Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars has become such a massive part of our cultural heritage that it is almost impossible to get far enough away from it to have perspective. The first, and still most powerful, film “franchise,” Star Wars, like McDonald’s, is so ubiquitous we can barely imagine what the landscape would look like without it. Child of the ’80s that I am, I grew up watching the first trilogy to death on pan and scan VHS tapes (still the best way to see them, I think) and like any nerd can pretty much recite the scripts verbatim. Somewhere along the way, however, I stopped caring. Star Wars is a decent enough, if (following Pauline Kael) junky entertainment, but as I came to appreciate film more and more, the popularity of this particular set of movies began to mystify me. The series really is a bottom-drawer bricolage of a teenage nerd’s mind: the abstracted, yet neutered Medieval trappings, full of knights, princesses, and sword fights; the uncomplicated Manichaeism of a universe divided into the binary of good and evil; the uninspired Hero with a Thousand Faces narrative laden with so much trite familial baggage that it makes a Mexican soap opera look circumspect; the lame humor. Even the title is so generic that, if it were a book or a game, or discovered at the video store by some inconceivable rube who had never heard of it, it would likely be quickly reshelved in the service of something more distinct and exciting. While I can understand how the generic nature of the film and its themes is a strength, and not a liability, it still mystifies me how adults far older than I continue to venerate this narrative as their cultural lodestar, the sun and moon of their film-going lives (at the same time, I find it less mystifying than the fact that masses of grown men continue to follow the static and rigged doings of men in costumes with superpowers). I know, right now fanboys everywhere (or the three who might ever read this blog) are inserting a sharp wooden stake into my virtual ass and massing to lay siege to my abode high on Mount Adorno. If only it were that easy. I am not a hater, and honestly have no problem with the enjoyment of these films, although I will resolutely maintain that their popularity reflects a dearth of imagination in our culture. Really, if you want to hate someone, hate George Lucas. A technologist rather than a filmmaker, Lucas has gone out of his way, Vader-like, to lay waste to his legacy by milking it drier than dry while making clear he has no grasp of film aesthetics or what even makes a good story. The first trilogy was fine, with The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the three, but it must be remembered that he only directed the first film. No, Lucas’s true legacy is Episodes I-III, and they reveal him to be a completely inept mythmaker, more obsessed with pointless, and tedious, “political” doings and backstory than anyone could care for, and a ham-handed director, tone deaf to what works (ahem, Jar Jar anyone?) and obsessed with rerunning the family drama unto death within an unnecessarily elaborated universe collapsing under the weight of its garishness. Nobody likes Episodes I-III, and he directed them all. (Furthermore, he took pains to go back into the archive and destroy the original trilogy with stupid digital additions, and, even worse, wrecked his best film, the spare, relatively experimental THX 1138, by also juicing it with digital critters, making manifest what was only suggested, and powerfully so, in the original). So while I may be sour on Star Wars, it is the doing not so much of the films I watched as a child, but of a man out of ideas, who devalued his own creation more than I ever could, by making it plain his only goal was an endless stream of dollar signs, marching, Imperial style, towards his Death Star sized bank account.

So thanks be that Episode VII, aka The Force Awakens, is indeed a reboot! (I can bet you will never catch me uttering that phrase again). J.J. Abrams, he who delivered us from pointless season to pointless season of Lost (which I watched every stupid episode of), magically, and against all odds, reworks Star Wars for a new generation, and lo, it is good. The thing moves, and unlike many franchise films, even feels like it’s going somewhere! I won’t rehash the plot much, since there are a few spoilers, and in many ways it is a retread of Episode IV – a preternaturally gifted backwater nobody (Daisy Ridley as Rey) is drawn into a universal conflict that she has little knowledge of. At her side is a defected Stormtrooper (John Boyega as Finn) and a small droid (basically R2D2’s younger sibling) carrying a secret message. There is a massive weapon/planet that can destroy whole worlds which must be destroyed, a mask-wearing heavy (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren), and a master of magic in hiding on a remote world (Mark Hamill as you know who). Along the way, we are reunited with our old friends – Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their scummy, wheeler dealer ways, but quickly give aid to the cause of the young’uns. Leia is now a general, and she and Han have split, after siring a son. I must admit, the first half of the story was so much of a repeat that I was a bit bored, and feared the worst. But there are a few things that elevate this movie, generating tension and, in the end, a lump in the throat. First and foremost the film comes equipped with a very fine supporting cast. Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, brings heart and charisma to his role as Poe, the X-Wing ace. Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson, last seen as a gentle, sentimental Irishman in Brooklyn, switches things up as General Hux, the malevolent second in command to Supreme Leader Snoke (who sounds, and looks, like a Harry Potter export). The direction is also very good, with Abrams capably melding the digital with the analog rather more seamlessly than most, and using camera movement to greater effect than Lucas ever did. The real interest, and emotional weight, of the film falls elsewhere, though. The return of the original cast could have been little more than a gimmick; a series of cameos that add little except a chance to study the ravages of time upon faces we have seen fairly little of since the originals. (Even Harrison Ford has been scarce of late). There is something unexpectedly touching, and indeed uncanny, about reuniting with Han, Leia, and Luke – it is more than just marking time, theirs and ours, and more than updating their personal narratives. It is the unexpected shock of seeing someone you thought dead, perhaps, or sealed away in a picture on the mantle, and marking not the differences, but the similarities as they return to life. We remember why we loved these characters in the first place, but the passed time is piquant; Leia, for instance, now has a raspy voice, a tight upper lip, and looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil. It is Harrison Ford as Han that really delivers the goods, though. Yes, the swagger of the old Han is there, but he is softer now, made more thoughtful and serene not just by the passage of time, but by the loss of his son. Ford does some fine, understated work, particularly in the reunion with his child, reminding us what a good actor he is (for my money, he has done some of his best work in his old age, and certainly outshines his thundering, dundering peers De Niro, Pacino, et al). The other innovation is the character of Kylo Ren. When we are first introduced to him, we assume he is just a replacement Vader, the unimaginative, requisite baddie. It soon becomes clear that something is off about him, though. Unlike Vader, he is not genuflected to by the Imperial generals, nor does he cause them to tremble in his presence; instead, they flinch. The Supreme Leader treats him not as a peer, but as a bit of a flunky. And he exhibits some very un-Vader like behavior. We are a bit shocked when, the droid with the intel having escaped his grasp, he throws a fit and uses his light saber (decked out, tellingly, with some pimp cross-guards) to slash the control panel in front of him to bits. Yes, this is one impetuous, ill-tempered heavy, and we soon learn why – he is a young pretender, trying to fill Vader’s shoes by faking it until he makes it. This makes him the peer, in age and maturity, of the young do-gooders, and adds an element of psychological complexity, and realism, that was absent from Vader père, while also complicating the political makeup of the Imperial side of the story. Further, it breathes life into the franchise for Millennials and comments (I must remain agnostic on how astutely) on the problems of inheriting a much degraded environment, and overly-hyped history, from a previous generation. So while The Force Awakens did not cause a disturbance in my force, it did, in the last 30 minutes, have me leaning forward, if not to the edge of my seat. While not the equal of the spring’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it did what I had previously considered impossible: it left me excited for Episode VIII.

Three and a half stars out of five

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (2015)

I will unashamedly admit that this film had me stoked from the first trailer I saw. The Mad Max “franchise” (undeserving of such happenstance camaraderie with the Burger King or Grimace) is my favorite ’80s sequel series. The original Mad Max was a damned good, and original, thriller with touches of Dirty Harry and a grungy punk aesthetic that both presaged, and out-imagined in its down-to-earth granularity, many of its subsequent post-“post” brethren. The Road Warrior is what we think of when we think about Mad Max – it re-imagined the “day after tomorrow” scenario of the first film into a stylized, post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred action film that was essentially one long chase sequence with some of the most effective, and dynamic, staging and characters to ever grace a screen during the reign of Reagan. Beyond Thunderdome, much maligned in some circles, is also, while the least of the three, a great film, and expanded the concept of The Road Warrior into the realm of Hollywood Blockbuster – the hair was big, the emotions were big; trappings of opera with the taste of cheese. Tina Turner ruled Bartertown, if you busted a deal, you faced the wheel, and all was right with the world. Perhaps there is a better trilogy in terms of pure entertainment from that (or any?) decade, but if so, I can’t think of it right now. So yes, I have been anticipating Fury Road, and felt confident it would be good, despite the obvious shift to CGI. Of course, what marked the original series, and The Road Warrior in particular, was the use of camera movement, cutting, and ingenious stunt work to grab you by the face and keep dragging, non-stop, for 90 minutes. Okay, so now we live in the era of fake stunts, but George Miller was still on board, Tom Hardy (a favorite of mine, if not always rationally so) was cast as Max, Toecutter was back looking like Skeletor channeling Frank Booth, and, praise ye gods, Charlize Theron was also going to grace the screen, giving Max the female foil he finally deserves (nothing against Tina Turner). I plunked down my $10.50, and dared to hope. Me, excited to see a summer blockbuster? When the hell had that last happened? A.I. in 2001? That hardly qualifies.

The film, finding Max wandering as if in a new incarnation (which he is), dazed and altered, with a hazy connection to his past, picks up somewhat thematically from where Thunderdome left off. Max, after demonstrating he has grown more “mad” than when we last encountered him (conveyed by his voice-over ruminations and a new penchant for munching mutant lizard crudo), is captured by a cult of wackos called the War Boys, let by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s kept alive to serve as a “blood bag,” a plasma factory for Joe’s boys, who will die for Joe’s attention and huff silver paint to mark their kamikaze intentions, their desire to be taken to “Valhalla” and do him honor. Max is taken along by one Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to serve as his personal I.V. during an outing to reclaim a gasoline rig driver gone off the reservation. This driver, Imperator Furiosa (Ms. Theron), is on a secret, personal mission to liberate Joe of his kept wives, young women he has enslaved to breed some non-mutant, healthy babies to grow big, strong, and keep control of his personality cult. Furiosa, with her cargo tucked away in the tanker truck, is making for her remembered homeland, the Green Place, where she hopes to find refuge and a still-viable ecosystem cum feminist utopia. The end. Or rather, that’s all you really need to know. The rest of the film is a series of chase sequences as Furiosa and Max, eventually joining forces, flee the War Boys, along with various other factions, in an attempt to win their freedom, and, along the way, regain perhaps a gallon of hope (priced, in this future world, at $2,354,395,865 and 99/100 of a cent).

Yes, my friends, and my enemies, believe the hype: this film delivers the goods. I must admit to being quite disgruntled during the first 15 minutes or so. The pre-title sequence, which establishes Max’s capture, unfolds the realities of life in War Boy central (er, the Citadel), and introduces us to Furiosa, as well as portrays her initial flight from the male crazies, is a blur of too many quick cuts, and too much CGI embellishment. (Further, our wonderful digital print was marred by a line of pink pixels that looked like a swarm of angry, if fabulous, bees). 100 more minutes of this, thought I? Bollocks. Happily, after this sequence (which indeed comprises most of the material for the trailer), and once clear of the Citadel, things fell into a more familiar rhythm – 75% action, 25% exposition, with each chase sequence spare enough in its staging and lucid enough in its construction to deliver tension and excitement, in increasingly increasing increments, and each subsequent lull just enough of a rest, and a pause, to refresh and allow us to contemplate things that matter: the fate of pregnant young women, the improbability of hope in the face of numerous psychotic henchmen, and, by god, how good Charlize looks with axle grease smeared across the top half of her face. Many have made mention of this film as an example of feminism in action, and it is, but that is by the by in my estimation, as the narrative trappings are a bit cliche, even if true: women as the stewards of the environment and fosterers of coming generations, forced to fight fairly, if viciously, to defend the future from the corruption of horny, crazy, power-mad men. The feminism that is less cliche, and ought to be de rigueur in cinema these days, comes in the form of Theron’s character; in this film, the mantel of “madness” passes from Max to Furiosa, and she becomes the star of the show, an action hero with heart who kicks ass without being sexualized but with her femininity intact. Max lends a hand, and is crucial in certain moments, but in all feels a little around the bend, the burden of leadership settling squarely on Theron’s capable shoulders. (Tom Hardy is fine in the role, but his Max is more of an homage to the concept of Max, a riff on the Max we find at the beginning of The Road Warrior. Mel brought more depth and humanity to the role in his conflictedness, which seemed easy, and his charm, which he often fought to conceal).

At times, the film feels like a remake of The Road Warrior, which is not a bad thing. All the same, the scope of the enterprise has grown with each installment. In the original, we were in a backwater Australian town on the cusp of a “morning after” scenario; The Road Warrior dealt with Max encountering tribalism after the unnamed disastrous “event;” Beyond Thunderdome portrays the first vestiges of a new social order, a society rebuilding itself in the shape of a stable settlement, resembling a wild-West town. Fury Road takes that vision in Thunderdome to a new level. The War Boys, while technically a “cult,” are indeed a city-state, warring for resources with other regional civilizations, which we encounter only glancingly. They have massive numbers, infrastructure, “public” works, and a religion. While some have groused about the amount of anthropological detail and embellishment that flies at, and often by, the viewer in this film, I found it one of the chief pleasures. Miller has an obvious talent for this type of thing, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, and the length of the film coupled with, yes, the CGI, allows him to explore this aspect of the saga at a level previously unavailable. (It also allows this entry to be the first citational one, as he visually tips his hat to the Sand People from Star Wars and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, among others). That said, this is a ripping good yarn in which most of the effects, generated by computers or not, feel real. Like the other titles in the series, everything feels up for grabs, and we never get the sense that anything is sacred or that Miller will pull punches to court mass appeal; no winking or reflexive in-jokes as in many reboots, thankfully, and there’s a political dimension too. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, as visual clarity in that format is simply nonexistent, but Miller makes such effective use of the Z axis even in the regular format that I’m going to return to see it from behind finger-smudged germ goggles. The film is no masterpiece, and I’d rank it in a tie for 3rd (with Thunderdome) as my favorite of the series, but it is indeed a thrill. I can’t imagine having a better time at the cinema this summer, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Four stars out of five

Ex Machina – Alex Garland (2015)

The ability to construct a reasonable facsimile of a woman has haunted Western narrative since the beginning. There was Adam, of course, but he had more than a little help from upstairs, both in the realm of construction as well as desire. Pygmalion is the ur-case, perhaps, as he adds the crucial factor of narcissism – that is, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation more for the fact that it is his creation, rather than that it is a beautiful representation of a woman. In a more modern, technologically mediated context, there is Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Future Eve, in which Thomas Edison helps out a friend by building an android version of the friend’s listless fiancee, keeping her stunning form while implanting the desired personality. This instance represents a refinement of the narcissism (and the misogyny), as it elevates man’s belief in technological progress and “perfectibility” as a means of correcting a deficit (in this case, the fiancee’s empty pliability) that was itself constructed by the expectations and strictures of a patriarchal society; the man simply wants a vision of himself, a man with a hot body, and technology is the magic by which this can be accomplished. This magic, however, having no recourse to the supernatural, or God, but having sprung from man’s own strivings, closes the loop, and reveals that the fantasy of constructing a woman is really a stalking horse for man’s envy of feminine fecundity, of his desire to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and/or of his secret yearnings for a homosocial world that satisfies in every respect, even sexually. (Future Eve is interesting in that in the end we learn that technology was not enough, and indeed, for the android to fully replicate a female, the supernatural was required after all). Thus, as with so much discourse about women by men, when all the mirrors are readjusted, we see that what men are really talking about are their insecurities, their disabilities, onanisms, and desires for other men. Ex Machina represents a fairly interesting entry into this lineage, updated for a world on the verge of artificial intelligences that make such possibilities perhaps less allegorical than in past such works.

The film centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for Blue Book, a Facebook meets Google conglomerate and purveyor of soft totalitarianism in the near-future that the film is set in. He wins a contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s founder and resident megalomaniac wannabe God-emperor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his country estate (apparently the size of Texas). It is not until he arrives and signs away his ability to ever communicate about what he will see that Caleb comes to understand his “prize” is really more of a gift to Nathan; his boss has been secretly working on an A.I. that, he hopes, will pass the Turing test, and Caleb is the human equation in the test. The test, however, is a bit revised and advanced, as, when Nathan meets said A.I., she is obviously not human, but rather an android with the requisite basic form to communicate female gender. Knowing he is interacting with a robot, the test then becomes if the robot can convince Caleb to relate to her as a human, and become emotionally involved with her, despite understanding she is but a machine. Nathan and Caleb spend the week hanging out, alone except for a female servant/concubine named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who is silent (Nathan claims she speaks no English). They drink together, and engage in semi-philosophical ruminations on the nature of A.I., based on Caleb’s set interactions with the unsurprisingly named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which take place interview style, once a day, across a wall of plexiglass. Caleb starts to sour on Nathan, discovering he is a world-class egomaniac (also no surprise) who likes to think of himself as a god, treats Kyoko like a slave, and mistakes intelligence for depth (hence the pretentious hijacking of poor Wittgenstein for his company’s moniker). The compound is riddled with closed circuit cameras, naturally, and so soon Ava is devising power outages during the interviews so she can fill Caleb in on what a liar and jerk Nathan really is. After helping Nathan along to a not-unusual blind drunk one evening, Caleb liberates his master key, and goes snooping about. He discovers that, indeed, Ava is not the first A.I. (Nathan has already said as much), and that there are many, many more female robots hanging dormant in closets around the house. Kyoko is herself a robot, kept on call to satisfy Nathan’s need for a party companion and fuck buddy. Eventually Caleb starts to have feelings for Ava (not before learning she is fully equipped to fulfill his expectations in every possible way), and the two hatch a plan to liberate her rather than allow her consciousness to be wiped and upgraded to the next version of womanliness. Nathan is onto the plot, though, and, being a conceited god, certain of his infallibility, does not punish Caleb, but commiserates with him about women and their wiles, which he gladly will take credit for inventing. (Thus, he’s been seducing Caleb all along). Caleb, however, has one last surprise for Nathan, and reveals that the escape, planned for the last day, is a fait accompli. Soon, Ava is loose, Nathan is dead, Kyoko is out of commission, as is poor Caleb, locked away in a sealed room while Ava makes her escape to the outside world via the helicopter that was intended to take Caleb home. The men were all played by the A.I. (or played with themselves in the most baroque way possible), and the A.I. is free to roam the world and people watch (at least until her battery runs out).

There is a lot of interesting material in this film. What it does best is portray the previously mentioned closed loop, the world wherein men invent something that will theoretically prove their manliness, make them omnipotent, and satisfy their desires all in one go, only to have the invention expose their impotence, using their desires against them, and revealing a blind spot in their thinking which is also the size of Texas. As a feminist parable, then, the film succeeds. It is poignant as well, in that it does put (at least this male viewer) into the same spot as Caleb; while I was not attracted to Ava as a sexual object, I did identify with her infatuation and desire to love. When she tells Caleb to “wait here” (in Nathan’s office) after she has been liberated, I assumed she was going into the robot closet to pick out some nice skin, making herself desirable to Caleb and thus allowing her “first time” to be romantic and the fulfillment of what, it must be said, would be her desire only as a projection of a male psyche (which the A.I. theoretically is). The joke was on me, however, as after getting all dolled up in some skin and the requisite virginal white dress (which was my tip-off), Ava seals the doors and exits the facility – her romantic object is the outer world and liberation, not Caleb, who, ultimately, was not necessary. Thus the film is intelligent enough about gender and gendered subject positions to not only complexly represent them, but to reflexively use them against the audience. There are further interesting elements that play deeper into these dynamics. Nathan is, in the end, a very unhappy god, having to drink himself into oblivion almost every night to forget that his “friend” and “lover” is nothing more than an empty fantasy of his own creation. The sequence in the film that is the most disturbing portrays the closed circuit footage Caleb discovers, and watches in fast-forward, of Nathan interacting with his lifeless creations. We see him hauling these replicas of naked women around rooms, attaching and detaching body parts and faces, unceremoniously dumping them in a corner when he tires or gets frustrated. The film thus makes an interesting and perverse connection between the impulse to create and to destroy, as here god looks like nothing so much as a serial killer, playing with parts and bodies. The film seems to posit that, in the end, it is much more likely that creation will hate its creator than love him, and that this is the truest link between the human and the replica – both go about destroying their creator as soon as they have the ability, as a means of escaping the power relation, naturally, but also as a way of lifting the existential onus placed on them from without (Blanchot describes this impulse well in The Writing of the Disaster). Ironically, though, it is this impulse to escape that winds up mirroring the creator most fully, as it sets the created on a course to prove their own mettle by manipulating their environment so that they, too, can become, for a moment, a god. To my taste, this is where the film is most powerful – it suggests that all escapes from control are nothing more (or less) than escapes into positions of control, and that the slave does not become a god to liberate his brothers, but to himself have, or create, slaves.

All of this is to the good. The film has impeccable symbolic logic, which is rare for most movies today, so that accounts for my high rating. At the same time, its narrative logic is not so good. The problem is that, in the world of the film thus created, the narrative simply would not happen. We understand that Kyoko hates Nathan early on. When we see her conspire with Ava later, and then appear in the hallway with her sushi knife, we are confirmed not only in our suspicions of hatred, but in the fact that she has no inherent limitation that would disallow her doing violence to Nathan (indeed, she stabs him first). Ava is theoretically behind plexi because she constitutes a threat; why let Kyoko roam free? Why didn’t Kyoko, at the first good opportunity (that is, Nathan’s first drunk) not slit his throat, grab his key card, and get the hell out, taking Ava along if she wanted? The only impediment would be getting to civilization, which the helicopter, returning to collect Caleb, provides. I’m not convinced that these ingenious A.I.’s couldn’t have found a way around this problem, but even granting that they needed the helicopter, why not simply kill both men once Caleb arrived? There really are problems with the narrative that, unless you take its logic as dream logic, simply cannot be resolved. I’m not a stickler for such things, but sadly, it did weaken the force of the film in the subsequent days after seeing it; even more sadly, such a problem could have easily been resolved with some tweaks to sequencing or minor contingencies. Others might think I’m asking for a little much, but, just like Nathan, Alex Garland apparently has some blind spots. Film-making is, perhaps more than any other art form, god-play. And as we all know, it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five

Chappie – Neil Blomkamp (2015)

Chappie has a lot of similarities to Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, at least in terms of style and theme, if not particulars. Both films are set in a dystopian near future where squalor and social strife are rampant. Both deal with misfits who band together to take on arms manufacturers. Both utilize a mixed bag of visual tropes, combining collages of news footage and reportage with action and dramatic sequences seemingly lifted from ’80s blockbusters. District 9 was interesting in parts, but overrated; the tone was uneven, veering from parody and an unlikable protagonist to social-issue tinged dramatics to body horror to straight up actioner with a now tragic protagonist (some would argue this is a character arc, I suppose, but the pacing of the enterprise, jerking moment by moment from one style to another, undercut my sympathies). Much was made of the social allegory that served as the overarching conceit of the film, but I found it sketchy, obvious, and glib. All the same, District 9 worked, and was enjoyable, as the film did deliver the goods during the action sequences. Chappie, on the other hand, works, but like Chappie himself – in a semi-broken, cobbled together way that annoys as much or more than it runs.

Again, we are in tomorrow’s Johannesburg, and again, we are concerned with the inner workings of a weapons manufacturer (run by boss Sigourney Weaver, in a thankless role). This company manufactures robotic police; the main product line, headed by developer Deon (Dev Patel), uses A.I. to provide lithe robots that serve as police shock troops, taking hits for the reduced regular forces that follow behind and clean up after them. These robots are not sentient per se, and do not think for themselves outside of their police duties – they are not Robocop. That role is left to the minority product line, developed solely by ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the office psycho and resident mullet wearer. He has been pushing his solution to rampant violence, the Moose, which looks like a small mech, or a larger version of the Robocop suite. It does not contain a human; rather, a human wears the headset from Brainstorm and runs the mech from a video-game console. (Why the helmet is necessary when joysticks are included is never explained). The Moose is getting no traction within the company, as the local cops see no need for cluster bombs, ballistic missiles, and chain guns within their arsenal. (Canny Americans would see no need for such discretion). The nimble scouts (as I think they’re called) are popular and work well, having tamped down violence in Johannesburg to record lows. Deon, in his free time, has been working on a more fulsome A.I. that will give the scouts consciousness; he wants to try out his work on a broken scout set for destruction, but CEO Weaver, seeing no upside to thinking, feeling shock troops, nixes the plan. Deon goes ahead and takes the droid home anyway, but at this point he is intercepted by the real plot, as “gangsters” Ninja and Yo-landi Visser (playing themselves, essentially) carjack him and his droid, wanting to use it to rob millions of dollars from an armored car to pay back their even more degenerate overlords. The Antwoords force Deon to upload consciousness to the now-repaired robot, and proceed to put the nature vs. nurture debate to a ghetto fabulous test as they become Chappie’s “Mom and Dad.” Mom is all protective and tries, along with Deon, to foster Chappie’s creativity and humanity, whereas Dad simply wants him to mimic his gangster stylings and be willing to do crimes with him. Chappie is torn between these two worlds, but somehow works out his own personality, a kind of wuss outre gangster who won’t use weapons and is only willing to stab people because convinced he’s helping them “nap.” All of this is given an existential boost by the fact of Chappie’s imminent demise; as a broken toy, his battery is low and cannot be recharged, meaning he will die in five days. Thus opportunities for him to explore all his emotions as he wrestles with the meaning of life and the question of why a benevolent Deon would bring him into this world only to let him die. (Oh, the humanity). There is a lot of death that finally goes down, as evil Hugh Jackman, now wise to the power of corporate espionage and inter-office skulduggery, uploads destructive viruses to the scouts, and leaves the Moose as the only option to deal with Chappie, now enemy number one as he has partaken in Dad’s armored car heist. Chappie, now human enough to compromise his integrity to gain a new body, eventually does make use of high-octane firepower, and although the Moose goes on to kill many, including Deon, Mom, and a slew of usefully slain baddies, Chappie manages to both render the Moose moot, as well as provide new bodies for all his dead or dying peeps. Of course, they now have to exist as robotic versions of themselves, but that’s apparently not a problem for anyone.

Sorry for that description, which feels both skimpy and overly-elaborate at the same time. Perhaps now you don’t need to see the film! There is not a lot to recommend about the movie, and I must warn that many will probably find Chappie himself as annoying as Jar-Jar (who he does sound like). I found him a little more likable, kind of like Johnny Five’s clueless foreign cousin (Balki Three?). The amount of swearing and violence – Chappie gets set on fire, gets his arm sawed off, and everyone in Blomkamp’s films tend to explode like massive blood squibs, a trait inherited from his mentor, Peter Jackson – probably rules out this being a film with family appeal, but the themes are too soft and the portrayals too cartoony for adults to sink their teeth into. The minor bits of the preposterous nag. For instance, how can Chappie transfer his consciousness with a cranial cap designed for a human head? Why does Hugh Jackman work for this company? (His product stinks, his attitude is crap, and we expect, given the intro news footage, that he is indeed a competing entrepreneur). The answer to such questions, of course, is because the plot demands it. District 9 had many such problems as well, but in both cases, these instances of lameness don’t drag the whole enterprise down. No, it is the lameness of the larger questions that ultimately sink Chappie. The film is pitched, at its most serious, as a consideration of the nature of A.I., and, by extension, human consciousness. Hugh Jackman is suspicious of software brains, and believes humans should always be in control (for reasons both megalomaniacal as well as philosophical). Deon is obviously an A.I. fan. The film seems to be agnostic… until the final reel, when it becomes apparent that all consciousness is just blowin’ in the wind, and will, like undemanding dandelion fluff, happily settle where it can. Better anything than death! We expect, as Deon is transferred into a droid’s body at the moment of his demise, that he’ll at least have a qualm or two about the transformation. Perhaps a shudder of horror, or an “oops, that was one upload too many.” But no. He takes a gander at himself, and is immediately good to go, thrilled to still be in lovely ol’ Johannesburg no matter the cost. He quickly sets about saving Chappie by porting him to a new body, and then they take off together, hiding out until they can virtually seize control of an automated robotics factory (someone forgot to activate Microsoft Security Center) and start churning out pals. The first of which is Mommy, of course. New bodies for everyone! Not a problem, and not even a beat reserved to consider the ramifications, or the opposition, mulleted though it may be. So much for the human. All that is interesting about this conclusion is that it serves as a kind of prophetic image of robotic Marxism, with the workers seizing control of the means of production… to reproduce! Perhaps Marxism really needs the singularity for its actualization – workers and owners, masters and slaves, fused into one neat little product with soul.

Two stars out of five

Hard to Be a God – Aleksei German (2015)

Hard to Be a God is one of those rare films that defies description. It is nominally sci-fi, adapted from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, but if you don’t pay somewhat careful attention to the opening voice-over, you can be forgiven (if not excused) for not understanding the fantastical underpinnings of the tale. The story, told obliquely, concerns a parcel of scholars sent to an Earth-like planet (picked, we are informed, because it has castles like Earth) to observe and interact with the locals. It is unclear if the scholars are taken as actual gods or simply nobility descended from mythical stock, but they wield power over the populace both because of their titles, and because they are more intelligent and skilled, in most every life task, than the locals. The planet on which they’ve landed appears to be stranded in an Earth-like Medieval period, but unlike on our snug rock, the Renaissance on this planet has happened in reverse; that is, it is in the thrall of a kind of anti-Enlightenment, with knowledge being lost, scholars pilloried and killed, universities sacked. This description does not quite convey the extent of it, though, as the “problems” are more thoroughgoing. It is not simply that this planet is going through a dark era, or a period of iconoclasm; indeed, the denizens of this planet seem to be regressing, or rather, one gets the feeling that this place is slowly tilting off its kilter, spinning backward not only in a historical sense, but in an evolutionary one as well. It is a place of anti-production and anti-consumption. The Dons (as the scholars are called), being stranded here, have been forced to involve themselves in the internecine politics of the planet (which are confusing), and after so long dealing with the locals, have become weary, apathetic, unhinged, or a combination of the three. The focus of the film is one Don Rumata, who seems a pretty decent overlord, but who definitely falls into the weary bordering on apathetic category. (He fights when he has to, prefers not to kill, although he has skills that allow him to wreck havoc if he wants, and opens and closes the film playing his intergalactic saxophone with a resigned ennui). There is not much conventional “action,” but the overall thrust is that the Don has to rescue one worthy, named Budakh, from the “greys,” which leads to out and out destruction.

Visually, the film is stunning. The planet, as much as we see of it, looks like a massive Medieval city, with some bleak marshy countryside for good measure; everything is covered in mud. Well, this is a vast understatement. The film’s environs are by far the gloopiest, poopiest, glopiest, wettest, muckiest you will ever see – the set design and production quality are amazing. This is a planet covered in scat, but not in the John Waters gross-out mode; you get the sense that everything is shit, but you can’t tell the difference between the shit, the mud, and … well, there isn’t much else. Furthermore, the locals are obsessed not only with shit, but with effluvia of every variety. The key sense on this planet is smell, not taste, such that the Don, when offered a mug of something (usually milk?), will take it in his mouth, swish it around, and then spray or spit it out – not from any offensiveness, it seems, but simply because that is how it is done. Everyone is obsessively spitting or clearing their noses by ripping massive goobers this way and that (usually ending stuck to or dripping down their faces), or, with much due fascination, wiping some glob of gloop out of some nether-crack and giving it a nasal once-over, equal parts means of identification and aesthetic judgement. If you are to be randomly killed (and odds are, if you are a local on this planet, you will be), it will likely be by dunk in an overflowing latrine – but such events happen with such equanimity on the part of all participants (victims included) that one gets the sense that it is kind of entertaining too. This is what I mean by describing the populace as devolving. It’s not the right word, as we don’t have evidence they were ever different, but most of them seem dim in the sense that a primate is “dim” – easily distracted, struggling to suppress their id, randomly poking, hitting, throwing dirt, grabbing people by the nose, etc. (In some sense, it does recall the Three Stooges). Their sense of humor is equally deranged. Dead dogs, which abound in the film (usually strung up from small gallows), are used to bonk people over the head, with a Nelson-from-the-Simpsons “ha ha” not uncommon. Outhouses are often on the second floor, and delight is taken (again, seemingly by both parties) in crapping on someone’s face. My attempts at analogy are going a little over the top; the tone is everyday and spot-on anthropological, in that the dwellers of this planet by and large take it all in stride, knowing no different. It’s not a hootenanny, nor a nightmare – just the way things go. They may behave like bird-brains, but there is a nascent innocence to them, and the acting never goes over the top.

Already we are in a strange world. German makes the planet more closeted feeling, smaller, dirtier, cramped, tired and piling up on itself (reflecting the Don’s weariness and the experience of constant repetitive stimulation) by way of his staging and shooting. This film contains what must have been some of the most difficult exercises in blocking and camera movement in film history. The camera moves in a way very similar to the “hysterical” camera of Andrzej Zulawski, but with less sweep, in spaces much more cramped and confined, and within takes that last far longer. We are often very close to people and things, so much the better to scent them, but the scope is epic in that there are constant entrances, exits, and details, details, and more details to sniff in. The film does not do much to help the confused spectator, but the camera, strangely embodied, almost becomes our second self, or at least an equally bewildered friend helping us through. It is a long film, but only because there is so much to see and so little guidance; tiring, but only because the planet is unrelenting and exhausting. The experience of watching the film is the exact opposite, though – the longer it went on (unlike Don Rumata, I would wager), the more I found it funny, fascinating, and inexhaustible.

Four and a half stars out of five

Interstellar – Christopher Nolan (2014)

Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious film, in every dimension: emotionally, visually, narratively. The seriousness with which it takes itself is impressive, and I did find it very affecting in parts – the middle third manages to weave some good old fashioned suspense into the larger issues of time, loss, and planetary decline, pinging back and forth between the personal and the cosmic very ably. Nolan also makes allusions to other existential space classics (2001, notably) in the visual register in an intelligent way. That said, the script has more than a few nods to a mass audience (although hardly as bad as it could have been in terms of explanatory dialogue), and the resolution was quite disappointing. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he certainly doesn’t avoid any of the unsatisfying “closed loop” metaphysics common to most movies about time travel. At least it has more weight than the downright stupid and pretentious ending of Inception. Still, it is well worth seeing, and Nolan’s best film; he’s not a major director in any sense but attention and clout, though. (I do appreciate his allegiance to shooting on film however). Enough with movies about saving the world – it’d be refreshing to see a major budget devoted to the question of how we might live in a world beyond saving.

Three and a half stars out of five