The Maze Runner (2014)
Well, this was just incredibly mediocre. Good production values, good cast, bland fucking movie. I kept watching because I in general don’t quit partway through movies unless they’re absolutely terrible and I wanted to know what the deal was: you know, why are these amnesiac dudes in this maze? And the movie’s unsatisfying answer to that is basically “you’ll find out in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials coming to theaters in September 2015!”
Also, it was so weirdly sexless? I mean, okay, when the one female character appears in the village of amnesiac teenage boys, I was worried it was all about to get super rapey and it was a relief that it didn’t. But then again: why didn’t it? And also: are we really to believe that even prior to the arrival of the one girl, these amnesiac hunks without access to books, technology, etc. aren’t having, like, fucking nightly circle-jerks? Why are we not addressing any of this?
I mean, it’s not that I’m that desperate for slash-fodder. But the sexlessness is kind of emblematic of an overall sense of sterility. None of these characters really feel like people, and while that’s partly due to the whole amnesia thing, the movie just doesn’t seem interested in developing any of their personalities or motivations beyond “survivalist.” In general, I avoid survival stories for that reason, because I’m more interested in internal motivations than external motivations; obviously the ideal is to have characters whose internal lives and external circumstances are both compelling, but The Maze Runner is certainly not that.
Hopefully, this movie means that Kaya Scodelario and Dylan O’Brien will have long and fruitful careers, though.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
David Bowie is really attractive in this movie and the “We’d have probably done the same to you” moment was really great, but overall, I was not into this? There were so many scenes where I was just like, “what is happening? why is this happening? what is even the point of this scene?” and I don’t know if that’s because the ~cinematic language~ of the ’70s is different from what I’m used to or if this film in particular is super weird or if I’m just dumb.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
In general, I take issue with the people who dismiss superhero movies as juvenile male power fantasies, because:
- It’s one of those lazy, overused analyses that lets the critic sound smart while saving them the trouble of seeing any individual superhero movie and analyzing its specific faults or merits.
- It totally misses the point of a large swathe of the cinematic superhero genre—I mean, consider the various iterations of X-Men, Spider-man, and Captain America. The X-Men movies1 in particular are not super subtle in the fact that they are dealing with Big Issues—homophobia, racism, the Holocaust, etc. And while Spider-man and Captain America perhaps do on some level represent a sort of targeted audience wish fulfillment in featuring scrawny nerds2 acquiring superpowers and getting the girl, if your take-away from any of the movies in either of those franchises is that being strong and blowing shit up is cool, you clearly weren’t paying attention.
- It kind of ignores the (quite vocal) female fanbases for these movie, and contributes to the notion that women aren’t interested in superhero movies which in turn makes it harder for female-led superhero movies to get made.
BUT: holy shit, is Iron Man 2 a juvenile male power fantasy. It’s just so aggressively macho in that GUNS – CARS – EXPLOSIONS – HARD ROCK – SEXY LADIES – TERSE BANTER way, but without quite reaching the level of humor or self-awareness of, say, Shoot ‘Em Up, that might make those aspects less alienating3.
Also, the politics of Iron Man 2: the US government is kind of evil and untrustworthy, but a billion-dollar corporation that manufactured weapons until the CEO got kidnapped and tortured and had a change of heart is totally cool? And, wow, what a triumphant moment it is to watch grown-man Tony Stark force Senator Stern, clearly a douchebag for opposing Stark’s vigilantism at the beginning of the movie, to publicly say nice things about him and give him a medal. Because for all his punk rock pretensions, let’s not forget that Tony Stark is the heir to a wealthy industrialist; some of his success is certainly due to his own genius4, but largely, you know, privilege. Watching him publicly humiliate members of Congress just feels petty and immature and not like the “woo, Fuck The Man!” moments they’re probably meant to be, because Tony Stark isn’t really an underdog—he basically is The Man.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Better than Iron Man 2. Still not great. Fuck Tony Stark, man.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
I think that probably everything I would want to say about the gender politics of this movie has already been said and better. This article certainly captures some of it. But right, definitely an interesting contrast to the Iron Man movies; Jupiter Ascending certainly has GUNS – CARS – EXPLOSIONS – SEXY LADIES – TERSE BANTER (no HARD ROCK, but we can replace that with SPACE SHIT) but it also has so much more? Like, PRETTY DRESSES – SHIRTLESS DUDES – FEMALE CHARACTERS WITH INTERNAL LIVES AND MOTIVATIONS.
Of course, it should be noted that Jupiter Ascending is kind of an awful movie. But like, in a really excellent way that will certainly make it a cult classic in years to come. Still, we should perhaps note:
- It’s a really interesting and non-clichéd choice to have Jupiter choose to resume her kind of shitty life on Earth at the end, satisfied with the knowledge that she owns the Earth and has a flying werewolf boyfriend to hang out with at the end of her shift. But it would have worked better if her relationship with her family had been more firmly established at the beginning of the movie; the scenes we do get of them don’t really sell the notion that Jupiter’s love for her family is strong enough to motivate her later actions. And I don’t think it’s enough to just assume that “well, they’re her family. Of course she’d do anything for them.”
- The Jupiter/Caine romance is pretty awkward, although the “I love dogs” scene is so awkward that it’s hilarious and I probably wouldn’t want it any other way. But similarly to complaint (1), there just needed to be more to establish their connection; it’s not enough to assume “well, they’re the leads. Of course they’re going to fall in love.”
- The pacing in general just felt kind of…off, but I can’t really specify how.
The Grand Seduction (2014)
So the premise of this movie: entire population of a small Newfoundland fishing village conspires to get young city doctor to stay so that they can win some sort of contract with a petrochemical factory that will save the village from financial ruin. It sounds like the type of low-key, quirky comedy that old people (aka my parents) watch on PBS, and in many ways it is. But it’s also like…disturbingly mean-spirited if you analyze it too closely. The entire town is manipulating this young doctor into making a huge life decision that is probably not ultimately to his benefit by listening in to his phone calls and lying to him. And maybe the movie could have justified this by:
- Making the doctor an asshole
- Making the villagers truly feel bad about their behavior
- Making the stakes for the town high enough
- Making itself a full-on black comedy
- Apart from being a plastic surgeon from the Big City and having some coke in his luggage, the doctor just seems like a pretty chill dude.
- Brendan Gleeson sort of feels bad after the doctor finds out that his girlfriend was cheating on him with his best friend and has a monologue about how much he hates being lied to? But like, he doesn’t feel that bad.
- We see that most of the men in the village are on welfare, but the reasons they give for wanting the petrochemical factory in the village seem to be less about struggling to live on welfare and more about how you need Hard Work at an Honest Job to be a Real Man (and have Good Sex, apparently). Which is not the most sympathetic reason for, you know, gaslighting some random doctor.
- It has its moments, but I think it’s ultimately more committed to the more toothless ~quirky small village~ humor.
Ex Machina (2015)
I think this will end up in the same category as Side Effects and Trance (which I also happened to see in theaters): weird, stylish thrillers with solid performances by renowned actors that generated a bit of hype but were kind of forgotten a few months after they came out and completely forgotten by awards season. It’s a solid movie, though, with a good balance of humor, tension, and AI Feels. Some of the AI Feels this movie inspired:
- The Turing Test, much like polygraph tests, makes for fun scenes in movies and TV, but is it actually a worthwhile measure of AI? I mean, this has been debated since the 1950s and I probably have nothing new to add, but god, there are so many issues with it. First of all, can you design a Turing Test that all humans would pass? Because I imagine there are some answers that you would get from a child or an autistic person or someone being tested in their second language that you would count as a failure if the subject were not human. And at what point can you really be confident that someone has passed? As in, how do you know you haven’t just missed some key question that would reveal the subject’s AI-ness? And, as is the case in this movie, doesn’t already knowing that your subject is a robot bias you? (SPOILER: as it turns out, Oscar Isaac’s character isn’t interested in the results of the Turing Test and the whole thing is a different test to see if the robot can manipulate Domhnall Gleeson into helping her escape. For the first half of the movie, I expected the twist to be that Gleeson was secretly a robot, and the actual route they take, in showing Gleeson cutting his arm to prove his humanity to himself because he too is starting to have his doubts, is probably much better and less obvious. In any case, we do not need to be outraged about the accuracy of the Turing Test in this movie, even if we are still dubious of the concept in real life.)
- The whole Frankenstein5 issue: don’t try to create artificial human life unless you are willing to deal with the consequences of succeeding. As in, your creation will have free will and may not be cool with being treated like it doesn’t? Ex Machina deals with this really, really well and you should probably just see it rather than have me summarize it. (SPOILER: Oscar Isaac’s character is clearly depicted as an asshole for creating a fully functional AI just “because he can,” and certainly for only making sexy female robots. Domhnall Gleeson is more sympathetic, but he still creepily watches Ava through the monitor in his bedroom without her consent. The robots team up and kill Oscar Isaac and it is very satisfying and probably feminist, because of [insert whatever you, dear reader, want about female agency and bodily autonomy here]. It is kind of sad that Gleeson gets trapped in the house, presumably to die, as a casualty of Ava’s escape, but also kind of beautiful and fitting.)
- Also, in what context (other than “because we can”) would you actually want/need AI that fully simulates a human in terms of both consciousness and physical abilities and has its own personality (i.e. this is not the uploading your brain into a robot to achieve immortality scenario)? If you want a sex-bot, you probably don’t want it to have free will, right? If you want something to do manual labor, you probably also don’t want it to have free will and can probably give it a more optimal, non-human body? And if you just want something to think and solve problems like a human, does it even need a body?
Solid sci-fi with a solid premise. Sam Rockwell is charismatic. It has some depth, but I have nothing remotely deep to say about it, sorry.
1. Okay, probably excluding the Wolverine stand-alones. ^
2. Although, let’s just note this tumblr post wrt Steve Rogers. (ETA 12/26/15: the link no longer seems to work, but I believe it was a text post pointing out that Steve was picking fights in alleys while Bucky was arranging outings to tech expos, so who’s the real nerd there?) ^
3. I don’t want to overgeneralize and say less alienating to the female segment of the audience because like…plenty of women do enjoy some combination of GUNS/CARS/EXPLOSIONS/HARD ROCK/SEXY LADIES/TERSE BANTER and plenty of men don’t. But at the same time, look: the Iron Man movies have a target demographic (certainly men between the ages 18-29; maybe straight and white, although I feel less comfortable making that claim) and are clearly not interested in appealing to anyone outside that demographic; I don’t think the same can be said about other Marvel properties, or at least not to the same extent. ^
4. Right, that whole “Tony Stark built this in a cave…with a box of scraps!” meme that was a thing when the first movie came out. ^
5. I never actually finished Frankenstein when it was required reading for 10th grade English, but I did write an essay about how Frankenstein “teaches us how not to be scientists.” It’s pretty cringe-worthy, because I was 15, but here’s the conclusion because nostalgia and also actual relevance to the discussion at hand:
While on the surface Shelley’s Frankenstein may seem like a book denouncing scientific progress, it is clearly just deterring us from becoming incompetent scientists. Frankenstein makes almost every mistake possible for a scientist. He has false confidence in his abilities, he does not consider any of the consequences of his actions, he lacks sound motivation for his experiment, and he does not even follow up on the creation of the creature by making observations and testing its capabilities. In short, despite having studied chemistry and natural philosophy at a university, Frankenstein does not deserve to be called a scientist. Frankenstein’s flaws as a scientist lead to his eventual downfall as a human being.