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Monday, 18 January 2016

Monday Night Roundup #11

I ended up getting different writing done over the last week, but did post a Weird Wednesdays review over at Apocalypse Later. It's the fascinating, genre-spanning Japanese pinku movie The Groper Train: Search for the Black Pearl (1984). I also built an index for all my Weird Wednesdays reviews.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Chappie

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Chappie, from District 9 director, Neill Blomkamp, but it certainly wasn’t what I got out of it. It’s an enticing mixture of the classic and the modern, playing with a variety of time-honoured science fiction concepts but thrown into a heady contemporary setting in a near future Johannesburg.

Early scenes can’t fail to conjure up memories of RoboCop, with crime running wild in South Africa and a weapons corporation, Tetravaal, selling armed robots to the police force to deal with it. They even have a couple of very different designs, the human-sized Scouts and the bulky and horribly beweaponed Moose, which raise obvious comparisons to RoboCop and the ED-209. The only differences are minor: there’s no human being inside the scout suit and instead of the beast being pitched first and failing, so prompting the more realistic alternative, here the realistic alternative goes first. With the scouts doing great work, taking down thirty large scale crime rings in a year, the cops don’t want the clear overkill of the Moose.

Fortunately, this quickly grows beyond RoboCop and I had a blast with the first half of Chappie.

I liked the realism at Tetravaal, which is a far cry from the yuppies and fat cats of RoboCop’s OCP. Deon Wilson, lead developer of the Scout program, and Vincent Moore, who has the same role for the Moose program, sit in standard cubes in the same aisle of an office. They run Linux with a spot on screensaver and software that doesn’t look like it escaped from the Enterprise. Scouts are modular, so if one part is damaged, they can simply replace it and sent the scout back out to work.

I liked the realism in the streets. When the cops arrive to take down heavily armed crooks, the scouts go in first, guns blazing, and the human cops follow, using them as shields. People get hurt. So do scouts, with 0022, who has already been repaired once in this film, getting hit by a rocket and thrown through a wall. It isn’t repairable, with its battery fused to the chassis, so it’s written off as scrap with a believable reject sticker.

I liked the realism in Deon Wilson, who lives his work. After leaving his robotics job at the office, he gets home to be greeted by a few home robotics projects in a down to earth version of J F Sebastian in Blade Runner, then gets to work on his pet project of a conscious artificial intelligence. When he nails it, after 945 days, he blisters in to talk it up to his boss, who rejects it out of hand. Why would a publicly traded weapons manufacturer go for an AI that can judge art, write poetry and enjoy music?

And, while it’s an odd form of realism, I adored the choice of bad guys. Instead of cookie cutter villains, we’re given Ninja and Yo-Landi from the zef group, Die Antwoord. I’m not a fan, but I have a great deal of respect for their integrity and they bring something utterly unique to this film. I’ve never seen a bad guy with a yellow machine gun before, or a pink punching bag for that matter. Odd hair. Weird tattoos. Pastel colours. Why the heck not? It’s better than the usual criminal mastermind with a suave British accent. The third in their gang, Amerika, is a little more traditional, but that works to ground the other two.
Where the story takes us isn’t too surprising. Deon salvages 0022 from the reject pile to take home and upload his new AI into. After Yo-Landi figures that the guy who created the scouts must have some sort of remote control to switch them off, she and Ninja kidnap him and end up with 0022 for good measure. So Deon gets his shot but under the scrutiny of criminals rather than his company, as he can’t call the cops about them stealing what he stole to begin with.

And here’s where the old school concepts start to rear their heads. 0022 wakes up, but as a child. He’s a baby who learns quickly but still needs to be trained. I loved how Deon is totally in the zone as he gives his creation a rubber chicken and he’s not happy when Yo-Landi names it Chappie. By the way, Sharlto Copley is superb as Chappie the sentient police robot, even if he didn’t provide its movements through motion capture, making him a very believable child. He doesn’t just channel kids, he channels childlike adults such as Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man and he steals the show without ever appearing on screen.

So we have the whole robot coming alive concept. Chappie is written wonderfully, grabbing little bits of information and connecting the dots between them as best he can. He makes leaps that make sense to him but may well be completely wrong.

We have the moral angle, with Chappie’s promise to Deon that he won’t commit any crimes working as a simplistic version of Asimov’s laws of robotics. However, as a child, Chappie is easy to deceive, so we’re given scenes of Chappie stealing cars because he thinks he’s merely returning them to daddy. He won’t take part in the heist that will save them, because that’s a crime, but when it’s all explained to him in a different way, he gladly helps out. It’s not merely abuse on the part of this gang of crooks, it’s abuse that the victim doesn’t even know is happening.

We have the question of how to define consciousness. ‘That’s it!’ Chappie says at one point, looking at a digital copy of his neural map, ‘That’s me!’ And after the definition of consciousness, there’s the definition of death. ‘Just a temporary body, mummy. I’ll make you a new one,’ is a glorious line that resonates through its childlike innocence.
In between consciousness and death is the will to live. Chappie’s battery being fused to his chassis is a built-in death sentence; he has five days before it’ll run dry and it apparently can’t be replaced. So this creation learns about birth one day and has to deal with death only four days later. That’s a tough life and it raises a number of other concerns like self worth, sacrifice and moral prioritisation.

All these are explored pretty well, though the technological side does take a lot of shortcuts. This is the near future. I can buy the concept of uploading an entire mind into a machine but I can’t buy that it can be dumped onto a single thumbdrive or transferred in ten seconds. Clearly, serious breakthroughs were made in storage and networking technologies, but they didn’t trickle down to anything else except this. Nah, don’t buy it.

The Moose is an interesting creation. It might look like ED-209 but there’s no brain inside; it’s controlled by a human being via neural transmission, making it like an insanely flexible drone. There are plenty of issues to explore there but they’re rejected in favour of turning Hugh Jackman into a cheap villain set up by an obvious line to do ridiculous things. He clearly enjoyed it and used a few opportunities to his best advantage, but he’s a waste of a character introduced only because of cheap writing.

Similarly Sigourney Weaver is wasted as an inconsequential CEO who gets a few strong scenes early on but soon fades into nothingness. What’s worse, the company she runs does the same thing: it walks the walk in the opening scenes but soon becomes a mess of plotholes masquerading as security holes.

Fortunately Dev Patel is given a better role, playing Deon Wilson as a sort of benign Victor Frankenstein. Chappie calls him Maker but connects to him through the emotions of a very dangerous child. Sadly, it’s not the role it could have been. Then again, with so many concepts in play, some had to be prioritised and this was clearly one that wasn’t. He’s mostly a foil for Ninja because, while Deon wants him to paint, Ninja wants him to walk cool and shoot guns like a gangsta.

I adored Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, and clearly should revisit it again. I haven’t seen his second, Elysium, which I should check out soon. This one is a great film for a while, a good film in many respects but ultimately a disappointment because it doesn’t have the courage to finish what it started.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow

Note: This is a spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens for those who haven't seen it. For those who have, who still believe it's a good movie and who want to try to put their case, I wrote a spoiler-filled version for my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough earlier in the month.

Oh dear, oh dear. The Force Awakens, which is the seventh feature film in the regular Star Wars series, even if it doesn’t include an episode number in its title, is a stunningly safe retread of the entire original trilogy, a complete mess of a story that actually gets worse the more we think about it and, in many ways, a worse film than The Phantom Menace. And, now that I’ve upset everyone who saw it six times and adored it more every time, please calm down and let me explain.

My theory is that J J Abrams was a Star Wars fanboy who adored the original trilogy and went to see the prequels with the sure knowledge that they were going to be the best thing in the history of ever. As we know, they weren’t, though recently watching all seven films in order in seven days suggests that they’re not as bad as we remember. However, when he was given the task of making a new first entry in an official Star Wars trilogy, he knew that he couldn’t make the mistakes that George Lucas made so emphatically with The Phantom Menace, and so proceeded to make the safest film he could to make the fans happy.

And they were. While people went back to see The Phantom Menace again and again because they were unable to accept how awful it was, they went back to see The Force Awakens again and again because it felt like a Star Wars movie and that felt good, dammit! Abrams certainly got the feel right.

Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order, just as the Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance. The same fight is on that we’re used to seeing, merely with different names. Things are a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But there’s Max von Sydow, a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal massacre in the Lidice style led by a snappier Darth Vader by the name of Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper catchily named FN-2187.

And then there’s the planet of Jakoo. It's a desert planet littered with Imperial wreckage: downed AT-ATs, downed TIE fighters, even a downed Star Destroyer. A whole community of scavengers has grown up to loot this equipment for parts to trade for food. I adored the scale, which is beautifully shot, as much as the detail. I adored the dirt and the open spaces and the fact that broken things fell out of the sky, all anathema to George Lucas. It’s quintessential Star Wars but all shot in a way we’ve never seen before that pulls at the heartstrings and makes us want to cheer J J Abrams for finally doing it right.

The downside creeps in with the progression of the story, because it feels rather familiar. Von Sydow is here because he has documents stolen from the enemy. He gives them to a member of the Resistance who, under fire from the First Order and their dark helmeted commander, secretes them into a droid and lets it loose on a desert planet to seek help. Yes, this is A New Hope all over again, but it doesn’t stop there. Without trying to throw out spoilers, it proceeds through The Empire Strikes Back and ends up in Return of the Jedi territory with the Resistance aiming to destroy the shield generator to Starkiller Base, which is a gigantic superweapon the size of a planet.

And so those millions of us who grew up on the original trilogy start to wonder if they actually wrote a new script or just changed a bunch of names in the old ones. We already know that the First Order is the new Empire and the Resistance is the new Rebel Alliance. Well Jakoo is the new Tatooine. Kylo Ren is the new Darth Vader and Supreme Leader Snoke the new Emperor. Poe Dameron is a male Princess Leia and BB-8 is a round R2-D2. Starkiller Base is the new Death Star, just even bigger and even more dangerous. Rey, the movie’s lead, is a female Luke Skywalker, even if she isn’t let in on much of why during the film and has to figure a lot of it out for herself. FN-2187, soon renamed Finn, could even be a new Han Solo until the real one shows up.
Which he does. And it feels awesome. This is what Abrams does in The Force Awakens. He feeds us a lot of recycled material, but watered down to make less sense. But he does it with cinematic style that awes us. And then he throws another bone to the fans to make us happy. A bunch of favourite characters are brought back and every one of them is re-introduced in an entrance that combines emotion and style. The Millennium Falcon gets the first cheer, rescued from a junkyard and immediately put through its paces. Then it’s Han and Chewie, who have been working as smugglers again because it’s what they know best. Then it’s Leia, now serving as the leader of the Resistance. Then it’s a chipper C-3PO and a drained R2-D2. Eventually, it’s Luke, who’s the MacGuffin of the piece rather than a player in it. I adored every entrance and wanted to cheer at the screen.

And then I thought about what I was watching. Nothing here makes sense. In the original trilogy, those stolen documents were the plans to the Death Star, an unprecedented superweapon. Here, they’re the map to Luke Skywalker. Now, who the heck makes a treasure map to a person? Who can move around whenever he wants. Who would give it to the bad guys? And break it into two parts? Why would anyone even care, given that the majority of the universe apparently believe that the Jedi order and even the Force are mythical stories. This is all clearly ridiculous. Why are the Resistance fighting the First Order, given that the Republic is apparently back in play? Who are the Resistance if they’re not the Republic? What’s going on in this universe? Did we blink and miss a movie? Is this Episode VII or Episode VIII?

A little less ridiculous is the story of Rey, which is completely unexplained and left for the next movie to cover. She’s an orphan, having been dumped on Jakoo as a child, where she’s grown up to be a talented scavenger. As things happening around her start to drag her in, she turns out to be something more. A Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t be able to fly like that, for a start, and a Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t have a wild connection to certain things that I won’t spoil. She’s clearly someone important but we aren’t let in on that secret yet.

Fortunately, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, is a revelation. Her character may be nothing but a new Luke or Anakin, but she nails her role absolutely and dominates the film. She’s better than Mark Hamill and much better than Hayden Christensen. In fact she’s the best actor in the entire franchise who isn’t an old white man. I’ll be seeking out her previous work because she’s definitely going to be a huge star.

Her co-star is Finn, the one original idea in the movie as a stormtrooper who can’t be part of the opening massacre and tries to get as far away from the First Order as he possibly can. He’s a great character as he’s a blank canvas for morality to paint on. He’s not the bad guy they want him to be but that doesn’t mean he’s the good guy he could be. He spends the film trying to run away only to find that he might be more than he ever thought possible. John Boyega, who was so great in Attack the Block, is just as great here too.

Sadly, the other major character for the trilogy looks like being Kylo Ren, who’s supposed to be the new Darth Vader but comes across more like the new Jar Jar Binks and that’s not good. I don’t think it’s really Adam Driver’s fault as the actor stuck in the Vader Halloween suit, but he’s acutely embarrassing and often laughable. It’s like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for an entire generation, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Kylo Ren is Alan Partridge playing Severus Snape with a vague Tom Hardy as Bane voice, less effective than Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. My better half burst into giggles every time he took off his helmet because she expected him to introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino.

Kylo Ren excepted, I understand why Abrams did what he did here. He made something that pleased the fans and got them on board for the Disney trilogy. All the old guard got another moment in the spotlight, Harrison Ford in particular being better than ever as Han, and BB-8 is going to make toy companies rich. But this is a glorious facade that hides an astounding lack of substance. It’s like a gigantic chocolate egg of goodness that looks amazing but only shows us that it’s hollow after we take a yummy bite.

Surely the next film, Episode VIII, will be more substantial and it’ll get the crowds that Attack of the Clones missed out on, having to follow The Phantom Menace. I want to know what Finn gets up to. I want to know who Rey is. I want to see Kylo Ren’s arm cut off, though I’d prefer that it be his head that meets a lightsaber. But I also want it to not suck. So I’m going to go with my fingers crossed.

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia VIkander, Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac
This was clearly the best of the three science fiction films I’m reviewing tonight and the one which most deserves to be called science fiction instead of sci-fi. It’s sad to see a frequent description of the film as ‘smart science fiction’ as that infers that the genre nowadays fails to be smart by definition instead of by frequency.

It’s a neat intellectual puzzle, written by Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, who also debuted as a director here. It revolves around the Turing test, which can be considered passed only if an artificial intelligence can convince an observer through conversation that it’s human.

The setup is that a billionaire CEO runs a competition within his company, apparently for an employee to spend a week with him on his massive estate. The company is Blue Book, which has multiple meanings but to most people will translate to something similar to and as successful as Google and Facebook put together. The CEO is Nathan Bateman, who exudes the confidence of a young genius who’s already conquered the world. The winner is Caleb Smith, a talented young computer programmer, who promptly has to sign a non-disclosure agreement because there’s something else going on here.

Once done, Bateman tells Smith that he’s here to be the human component in a Turing test, tasked with judging whether Ava, an AI he’s created, could pass that test. A number of flags immediately arise, the most obvious of which is raised by Caleb himself, namely that Ava is obviously a humanoid robot, given that her arms, legs and torso are transparent and show her inner cabling. If he knows that she’s artificial, how can he conduct a fair Turing test?

So, of course, we start asking questions in our heads. The obvious setup is that Ava isn’t the real focus of the test, which is surely Kyoko, the Japanese housemaid who speaks no English. However, that’s a little too obvious and she doesn’t actually speak at all, so we dig deeper and become rather engaged in this intellectual puzzle. Given that Caleb isn’t stupid, he realises this too, especially given that this wonder of a research facility is apparently subject to convenient power cuts. So Caleb asks these questions as we ask these questions. My better half and I came up with a few theories, which to my mind hold water. The good news is that the one that Garland pursues wasn’t any of them but it still makes complete sense. To my mind, that’s the best sort of puzzle, one whose solution isn’t obvious but is clear and concise once revealed.

Garland is clearly the star of the show, having both written the script and directed the film. There’s a lot of clever detail here, so read the Wikipedia page and the IMDb trivia. I caught a few of these little details, like the riffing on the alien tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a number of references to the man becomes god motif highlighted by Robert Oppenheimer when he built the atomic bomb. However, I missed other references and was blind to quite a lot of it, making this a learning experience as well as an enjoyable viewing.
However, Garland isn’t the only star of the show. The technical aspects are consistently strong, though I didn’t feel like I was watching a Stanley Kubrick film as I get the impression I was occasionally supposed to. More obviously, there are four actors with prominent parts who all prove very capable indeed.

Domhnall Gleeson from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets a lot more opportunity here as a bright and awestruck young programmer than he did as General Hux, the commander of Starkiller Base, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though I’m sure he made a lot more money from the latter. He had a wonderful 2015, also starring in Brooklyn and co-starring in The Revenant, meaning that he made four pictures with multiple Oscar nominations. He’s a precocious young man here, uncomfortable for much of his time in a rich man’s house but willing to continue with the experiment he’s tasked to perform. The way he moves in and out of control is fascinating.

Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davies is arguably even better here. He was also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, playing ace pilot Poe Dameron, but I didn’t even recognise him here. He’s very believable as a child prodigy and a rich man, mildly eccentric and socially awkward but very direct. He’s often a little the worse for drink and often inappropriate but he’s always in charge. He has the beard and glasses of a nerd but the muscles of a jock and he capably walks the line between the two, making him at once predator and prey.

Alicia Vikander from The Man from UNCLE plays the robotic young lady at the heart of their interaction. She’s calm and composed, but obviously thoughtful and with a clear agenda of her own. She’s also both prey and predator, stuck behind glass in an experiment she doesn’t like but notably able to turn Caleb’s questions around on him.

Backing them up in a much smaller role is Sonoya Mizuno, a ballerina and model who debuted on film as Kyoko. She does a good job too; she merely had much less to do.

The heart of the film revolves around artificial intelligence and the Turing test. The questions asked are good ones, examining what consciousness means in a very different way to Chappie. This is old school science fiction, often reminiscent of Frankenstein, but with some modern twists to keep things up to date for the 21st century, such as how things go when an AI turns the Turing test round on a human being. There are also side issues raised that are well worth debate, like the idea of using search data from a large enough search engine as a map of how people think or whether there can be consciousness without a sexual component. I’m sure both of those ideas will be used more and more over the next few decades.

I definitely plan to revisit this movie in a year or so to see how it stands up now that I know what happens. I’m acutely aware that there’s a meta level here with Alex Garland using me as the human component in an imaginative Turing test by tasking me with figuring out which and how many of his four characters are really human and which are artificial. If I’m rating this film highly today on the basis that he successfully manipulated me, then I’m likely to lower that rating on a second viewing. If I’m rating it highly because I appreciate how he played with these ideas, then I’m likely to keep it high, unless flaws become obvious with a second look. I’m eager to see which it’ll be.

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