Star Wars – A New Movie Format Arises

By Stephan Manning.

Last week I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my dad – a long awaited moment in our own family history. In 1977 my dad saw the first Star Wars movie with his first son, my elder half-brother. Now, almost forty years later, many were wondering, including my dad and I, how the new movie would compare to the original, since many see it as a ‘reboot’ of the first one. And there are many similarities: the battle between good and evil; the force; a villain in a black costume; a young hero coming from a desert planet; an old mentor who gets killed by the villain; lots of space action and special effects. Yet, the new movie is also different. For example, not only my dad and I agree that, on the one hand, the movie seems technically flawless and polished, overcoming the B-movie feel of the original; on the other hand, story and character development are rather predictable and shallow. Yet, quite surprisingly, the movie received a 94% rating from Rotten Tomatoes – the same rating as the original Star Wars. How can we explain that? Can we compare the two movies at all? I argue that The Force Awakens may be the next step towards a new form of movie entertainment altogether.

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Ex Machina – Seeing the Robot in the Human

By Keshav Krishnamurty.

Among the many science fiction movies to come out this year, one of the most interesting is Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland on a small budget and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaacs, Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno. The plot begins with a young programmer, Caleb (Gleeson), winning a contest to meet the founder of his company, Nathan (Isaacs) – a sort of a reclusive, eccentric Steve Jobs figure living in a vast Alaskan estate to test his life’s work. Caleb is meant to be the human component of a ‘Turing Test’, i.e. a test that could decide whether or not Ava (Vikander) – a machine – has artificial intelligence by acting ‘like a human’, an event that would truly be part of “not the history of men, but the history of gods”. As events unfold, Caleb develops a romantic affection for Ava who, in the end, uses Caleb to escape from Nathan’s laboratory. It is essentially a study of four main characters – Caleb, the protagonist and audience surrogate; Nathan, the billionaire genius with the frat boy lifestyle who went on to create artificial intelligence; Ava, the beautiful and feminine android who is the product of Nathan’s work, and Kyoko (Mizuno), Nathan’s seemingly silent maid. Although all four of them appear to be “stock characters” familiar to the audience – the mad scientist, the virtuous hero, the damsel in distress, the silent servant girl – nobody is what they seem to be at first glance. By probing the four characters and their interactions, Garland addresses two related questions: where do notions of masculinity and femininity come from, and what is truly ‘natural’ as compared to ‘artificial’ in human nature?

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Twelve Years a Slave – A Spiritual Journey Continues

By Stephan Manning.

There has been a lot of controversy about Steve McQueen’s Academy Award winning movie ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ – is it really a cinematic masterpiece or just a movie about an important neglected subject? Well, maybe it’s something else altogether: the continuation of a spiritual journey which took yet another turn at this year’s Oscar Ceremony. In a nutshell, the movie is based on the memoir and slave narrative by Solomon Northup who lived as a free black man in New York in the mid-19th century before he gets kidnapped and transported to New Orleans to spend twelve years of his life as a slave under various masters in Louisiana until he finally manages to get free again. When I first watched the movie I saw its value mainly in dealing with the highly emotional topic of slavery. It was not until I read Michael Schulman’s insightful post about historian Sue Eakin’s role in unearthing Solomon’s story that I realized what this movie is really about: It is not just about slavery but about carrying a timeless personal story of injustice and suffering into the future – a spiritual journey that continues…

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Why We Don’t Need an Academy Award for Best Picture

By Stephan Manning.

A few days ago the movie ‘12 Years a Slave’ won the Academy Award for Best Picture. To some, it was a historical moment: never before did a movie from a black director win Hollywood’s highest honor. Others have noted that this movie only received three Academy Awards in total whereas other movies were significantly stronger in major artistic categories. So what does ‘Best Picture’ mean? Can the sum be better than its parts?

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Her – A Future Tale About Partnerships of Today

By Stephan Manning.

Did you ever fall in love with an operating system? This is what Theodore Twombly does in Spike Jonze’s much discussed movie Her (see Trailer). Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is portrayed as a rather introverted man who is suffering from an impending divorce from his long-time partner Catherine. To make a living, Theodore writes personal love letters on behalf of others who have difficulties expressing their feelings. One time he decides to purchase an operating system with artificial intelligence for his personal use. The system calls itself Samantha and talks to Theodore with a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). Impressed with Samantha’s emotional intelligence and ability to learn, Theodore gradually develops a relationship with her. To some, Her might be a clever science fiction story – the vision of non-human companions who may give us more affection and attention than human beings. Others might see a story of romance and love that transcends time and technology. Both aspects are certainly important, but I see in Her primarily a reflection of what partnership and intimacy require in today’s world.

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Chato’s Land: A Tale About Justice, Doubt and Indifference

By Stephan Manning.

I recently watched Chato’s Land – a classic Western from 1972 with Charles Bronson who plays Chato, a half Apache who is being hunted by ranchers and townspeople for killing the local sheriff in self-defense. The hunt ends with almost all ‘hunters’ getting killed – by Chato, by nature, by themselves. What I find intriguing about the plot is how it deals with justice, doubt and indifference.

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Cold Fish – About the Nature of Death

By Stephan Manning

Realizations sometimes come randomly, sparked by situations which don’t make any sense – first. When I watched ‘Cold Fish’, an elegant, but rather violent Japanese movie about a fish shop owner whose life gets turned upside down by a serial killer and his wife, I realized something fundamental about death. On the surface, the film is about the violent potential of every human being. Certainly interesting, but this is not what caught my eye…

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