the person she used to be.” (Ebiri)

In this moment, Furiosa’s body is used to express grief and memory, and the “gesture” she performs among the Vuvalini serves as physical evidence of her inner, non-material experience. Furiosa’s body also expresses extreme feeling when she realizes that The Green Place she imagined no longer exists. In this moment, Furiosa walks off into the dessert alone, shedding her prosthetic arm as she goes. She then drops to her knees, and screams into the air with all her might. This display of genuine pain and emotion is unlike anything in EM or UtS, both of which occupy spaces of simulation in a way MMFR does not. Unlike MMFR’s other central protagonist, Max—who does not open up to others and remains fully locked within himself—Furiosa shares her past traumas and displays her emotions in front of others. Thus, also unlike Max—who returns to The Wasteland alone—she ends the film connected to and surrounded by others, ready to make a new start at The Citadel.

In EM, Ava is an AI who can appear human. Similarly, in UtS, The Female “is an alien who passes for human” (On the matter of blackness). But in MMFR, Furiosa is a shell of a person who then reclaims her humanity.  Moreover, while Ava and The Female both simulate humanity and spend much of their time reading emotion, only Furiosa actually feels emotion. In fact, it is largely her emotional capacity—which is inextricably linked with the depth of her memory—that distinguishes her from those around her. In a piece on MMFR, Wark highlights the ways in which Miller’s film rejects a Baudrillardian depiction of simulation. For, in Baudrillard “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra” (Precession 1). But as Wark writes, in MMFR, “The actual precedes the virtual, even when it seems it is the other way around […] Furiosa is driven by the virtual image of the green land. But it turns out there really was an actual one. In seeking after her childhood memory of it, she drove straight past the real one, which has turned into a poisoned swamp” (Wark, emphasis in original). In Miller’s conception of a post-apocalyptic future, simulation offers nothing but empty promises. And so, where Ava and The Female are simulations who are both subjected to violence and repeatedly enact violence on others, Furiosa eventually embraces emotion and humanity, even when it’s painful to do so. In a sense, the post-apocalyptic Wasteland of MMFR is a post-technological world—a place in which a manufactured simulation as advanced as Ava or an alien like The Female would both be unthinkable, but that doesn’t mean that Furiosa couldn’t have chosen to remain in the “virtual” realm of simulation—by remaining isolated from others, by continuing to repress her feelings and memory, and by remaining a useful tool for Immortan Joe.

The general topics I address above—as well the films at the center of my analysis—all warrant more consideration than a paper of this size can contain. Though my work here is in many ways incomplete, it is my hope that it still adds to critical understanding of EM, UtS, and MMFR; these intelligently crafted films all deserve further scholarship, in part, because all three dare to grapple with the dangerous, potentially overwhelming question of what it means to be human in an age of simulation, “ephemeral” identity, and alienation (Sobchack 229, 299). At the same time, these films offer different ways of envisioning both the cyborg and simulation in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Moreover, with the above, I don’t mean to claim that Ava, The Female, or Furiosa shouldn’t be thought of as cyborgs; rather, my purpose has been to show just some of what can be gained both by looking at the material of their bodies and by reading them as simulation.

Throughout “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard frequently calls attention to the threat of the simulation he describes. EM, UtS, and MMFR each express anxiety about living in a world of simulation. That said, where Garland and Glazer gesture toward a future (and a present) in which simulation overtakes the existence of the (cyborg) women at their centers, Miller (who sets his film in a future that looks more like an imagined past) offers a way out of simulation by allowing Furiosa to reconnect and remember how to feel. While none of the three films I discuss here denies the danger of simulation, each at times, takes the side of simulation as well. In their own way, Ava, The Female, and Furiosa are all victims of systems well beyond their control. Their respective forms and simulative modes of existence are all, in a sense, imposed on them; but what this means for those of us still pretending to occupy “the real” must wait for another day.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 2.

[A previous piece on Mad Max: Fury Road can be found here.]

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Bibliography
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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.

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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/
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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/
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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.

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

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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.

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(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.]

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Bibliography
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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/
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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/
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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.

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

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(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.]

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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/
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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.

January 2017 Recap: The Best

janbestAnd so, now that you know what didn’t do it for me last month, here are the films I watched that stood out the most, and for the best reasons.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols

I tend to not be too fond of movies that feel like ‘filmed plays,’ but this one is so lively, so biting, so clever, and just so damn much that I never found it lacking. Where some adaptations of theater are flat on the screen, Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is overflowing with energy and character (not to mention yelling).

As much fun as this film is—and it is a lot of fun—its remarkable ability to blend darkness with intelligence and humor is what I’ll remember most. As many have said before me, the two lead performances are also fantastic, with Taylor and Burton portraying their characters with nuance without ever sacrificing their incredible intensity.

Videodrome (1983)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Until last month, the only Cronenbergs I’d seen were Eastern Promises and A Dangerous MethodVideodrome represents the first step in my efforts to remedy this situation.

As someone who grew up without venturing into the horror genre, I’ve been a little wary of Cronenberg’s earlier work. As it turns out, I’m an adult, and watching Videodrome was no problem at all. In fact, it was absolutely delightful (in a dark, grotesque sort of way).

Videodrome is stylish, excessive, creepy, and—most importantly—thoughtful. Cronenberg’s picture of a world in which the barriers between man, media, and weapon have all but crumbled is fascinating in part, because it doesn’t feel that far-fetched. In Videodrome, an “enthusiastic global corporate citizen” seeks to turn us all inside out, to dissolve whatever holds us together and use us for its own ends…

Oh, and Debbie Harry is lovely.

Cabaret (1972)
Directed by Bob Fosse

Cabaret is A LOT. For all its decadence, playfulness, and exuberance, it never shakes lose a palpable sense of despair. I don’t typically like musicals, but I love this one. There is a grit and a realism to Cabaret, and though its got plenty of style, it never sacrifices substance in the name of spectacle.

For what its worth, I really love The Master of Ceremonies, a character  as endearing as he is strange and as unsettling as he is delightful…

I watched Fosse’s film two days before the Orange Beast was inaugurated, and that context may have heightened my sensitivity to its impact. The last shot in particular left me reeling; that reflection of all the Nazi’s in the club’s audience has burned itself into my brain. If you’ve never seen it, let it do the same to you too.

Alien (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott

Ignoring the fact that it took me this long to watch it, Alien is a damn good movie. It’s enveloping, revolting, intelligent, and precisely calculated. The film uses its sci-fi and horror elements with purpose, and it’s an impressive exercise in sustaining cinematic tension. Where lighter science-fiction fare (like Star Wars) is expansive, Alien swallows up everything in its path. Alien is a film of dark, slippery, nasty surfaces; the imagery may not be subtle, but it is effective.

And who needs villains when the body and reproduction are both absolutely terrifying all on their own?

For what it’s worth, I also watched Aliens this month and, while it’s very good, Alien is definitely the one I prefer. Narratively, its more tightly wound and less loose around the edges than its sequel. It’s also more atmospheric and leaves more room for rich, potentially radical thematic interpretation.

Anyway, Ripley and Jones the Cat are the heroes we need right now.

Margaret (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

I watched the theatrical cut of this film, and after learning what the extended cut adds, I’m more than content with that choice.

As with Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan uses Margaret to plumb the depths of trauma and guilt. This sprawling, somewhat unruly film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to oversimplify its subject matter for narrative convenience either. The film is messy, but so is everything it cares about, and it’s better of Lonergan’s last two works. The film is also haunted by the specter of 9/11 and serves as a meditation on the difficulties of integrating such an event into one’s understanding of the world (particularly as a young person).

There is a lot to love about Margaret, Anna Paquin’s performance very much included. She feels real in this film, and that fact is absolutely essential to its success. Lonergan’s script is layered and includes some of the most authentic-sounding mother-daughter interactions I’ve heard. Lonergan also embraces the awkwardness of his high-school-aged characters. Such a script would have trouble accommodating an overly polished figure at its center, but Paquin never allows that to become an issue. Her work here is controlled chaos at its best.

Mad Max: Fury Road, Black & Chrome Edition (2015/6)
Directed by George Miller

I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road numerous times. It’s my favorite movie (full stop). I know it well. And yet, the Black & Chrome Edition still managed to surprise me. Which is all to say that I’m so glad that George Miller invented cinema in the year 2015, and that he and Warner Bros. later decided to bless the masses even further by releasing this alternate version.

None of the energy or the glorious excess of the color version of Fury Road is lost in black and white. In fact, the images in this version are charged with even more power. I felt this film more intensely than just about any other. Swapping color for black and white highlights the incredible composition of the film’s images and lends them a strange, new beauty. There is a sense of timelessness conveyed by black and white that melds seamlessly with Miller’s tale. More importantly, the emotional element of the film is undoubtedly intensified in this edition. I don’t know how to describe it (I am, after all, in the realm of the abstract here), but I experienced itthe color version of the film packs a wallop, but this one left me reeling in a way I won’t forget.

I was lucky enough to watch the Black & Chrome Fury Road on a big screen. If you get a chance to do the same, don’t let it pass you by.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills

20th Century Women features a solid, nuanced, sensitive, and well-timed script from Mills and is bolstered by an exceptional lead performance by Annette Bening. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are also quite good.

Mills and his cast respect all of the film’s characters, and the result is a tender, emotionally intelligent work of art. 20th Century Women also excels at interweaving its different narratives with different moments in history. The film just feels good. And its now crystal clear that Beginners (2010) wasn’t a fluke.

Silence (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

ALL HAIL, MARTIN SCORSESE.

Even if the last 15 minutes of the film don’t work for me (they don’t), it’s clear that only a master could have made this film.

So much of Silence is sublime (I know what the word means, and I mean it). This is especially true of Rodrigo Prieto’s cold, elegant, and overwhelming cinematography.

The film is also (appropriately) more ideologically ambivalent than some are giving it credit for. Silence presents. It does not judge.

The subjects that Scorsese tackles herereligion, sacrifice, morality, self-preservation, and much more besidesare complex in the extreme, and to oversimplfy them by opting for easy answers is work for much lesser films.

I’ve never really been a “fan” of Andrew Garfield’s acting, but Silence makes it clear that he is capable of giving a performance that is intense, layered, heavy, and controlled all at once. I’m sure Scorsese deserves some of the credit here, but Garfield’s performance here is one of the best of 2016 (that he was nominated for the hot mess that is Hacksaw Ridge instead is absolutely baffling). Though he’s not in the film all that much, Adam Driver also does impressive work here, and he’s quickly become an actor to keep an eye onhis range is impressive, and he has more sheer presence than most.

Silence left me rattled in that no other film has for a while, and I have little doubt that it will endure far longer than La La Land (or just about anything else from 2016). Silence is a brave and beautiful film, and Scorsese refuses to underestimate his viewers.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know what the best films you’ve watched recently are, so feel free to share in a comment below!

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My Top 10 Films of 2015

2515topb

I’ve heard some people complain about the quality of the films that came out in 2015, and I don’t really know what they are talking about. I saw a lot of good movies this year—including one that will probably safely remain in my personal top 5 for all of eternity (hint: it’s Mad Max). And since I saw so many movies I enjoyed, narrowing this list down to just 10 was far from easy; but since 10 is the arbitrary number that we as a society have agreed upon for all web lists, I did what I could. (To make things a little easier on myself, I’ve chosen not to include documentaries).

This is my just my personal top 10; which is to say that very little objectivity went into the creation of this post. There are also a number of quality movies (as well as several Oscar-nominated ones) from 2015 that I have not yet seen. These include Anomalisa, Son of Saul, Spotlight, The Lobster, The Martian, The Assassin, Bridge of Spies, and Theeb; and I’m sure there are many others that I’m not even aware of.

To see my Top-10 post for 2014, click here.

10. Sicario
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

I actually liked Sicario less when I reviewed it than I do now. Days after seeing the film, I found myself still thinking about it, and I’ve even been itching to rewatch it for several weeks now.

“…Featuring stunning cinematography from the Roger Deakins, strong performances from Blunt and Del Toro, and a heart-pounding score from Johann Johannsson, Sicario has all the makings of a great film… Villeneuve uses Sicario both to challenge viewers and to drag them into a haunting and morally ambiguous world that they won’t soon forget. Though Taylor Sheridan’s script is not always as clear, as focused, or as committed as it could be, Sicario remains gripping and entertaining throughout…”

“…When the visual, the audio, and the narrative aspects of Sicario all come together, the results are fantastic, and there are examples of relentless—and even brilliant—filmmaking throughout the movie. At its best, Sicario is a bold and arresting tale of a war that cannot be won by anyone. At its worst, it’s a conventional and narrowly focused thriller….”

Check out my full review of the film.

9. The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

As good as certain aspects of The Revenant are—and as intense as it is—it does not have quite enough depth for me to feel that it’s recent Golden Globes Best Picture win was truly warranted.

“…Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a brutal, bloody, and quasi-poetic survival drama that—regardless of how successful it is as a film—is sure to stick with viewers for some time. Visually stunning and frequently pulse-pounding, the film isn’t 2015’s best, but it is one of the year’s most visceral and overwhelming…”

“…With its particular combination of blood, beauty, suffering, survival, and revenge, The Revenant certainly provides an impactful and memorable viewing experience. And yet, as well-executed as certain aspects of the film are, its storytelling is not always effective, and the script is not as well-developed as it could have been…”

Check out my full review of the film.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams

The Force Awakens may not be the most innovative, powerful, or well-crafted film of 2015, but it is one of the most fun, and I expect that I’ll be watching many times over in the next few years.

“…Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an entertaining and visually captivating action film that is sure to excite audiences of all ages. In finding a way to please old fans while entertaining new ones, Disney has presented a Star Wars film that—if followed up correctly—may be just what the saga needed. While Abrams’s film does spend much of its time revisiting what made Lucas’s space western so successful in the first place, it also shows enough signs of breaking new ground to keep viewers interested. Only time will tell how successful—and narratively innovative—the new Star Wars trilogy will be, but with The Force Awakens as its foundation, its future looks promising indeed….”

Check out my full review of the film.

7. Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation is a beautifully shot, well-acted, and incredibly haunting film that deserves recognition; I’m not surprised that the Academy has ignored it completely, but I certainly upset by the fact.

“…In addition to incredible lead performances, Fukunaga’s latest also boasts a complex story and beautiful camera work. It may not give viewers a full picture of the reality of war in West Africa, but it doesn’t need to. Instead, Beasts of No Nation explores the paper-thin barrier between innocence and evil, the horrors of war, and the psychology of its individual characters, and it does so with more than enough intelligence and sensitivity to make for memorable viewing…”

Check out my full review of the film.

6. The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino’s films are a lot of fun. Case closed.

“…Though imperfect, The Hateful Eight is a bold, layered, and smartly written film that clearly has the potential to improve with repeated viewing. And while certain aspects of the film may limit its mass appeal, it is sure to please those who are already fans of Tarantino’s style of filmmaking…”

“…The Hateful Eight is a Tarantino film through and through. It’s also somber and stylish, brash and intelligent, nihilistic and bold. As sadistic as it might seem at times, Tarantino’s latest is also supremely entertaining, and—for the right viewers—it will prove to be a great source of cinematic fun…”

Check out my full review of the film.

5. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland

Ex Machina is one of 2015’s more underrated films. Not only is it well-acted and visually stunning, it also boasts an inventive script and has a remarkable ability to get under the skin of its viewers.

“…In the end, [Ex Machina is] a subtly unnerving and perfectly engrossing film—which has gotten into my head unlike just about anything else that I’ve seen this year. No, this is not a heart-pounding film, and it may even bore some viewers. That said, the film is, above all, a testament to how thoroughly interesting and how human the sci-fi genre can be, especially when it’s allowed to exist independently of the chase sequences and the fight scenes that our culture has come to associate with it….”

Check out my full review of the film.

4. Room
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

If this film had a subtitle, it would be “Bring Tissues.”

“…I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that made me feel as much or in quite the same way as Room. While the film’s premise might sound like it belongs to some god-awful and woefully inelegant made-for-TV movie, this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel is an intimate and emotionally intelligent film that most definitely belongs on the big screen. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), the film is as horrifying as it is hopeful, and it is as beautiful as it is devastating. As dark as it often is, Room is just as inspiring as it is tragic, and its combination of tender storytelling and stirring performances makes for an undeniably affecting viewing experience…”

Check out my full review of the film.

3. Macbeth
Directed by Justin Kurzel

The bold and dark aesthetics and the eerie atmosphere of this film are right up my alley (and so is just about any film that tackles one of Shakespeare’s tragedies with vision and skill).

“…Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is hardly the first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy, but that doesn’t mean that viewers will have seen anything quite like it before. Though this Macbeth may have a limited appeal, it boasts two remarkable lead performances as well as some of the finest cinematography audiences will experience all year. With his moody and incredibly cinematic take on The Scottish Play, Kurzel transports viewers into a dark, bloody, and visually arresting world that captivates the mind and sears the soul. And though the film adds to and enhances much that is in its source material, it never disrespects the work of the Bard…”

“…As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth succeeds. As a powerful and striking creative effort, Macbeth succeeds also. Minor issues aside, the film is mesmerizing, savagely stylish, and intelligently realized, and in addition to its strong lead performances, Kurzel’s film also boasts a look and feel that viewers are unlikely to forget anytime soon…”

Check out my full review of the film.

2. Carol
Directed by Todd Hayes

When I think about some of the Oscar nominations that Carol did not receive, I have the urge to make a voodoo doll of a stuffy old white man (which is how I imagine Academy voters).

“….There is nothing clumsy about this film, and it is pulsing with true emotional nuance and depth. In fact, for all of Carol’s strengths, its remarkable ability to convey deeply felt and overwhelming feelings in a subtle and realistic manner may just be the most impressive…”

“…Carol grabs viewers by the heart gently and then refuses to let go with all its might. Like the women at its heart, the film is enchanting and elegant, breathtaking and beautiful. With its soft colors, dreamy visuals, masterful performances, and emotional depth, Carol rises far above the din of more ordinary films. Furthermore, this unquestionably powerful film is never over-the-top. In fact, there is nothing overdone about it all. Nearly every aspect of the film is executed to a remarkably high level—more often than not, the results are quite stunning…”

Check out my full review of the film.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller

I WILL GO TO MY GRAVE SINGING THE PRAISES OF FURY ROAD. I WILL NEVER TIRE OF ITS MADNESS, PERFECTION, AND INCREDIBLY 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….”

“…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’…”

Check out my full review of the film.

Honorable Mentions
Movies that I really enjoyed this year but that didn’t quite make my top 10 include The End of the Tour, Tangerine, Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Duke of Burgundy, Experimenter, Brooklyn, Dope,and Queen of Earth. Objectively, I know that Steve Jobs was pretty good too, but it really didn’t stick with me at all.

Until Next Time
Before ending this post, allow me to say that it would probably be different if I’d written it yesterday; hell, if would probably be different if I wrote it again 5 minutes from now. Nothing means anything hooray.

Thanks so much for reading. If you have your own top-10 list for the year, I’d love to hear which films are on it!

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!