I was protected in high school from the abuse of hazing because of my sister. Four years ahead of me, she went to the incoming seniors before she graduated. She said if they hazed me, she would be back for them, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. They never touched me.
I tried to extend that shield when I could, and a few times I was able to for certain friends. I discovered earlier this year that one of those friends went on to sexually assault a number of women, using his position as a publicist within the music industry to grope them and attempt to pressure them into having sex.
When I found out, I felt like I had done something wrong by protecting him at 14, that I somehow should have known better. I felt what he did in the future was some failing of mine by taking some momentary part in his life in the past. I described the feeling to one of the closest people in my life like this:
You work to make sure there isn’t a fire at your feet. You stamp out what you can, you keep the people that you can safe in the ways you know how, and you be there for them when you can’t. And you feel like maybe, you’ve made a change, that maybe the small effect you’ve had can make a difference. And then you look up from your patch of ground only to realize the whole city’s burning, and you feel lost and it feels overwhelming. You’ll return to making what change you can, but in that moment, you’re lost. The damage done in the world is irreversible.
“Ex Machina” felt like looking up and seeing the city on fire. It can be a problematic film to champion because of that. In order to make a horror film from the lessons we teach men about possessing women, it demonstrated that possession in no uncertain terms. It does so through creating an A.I. and then asking its protagonist – and its audience – whether she’s human. If she isn’t human, she’s a thing kept, a possession, an object. If she is human, the very act of keeping her entrapped, of possessing her, is an act of assault. “Ex Machina” uses the Turing Test as a code through which we judge our own social assumptions. While the most blatant of its transgressions are suggested rather than shown, the space in which “Ex Machina” suggests them is as claustrophobic as cinema gets.
After its opening weekend, I experienced something that rarely happens. Through the window of discussing the movie, I had dozens of conversations with men about the lessons we’re taught regarding women, the things society ingrains in us to endorse and ignore. These conversations are normally extremely difficult to start with other men. They’re easily dismissed. They don’t happen. When they do, they run the course of shallow agreement, declining the real work of self-analysis.
For a few weeks, “Ex Machina” changed something in the men who had seen it. We talked about these things. We shared stories of what we’d seen, of things that some people had done, of realizations, of opportunities to help that we missed, of friends and loved ones who were forever changed because of acts of male possession. Men need to look up and see the city is burning, and we need to do it together, and we need to believe and support the women who have been shouting “Fire!” all their lives to us.
And for a minute, because of a movie that made a horror out of the gender roles we’re taught when young, I felt as if many men looked up together and saw the fire and talked about it as we rarely do. I only wish that could be the norm. I wish it didn’t take a movie to make that happen. I wish it wasn’t a momentary effect. I wish we didn’t all lower our eyes to our patch of ground again and pretend the city’s not burning down around us.
I was hoping for one last triumphant popcorn flick on the way out of summer. At first, The Man from UNCLE seems to fit the bill. Based loosely on the 1960s TV show, it opens with enough style and energy to jump off the screen. I can’t count the number of times the planet’s been threatened this summer, and a playful riff on 60s spy movies should feel as light and airy as The Man From UNCLE starts.
CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are both after the same quarry: a defecting East German car mechanic who’s also the daughter of a missing, ex-Nazi rocket scientist. The opening is everything you think the movie could possibly be. It zips along with a unique flair, cutting back and forth in time so you can understand each operative a little better. It works like jazz, its rhythm alternating between tight and loose in a call-and-response way. It’s a beautifully orchestrated opening sequence.
If you want more of that quirky, high-energy, stylish action then The Man from UNCLE is where you’re going to find it…once in a while. The film never goes straight downhill, but it does run up and down that hill faster than you can keep up. Brilliant comedic moments are interspersed with banter scenes that fall flat. The passive-aggressive competition between Solo and Kuryakin is realized wonderfully during a heist sequence but never revisited again. The daughter who joins them on their mission, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), has to mediate their competitive nature, which takes her into serious territory. With three comedic straight-men and no foil, it’s up to the film itself to invent comic interplay. When it’s there, it sings, but when it’s not, it’s like the jazz goes horrendously off-tune and you wonder if the trombonist just had a heart attack.
The Man from UNCLE has style to spare, a clever way of editing, a sharp sense of humor, energetic action, and three leads each more talented and charming than the last, but it doesn’t rely on any of these things long enough to create a consistent theme.
Is the point of the movie to be stylish? It forgets to be for long stretches of time. Is it to cleverly edit story in nonlinear ways that keep us hopping back and forth between expectations and reveals? The same energy isn’t put into its linear scenes; they fall flat by comparison.
Is the point of the film its wicked humor? Then why do we get a torture scene near the end where the torturer proceeds to tell us how he experimented on concentration camp prisoners? That’s a mood-killer in a comedy if ever there was one.
Why is each character introduced as a scenery-chewing joy only to devolve into a dour monument to solemnity by the end?
Why is the action joyfully cartoonish at the beginning and self-consciously gritty by the end? Did a producer pass by and think, “Yes, this bright, cartoonish 60s romp needs more Dark Knight in it?”
If nothing else, The Man from UNCLE reminds you of the value of Robert Downey Jr. Downey starred in both of director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. They shared similar tonal shifts, although the mysteries at their core were far tighter. Both Holmes movies shared the same grinding halts to deliver bland expository dialogue in between frenetic action scenes. The difference between Downey, Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace seizing on each others’ Victorian lines, versus Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander never finding their rhythm together in the 60s is night and day. Elizabeth Debicki, as the villain Victoria, is the only one really keeping things lively by the end.
That’s a lot of flaws for something I ultimately did enjoy, and The Man from UNCLE also suffers from arriving on the heels of the surprisingly better, funnier, and even more stylish Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. As spy movies go, there’s an all-time great in the theater right now and then there’s a pretty good one in The Man from UNCLE.
The Man from UNCLE is as enjoyable as anything this year when its comedy and style hit. You just have to bear with the moments when it takes far too long to find its mark. These are enjoyable actors to watch, even when they’re all playing dry wit at the same time. If you’re looking for a spy movie or action comedy, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the far better bet, and more specifically takes advantage of the big screen. If you’ve already seen that or you just don’t like Tom Cruise, The Man from UNCLE is a solid bet if you’re patient with it. It does boast some of the best music of any film this year.
Does The Man From UNCLE have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby. Elizabeth Debicki plays the villain Victoria. They are unnamed, but other speaking roles include Simona Caparrini as a Contessa, and Marianna Di Martino as a desk clerk.
Do they talk to each other?
About something other than a man?
Yes. Nuclear weapons and nefarious plots are the order of the day.
It’s better balanced than the industry usually is, but The Man from UNCLE isn’t exactly equal opportunity. The two men are the central characters, and Vikander is sexualized in a way Cavill and Hammer aren’t.
The film’s world of espionage is also dominated by male side characters. While it may or may not reflect the gender balance in 1960s spy circles realistically, nothing else about this movie is realistic. The world created here would have benefited from women in more of the roles supporting these core four actors (Cavill, Debicki, Hammer, Vikander).
Debicki plays a villain who’s very in control of her sexual life. Unfortunately, that is used as a villainous trait at one point. We often see that kind of control over one’s sexual life in women villains, not women heroes, and The Man from UNCLE is no different. As her counterpart on the good guys, Vikander’s sexuality is treated in a more innocent, ingenue-like manner.
Thankfully, everyone’s sexual exploits are treated as their own decisions. We steer clear of any Roger Moore-era James Bond sexual assaults (or recent Daniel Craig, for that matter). For the amount of double-crosses at play and the centrality of sex at different points in the film, The Man from UNCLE is very conscious and specific about characters treating each other in careful and respectful ways when it comes to sex.
The film’s not perfect, but it does some things better than much of the spy genre. That said, the genre itself is still housed in some antiquated mores of gender roles, and The Man from UNCLE uses some of these in its storytelling.