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.
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?
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.
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.
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…