It seems like every major film in the last year or two stars either Oscar Isaac or Domhnall Gleeson. So of course, it was inevitable that they would eventually be cast in a film together. (And then, later in the year, they both starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well, thus furthering their quest for world domination.) Both are good actors, but I have to question Domhnall Gleeson’s casting in this. Why do big budget films continually keep casting either British or Irish actors in American roles? If you want an American, hire a fucking American. There are plenty of them around. I can see very few instances where you’d be better off hiring a British or Irish actor in an American role. Maybe you’re making a film about a famous figure and an Irish guy bears an uncanny resemblance to the person in question. Okay, go and hire them. Or maybe a British actor is such a huge mega star that it just doesn’t fucking matter that he’s not an American. But for god’s sake, this is Domhnall Gleeson we’re talking about. And if you really want to hire Domhnall Gleeson in your film, wouldn’t it just make more sense to make the character Irish? Eventually I forgot about the accent, but it distracted me for the first ten minutes or so; the American accent makes him seem more bland that he really is. Miscasting aside, Ex Machina is a massively successful directorial debut from Alex Garland (writer of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine). It’s talky and almost devoid of action, but it’s all the better for it. In a weird way, Ex Machina is almost like an old-fashioned film noir. Film noir often involves some schmucky guy getting hired by a mysterious man who isn’t all that he seems before being manipulated and misled by some femme fatale. Ex Machina definitely follows this path. Our hero, Caleb (Gleeson), ‘wins’ a competition to spend a week with billionaire software genius Nathan (Isaac). Nathan then reveals that he has a humanoid robot that he wants Caleb to perform a Turing Test on. He wants Caleb to test whether the robot exhibits artificial intelligence that is indistinguishable from our own. Before you know it, Caleb is hearing sweet nothings from the robot and is ready to drop everything for her (including his pants...probably). She seems sweet and innocent, so he’s horrified to hear that Nathan is mistreating her. Caleb’s conversations are observed by Nathan, but the robot, named Ava, can trigger temporary power cuts so the two can talk privately. The strength of the film is that, much like Caleb, you feel sorry for Ava. She seems like such a sweet, harmless little thing that you too want to break her out of her ‘cell’. Her body looks half finished so she covers herself in wigs and clothes to appear more human. It’s a little sad and pathetic and certainly earns your sympathy. But like a true femme fatale, she’s playing everyone. She tells Caleb that she wants to be with him, but once she’s free, she forgets all about him. She kills Nathan and then, without a master key for this high tech palace, Caleb is trapped in a room. Caleb bangs on the window and Ava can easily free him, but she’s totally oblivious to his plight. She doesn’t seem to be acting in a vindictive way. Instead she acts like a child. She’s completely narcissistic and self-absorbed. She’s so drunk with her newfound freedom that she leaves poor Caleb standing there, screaming like a lunatic. With Nathan dead and with no key, he gets to look forward to eating his own fist to survive. But again, what a schmuck Caleb is. He think he’s going to ride into the sun with this robot and live happily ever after? Yeah, right. I also feel that the film borrows subtly from Blade Runner (which, funnily enough, also borrows heavily from film noir). In Blade Runner, Dr Tyrell creates Replicants with AI. Much like an iPhone, they have a built- in obsolescence. After a few years, they die. They become furious with their creator and kill him. They want 'more life'. In Ex Machina, a similar fate awaits Nathan. His creation, tired of being imprisoned, wants to experience life and turns against him, stabbing him in the chest. It’s actually kind of weird the way that Nathan is killed. He’s stabbed in the chest, but he’s stabbed in such a slow, clean way that it makes it seem like he’s made of butter. It’s a little bit odd. But also in a nod to Blade Runner, Nathan has other ‘toys’. In Blade Runner, genetic designer J. F. Sebastian has a bunch of humanoid toys that keep him company in his apartment. Nathan meanwhile has a personal assistant who doesn’t speak a word of English. She’s very attractive and Nathan is fucking her. It’s then later revealed that she too is a robot. Which kind of figures for someone like Nathan who has a massive god complex. Why get sexually involved with a human being with real feelings and real emotions and who has real imperfections? You can just create a perfect copy who doesn’t speak a lick of your language and who picks up after you and you can then fuck them whenever you feel the need. Of course, seeing as Nathan is a computer nerd, it goes without saying that the fuck-bot is Asian. But the ending of the movie is fantastic because it’s truly chilling. This isn’t a robot that’s running around, killing people with laser eyes. She’s just like a child that has absolutely no moral compass. She might speak like a human and act like one, but it’s all an impersonation. She doesn’t feel bad for people. She can’t empathize. In one scene, she cannibalises Isaac’s other creations for parts. There’s no malice there but there’s also no feeling. It’s cold and logical. Which is why she leaves Caleb alone in that room to die. She can’t put someone else’s needs or feelings before her own. The only thing that matters is her. Over time we’ve evolved so that we care about other people. This helps us to thrive as a species. Anyone who acts selfishly is threatening the group. But a robot hasn’t had that. Which is why it would be so dangerous to do something like this. Intelligence without compassion and morality is a terrifying thing.
One part of me is thoroughly delighted at the success of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a completely bonkers movie. It doesn’t fit into the blockbuster norm at all. Plus George Miller has been trying to make another Mad Max for ages. So it’s a nice comeback story - a man who has been lumbered making Happy Feet and Babe sequels scores a massive commercial and critical success. But then there’s another part of me. The unsentimental side, who says, are you fucking kidding me? All of the critics are going bonkers over this? This is the movie that is appearing in critics’ top ten lists? Because this is not a great movie. It has loads of imagination and energy, but it’s also crass, monotonous and it’s lumbered with an incredibly dull central character. Tom Hardy as Mad Max is Tom Hardy on autopilot. He scowls, he mutters and he looks ‘intense’. But he doesn’t look like he’s having any fun. Nor does his character or his performance contain any depth. He’s just a series of tics. It’s a lazy kind of performance. Tom Hardy sort of reminds me of Christian Bale. They burst into life at the beginning of their careers and then they plateau a little and trade off their ‘intensity’. Mumbling and grimacing with wild eyes is nothing if there’s no meat in the script or if there are no internal twists and turns within the character’s journey. Because, yes, Max is constantly being pulled this way and that way, but it’s entirely physical. As a person he just is who he is. Nothing more, nothing less. And he’s not a particularly fun, interesting or engaging character. More effort is invested in the character of Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. She has the vulnerability, conflict and complexity that Max lacks. As the driver of an armoured truck called the ‘War Rig’, she liberates the wives of the local warlord, Immortan Joe. And so all hell breaks loose. But despite the feminist, eco-warrior pretext of the movie, character development is at the bottom of the agenda. And there’s zero emotional connection to anything that’s happening. So although women are in jeopardy and dastardly individuals are trying to recapture a pregnant girl, the human struggle behind the movie is a secondary consideration to blowing shit up. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s really good action. It’s always entertaining. But we don’t have a feminist masterpiece in the vein of Aliens. Nor is it a treatise on the Middle East conflict or environmental devastation. It’s a loud action movie that occasionally leans in interesting directions but never settles for long enough to make any interesting points or metaphors. Part of the thing that makes Fury Road entertaining is also the thing that holds it back. Its constant forward momentum. There’s no room to breathe. No room for silence or contemplation. It’s very Australian. What do I mean by that? There’s a tendency for Australian films to be very loud and very brash. Of course there are exceptions to that stereotype, but Fury Road falls into the Baz Luhrmann mould of more is more is more is more. But it’s not. Excess is exhausting. The overacting is also sometimes hard to take. Nicholas Hoult, who played the kid with the bowl haircut in About a Boy, overacts like crazy. And yeah, I get it, he’s supposed to be taking drugs to enter a state of suicidal rapture, but the performance is far too theatrical. The main villain, also, is completely ridiculous. He’s some fragile, crotchety old geezer who wears an oxygen mask in the shape of a skull. The mask looks pretty cool but he looks like he should be getting his nappies changed in an old people’s home. Also, the idea of this hideous little Oompa Loompa mounting all those women is appalling. But then again, I think it’s supposed to be. However, all of these negatives can be countered by the fact that among Immortan Joe’s war party is a guitarist with a double-necked guitar. Like some fucking god, he hangs from a wall of amplifiers and churns out heavy metal riffs while his guitar belches fire. Seriously, it’s the most hilarious, most fucking awesome thing I’ve seen in a film for years. And in a weird way, it makes complete sense. Military drums have been used for centuries to demoralize the enemy (big bastard drums also feature here), so why not have some heavy metal? Of course, you have to consider if this is an appropriate use of your resources. You know, you’re living in a post apocalyptic wasteland, and you’re using your precious gasoline to billow fire from a steampunk guitar. And you’re using electricity for all the amps in the world. But you know what, fuck that. Immortan Joe is obviously some Saddam Hussain, Kim-Jong-il, Nicolae Ceausecu, cult of personality type mentalist who wants to constantly show off his wealth and abundant resources, so yeah, he’d totally do this. And those guitar riffs fucking rock! And it’s hilarious that he changes his speed of playing to how quickly the war party is going. When they’re going really fast, he shreds like a motherfucker, but when they slow down he methodically hacks some chunky chords. And at one point he even gets involved in a fight. So even if the film as a whole is just too excessive for my taste, this one bit of insanity does a hell of a lot to make the film more enjoyable. It’s also got to be said that the stunts are excellent and that the photography is consistently amazing. I also got a kick of the retrograde fight scenes that were speeded up like this was filmed in the 70s or 80s. It’s just the characters and the script which aren’t up to much. I think the film is also a victim of raised expectations. This is a film that is now nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I’m all for genre films getting nominated for the big prize...but only if they’re good enough. And this film isn’t. There are some great sequences, but the movie doesn’t really add up to much. Not that it has to make some grand statement or anything, but you’ve got to feel something more than ‘oh, that was cool’ if you’re going to get all these plaudits. Aliens, The Fellowship of the Ring and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as three of the best examples of the action/adventure genre, succeed because of the human heart beating within them. They have really cool sequences, but they also have people you’re invested in. Mad Max: Fury Road is just a bunch of occasionally cool shit that should get nowhere near an awards ceremony.
The build-up is over. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now a living, breathing reality. It’s already sitting there in movie theaters, making (probably) billions of dollars in box office receipts. But is it any good? I guess it depends on how you’re measuring it. Compared to the disastrous, soul-sucking prequels, it stands up very favourably. But against the originals it falls way short. Way, way short. For every good thing in this movie, there are a couple of bad things to counter it. The biggest problem is that the central villain, Kylo Ren, is emo as shit. Darth Vader was a cool, clinical psychopath who would quietly dispatch his subordinates whenever they did something that wasn’t to his liking. Our Kylo, on the other hand, is a pouting drama queen. When he doesn’t get his own way, he destroys shit like a toddler having a tantrum. It’s not scary and it’s fairly ridiculous to watch. Plus Kylo is played by Adam Driver, whom I last saw in HBO’s Girls. So basically you have a millenial hipster trying to rule the galaxy while not ruffling his floppy hair. How far we’ve fallen as a society. Another problem is the larger villain of the piece, the ‘Supreme Leader’. This is the guy that Kylo Ren answers to, much like Darth Vader answered to The Emperor. But while The Emperor was an amusingly withered old guy, who cackled like some terrifying man-witch as he made a catty remark, the Supreme Leader is a horrible CGI creation. A big deal has been made that these films are going to use more practical effects, but this thing is an abomination. It looks like something you’d expect to see in the upcoming World of Warcraft movie, not Star Wars. And what was with his hologram being about thirty feet tall? Is he that tall in real life? Or does he just have a tiny penis and therefore demanded a fucking huge hologram when the tech guys were installing all the telecommunications? ‘Oooh. Supreme Leader. How terribly big you are.’ And why is this film basically a less satisfactory rehash of the original Star Wars? It’s almost the same plot, just far less engaging. So the The Empire (or the First Order as they’re called here) are searching for a droid which has some secret information inside it. A lonely, idealistic daydreamer then intercepts said droid. However, while in Star Wars this individual had an aunt and an uncle, and there was some character development, in The Force Awakens the daydreamer has no parents or guardians and is very quickly swept up in the galactical drama that ensues. But again, just as in Star Wars, the greenhorn encounters an old, wise hero from a bygone era. In the previous series, it was Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here it’s Han Solo. Then there’s a Death Star rip off that’s actually a planet with a massive weapon in it. Except this new weapon is far worse than the Death Star. While the Death Star was a space station that could go wherever it wanted, this thing is a fucking planet and can go nowhere. Why the downgrade? But then there’s a plan to shut down the weapon and attack it with spacecraft. It’s the exact same fucking film! It’s just more sloppily written and directed. Don’t get me wrong, though, there are good things about the movie. Rey, the surrogate Luke Skywalker character, is excellent. She’s not the wet blanket that Luke Skywalker was in the first film and she has plenty of charm and strength. It’s also good to see that the male hero in this film is black. It’s sad that even in this day and age it feels brave that a blockbuster has a woman and a black man as the heroes of their movie, but it does. It’s also great to see Han Solo back. It’s quite amazing how much the film improved when he finally turned up. Maybe it’s partly nostalgia, but nostalgia only lasts so long. The film genuinely became much better once he made he finally made his appearance. It’s a pity that they decided to kill him off and that that emo bastard was the one to do him in, but it was a pretty good scene. The action scenes were also pretty decent, but even these were riddled with problems. So we eventually find out that Rey is strong with The Force. There’s a fantastic scene where Rey resists Kylo’s attempts to interrogate her. She shows her strength of will and it’s wonderful. But then at the end she’s having a very involved lightsaber duel with Kylo. Here it just becomes silly. Rey has never picked up a lightsaber before but here she is, holding her own with a guy who’s probably been in training for years. Just because you’re strong with The Force, doesn’t mean that you know how to fight yet - that takes training. So even though you have this pretty decent action scene taking place, it’s ruined by the fact that the logic behind it is totally fucked. Compare this with the original trilogy. Luke doesn’t get to use his lightsaber until the second film and then he loses his hand in a fight to Darth Vader. So yeah, The Force is strong with Luke, but he needs training and experience. He can’t just go into a fight with someone and hold his own. I also feel that the film left far too many things unexplained. Why does Finn suddenly decide that he doesn’t want to fight anymore? He begins the movie as a Stormtrooper but then he has a crisis of conscience and flees. This is a great idea for a beginning but the reasons and the emotions aren’t really explored, which makes Finn’s journey half-baked and unsatisfying. And even though Han’s appearance is extremely welcome, he seems to appear out of nowhere and then instigates a fun action scene with some space monsters. The machinations behind it are explained so quickly and so poorly that I couldn’t help but ask myself what the fuck was going on, so even though I’m enjoying the action, I don’t really know for sure why it’s happening. And what the fuck happened with Poe? How did he survive that crash? I’m sure it got explained, but I’m also sure that the explanation lasted 0.7 seconds and was probably mumbled under all the Dolby Surround sound. But then the whole script is muddy. You get the feeling that JJ Abrams just couldn’t give a shit about telling a decent story. He just wants to move onto the next thing. And I have to say, I never thought that JJ was a good choice for this. He’s never convinced me as a filmmaker. And again he’s produced another superficial movie. It looks pretty good and everything feels like it should work, but it doesn’t. The ending with Luke promises that there will be something to look forward to in the future, but I’m not going to get my hopes up. I haven’t seen enough to warrant getting excited. And I haven’t even mentioned a couple of really little things that bugged the hell out of me. Number one - why is a TIE Fighter on a tether? So you have all this enhanced technology and someone steals your spacecraft but the way you’re going to get around that is with a chain? What the fuck? The sight of Finn and Poe trying to escape in a TIE Fighter that’s tied to the wall is one of the saddest sights in recent cinema. Number two - did you only hire the most weasly of British actors? The first trilogy had loads of English actors, but the weasel factor was nowhere near this high. The sight of Domhnall Gleeson (yes, yes, I know, he’s actually Irish) trying to give a rousing speech while squinting and grimacing like Vole was a little embarrassing. Oh, and Captain Phasma is a fucking terrible villain. She’s not quite General Grievous terrible (multiple lightsaber attack!), but she’s about as tough as a sponge. A couple of kids hold a blaster to her head and she does everything they say. Fuck. Me. Despite this, I feel that The Force Awakens is going to get an easy ride because it’s not The Phantom Menace, or Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. But I do have to wonder whether this is going to prove a worthwhile endeavour after all.