(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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show Camp Tim CurryThis piece was initially written for a course titled “Revolutionary/Reactionary Hollywood (1963-1976).” The course was taught by Dr. Drew Casper during the spring ’17 semester at USC. It should also be noted that this paper could be expanded considerably and is relatively narrow in its analysis.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. Parts of it are pretty fun too. Much less fun is that misguided TV remake thing that Fox did, which I’ve written about previously.

Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (THRPS) was hardly an immediate hit, but thanks to producer Lou Adler, 20th Century Fox advertising exec Tim Deegan, midnight showings, and scores of passionate fans, the cinematic odd duck eventually found a cult following and became something of a “phenomenon” (Thompson 169-81; Casper 262). Though many initial reviews were less-than-favorable, TRHPS has managed to live on well past its initial theatrical run to become part of American pop culture (Thompson 173; Ebert; Variety). In paying homage to 50s late-night B-movies, TRHPS became a midnight sensation itself; and in responding to the tumultuous, “splintered” society around it, the film eventually contributed to that very society (Casper 1-2, 262; Miller xiii). When 20th Century Fox offered director Jim Sharman the chance to turn his and Richard O’Brien’s stage show hit into a film, he could either “cast[] known box office and rock ‘n’ roll stars in the key roles, in which case he would be granted a full blockbuster budget. . . Or he could stick with the cast, crew and design that he knew and bring the whole thing in for a meager million bucks” in just six weeks. Sharman went with the second option: “A B-movie budget for a B-movie film” (Thompson 147). TRHPS is, in many ways, an unpolished, imperfect work, but that isn’t to say that its thoughtless or lacking depth. As Scott Miller writes, “Though many people might laugh at the notion, Rocky Horror is in many ways . . . a serious social document,” and it’s one that has impacted more than enough people to warrant careful consideration (Miller 113).

That said, reading TRHPS carefully reveals a number of potentially confusing, even contradictory complexities. In his 1976 review of the film, a frustrated Roger Ebert writes, “It’s one of those movies you have to use a lot of hyphens to explain. A horror-rock-transvestite-camp-omnisexual-musical parody” (Ebert). Other terms could easily be added to Ebert’s list (“science-fiction,” “gothic,” “nostalgic,” and “absurd” all among them). TRHPS is a mixed bag—not only does it combine a variety of genres, tones, and influences, it also advances numerous ideas, some of which are at odds with one another. This flashy, over-the-top work is hard to pin down. Still, acknowledging its vacillations and inconsistencies is far more worthwhile than disregarding them, and oversimplifying the film to fit a particular narrative does not do it justice. Throughout Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction, Drew Casper combats “myopic” readings of American cinema and calls attention to the ways the period is characterized both by nuanced works and by oppositional drives (Casper xv-xvii). Casper’s book seeks to bring both balance and breadth to readings of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema, and he repeatedly shows that more liberal films can support conservative ideas and vice versa. Somewhat similarly, I use much of what follows to widen readings of TRHPS. As rough-around-the-edges as it often is, it’s also infused with subtlety and deserves more delicate handling than may immediately be evident. For all its liberal, radical content—including cross-dressing, explicit bisexuality, and free love—TRHPS still has a tendency to undermine a number of its more progressive ideas, and the resulting tension should not be ignored. Like the mercurial “sweet transvestite” at its center, TRHPS undergoes numerous costume, mood, and identity changes over its running time, all of which contribute to the film’s particular shape. Anchored by Tim Curry’s narcissistic, self-indulgent, unapologetically expressive Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Frank), TRHPS demands the space to be fully itself. Love it or hate it, Sharman’s film is far from timid. And while it may not be as “revolutionary” or as “liberated” as some of its devotees might like to think, TRHPS still has plenty to say (Miller xii, 118). Not unlike the narrator of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” this is a film that “contains multitudes.”

One way of getting to the vacillating heart of TRHPS is by understanding its camp sensibility. Writing about a decade before Sharman’s film debuted, Susan Sontag sought to define camp, and her insights illuminate a number of TRHPS’s internal contradictions. Like queer identities, countercultural free love, and Frank’s garish makeup, camp is in the business of blurring boundaries. As “the triumph of epicene style,” camp rejects clear distinctions between man and woman, and between human and object (Sontag, 275). Thus, camp encourages “going against the grain of one’s own sex,” as well as “the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms”; campy exaggeration “effaces nature,” thereby moving gender and identity into the realms of the constructed and artificial (Sontag 279-80). Similarly, camp collapses distinctions between substance and artifice. According to Sontag, “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: or artifice and exaggeration” (Sontag 275). The theatricality of camp calls attention to surface and performance and can distract from meaning and depth, causing “the lens of Camp” to “block[] out content” (Sontag 280-1). But blocking out is not the same as eliminating. In “dethron[ing] the serious,” camp does not rid itself of all significance; rather, it forms “a new, more complex relation” to substance. For, in the world of camp, “One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 288). Camp leaves room for discrepancy, and “the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” Thus, works of camp art—such as TRHPS—are often pulled in two directions, including those “between the thing meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice” (Sontag 281). Camp delights in the “private, zany experience of a thing” lurking beneath “the ‘straight’ public sense” in which it would typically be taken and challenges straightforward understanding. At the same time, camp occupies a liminal space between high and low culture, and it “refuses both harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling” (Sontag 287). “The ultimate Camp statement” is “it’s good because it’s awful”—embodiment of camp that he is (more on that later), TRHPS’s Frank would surely appreciate such words (Sontag 292). Camp informs much of TRHPS; thus, reading it without leaving room for it move in multiple directions makes little sense. Camp’s relationship to meaning is complex and unstable, and the same goes for interpretation of Sharman’s film.

Though the topic of genre in TRHPS is quite large, examining it even briefly emphasizes the film’s status as camp object while also complicating efforts to read it as either purely transgressive or as largely conservative. Though often categorized primarily as a musical comedy, TRHPS also draws heavily from horror and science fiction (Miller 126). If one reads Frank as a sort of unusual patriarch and the likes of Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia as his (incestuous) children, then Sharman’s film can also be placed within the realm of family melodrama. By dressing itself in so many genre-guises, TRHPS asserts its challenge to limited, straightforward conceptions of identity at a fundamental level. Genre forms the skeleton of a film, and variety and experimentation—like those valued by 60s counterculture—are built into TRHPS’s bones (Casper 15-17; Miller 120). Like Frank’s numerous outfits, each genre gives viewers a different way to experience and to look at TRHPS. To watch a film that hybridizes and reworks as many genres as Sharman’s is to be presented with a cinematic smorgasbord; though some might be overwhelmed by the options, their sheer number runs counter to more traditional cinema a while reflecting countercultural appetites for novelty, surplus experience, and freedom.

Moreover a film’s genre isn’t incidental, especially when that film has something to say. As Casper argues, genres can be thought of as “culture’s barometer”; they “are acknowledged and accepted representations of cultural values and disavowals . . . coherences and tensions by which a culture comes to reflect on itself” (Casper 132). In engaging as many genres as it does, TRHPS increases its potential to challenge cultural norms and to rewrite conventions. For example, where earlier B-movie takes on Frankenstein (including those by Hammer) depict Victor as motivated by desire for scientific achievement, TRHPS’s Frank is driven almost exclusively by sexual urges, as the lyrics to both “Sweet Transvestite” and “I Can Make You a Man” make clear (Friedman and Kavey 161). The film also takes the musical—“which had been the studio system’s darling”—and infuses it with sheer exploitation (in the form of murder, skimpy clothing, cannibalism, explicit infidelity, and much more) (Casper 252; Miller 125). However, while TRHPS does puts its own stamp things, its use of genres is not purely progressive.

With its roots in “experimental theater,” and it’s “unfettered” glam rock soul, TRHPS doesn’t play by the book, but it doesn’t throw it out the window either (Thompson 22; Miller 114). For all its oddity and blurring of boundaries, “The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental,” which can be felt in the nostalgia underpinning much of Sharman’s film (Sontag 280). Whether it’s invoking more classical musicals or paying tribute to the Hammer and Universal horror films that preceded it, TRHPS’s stance toward the past is more loving than its irreverence might indicate. In fact, THRPS was shot at the same location as many Hammer films and has been characterized as “an affectionate tribute to the old studio,” which was all but dead by the early ‘70s (Thompson 156-7). In a sense, Sharman’s film is a celebratory “farewell” to Hammer and the other “‘30s horror and ‘50s B-movies” it references (Thompson 157). There would be no TRHPS without these previous works—numerous Hammer sets and a tank from The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) even appear in the film (Thompson 158). Moreover, when reworking O’Brien’s stage show for the screen, Sharman deliberately “incorporated glimpses of, and references to, as many favorite old movies as he could”; in doing so, he was motivated much more by affection than anything cynical. As Sontag claims, camp is “a mode of enjoyment, or appreciation . . . It only seems like malice”; Camp is also “a kind of love” that “relishes” all it can (Sontag 291). When Frank sings “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” he means it. In his castle (which is also a spaceship), all people (regardless of gender) and all experiences (regardless of morality) are potential sources of indulgence. And while this may get Frank into trouble—he is eventually executed for his “extreme” “lifestyle”—it’s also what makes him him. Camp and TRHPS are at odds with any flat-out rejection of things of the past; they’d rather derive pleasure from them and make them their own instead. Over “good taste” and living respectably, Frank chooses hedonism. Both camp and TRHPS do the same (Sontag 291). In this brash film, there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned—not as long as it contributes to something enjoyable.

The film’s nostalgia and (re)use of older forms is also apparent in its score. As Dave Thompson notes, “when playwright Richard O’ Brien first composed the show’s words and music, his blending of fifties rock ‘n’ roll with early seventies glam rock was the ultimate, blinding collision of ancient and modern” (Thompson xiv). The sounds of TRHPS pull the film both forward and backward. More cutting edge songs like “Sweet Transvestite” and Riff Raff’s section of “Over at the Frankenstein Place” are tempered by the, in 1975, less contemporary “Dammit Janet” and “Hot Patootie –Bless My Soul.” Rather than commit to a singular, more unified sound, Sharman and O’Brien widen the scope of their film by allowing it to engage with multiple musical styles and the cultural leanings that they represent. Moreover, the blending of numerous styles enhances TRHPS’s ability to establish character through score. For the most part, Frank is associated with the hardest, most glam rock tunes, tying him to the glam philosophy that “it [is] okay to be strange, or different, or weird” and that “sexuality is not defined by who you fuck” in any simplistic way (Thompson 26). In associating Frank with glam (both aurally and visually), TRHPS also taps into—and often seems to champion the fact—that it was a “period of rock and roll in which gender became both fluid and irrelevant” (Miller 119). Since the “dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most,” glam (like Frank) is a challenge to the “crushing conformity” of mainstream society (Miller 119; Thompson 26).

On the other hand, those characters who are least like Frank are repeatedly associated with styles of music that predate the arrival of glam. TRHPS is a film that uses its score to flesh out the sexuality of its characters (Miller 113). Thus, the relatively naïve (and sexually inexperienced) Brad and Janet begin the film by singing the more conventional, less threatening “Dammit Janet”; only after their sexual awakenings (through scandalous encounters with Frank) do the young couple participate in bolder songs with more of a ‘70s rock influence, such as “Rose Tint My World” (which they perform dressed as Frank is when he first introduces himself). Moreover, Eddie’s “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” is a ‘50s rock number that mourns a time past in which things were (or at least, seemed) simpler and when gender roles were much more clearly defined. That the song’s lyrics—which begin with the loaded question, “Whatever happened to Saturday night?”—are in the past tense further underscores their mournful, nostalgic nature. That Frank kills Eddie after he sings the song also calls attention to its place in a bygone era—the cross-dressing master of the house might delight in a repurposing of the past, but he has no interest in actually returning to it. And yet, by consuming Eddie’s corpse at dinner in a later secene, Frank betrays the fact that he is influenced by that which came before him. After all, glam rock “lifted as much from the past as it did from contemporary currents,” but it represents a break with tradition all the same (Thompson 29).

Music and character are intertwined in TRHPS, and its sonic admixture is indicative of a larger concern with cultural conflict. A product of a time when “Exploitation as well as nostalgia coursed through [cinema’s] veins,” TRHPS exhibits both (Casper 29). Through its various characters, the film also stages a conflict between ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and the more traditional ‘50s. And yet, in keeping with its general embrace of contradiction, the film refuses to fully align itself with either side of that divide.

At the center of the film stands its most subversive figure, the flamboyant-alien-scientist-hedonist Frank. However, while he is undoubtedly the star of the show, Frank’s status as possible “protagonist” is fraught with complications, as is the film’s stance toward the cultural attitudes he embodies. Prophet of self-expression and “absolute pleasure” that he is, Frank is largely a product of ‘60s countercultural ideas; as such, he is also monstrous, especially where more conservative sectors of society are concerned. A bisexual who dresses in women’s clothing without totally disguising his masculinity, Frank has no “clear gender” (Miller 119). Moreover, in refusing to conform to heterosexual monogamy, Frank threatens traditional notions not only of identity, but of family as well. But his staying power is limited. That Frank does not survive TRHPS reflects the fact that the Counterculture had burned itself out by 1975 (Casper 15-7). The film’s most constantly inconstant figure, Frank is also its campiest, which calls further attention to the Counterculture’s lack of societal and political efficacy. “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least, apolitical” (Sontag 277). Camp may celebrate certain types of pleasure and expression, but that doesn’t enable it to effect change. Similarly, as disruptive as the Counterculture was, “the Age of Aquarius never arrived” (The Washington Times, qtd. Casper 16). In TRHPS, Frank burns brightly, but not for very long.

Furthermore, that Frank can be read both as a martyr to his own cause and as a victim of deviant behavior multiplies the ways in which TRHPS can be understood. Through his campy theatricality and his brazenly countercultural behavior, Frank commands attention, but being at the center of things doesn’t save him. In fact, one of most troubling occurrences in TRHPS is Frank’s death, which, after so much campy exuberance, manages to feel both regressive and inevitable. Shortly before his demise, Frank sings, “Whatever happened to Fay Wray?/ That delicate satin draped frame/ As it clung to her thigh/ how I started to cry/ For I wanted to be dressed just the same./ Give yourself over to absolute pleasure/ . . . / Don’t’ dream it. Be it.” Frank’s reference here is to King Kong (1933), and in this moment, O’Brien’s lyrics simultaneously queer (through association with cross-dressing) and pay homage to cinema’s past. Such tension underscores the ways in which Frank and TRHPS cannot be easily assigned a single mindset or read according to a single set of codes. “Don’t dream it. Be it”—both a mantra of hope for the outsider and the philosophy that gets Frank killed.

By going against the grain of mainstream society as boldly and as thoroughly as he does, Frank positions himself as a monster. As Vivian Sobchack writes, the monster in a genre film “can be a scientist, a gangster, a ‘hero,’ but he is almost always a misfit in the sense that he does not conform with accepted modes of social behavior” (Sobchack 51). The monster can be a figure of sympathy, but that does not necessarily save him from punishment for going his own way. The cinematic monster is also an image of “Otherness,” of “what is repressed” by a culture (Wood 65-6). The blurring of seemingly fundamental boundaries—including that implied by bisexuality and gender-bending—cannot be tolerated by the powers that be; rather it must be repressed if life is to carry on as usual. And so, that which “escapes repression has to be dealt with by oppression” (Wood 64). If Brad and Janet are to ever return to something like normal life, Frank has to be destroyed. as Robin Wood argues, “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with . . . in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it” (Wood 65-6). Frank’s death at Riff Raff’s hands ensures that no other young couples will suffer the same fate as Brad and Janet. At the same time, that they end the film not in their own clothes, but in Frank’s can be read as a taming or assimilation of Frank. Brad and Janet in corsets and boas are not nearly as threatening as Frank, for their commitment to “absolute pleasure” is not as all-consuming as his is.

Unlike Frank, Brad and Janet do survive TRHPS. That they do so as the film’s most traditional and nostalgic figures is hardly a coincidence. When viewers first meet the newly engaged couple, they “talk as if they just stepped out of a fifties Doris Day movie and dress like extras in an episode of The Brady Bunch” (Friedman and Kavey 161). Initially, both are completely out of place in Frank’s castle, as is emphasized by Janet’s swooning at the mere sight of Frank and his Transylvanians. Compared to them, Brad and Janet are as wholesome and as ordinary as can be (Miller 122). And while their virginal virtue might not prevent them from “succumb[ing] to the doctor’s sexual advances,” it does enable them to leave his castle alive (Friedman and Kavey 161). By allowing Brad and Janet to live when Frank does not, Sharman positions them as potential protagonists to the transvestite’s villain. Thus, TRHPS seems to undercut all the values and behaviors that Frank supports and to say that sexual experimentation is only acceptable so long as one finds their way back to heterosexuality, normality, and marriage in the end.

And yet, through Brad and Janet, Frank’s influence might live on. With his frequent costume changes—he wears five outfits in an evening—grand entrances, exaggerated gesticulation, and volatile temperament, Frank is constantly shifting and performing. His words are calculated for maximum effect (his long pause when uttering “I see you shiver with antici . . . pation” is but one example), and whenever he’s in a room, he ensures all eyes are on him. He is narcissistic and self-absorbed. He is a violent murderer too. But he is also glam, camp, and counterculture made flesh. TRHPS does celebrate him, but only to point. In killing him, the film acknowledges that the world is not quite ready for the likes of Frank. He’s an alien. A fantasy. A delightful, but dangerous dream. Whether Brad and Janet are better off for having known him is up for debate. They will never be him, but they will never be the same either. The Counterculture may not have realized its aims, and much of it may have been defeated, but its “legacy was manifold” and far-reaching all the same (Casper 16-7).

As outrageous and as strange as it often is, TRHPS isn’t so much incomprehensible as it is multifaceted, and it exhibits both the revolution and the reaction of its day. Rather than reduce the world to nonsense, the film approaches its subject matter from a very particular point of view, one which carves out space for the nostalgic and the progressive alike. The film makes few claims to coherence, and it invites readings from multiple angles. “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists indeed, a good taste of bad taste”—TRHPS demonstrates this near-paradox repeatedly, which may explain why so many critics where “baffled” by it in 1975 (Sontag 291; Thompson 173). The same film that exudes exploitation and exhibits all sorts of taboo sexual behavior also has an eye firmly fixed on the past, putting it completely out of step with the cinemagoing standards of [its] day” (Thompson 164). Like Frank, Sharman’s film does not mesh well with external standards of acceptability. Rather, it allows the diversity and the confusion of its time to show plainly on its heavily decorated face. And while it may not have the broad, centrist appeal of many popular films from its era, TRHPS still ventures further to the right than Frank’s fishnets would seem to suggest (Casper xvii-xvii).

At the very end of the film, The Criminologist solemnly recites the following lyrics: “And crawling on the planet’s face/Some insects called the human race/Lost in time, and lost in space/And meaning.” Following a spinning overhead shot of Brad, Janet, and Dr. Everett Scott shrouded in smoke, dazed in the aftermath of what they’ve experienced, TRHPS returns to its narrator. However, where a conventional film might end with a more definitive, reassuring resolution, Sharman’s Criminologist offers up something darker and more open-ended instead. Viewers of TRHPS are not told what becomes of Brad and Janet once they return to “normal” society. Rather, they are left with words underscoring the sheer difficulty of distilling any coherent message from what they’ve just seen. In its final scenes, TRHPS rejects the notion that it can be read in any straightforward fashion. Like the gender-bending, bisexual Frank-N-Furter, and like the camp sensibility running through so much of it, TRHPS courts uncertainty and contradiction. If its viewers are left disoriented, “lost” and unable to find “meaning” in it, that may just be the point. As Frank and his castle of freakish Transylvanians work to unsettle and confuse the supremely ordinary Brad and Janet, so too does Sharman’s film ask audiences to let go of preconceived notions concerning everything from sex and gender to style, genre, and more. TRHPS may aim to delight and entertain, but it questions and challenges as well. The film consistently refuses to be consistent. It will not limit itself to being only one thing, nor will it pretend that the answers to society’s questions are easy to come by. What viewers—or Brad and Janet—chose to do with that, is up to them.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Bibliography
Casper, Drew. Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Reviews: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 18 Aug. 1976. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1976. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

Friedman, Lester D. and Allison B. Kavey. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2016. Print.

Miller, Scott. “The Rocky Horror Show.” Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Musicals. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 2011. 112-139. Print.

“Review: ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Variety. 31 Dec. 1974. http://variety.com/1974/film/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1200423333/. Accessed 26 Mar 2017.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Richard O’Brien.  20th Century Fox, 1975. Blu-ray.

Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of Genre: Definitions and Themes.” Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 17-63. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador Series. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. 275-292. Print.

Thompson, Dave. The Rocky Horror Picture Show FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Campy Cult Classic. Applause Theater and Cinema Books. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2016. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. 1986. Expanded and Rev. Ed. Rpt. as Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.

February 2017 Recap: The Worst

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

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

Here are the least satisfying films I watched last month:

Death Wish (1974)
Directed by Michael Winner

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

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

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

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

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

Aeon Flux (2005)
Directed by Karyn Kusama

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

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

Some pretty images, but it lacks substance…

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

Imperial Dreams (2014/7)
Directed by Malik Vitthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of February coming soon.

Worst of January
Best of January

Questioning Concerning Humanity: Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

blackI recently watched 3 episodes of Black Mirror for a class (#gradlife). Here is my review:

In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” philosopher Martin Heidegger explores both the “essence” of technology and the relationship people have to that essence. He begins with a pair of declarations—one: “In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology,” and two: “Questioning builds a way.” Heidegger doesn’t set out to prove precisely what technology is or what it means to humans; he questions and explores his way through the topic instead. Though far-removed from Heidegger’s writing in many ways, writer and show-creator Charlie Brooker’s science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror treads a path that often intersects and runs alongside that set by the philosopher. Brooker’s show is not as obscure or as esoteric as “The Question Concerning Technology,” and it aims to entertain in ways that philosophy simply does not. And yet, Black Mirror’s central aim is not to provide clear answers to large questions about humans and technology. Rather, the show uses technology and its science fiction situations to ask viewers to question their way through a set of issues surrounding the essence of humanity. Black Mirror asks audiences to think about questions they might not otherwise; in doing so, they could just “build[] a way” to something profound.

Three episodes that illustrate the importance Brooker places on questioning are The National Anthem (the pilot), Men Against Fire (season 3, episode 5), and San Junipero (season 3, episode 4). Though inconsistent in terms of character development and sheer entertainment value, all three episodes put viewers in contact with important and potentially disturbing questions concerning humanity and the ways that technology can be used to alter and control what it means to be human. While the show’s anthology format does not necessarily foster strong emotional attachment or any long-term investment in some overarching plot, Black Mirror remains intriguing and intelligently written. The show is also deeply unsettling, and it has the potential to move viewers to look at the world with altered eyes—though Brooker does leave it up for debate whether this potential is something to praise or to fear.

With Black Mirror’s pilot, Brooker risks alienating audiences to declare that his show can feature just about any subject—no matter how taboo—as long as it can be used to provoke, disturb, and encourage questions. The National Anthem—in which the British Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on live television to prevent the death of his nation’s princess (Lydia Wilson)—goes whole-hog. If a tale about a prominent political figure engaging in bestiality doesn’t send viewers running for the hills, it’s possible that nothing will. Positioning The National Anthem at the beginning of Black Mirror is a power move on Brooker’s behalf. It’s also an indictment of viewers. In the episode, people all over Britain are showed glued to television sets as their (supposedly dignified) leader debases himself in abhorrent fashion; if audiences of Black Mirror feel the urge to judge them for their behavior, they must first acknowledge their own inability to look away from the show, even when images of man fornicating with a pig are well within the realm of possibility.

At the heart of The National Anthem are questions about the power of television and the media, as well the boundaries between media and reality. The episode works to demonstrate the ways in which YouTube videos, news, social media, and just about anything that appears on screens can be used to control those who view them, but it leaves viewers to decide for themselves whether the screen is an agent of evil. That said, if viewers leave The National Anthem more upset by the idea of a man having sex with a pig than they are by the coercive potential of television, then perhaps it is already too late for such coercion to ever be thwarted.

The National Anthem was directed by Otto Bathurst and features serviceable performances from its cast, which includes Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones), and Anna Wilson-Jones. Given the episode’s political setting, the characters are mostly ciphers, and the actors play types more than they do individuals. This prevents viewers from connecting to them on an emotional or personal level, but the resulting distance also makes it more likely for them to absorb The National Anthem as the set of questions and concepts that it is.

Where The National Anthem engages the potential dangers of television and similar media, Men Against Fire focuses on the ways in which war and technology alike destabilize the boundaries around the category “human,” as well as the way that viewing a group of humans as “other” can lead to their destruction.  In the episode—which takes place in an undefined country in an undefined future—a young soldier named “Stripe” (Malachi Kirby) goes on his first “roach hunt.” According to Stripe’s leader (Sarah Snook), roaches are a type of human that must be exterminated for the good of everyone else. The soldiers are also equipped with technology referred to as a “MASS” implant, which makes them much more effective killing machines than they would be without them.

A dystopic war story, Men Against Fire paints a decidedly bleak picture of society and its capacity for destruction and subjugation like. Though they are not always surprising, the episode packs numerous twists, which serve as grim reminders that viewers cannot trust the evidence of their own eyes, especially when what they see is in any way mediated by technology. With Men Against Fire, Brooker also questions the acts of manipulation and dehumanization that make war possible while calling attention to the justifications often lurking behind such acts. This dark and rather violent episode also asks viewers to regard any attempts to cast a group of people as lesser than another with harsh skepticism. (For what it’s worth, Men Against Fire also includes a character named “Heidekker,” a nod to Black Mirror’s connection to Heidegger.)

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen, the episode features Malachi Kirby, Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black), Sarah Snook, Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Ariane Labed (The Lobster), Francis Magee (Game of Thrones), and Loreece Harrison. While there are no real standouts among the bunch, the intensity of the story gives the actors more room to make an impact than those in The National Anthem. However—and as thematically rich as the episode is—Men Against Fire drags near its end. In a long scene featuring Kirby and Kelly, Brooker’s script wastes precious time overexplaining the issues at its core, and the lack of subtlety soon grows dull. As Kelly’s military suit Arquette drones on about how “it’s a lot easier to pull the trigger when you’re aiming at the bogeyman,” Men Against Fire loses momentum. For whatever reason, Brooker seems to doubt whether plot alone can convey the questions he wants the episode to raise (it can) and resorts to heavy-handed dialogue instead. The episode remains a solid piece of idea-driven television, but it is not as compelling or as well-paced as it could have been.

An episode of Black Mirror that doesn’t suffer from such issues is San Junipero. Of the three episodes discussed here, it features the strongest writing and most well-developed characters. It also manages to make an emotional impact without forsaking larger questions about what it means to be human. With San Junipero, Brooker demonstrates that he is more than capable of crafting an affecting and emotionally delicate story, even if he does not always chose to do so.  San Junipero begins in the 1980s and follows a woman named Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis). With her over-sized clothes, flat hair, non-prescription glasses, and shy demeanor, Yorkie declares to the world that she has no interest in being seen, but she regularly visits the local nightclub all the same. While there, she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a stunning, confident, and vivacious woman who tries to bring Yorkie out of her shell. Over the course of the episode, the women fall in love, but—as so often happens in Black Mirror—technology soon complicates things.

San Junipero is firmly situated within the realm of science fiction, but this is only revealed gradually. More importantly, it is never the point. The futuristic and technological elements of the episode are not what it is about—like YouTube and bestiality in The National Anthem and like the MASS implants in Men Against Fire, they are simply tools with which Brooker poses his questions. Though it’s not as bizarre, as dark, or as violent as the other two episodes, San Junipero is still concerned with important human problems. Among them are how a person is to keep living under the weight of regret, what is real and what isn’t, what it means to die, and whether it is acceptable to merge (wo)man with machine.

While other episodes privilege more complicated plots in their exploration of certain themes and ideas, San Junipero asks its particular set of questions through a character-driven love story. Where much of Black Mirror is cold and distant, San Junipero is tender and intimate. Perhaps consequently, the episode (which was directed by Owen Harris) also features more memorable performances than its more impassive counterparts. In addition to Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights), the episode also features Denise Burse, Raymond McAnally, and Gavin Stenhouse. While Burse does anchor some stirring moments as an older version of Kelly, it is Davis and Mbatha-Raw who steal the show. The two women have great chemistry, and each understands the value of a simple glance in conveying a story of this nature. The love that develops between Yorkie and Kelly never feels inauthentic or insignificant, and their performances tug at the heartstrings; while Brooker’s script is partially responsible for this fact, he also has the episode’s lead actresses to thank.

Though not always as engaging or as emotionally impactful as it could be, Black Mirror isn’t afraid to take risks, and both its daring and the weighty topics that it grapples with help to set the show apart from the rest of the TV landscape. Where some writers work primarily to please viewers through character construction and plot development, Brooker focuses much of his energy on bringing forth ideas and asking viewers to question. Since Black Mirror presents a new set of faces and a different setting in each of its installments, the list of stories it might tell is virtually endless. To watch Black Mirror is to enter a world where anything is possible, where anything goes, and where one never knows what sort characters a given episode will contain. Though often set in some imagined future, Black Mirror—like most worthwhile science fiction—is undoubtedly about the present. What connects the show’s disparate pieces together are the questions about humanity that it raises, and those interested in tackling (and in being tackled by) such questions should find something to like in Brooker’s creation.

Until Next Time
If you follow me on twitter and letterboxd, then you know that I’ve recently seen Moonlight (great), Hacksaw Ridge (not great), and Arrival (pretty good).

A Review of Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special: A Solid Sci-Fi Drama about Family and Faith

Midnight

Film: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Primary Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard
US Release Date: 18 Mar 2016 (limited, anyway)

An Amber Alert is issued for a missing Texas child. The boy is 8 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes, but the local news stations are unable to provide a photo of him. His name is Alton Meyer (Lieberher). He was kidnapped from a cultish ranch by his father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon) with the help of a man named Lucas (Edgerton).

Alton is a quiet, intelligent boy, and his calm demeanor suggests that he may have been rescued rather than abducted. He wears blue goggles and sleeps during the day. He can’t be exposed to sunlight either. He also picks up all sort of information (government and otherwise) from satellites, radios, and more. He knows things he has no business knowing. He occasionally shoots blue light from his eyes. When this light connects with the eyes of other people, they see and feel things unlike anything they’ve ever known.

Roy and Lucas—and eventually, Alton’s mother Sarah (Dunst)—are on a mission to get Alton to some specific location by a specific date. Exactly why Alton needs to be there is not clear to any of them, but they all know that it’s important, and they are willing to risk their lives to make it happen.

As Roy and Lucas do their best to look after Alton while avoiding the authorities, the FBI interrogates the cult that he was once a part of, because classified government communications have been finding their way into leader Calvin Meyer’s (Shepard) sermons. An NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Driver) interviews Meyer, who claims that all of the information came directly from Alton. And as Sevier talks with more members of Meyer’s cult, it soon becomes apparent that they all view Alton as some sort of messiah.

Midnight Special is not perfect, but there is something special about it all the same. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), the film presents an engaging parental drama under the guise of a science-fiction thriller. For all the inexplicable phenomena that it presents, Midnight Special is about faith, feelings, and family more than it is about superhuman powers or fantastical ideas. While not all of the script is as rock-solid, Nichols manages to present viewers with a distinct story that, for all its mysteries, still manages to feel familiar and approachable. Even if there are aspects of Midnight Special that could be considered lightweight, the film remains engaging and enjoyable all the same.

Midnight Special is not a typical sci-fi thriller. Though it’s far from a comedy, the film is lighter and less noticeably pessimistic (or nihilistic) than much of today’s science fiction. The film also lacks the cold and grandiose feel of genre blockbusters. Nichols uses action and fantasy elements throughout the film, but he does so judiciously, and the mysteries surrounding Alton’s abilities never take up so much space that they become the heart of the story.

There is enough interpretative potential in Midnight Special for different viewers to leave it having had very different experiences. For me, it’s primarily a tale about parents who love their unusual—and indeed, unfathomable—son enough to let him go. They do what is best for him, even though it causes them pain. They don’t question him. They have faith in him, because they love him. They listen, and they do their best, and they accept that they can’t ever fully control or know him. There’s more to the film than that, but that’s how I understand it.

Nichols’s focuses his sci-fi on a small handful of individuals; and by keeping the scope of his film relatively small, he increases its narrative efficacy and emotional power. There is no great evil in Midnight Special that threatens to destroy all of mankind. There is no universal human flaw that needs to be exposed. There is no real hopelessness either. Instead, there is a humble, and affecting tale about parenting, growing up, and about having faith in the ones we love. Instead of overwhelming his viewers or plunging them into despair, Nichols chooses to stimulate their imaginations while tugging at their hearts and while putting an only slightly sad smile on their faces.

When it comes to storytelling, Nichols reveals a steady hand and demonstrates that he doesn’t feel compelled to meet certain viewer expectations. Midnight Special may not be what many of today’s audience expect, but it also doesn’t try to be anything but itself. Nichols also has enough confidence in his story to reveal information gradually and naturally. He doesn’t overburden viewers with extraneous explanatory details that—while they might dispel certain questions—would do nothing to strengthen their emotional connection with the film. By withholding information about Alton and his other characters, Nichols also works to keep viewers as rapt as possible.

That said, there are places in Midnight Special’s script where additional information could have helped. Nichols is right not to slow his film’s pace by allowing it to become bogged down in the details of Alton’s upbringing, his origins, or of life on the ranch. However, the film may have been stronger if he’d taken the time to imbue his characters with a bit more depth. Throughout the film, I wanted to know more about both of Alton’s parents, and I especially wanted to hear more from Roy. A lot of Midnight Special takes place below the surface—in the interactions and glances shared between Roy, Lucas, Sarah, and Alton; and while this aspect of the film is largely effective, it would have been improved by some more overt character development.

Another aspect of the script that may inspire disappointment is its ending. As solid as much of Midnight Special is, its resolution is rather vague, and it’s unclear just how purposeful the details of it are.

And yet, even if Midnight Special’s final section may come as a letdown, I am not too bothered by it. The film’s aims are simple, and they have much more to do with bare emotions and wonder than they do with anything else. Those who are looking for more complexity and specificity will be the most bothered by the film’s refusal to delve too deeply into the details of its own tale, but those same people probably won’t like the rest of the film that much either. The end could have been better (though I’m not exactly sure how), but the resolution of its various mysteries doesn’t matter nearly as much as the people, the relationships, and the belief at the center of them. And besides, if no one who loves and tries to help Alton tries to fully understand him or to comprehend the precise nature of his abilities, then why on earth should viewers?

While none of the performances in Midnight Special are spectacular, they are all quite solid, and the film’s cast should be counted among its strengths. In my experience, Shannon and Edgerton are almost always good, and they both do quality work in Nichols’s film. This is especially true concerning Shannon (who was seen recently in 99 Homes); even when Nichols’s script fails to add much depth to Roy, Shannon manages bring a noticeable degree of weight and emotion to his scenes. At the same time, Dunst—who was particularly impressive in this year’s season of Fargo—also does a decent job with the material she is given, as does young Jaeden Lieberher.

For what it’s worth, I also enjoyed the dark, slick tone of Midnight Special. In addition to its story, such adjectives also apply to its images and to its score.

I knew virtually nothing about Midnight Special before going to see it. I hadn’t seen a trailer for it. I hadn’t even seen a promotional still. Fortunately, my ignorance was more than amply rewarded. I didn’t know what to expect from the film before watching it, and I was regularly surprised and delighted over the course of its running time. Though it doesn’t feel quite right to declare Nichols’s latest a “great film,” it is a surprising one. Parts of it do remind me a bit of The Twilight Zone and Looper (2012), but the majority of Midnight Special feels distinct and refreshing. The film is heartfelt, and it doesn’t fit any one particular mold—and that fact makes it worth watching even when the script is simpler or less developed than some might want.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! If you haven’t seen Midnight Special, I’d encourage you to give it a look (and feel free to return here with comments when you do).

I recently rewatched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in a couple of years. I’ve seen the movie more times than I know, and I’m intimately familiar with Tolkien’s novels. And yet, for some reason, this time around, Jackson’s film affected me much more than usual. This, along with the fact that I just really like Lord of the Rings, has me thinking that I should also rewatch The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If I do, I may try to make a post discussing my personal ranking of the trilogy—if I can even come up with one—so if that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know.

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