Tag Archives: Ex Machina

“Ex Machina” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

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.

As a society, we are hateful to women. There is no argument to be had that we are not.

“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.

Ex Machina poster

Images are from Hollywood Reporter and Tale of Two Dans.

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“It Follows” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I called “It Follows” the best American horror film in decades. I stand by that. I also said it’s what Franz Kafka would write if he were into sex horror.

The set-up’s simple: Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He has something and now it’s passed onto her. Instead of a disease, we’re talking about a slowly stalking, horror-movie monster that will one day catch up with her. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on by sleeping with someone else. The monster always stalks the most recent victim, and works its way down the line, from most recent to originator.

It’s a horror villain passed along as an STD, and a metaphor for…what, exactly? On the broadest level, it’s an STD public service announcement, but it also speaks to how we deal with sexual assault as a society. It addresses the roles of women within the horror genre. It confronts the voyeurism with which society often responds to incidents of sexual violence.

In fact, in the way it goes about this last detail, I slightly prefer it to a film I’ll write about tomorrow – “Ex Machina.” Both films deal with sexual violence, trauma, and seek to confront male viewers in ways we usually aren’t, but where “Ex Machina” recreates a version of total possession in excruciating detail, “It Follows” manages to speak to this while giving its characters a little more power to fight back against these concepts.

(In fact, the films came out within a month of each other and will forever be fused in my mind because of how they invert and confront a genre that’s often used sexual assault as a set piece. They make challenging yet complementary companion pieces, though together that’s some harrowing viewing.)

“It Follows” can be tough to pin down because the details in its world intentionally disagree. While the plot’s tight, the world around the characters doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. The movies they watch are from the 1950s, the cars they drive are from the 70s, and technology veers from the 80s to current. Different characters feel plucked from different eras, and even dress and subtly act like it. Jay is the heroine from 70s horror films, while her sister Kelly arrives from the 90s and their friend Yara would feel perfectly at home in today’s movies. Meanwhile, the musical score recalls the soundtracks Goblin once wrote for Dario Argento in the 70s.

This intentional confusion of details means that everything begins to feel fuzzy, as in trying to recall a dream. In fact, in my review, I said the film is like “watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.”

I still can’t think of a better way to describe “It Follows,” except to say that as a horror film, it delivers. Rather than the trend of being scary in outright ways, of making you jump or recoil, “It Follows” relies on anticipation. It’s a film about dread, not about jumping out of your seat, and it builds its tension to an incredible degree. It’s a throwback of a horror film fused with modern intentions, and it’s the best of both worlds.

It Follows poster

Images are from It Follows and Da Font.

The Best Use of Visual Effects in 2015

Chappie and dog South Africa

by Eden O’Nuallain and Gabriel Valdez

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:

Honorable Mentions

“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.

3. Chappie

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

Brutal, Disturbing, Vicious & Poignant — “The Gift”

Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Understated performances never get their due.

The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.

Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.

The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.

The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.

I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.

Jason Bateman in The Gift
Jason Bateman plays a subtler form of toxic masculinity.

Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.

Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.

For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.

All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.

The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.

One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Gift have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes.

This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.

The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.

It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.

It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.

The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?

For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.

Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.

The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”

The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.

Where did we get our awesome images? The featured image is from Entertainment Weekly’s brief review. The 2 in-article images are from Vanity Fair’s interview with Rebecca Hall.

Most Anticipated Movies of 2015: Bodice Rippers, Tentacle Girlfriends, & Kristen Stewart — #20-11

Far From the Madding Crowd Carey Mulligan

by Gabriel Valdez

Once more unto the breach. Let’s dive right in:

20. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

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 Crowd looks 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.

19. SPRING

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 Apes examined 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.

Hustle main

17. JOY

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 Playbook and 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.

Revenant DiCaprio

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.

11. CHAPPIE

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.

Read our picks for #40-31 here and #30-21 here.

Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children: The Robots Are Coming to Get Us

Automata Antonio Banderas

by Gabriel Valdez

“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.

I still want a TARS

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.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

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.