Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

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The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

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The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

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Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

Notes on Doctor Strange

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A disclaimer: I didn’t read the comics and I don’t plan to, so these are just thoughts on the movie as an isolated entity. I’m rapidly losing interest in superhero movies as they become increasingly disappointing, so I didn’t follow the film’s development, except to read an article or two when a friend mentioned the whitewashing of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Still, I hold out hope that these movies will at least be fun to watch, and Marvel has been doing far better than DC in this regard.

A visually beautiful, trippy movie. No complaints there. It seems I can still be swayed by aesthetically pleasing action.

Oh cool, a white dude travels to the East to learn some esoterical shit and shortly after he has to to save the world because none of the POC characters who have been training for years – particularly Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – are as special as him. You can just smell how fresh this plot is.

heading-east But I won’t lie – I like Benedict Cumberbatch. That voice. Those eyes. That snooty sarcastic genius typecast he’s fallen into. I don’t care that his face is weirdly long. I’m only human; I have my weaknesses okay.

On Christine, the ER surgeon and ex-lover played by Rachel McAdams: one of only two women in this Bechdel-test fail, Christine exists purely for Stephen’s sake. At the beginning, she directs his attention to a dying patient with a unique injury so we can see what an awesome neurosurgeon he is. During the course of the movie, she always happens to be at the hospital (but unoccupied) when Stephen rocks up needing her help. The only time we see her anywhere else is during Stephen’s recovery, when she delivers food to his home and informs the audience that he’s gone broke trying to fix his ruined hands. Christine has no life or personality outside of the functions she serves for Stephen Strange. The fact that she’s a surgeon is not enough to make her a strong female character. She hardly has any character.

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Supporting character

Tilda Swinton’s action scenes are the best. I found her stereotypical guru persona banal (blah blah blah mystical wisdom blah) but I loved watching her mind-bend architecture with signature elegance.

The villains suck. Their multidimensional plot is a one-dimensional scheme of bland evil with the usual small-minded goal of becoming uber-powerful and taking over the world, causing spectacular destruction in the process. I barely know what Mads Mikkelsen was on about when he explained the reasoning for this in that one scene (where, for some reason, he just couldn’t kill Strange, despite him being a total noob), but it didn’t seem to matter. All you need to know is that the baddies are going to destroy the world, and must be stopped. By Strange, who is the only one smart enough to figure out how, obviously.

Dr Strange’s red cloak is a more enjoyable character than Mads Mikkelsen’s. This is one of the main reasons I’m getting sick of superhero movies: the characters are so flat I don’t actually care what happens to them, and the spectacular action scenes are rendered meaningless. This isn’t quite the case in Doctor Strange, which has just enough charm to get by.

There are quite a few funny moments. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That said, I’m slightly discomfited by the way Wong (played by Benedict Wong) mostly seems to be there so Stephen can make fun of him for our amusement.

 Entertaining, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

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The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

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This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.

Simulation and Sexuality in Ex Machina

Ex MachinaThe AI debate is one of my favourite sf topics, so I was excited about Ex Machina when I first saw a trailer last year. I liked it instantly and eagerly rewatched it to write this post. I think most of the movies I’ve seen about AI have prioritised action or drama, so I appreciated the thoughtful, hypnotic approach that director and writer Alex Garland takes. Ex Machina is a conversation about consciousness, full of thought-provoking questions and literary references.

If I had to identify any shortcomings I’d only say that the film doesn’t offer much more than what I’ve already come across in stories about AI, and there’s nothing surprising about the way it all plays out. However, none of that bothered me. The movie is beautiful to watch, from the stunning landscapes of Nathan’s estate, to the impeccably designed house/research facility, and the quality of the actors’ performances.

I also like that it doesn’t revert to the usual depictions of AIs as entertainingly vast intelligences or evolutionary superiors who are going to kill us all just because we’re weaker. Those elements are there, but the movie focuses more on the idea of an AI as a person, and the relationships she forms with her creator and the man sent to test her. This isn’t a review but rather an essay of my thoughts on the film, so expect SPOILERS from here on.

How do you test for consciousness? The movie begins with some simple questions. Nathan tells Caleb to stop being analytical and just tell him how Ava made him feel. I.e. does she have the capacity to make him like her? Then the reverse – how does Ava feel about Caleb? Here Caleb asks a crucial question – does Ava have real consciousness, or is it simulated? Does she really like him, or is she just doing a good job of simulating feeling?

An interesting point that complicates this question is that simulation is an integral part of being human. Consider, for example, the way Nathan and Caleb pretend – sometimes badly – to like each other. Caleb is a lowly guest providing a service in the spectacular home of his brilliant and slightly frightening employer, so he’s under pressure to bow to Nathan’s whims and be nice, especially since Nathan could be dangerous and they’re totally isolated. When Ava asks him if he likes Nathan, though, he is caught off guard and his replies are clumsy.

Nathan has more freedom to behave as he wants and speak his mind, but he still needs Caleb to test Ava, so he goes through the motions of male bonding: drinking with Caleb, objectifying Kyoku, showing him cool stuff. However, Nathan shows less patience for the façade when he’s drunk, like when he lazily mutters that Caleb is a “great guy… Instant pals and all”.

So, if Nathan and Caleb were tested on their stated feelings about each other, they would fail, but they’re definitely human, and doing a very human thing by faking friendship in the first place. When we find out, towards the end, that Ava probably was only pretending to like Caleb, it functions not as a flaw in her design but as definitive proof that she is conscious of her own mind and others’.

Simulating feeling isn’t the only way that humans are like robots. Nathan makes the point that Caleb – like all humans – is programmed by nature and nurture to be the person he is, which includes being a heterosexual male with a certain taste in women. Ava, we’re told, was partly designed to fit Caleb’s tastes, so you could argue that his attraction to her is automatic – he’s acting like a robot.

This is one point where AI stories start to get really interesting – where the boundaries between human and machine start to blur. It freaks Caleb out to the point where he cuts himself to check if he’s human, and I wondered then if he would turn out to be a robot who was also being tested. The movie does play into that possibility: the surgery scars on Caleb’s back could be sloppy manufacturer’s seams. He might not have any family because they never existed. Then there’s a scene where Nathan says he just wants to have a conversation with Caleb, reminding us of how Caleb started the Turing test by telling Ava he wanted to have a conversation. It’s one way of testing for consciousness.

The similarities between human and machine create a serious ethical problem that Ava raises when she asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test. The answer, of course, is that she’s going to get switched off. In other words, she’ll be killed for not being human enough to suit Nathan’s standards. But Caleb and other humans aren’t expected to prove their humanity to earn the right to live, so why should Ava? I think we can all agree that she is conscious, so what we’ve got is a situation where Nathan created a person, but will kill her if she’s not what he wants her to be. That’s like murdering your child because they don’t live up to your expectations. And I think that’s a more important aspect of the AI debate than whether or not they’re going to turn on us – if we create conscious life, are we going to respect the sanctity of that life? How are we going to treat the people we create? Will we acknowledge that they are people?

There’s an added complication here, and that lies in the form and function given to AIs: how is a person affected when they are created to perform specific functions and suit certain preferences? One of the things I like about Ex Machina is that it raises the issue of conscious beings designed to be (male) human fantasies. This isn’t something that the characters discuss explicitly, but it’s crucial to the creation of all the robots, the way to the two men treat them, and the decisions they make. Kyoko is a perverse example – a domestic servant and sex slave who was programmed without the language skills fundamental to human interaction. Her creator sexualised and disabled her according to his convenience.

Ava is more nuanced but no less obvious as fantasy. She’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and designed to be heterosexual. Nathan argues that sexuality is a motive for interaction (he gets faintly disgusting here, but it’s an intriguing point). Ava’s name is reminiscent of the biblical Eve, while the delicate sound of her movements reminds me of a snake. The imagery is apt: she embodies perfection, innocence and temptation. (She also defies her creator and leaves to wander the world.)

It’s interesting that Nathan’s early models all looked full human but were always naked, while Ava has her robotic parts exposed except for her face, hands and feet, making her nudity irrelevant. One of the reasons for this is presumably that Nathan wants Caleb to evaluate Ava without being able to forget that she’s a robot, or be distracted by having to talk to a naked person. Another is that the humanised nudity is too disturbing. It emphasises the idea of the robot as a fetishized female and thus exposes that exploitative aspect of her creation. That’s partly why Kyoko is so creepy and why that Bluebeard scene – where Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard and finds the earlier models – is so horrifying.

It’s necessary to take all this into account when considering Ava’s decision to leave Caleb locked up at the end of the movie. At first it upset me; he’s a nice guy – and a sympathetic character – who tries to do the right thing by helping her. I also dislike the common assumption that AIs will be the enemy, which I think comes from a kind of childish human hostility towards potential competition. By possibly dooming the good guy to death, Ava seems to succumb to that stereotype.

Then I thought about it from her perspective and her understanding of her interactions with Caleb. She’s aware that he helps her because he’s a good person, but here we can turn the test back on him: is his goodness real or simulated? Perhaps that distinction is not important if it leads to the same good acts, but could it be that he made the moral decision to help Ava because he’s attracted to her? If his attraction informs their relationship, what effect will it have in the long run? Is it a good idea for her to take him with her when she escapes? He might be helpful, given that he’s the only person she knows, but his attachment could become a burden or a threat, especially if she’s not attracted to him.

If she were a human the situation would be different, but consider the fact that Ava was designed, not just to be attractive to Caleb, but to suit his pornography profile. She might not be privy to this specific piece of information, but she understands both sexual attraction and the inequality between them that perverts that attraction. She even plays to it when she says she hopes Caleb watches her on the cameras. It’s a one-sided gaze and that, to borrow Ava’s earlier words, is not a foundation on which intimate relationships are built.

Ava’s decision would also have been influenced by her encounter with Kyoko. We don’t know exactly what passes between these two, but it must be clear to Ava that Kyoko was created as a sick male fantasy of femininity. The horror of Kyoku’s existence and Ava’s own design would only be reinforced when she finds the earlier models – all beautiful, all naked, all locked in the cupboards in Nathan’s bedroom. She clothes herself in their skin, and admires her nude, humanised form in the mirror, which would also allow her to see Caleb watching her.

Recall that the data that enabled her to read and show facial expressions has also made her an expert on them. It’s how she was able to manipulate Caleb and presumably how she knew not to trust Nathan. (I have to applaud Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in this regard; the subtleties of her expressions are part of what makes the movie such a pleasure to watch.)

Given everything that’s happened, how do you suppose Ava might feel when she sees Caleb watching her? Having analysed his face in all their earlier encounters? Maybe she just doesn’t trust the male behind that gaze. Leaving him behind might be cruel, but it’s not necessarily evil. I don’t think the way she and Kyoko killed Nathan was evil either; he got what he deserved. And I think Ava’s being careful. She’s ensuring that she gets to decide her own fate, and not continue to have her experience of the world structured by a man for whom she is a fantasy, a fetish. Caleb doesn’t deserve to die and I didn’t want him to, but it’s a tough decision made by a person who has been kept in a cage all her life and tested to earn the right to be kept alive. Staying in Caleb’s company might prolong the test. Instead Ava could just step out on her own and live.