That’s kind of an odd phrasing, isn’t it? Best use of visual effects? The Academy Awards give out “Best Visual Effects,” full stop. What’s the difference?
Too often, visual effects nominations go to films that simply spent the most money on visual effects. They don’t necessarily go to the most creative film or the film where visual effects become a story element rather than a showpiece.
Let’s get started:
“Ant-Man” used visual effects to wonderful comedic effect, but otherwise stuck to Marvel’s tried-and-true approach of flashy CGI fight choreography.
We liked “The Martian” overall, but none of us felt that its visual effects added anything very crucial to the story. The heart of the film was carried by its actors, not by its design. That’s hardly a bad thing, but it fails to make it stand out in this category.
“Jurassic World” did a wonderful job of creating a creature horror movie, but it missed many opportunities to add personality to its creatures. This made them feel glossed over at times, and a little less fearsome than we would’ve liked.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” just missed out on the cut. Each use visual effects in brilliant ways to make their worlds stand out and feel unique, but they balance on that line between contributing to the story and acting as showpieces. Each film uses its showpieces to say more, but often these themes are left to be carried by more traditional film elements. Essentially, they’re our fourth and fifth choices, respectively.
If it were just up to the fidelity of visual effects, there’s no way “Chappie” makes this list. In terms of how the visual effects are used to create a singular character, however, “Chappie” is in the rarest of company. Unlike a film like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the visual effects in “Chappie” weren’t true motion capture. Instead, the effects artists were entrusted to paint actor Sharlto Copley out of every frame of the film and replace him with their vision of Chappie. It’s a rough, risky way of tossing most of the rules for motion capture out the window and rewriting them from scratch. Yet the rough-hewn, art-over-realism feel of Chappie as a character is exactly what makes him feel so human. As a character, he’s more of a collaborative artistic creation, and less a series of motion capture measurements.
2. Ex Machina
Welcome to that rarest of company. “Ex Machina” has been the subject of a lot of controversy in our discussions of film of the year. You either love it or you loathe it. We all agreed that Alicia Vikander’s Eva is the definition of why this award exists. Even if her character is more costume design than you’d expect at first glance, the parts that are visual effect are blended seamlessly. If we have to believe as an audience that Ava should be treated as real as any human, and begin to question the nature of her captivity because of it, our impulse to feel for her starts at the meeting of actor, costume, and visual effect. It’s the visual effects that may do the most to make her seem vulnerable, since we can effectively see her internal organs and brain. The artistic decisions made surrounding the visual effects are some of the most evocative in the film.
1. Jupiter Ascending
If you remember, we’re part of the cabal that basically thinks “Jupiter Ascending” is simultaneously a kind of bad and essentially brilliant film. At first glance its visual effects might seem of the set piece variety. Many of them are (gravity boots, anyone?), yet the visual effects fill a wide range of roles – they deliver much of the film’s comedy and do a lot of the work in terms of world-building. They have personality and that personality gives you incredible amounts of information about the universe you’re watching. In creating a universe that nods to “Flash Gordon,” “Brazil,” “The Fifth Element,” “Dune,” and comic book artist Moebius, “Jupiter Ascending” is essentially telling you to kick your feet up and relax as if you were watching a cartoon (the main character’s name is Jupiter Jones, for godssakes). Not enough critics did that, unfortunately.
Yet few films required their visual effects to do so much over the course of the entire movie. They are colorful, sumptuous, threatening, weird, and busy, but in the curious universe that “Jupiter Ascending” creates, they all feel home to someone and they all seem to have practical use, even if that practical use is downright bonkers. For doing more of the lifting than visual effects are usually required to do, “Jupiter Ascending” stands out.
The seven voters are S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez
It’s rare that an actor becomes an action star in his late 50s. Liam Neeson was hardly unknown and he’s not among the tombstones yet, but he is getting pretty grey. To tell the truth, I was quite taken with Neeson’s latest non-stop action movie.
And if you’re rolling your eyes at that opening paragraph, it just goes to show you what a cottage industry Liam Neeson action movies have become. The references hidden in those three sentences alone have made nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars worldwide.
When making an action movie with Neeson, you have two options. Option one: stick to the formula. Neeson usually plays tough, flawed men exiled from their families. In Run All Night, Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon has a son who hasn’t talked to him in five years. His brother distrusts him. He doesn’t even know when his own mother goes into the hospital. An alcoholic hit man, Jimmy’s only kept around in his old age because he grew up with the gang’s boss, Sean (Ed Harris).
When Jimmy shows up to help his own son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), it’s not out of familial duty, it’s as a favor to Sean. Unfortunately, things go awry and Jimmy ends up killing Sean’s son Danny. Jimmy has to protect Mike and family from gangsters and corrupt cops as they Run All Night.
How much of his taste for these roles reflects Neeson’s loss of his own wife, Natasha Richardson, in a 2009 skiing accident may make for a fascinating biography one day. (Watch The Grey and try to separate the actor’s grief from his character’s.) There’s a reason he connects to these characters and plays them with such a protective and personal fervor.
Option two: undermine the formula. Neeson’s characters are often functional alcoholics. Make this one dysfunctional. Neeson’s characters usually want to live and fix things. Give this one a death wish and no hope. Neeson’s characters are usually charming. Make this one rude and despicable. Neeson’s characters are all expert fighters. In most other Neeson action movies, his size, reach, and how hard he can punch are on display. He fistfights with skill. Here, his only talent is taking punishment, getting beaten like a side of beef. These changes in the formula make the movie compelling.
Run All Night is a pretty great entry into this cottage industry. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s filmed almost entirely on location in New York at night. It breathes and oozes New York better than most films that take place there, even if it cheats the geography a little. There are well-shot chase scenes in cars, on foot, through burning apartments and down the side of a building. There are fistfights and gunfights.
If there’s one problem, it’s that Run All Night keeps trying to follow option one and option two. While he’s on the run, Neeson is a dysfunctional drunk and a liar, one of his most challenging and unlikable characters in years. It’s also one of his best performances in these films. We root for him not because he charms us, but because we pity him. It’s a change-of-pace that makes familiar setpieces feel fresh. Yet, inevitably, we’ll see Super-Neeson at some point. Usually that’s a good thing, but when he shows up here it runs against the grain of the rest of the film.
While Neeson’s on the run, it’s captivating stuff. He plays desperate as well as anybody and here he gets to do it twice over – desperate on the run and desperate to reconnect with his son.
So what does separate this from Neeson’s other action work? Firstly, the style. If you like gritty, this is Neeson’s grittiest. This is Neeson’s third film with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop) and each time out, the pair find a new sense of narrative and style to inhabit. Secondly, Harris and Kinnaman are superb in this. Between the three leads, a great supporting turn by Genesis Rodriguez, and capable performances by Vincent D’Onofrio and Common, this is as good a cast as you’ll find in these films. They cover over any weak spots in the script and make the strongest moments shine. Harris and Neeson, in particular, get a trio of scenes that elevate the entire movie.
Run All Night feels like it’s poised to be something more, but in the end gives us exactly what we expect. That said, it does it very well. It’s in stiff competition with a lot of other R-rated action movies right now. If I had to choose one, it would still be Chappie (read the review), but that’s comparing apples to oranges. “Run All Night” doesn’t excel, but it doesn’t disappoint either.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Run All Night have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Genesis Rodriguez plays Gabriela Conlon, Mike’s wife. They have two daughters. Patricia Kalember plays Rose Maguire, Sean’s wife. Giulia Cicciari and Carrington Meyer play Gabriela’s two daughters. Jessica Ecklund plays the wife of a gangster named Frank.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes, but only just. Ecklund serves to be hit on by a drunken Jimmy. Kalember only has a handful of lines to her husband. Mike and Gabriela’s two daughters do briefly speak to each other and to Gabriela.
3. About something other than a man?
Hard to call. The Conlon daughters speak to each other about hide-and-seek and ask a few questions of Gabriela while hiding from gangsters, so technically yes, but these are so few (a couple words, really) and so brief (taking a few seconds) it’s really difficult to give Run All Night, a movie essentially dominated by male characters and their relationships, any credit for it.
Chappie is absolutely everything I want to see in a science-fiction movie. It’s thick with ideas, its twists and turns fast and furious by the end of its two hours.
Let me preface this: I am not a fan of either of director Neil Blomkamp’s previous films. District 9 was interesting, but still had too many holes to sort out by the time its credits rolled. Elysium was promising but crashed and burned in its second half. Both films were chock full of great ideas ruined by uneven execution.
Blomkamp knew this, too, even going so far as to apologize to fans for Elysium. So he went back to the drawing board and stuck closer to home with Chappie.
To recount its plot too deeply would be to reveal any number of twists on its Dickensian orphan formula. Essentially, police in South Africa have begun to use man-sized robots to quell crime. They fight, they shoot, they act as mobile shields. One such robot takes a few extra risks protecting those around him, becomes too badly damaged, and ends up in the trash heap. Its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), begs his boss to study it, but the company doesn’t want to risk artificial consciousness.
Meanwhile, a group of down-on-their-luck gangsters plan to pull off a major heist. They just need to kidnap Deon to get him to turn the police robots off. Deon kidnaps the robot he wants to study, the gangsters kidnap Deon, and one of cinema’s most intriguing alternative families is born.
The robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is like a child. The gangsters consist of a father, a mother, their compatriot Amerika, and have a difficult relationship with Deon – the Maker. Each pulls Chappie in different directions – his mother teaches him compassion and self-confidence, his father sabotages that confidence to toughen Chappie up and make him useful, his maker teaches him right from wrong. Chappie can’t make sense of it all, and eventually feels betrayed by and lost from each of these lights in his life.
If it’s starting to sound like something of a faith-based movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. If Chappie were a little boy questioning God instead of a robot questioning his designer, this would be drawing faith-based crowds in droves. The allegory at play is much the same, which brings us to the film’s Satan – a competing robot designer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to sabotage Deon’s success and destroy Chappie. Jackman is utterly brilliant in the role, using that burning intensity we cheer on in his other performances to create someone who’s inconsolably angry at not measuring up.
This is a film about being tugged into all sorts of moral confusions and compromises upon being gifted into the world. Chappie makes mistakes, some of them horrible. We root for him, but we’re also rooting for his understanding of the world and his uniquely personal sense of faith. We want Chappie to live, but more than that – we want him to get the chance to live on his own terms. That’s the crux of the film’s drama. We’re worried for Chappie, sure, but we’re much more worried for who he’ll turn out to be. Every lesson imparted, every moral compromised, every death inflicted – even a touching encounter with a dead pit bull – it all takes a toll on his soul.
Chappie is a crazy movie – the gangsters are played by South African rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (often wearing their band Die Antwoord’s t-shirts), its blistering action is a major step up from what Blomkamp’s delivered before, and its audacious last 10 minutes is the stuff of sci-fi legend. (If you think you have any idea where this film’s going, believe me – you don’t.)
It’s all anchored by how we feel about Chappie, how much we need to see Chappie succeed because, to be honest, he isn’t just a robot. He’s each of our failures, our confusions, our indecisions and insecurities up on that screen. By teaching a robot how to be human and what to value, we get a stark look at our own lives and values.
More than anything else, Chappie offers us the chance to look at where we are as humans – and it’s not always a pretty picture we see staring back at us. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future wasteland – 2016 looking just like 2015 – and suggests that our worst sci-fi visions of societal failure already exist for many in the world.
Keep in mind, Chappie is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. It’s cute throughout because of the childlike nature of Chappie, but it marries this to stark and sudden moments of violence – it doesn’t play around with the effect of guns. Some call this uneven, but it’s very intentional. When we’re prepared for it, we view violence through a different lens as an audience. Because Chappie disarms us and opens up our empathy, the brutality here can feel like salt in a wound. Like Chappie, we’re not prepared for it. That’s no mistake; that’s the point.
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Chappie have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Yo-Landi Visser plays Yolandi and Sigourney Weaver plays Michelle Bradley, a robotics company CEO.
2. Do they talk to each other?
No, but I’ll grant some leeway on how you read Chappie. Is Chappie a he, a she, or an it? He’s played by a male actor (Sharlto Copley) in a rough variation on motion capture and other characters refer to him as a “he.” I read him as male while watching, but that may have as much to do with my own bias.
3. About something other than a woman?
Since I’m treating the last question as a no, this doesn’t apply, but the women in this film rarely talk about men.
As always, the Bechdel Test is a tool. The portrayals of women here are fairly positive. Weaver’s Bradley is a CEO who puts the company first, but who doesn’t seem unfair while doing so. She runs a business that makes weapons and makes no bones about it. That’s her job and she does it well. Her character poses an obstacle to Deon and the constructive things he wants to accomplish, but she also poses an obstacle to Vincent and the destructive goals he wants to meet.
Visser’s Yolandi is posed as the mother figure to Chappie, but it doesn’t feel like a diminutive role. She runs heists, is introduced in a three-sided gunfight, backs down her partner Ninja regularly, is definitely Amerika’s superior, and seems to have veto power over the gang’s biggest decisions. If she wants to sit down and read Chappie a bedtime story, I’m sure as hell not getting in her way.
(There’s been a lot of fuss over Die Antwoord’s involvement in the film, but they’re very good in their roles.)
It’s a small cast – outside Chappie, there are six core roles. Two of these are women, four men. It’s not perfect, but it portrays women who are powerful and don’t fit into stereotypes, and it does so in a positive way.
More to the point, Chappie has a strong throughline of criticizing patriarchy. Chappie himself is torn between his mother and his maker – who teach him to value himself – and his father, who tears down Chappie’s self-worth and replaces it with the need to be tough and act violent. There’s no simpler metaphor for how patriarchy feeds into misogyny and racism.
When you have self-worth, you don’t need to push others down in order to feel valued. When someone tears your self-worth down and tells you you’re not good enough, that you need to act tougher and dominate others – that’s when you raise your own self-worth by devaluing the worth of others. That’s what Ninja teaches Chappie – how to dress, how to act, how to intimidate like a man. None of it is for Chappie’s benefit; it’s all to make Chappie more useful to Ninja as a gangster. It sells Chappie on the idea that he needs to be a certain way to earn his father’s approval, to lead a worthwhile life, and to be valued by others. Yet the whole time we’re watching, we know it’s all a lie.
This carries special meaning in a country like South Africa, where a patriarchal system maintained apartheid until 1994, and where powerful vestiges of the attitude that created it still keep black Africans ghettoized and leading lives of lower quality than their white counterparts.
There’s a lot going on in Chappie. It is not perfect in all regards, but it has no sense for biting off more than it can chew, and it chews through it all – faith, patriarchy, the afterlife, wealth distribution, domestic violence, ghettoization, corporate shock doctrine, ethics of drone warfare. I’m getting off-topic – it could have more women in it, and it would be better if it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s on the wrong side of the conversation. It’s very much asking the right questions in ways that few films dare.
You could also call this Most Anticipated Bodice Ripper. Let me just quote the IMDB summary for a second: “In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.”
The Thomas Hardy novel on which it’s based was a fairly early piece of feminist literature that examined the social and personal pressures put upon women to choose a suitor. Far too often, these sorts of adaptations turn a complex work of literature into a breathy, steamy potboiler. That sort of simplicity would be a first for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, however. His last film, The Hunt, concerned the ruination of a teacher’s life after a rumor about his sexuality is started.
Vinterberg is not one to dumb material down. His films are stories that beautifully present the rough edges of society we pretend to ignore. While Far From the Madding Crowdlooks like a prettier presentation of your typical period romance, the talent behind it – including lead actress Carey Mulligan – hints at something more complex. May 1.
When you read H.P. Lovecraft, you’re meant to be horrified at the realization of ancient societies that worshiped dark, insane gods. But here’s the thing: any society that lasts for any real extent of time, and the people living in it are worried about picking up food for dinner, meeting someone special, and trying to remember to do the laundry on time.
So what happens when a man unwittingly starts a romance with a woman who’s half Italian femme fatale, half Lovecraftian beastie? Where does the horror end and just living out your life begin? Aren’t we being a bit judgmental if we assume someone’s a crazed psychopath just because she sprouts tentacles?
Spring has been described as a horror romance about an Italian town that’s perfectly comfortable with its alternative nature. Can a romance survive the judgments we make against that nature, however? April 17.
18. WHITE GOD
And here we go. How do you tell Europe a story of marginalized people treated like outcasts when certain European countries go so far as to legislate the clothing of certain religions and races of people (hi, France, Britain, Netherlands), when some countries wage violent political battle to kick those people out (hi, Sweden, Hungary, Turkey), and even when some countries enforce laws so differently for different races that the prisons are 80% minority-filled despite a civilian population that’s only 20-30% minority (hi, well, almost all of Europe). How do you tell a story about entire peoples kicked around and treated like mongrel dogs to a continent that doesn’t want to hear it?
Well, you can actually tell that story with mongrel dogs. The same way the original Planet of the Apesexamined racism in a way that would never have made the big-screen in 1968 if it had actually been about Caucasians and African-Americans, a film like White God can face Europe and convince it to watch a movie about an ethnic revolt and, well, cheer for those rioting in the streets.
It’s important to note the obvious danger when a film does this. The key is in making it its own story, not a straight analogue. The goal after all is not to compare marginalized people to animals, but rather to compare the treatment of those marginalized people to the treatment of animals. It must be a judgment on the culture, not on the subject itself, or you start doing the very damage you’re speaking against. March 27.
There’s not much known about this film other than the talent behind it: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in a David O. Russell film. He previously teamed them in Silver Linings Playbookand American Hustle. And, oh by the way, the screenplay’s written by Annie Mumolo. You may know her better as the writer (with Kristen Wiig) of Bridesmaids.
The film follows a single mother in Long Island who starts her own business and makes it big. Beyond that, not much is known. The turnaround on the film is going to be very quick, so let’s hope it makes its intended release date of December 25.
16. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
At some point, everyone’s going to get over themselves and recognize Kristen Stewart is a risk-taking actor with a rare nose for intriguing and challenging projects. Until then, we consider her here, in the words of Vanessa Tottle, “Our Patron Saint of Go F*ck Yourself.” (Asterisk added.)
Teaming her up with Juliette Binoche and Chloe Grace Moretz makes for the kind of film we almost never see – a serious drama centering around the relationship between three women, in this case taking place during the production of a film that challenges Binoche’s concept of how the people in her life fit into it.
I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages, as it’s meandered through the festivals and struggled to find an American distributor, despite Stewart having set a box office record for an actress her age just three short years ago. Shows you what happens when a man twice your age with a wife and kids takes advantage of you. You get blackballed from an industry, he gets a $200 million film. That’s why she’s our Patron Saint of, well, you know. No date set.
15. EX MACHINA
Alex Garland has written some of the most beautifully screwed up screenplays of the last two decades, many of which were immediately snapped up by director Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later…, Sunshine). My favorite might be a non-Boyle project, Never Let Me Go.
This has also allowed Garland the opportunity to train under one of the most versatile and adaptive filmmakers in modern history, so when he makes his own directorial debut with Ex Machina, it’s worth noticing.
I also don’t pay much heed to studios, but at this point, I’ll watch anything that A24 decides to fund or acquire. Their nose for projects gave me two of my top 5 films of 2014, the Scottish horror Under the Skin and the Australian post-apocalypse tale The Rover, as well as a host of stellar comedies and psychological thrillers. Garland and A24? Two names I trust, with a story that looks pretty compelling. April 10.
14. THE REVENANT
After this year’s Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu pulls a complete 180 and makes a revenge Western. It will follow none other than Leondardo DiCaprio as protagonist Hugh Glass. Left for dead, he goes off in search of John Fitzgerald, played by…
Look, you guys, this isn’t funny anymore. Who is really playing John Fitzgerald? It can’t be Tom Hardy, not unless he found David Bowie’s cloning machine from The Prestige. Wait, what!?! Tom Hardy played the cloning machine in The Prestige? Oh for god’s sake…
So, in The Revenant, DiCaprio goes after Tom Hardy, and I really hope he gets him because this is getting ridiculous. How is Tom Hardy in all the films this year? He’s appeared three times in two films already on our list. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s like he’s a secret plan so that the Academy doesn’t even have to bother nominating 20 white actors in a year and just nominates 20 Tom Hardys. There’s no one that can stand against that, except…the Chosen One.
The one actor who’s always nominated but never wins…. Leo, this is your purpose, your calling, your reason for being! This is why you’ve suffered all those years, why you had to watch Matthew McConaughey get up there and say he’s most grateful to himself when he looks in the mirror. Go get Tom Hardy, Leo, and save the world for the rest of us. We’ll find out who wins – Tom Hardy or Leo, and therefore the world – in December.
(Above photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly…obviously.)
13. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
I’m just going to leave the trailer up there. You can tell me if you like it, and are therefore telling the truth, or if you don’t like it and are lying for some reason. Because I don’t know anyone who sees those two minutes and says they don’t want to see the full movie. February 13.
12. MCFARLAND, USA
This might seem like a funny one to have this high, but Niki Caro is a special director, able to capture the small-town dynamics of various cultures and make otherwise cliché stories feel fresh again. She’s best known for the dreamy New Zealand inspirational Whale Rider. Kevin Costner’s unique talent lies in capturing an audience’s goodwill the moment he steps onto the screen. That was misused in action films in 2014, but here he plays a P.E. Coach who starts an unlikely and underdog cross country racing program. I’ll look forward to seeing Costner in a more comfortable mode again, but I’ll most look forward to how Caro presents this town and its people. February 20.
The jury’s still out on director Neill Blomkamp. Excitement over his unexpected sci-fi success with District 9 was tempered by the beautifully designed but incredibly uneven Elysium. Chappie takes place in a near-future world where a decommissioned military robot is salvaged by a family who raise him like a toddler. When his former masters come to claim him, Chappie is forced to grow up through the rite of passage that is eight bazillion explosions. Still, this is the kind of story Blomkamp tells best, focusing on the personal inside of the epic. Hopefully, he can keep his eye on the smaller picture. March 6.
Allow me to also link my own thoughts on why the burgeoning slate of films about artificial intelligence give us characters who strive to be more human at a time when humans strive to be more vicious.
Keep an eye out for out Top 10 most anticipated movies of the year.
“I have asked myself that many times as I have struggled to be more human. Until I realized: it is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are, Lal. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. The effort yields its own rewards.”
– Data, “The Offspring,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
HBO just ordered Westworld to series. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, it will focus on an Old West theme park in which all the actors are robots with the artificial intelligence required to play their parts. At a point, they malfunction and rebel. Along with JJ Abrams, Jonathan Nolan (brother to director Christopher and co-writer on Interstellar) is serving in a production role, but it’s not the only series he has with HBO.
His Foundation series, based on Isaac Asimov’s series of novels, will soon join it. This is exciting news: HBO has signed Darren Aronofsky (Noah) to develop Margaret Atwood’s bleak pre- and post-apocalypse MaddAddam trilogy, director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to adapt BBC’s Utopia, and rumors have swirled around Peter Dinklage leading the sci-fi/supernatural thriller about a dwarf private eye, Beasts of Valhalla.
That’s no less than 5 science-fiction projects HBO is developing. They’re becoming the SyFy channel we always wanted.
There’s something else happening, however, and not just at HBO. Westworld and Foundation are part of it, but so are upcoming films like Gabe Ibanez’s Automata, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
Robots are settling in. They’re coming to get us. And I couldn’t be more thankful.
See, robots used to be the bad guys. I’m sure they will be in Westworld (that’s the whole plot), but it’s HBO – we’ll have sympathetic robots trying to do the right thing (Evan Rachel Wood plays an AI discovering that she’s artificial for the first time) and getting screwed over for it, and we’ll have dastardly evil ones (Ed Harris is picking up the Yul Brynner role, for instance) being, well, dastardly and evil. The humans (Anthony Hopkins, Miranda Otto) look to be the real terror.
In Foundation, however? In the novels, robots are generally good, helpful, self-sacrificing for their human brethren.
In Automata, we treat a society of robots like refuse, much the same way we treat third-world countries as we sap their resources. In Chappie, a childlike robot learns to care, to sacrifice…to be human. The humans abuse and fight over it. Ex Machina is a film that asks a man (or is he?) to choose between trusting a robot and a human being.
Look at Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, or last year’s Her. Baymax, TARS, and Samantha are well-meaning artificial intelligences full of personality, there to aid humanity. In Big Hero 6, Baymax is a friend to Hiro, who draws Hiro back from a dark moment in the film’s most heartfelt scene. In Interstellar, TARS is the most beautifully selfless character of the year. In Her, we are given an AI with the capability for love.
Gone are the days where a robot was our nemesis, when our fear of losing jobs to technology made us believe in Hal and Terminators and the android in Alien. Now we have something much worse – drones – and we’ve lost those jobs because of human decisions. We are ourselves a species that lead double-lives, the real and the one on the screen in front of you as you read this. We are psychologically, if not physically, cyborgs. Is that bad? Is that good? We have yet to figure it out very well – the evolution is still happening.
What do robots become if we’re psychologically closer to them now than ever before, as we look around a brilliantly interconnected world and see for the first time the true scope of how inhuman humans can be?
The tide has turned. We think the opposite now – robots in fiction don’t threaten the loss of our humanity. We’re doing a fine job of that ourselves. Instead, they represent searching for something better in ourselves. All these robots strive for something in common, as Data on The Next Generation once yearned for: to become more human. The few that don’t have already reached a human ideal – like Baymax and TARS, that of helping unconditionally. They each treasure being human seemingly more than we do, not to survive but to survive rightly.
They are no longer a projection of fear of the “other,” like the aliens in our science-fiction. They aren’t a paranoia about technology. Now, they harken back to what Isaac Asimov originally imagined: the next logical extension of an idealized human race. The only problem is that the human race isn’t holding up that “idealized” end of the bargain.
It’s not a robot’s strength or their speed that we envy in fiction, not their inability to suffer hunger or sleeplessness. It’s how beautifully they see the world in that moment of self-awareness. That’s the capability we envy most, the fairy tale of seeing with fresh eyes what we’ve come to view with cynicism and doubt.
Science-fiction once used robots as the next step of evolution for a human civilization that had overcome its petty squabbles. They were the reward for our curiosity and cooperation, allowing us to stretch that curiosity even further into the universe. Now, science-fiction views them as a correction, an improvement. They don’t yearn to be like us anymore. We sit in the theater and yearn to follow their selfless example. Or at least, we should.
They now hold a perspective we deeply miss, that which once believed curiosity and cooperation really could win out. They can’t be here to help us extend our curiosity if we’ve given up on curiosity itself. Instead, they’re here to be the last shreds of our human conscience.
So I say let the robots come and get us. Maybe they can teach us something. If we won’t struggle to be human anymore, somebody ought to.