Expectations ruin everything. I remember when the first Avengers came out, people were talking about that movie for months after its release. It’s not a perfect or a great film, but it was fresh. There was no superhero team up film that had existed at that level before, and its novelty made up for a lot of its flaws. But at the same time, it followed a very generic action-movie structure that was hard to fuck up. Bad guy wants to take over the world, good guys won’t let him. It worked, still works, and that is where action movies thrive. Grafting a story on to explosions often ends up in a mess, and its often the most simple plots that leave the most lasting impressions on an audience. Sometimes being fresh is just keeping it simple.
Shark is terrorizing town. Must stop Shark – Jaws
Aliens are terrorizing town. Must stop Aliens – Aliens
Furiosa wants to get to the Green Place. Must survive bad guys keeping her from green place – Mad Max : Fury Road
Action films that try to pile on the political allegories and oh-so-serious moral dilemmas find it very difficult to not get bogged down under the self-important weight of all that bullshit. Audiences are neither dumb nor intelligent, they want to be entertained and different people are entertained by different things. Action films select for an audience that prioritizes visceral experience over intellectual stimulation. This isn’t a judgement of either, and that doesn’t mean that a smart film can’t be an action film, or an action film can’t be a smart film. Today i will review two films, San Andreas and Ex Machina: The action film and the smart film, and how at points either of those types of film can both fail and succeed according to their own merits.
SAN ANDREAS, or how I didn’t know i wanted a Sim Copter live action film.
Sometimes you just need a disaster movie. Disaster films used to be a thing, but not so much anymore. The 70’s did it for awhile, then the 90’s tried to bring it back, and the formula is always the same. Hero dude – usually a fireman or rescue type dude who saves the day, Scientist Dude or Dudette (but usually a dude) who predicts the disaster, and sometimes an obstructionist bureaucrat that causes more lives to be lost. The hero dude and scientist dude can sometimes be combined into one character, and the hero dude sometimes is just a regular guy thrusted into being the hero.
Part of the reason I believe the disaster film has lost its attraction is a side effect of easy special fx, leading to ‘EPIC’ set pieces in EVERY action movie. It’s kind of like asking why dinosaurs got so big, the answer being because other dinosaurs got bigger. When every action movie nowadays has to have WORLD-THREATENING bad guys as the default, wiping a city off the map is no big deal. The Disaster Film has been folded into other popular subgenres of the action film.
Just look at these scenes from G.I.Joe – Retaliation, Transformers – Age of Extinction, Man of Steel, and Avengers – Age of Ultron
That last one? That was San Andreas. There is nothing in San Andreas you haven’t seen before, except that there is nothing in San Andreas but these scenes. Its an interesting juxtaposition to see a movie remove almost all of the genre trappings that dominate the current trend of action movies and leave just the explosions and big noise. Its doubly interesting to see an actor like Dwayne Johnson, use his physical presence convince you that he’s just as superhuman with or without an origin story. There’s no funny skin-tight suits, just a dirty tightly fitting tshirt. There’s no flying around in an red armored suit, there’s just a bright red helicopter. All these movies we think are these new stories, are just set decoration. Its the same old shit. San Andreas is fresh just because there’s no costumed dudes trying to pretend that there more than that.
I enjoyed San Andreas just cause it was that old shit, no frills attached. Whereas Age of Ultron creates a villain in two seconds, and then tries to convince you that he’s a real deal villain with #deep motivations, San Andreas is just like “Hey guys, there’s gonna be some earthquakes. Good thing we have the Rock.” There are no long slow motion montages of characters having major ego-shaking crises. A terrible script isn’t a better script cause it tries and fails to tell a morality tale of how we approach war. There are laughable lines in San Andreas, but it adds to the charm, where you know the movie is just doing the requisite character arcs. Rock is a divorced dad, Rock wants to get together with family, lots of rocks are falling apart, but Rock’s family is gonna come together. Its no one’s fault but San Andreas’ fault. Paul Giamatti does his best sad-yet-resigned acting.
San Andreas succeeds at setting the bar low and putting the Rock on it. I have to give it props for reversing the usual Damsel-in-distress role and making the daughter the capable one, saving two British boys. Unfortunately, gotta take props away by still not passing the Bechdel test, when it could’ve been just as easy to have the british boys be british girls and the movie wouldn’t be changed at all.
Those boys could’ve easily been replaced by two small dogs and it’d make no difference. I call it the Clifford Test, can a man be replaced with a dog and the plot would remain the same?
Everything else is gravy. Won’t be rewatchable on a small screen, but neither will Avengers 2, so if you don’t feel like watching Pitch Perfect 2, already saw Fury Road, then watch this. Avengers 2 failed at believing it was better than just a dressed up San Andreas, and thats the tightrope that every action movie tries to walk. Be smart or be big, try to be both and it easily falls apart under its own weight. I didn’t walk out of San Andreas feeling like i was ripped off.
It was 2 stars out of five, but its interesting how two stars for some movie can feel like a complete failure, and two stars for a terrible movie can feel like a real success. The difference is i can watch Paul Giamatti do pathetic in almost every movie and love it, but a superhero movie is pathetic cause it wants you to believe that it’s anything but pathetic.
EX MACHINA, all the questions Age of Ultron tried to ask but didn’t know it was a 4 year old farting on a plate of spaghetti.
What is Artificial Intelligence? How do we know if a computer intelligence is actually intelligent? How do we know if WE are intelligent? If we encounter a true intelligence but it is fundamentally alien to us, could we recognize it as intelligent?
Those are the questions Ex Machina wants to ask. But it also inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) asks:
Is sexual objectification okay if its an actual object? If you design an object to be sexually attractive and endow it with an intelligence so that it knows you think of it as an object, is it wrong if it simply treats you as a means to an end in turn? How do systems of power just create a pattern of force to be recreated forever?
There’s two concurrent themes throughout Ex Machina. One is the obvious, about the Turing test and approaching intelligence. But the other is an emergent property from the film based on our own social-political realities. There are only 3 main characters in the film, 2 men and a woman robot. These two men are in charge of determining if this woman robot is actually intelligent i.e deserving of rights, equality, etc. or an object i.e deserving of nothing but exploitation. There is the ‘nice guy’ who is chosen to evaluate her, and he only can evaluate her as valuable as she becomes more attracted to him. As he himself is validated as a person, so she is considered validated herself. Her designer, the Frankenstein in this film, proves they are human not by validating himself, but by seeing how far his robots can be pushed before they can’t take anymore and either attempt to kill him or kill themselves. I don’t believe it’s deliberate, but the film ends up recreating the conversations white people, often straight men, have with minorities and women and other disenfranchised groups. They either are trying to be your friend, but you must educate them, or they only pay attention to your problems when you become violently frustrated. Spoiler alert: both dudes are killed. The ‘nice guy’ dies a slow death, and you’re left wondering if he really deserved it. Perhaps he didn’t, perhaps he’s just a victim of the same power dynamics that kept the robot in a cage. Frankenstein dude says early on in the film that he’s replaced God, and you know he’s gonna get killed. He is stabbed, in the front and the back. He sees it coming, and he doesn’t. The robot he considers safe, stabs him in the back. The robot he considers dangerous, stabs him in the front. But he designed a test that also ensures that he would be killed if a robot passed it, in the same way that there is often no way out but violent action for subjugated peoples.
This is how a smart film can be successful. It doesnt simply present a question with a simple answer, but a question that leads to larger questions. Science fiction is rarely about science. Although that is the framing device used to examine these larger issues, it is a naive approach to science fiction to only focus on the science. Even worse, if you then take a simplistic approach to the science that is the framing device, the larger questions you are trying to ask end up muddled and distorted. Its like trying to paint a Rembrandt with crayola markers. You aint gonna get the full depth of shadows and light with some washed out highlighters. Ex Machina is effective because the framing device is tightly crafted, and the story remains simple and trimmed of all fat. It would reward multiple views.
The questions that percolate under the surface are not a flaw, but a lens to approach how even scientific endeavors which are believed to be neutral are also completely affected by gender and racial realties. In a way, all the ways race, class, sex, gender, etc intersect have created their own frankenstein monster, often tearing at their oppressor at the same time tearing at itself.
There are many moments where the skin of the robots is literally torn off, revealing the working parts below. On the inside, we don’t know how we work, what makes us human and what makes us different. What makes us one ethnicity and what makes us male or female or something in between. Ultimately, the robot escapes into a world where she can blend in, no one asking her to justify her own existence. That’s what anyone wants who’s felt different in their own skin. No one can see below her skin to tell her she’s something she’s not.