Monday, July 25, 2016

The Grand Inquisitor And Notes on Recent Arthouse Science Fiction

Warning: Long post. Preoccupied with arthouse sensibilities in recent science fictional films. No spoilers anywhere.


There's long been a stock villain  especially in science fiction  who's suave, smooth-talking, cheerful, tremendously intelligent and often world-weary; and who relies on high philosophy to justify his actions, which justification is usually delivered as a didactic, dispassionate monologue at a critical, tense juncture. The most classic example is O'Brien from 1984, known for his powerful soliloquies, including memorable lines such as: 
Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever. 
Such antagonists remain friendly, accessible, intimate and eminently understanding, even as they participate in cruelty without being somehow stained by its odor.

The (Vint Cerf lookalike) Architect from The Matrix Trilogy is another memorable character in this mould  his academic, abstract, nihilistically deadpan philosophical monologue in Reloaded is one of the high points in the Trilogy. Apart from science fiction, Chairman Jensen, in the terrific, far-ahead-of-its-time Network (whose thunderous, messianic peroration remains a treasure of world cinema: see youtube link here); and even Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds are prime exponents of this type.

The Grand Inquisitor radiates calm wisdom, deep understanding, genuine empathy and bucketloads of charisma while giving off the smell of total control and absolute, resistance-is-utterly-futile-variety invincibility. Pulling it off requires a fine balance on the part of the writer/director and it remains a notoriously difficult trope to get right. As a case in point, even the mighty Bong Joon-ho fails utterly in Snowpiercer (a rather forgettable effort, unfortunately) in rendering Ed Harris as a Grand-Inquisitor-type. The soliloquy is flat, the peroration, quite shrugworthy.

The returns however, are spectacular if you do get it right. Which brings us to Oscar Isaac's role as the almost otherworldly mega-billionaire in the terrific, sophisticated Ex Machina. 

The broad story arc of the film is as follows. A coder in a top software behemoth wins a one week vacation with the idiosyncratic, uber-genius owner. As the protagonist spends time on the owner's estate, he realizes that he's been roped in to administer a Turing test on a secret prototype. The owner is so confident that he's upped the ante instead of the usual test, the challenge is to observe that the interviewee is a machine (actually a hot, female android) and yet feel the conversation to be totally natural. Of course, not everything is as it seems and there is psychological manipulation at play. By whom? And directed towards whom? A surprisingly sophisticated and cerebral plot slowly reveals all answers.

The item that's breaking the internet
While everyone's written reams and reams on how great all performances were (especially Vikander's) most of the internet has been only paying attention to the admittedly quite groovy dance routine of Oscar Isaac. Hence, NF was compelled to highlight Oscar Isaac's brilliant performance since he hasn't seen much coverage of how spectacular an instantiation of The Grand Inquisitor he portrays. And yes, he had already noticed his powerful presence in the absolutely stunning Inside Llewyn Davis. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac delivers yet another killer performance. 

(A longish digression here. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have established themselves as definitively the best American filmmakers alive today. No, it's not Tarantino look at the vapid, impressively hollow The Hateful Eight a classic case of the director being too full of himself and believing he can get away with nothing but his signature flourishes. No amount of fast talking, tense-conversations-ending-in-unexpected-bloodbaths can save this navel gazing wreck. It's not Woody Allen. He still comes up with surprisingly great films but his pinnacle coincided with Deconstructing Harry in 1997. Even truly great efforts like Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris; or Blue Jasmine don't stack up to summits he reached before. It's not Spielberg or even Scorsese they've peaked out long before and no one expects them to break new ground anymore.

The Coens are far ahead of other contenders as well. Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are only a few films old. Linklater, Gus van Sant, and Harmony Korine are too niche. David Lynch and Terence Mallick are long past their prime. Fincher hasn't produced anything spectacular in ages. The Coens, however, remain a bag of surprises and with each film seem to get even better.)

Ex Machina is full of innovative details. For example, it's hinted that the film takes place in a near future but there's no timelapse of glittering, sprawling neon megacities, nor any direct connection to the outside world  the film being a mere four character domestic drama played out at the founder-owner's expansive, interminable estate. Similarly, as the story builds up, the real test reveals itself to be a Turing Test for humans, as the film slowly acquires dark overtones while cleverly subverting the classic, damsel-in-distress trope from film noirs of old. The camera-work is natural and understated; and the production design is outstanding. The ending is chilling, devastating and fitting revealing the title's true intent.

There's no Grand Peroration in Ex Machina but conversations between the protagonist employee and the uber rich employer are tight, singeing and brim over with dark overtones when you expect it the least. While Oscar Isaac is an almost otherworldly intelligence he's not merely that. He's also a meta-hipster who's rakishly handsome, incredibly cool, deeply thoughtful, irresistibly charming and oozes charisma out of every pore. He's also quick to take offence, impatient with slowness, prickly, extremely narcissistic and will cut you down to size in a blink. It's not hard to see him as an extrapolated amalgamation of the current (and past) crop of eccentric billionaires populating Silicon Valley today. Oscar Isaac shows himself to be a force of nature in a memorable and very powerful performance.

"Fucking unreal" indeed  as even his jaded character is compelled into uttering. 

Bravo! Highly recommended!


An arthouse approach to science fiction is not new. Luminaries like Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) have been perennial inspirations. Among more recent arthouse ventures however, two other films that stand out the most are Spike Jonze's Her and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (both 2013). 

In Her, Spike Jonze is almost perfect with nary a misstep and while the broad story arc may sound underwhelming a human falls in love with his operating system it's Jonze's masterful, supremely confident execution that makes the film an entirely believable, near future inevitability. The invisible Scarlett Johansson as the operating system "Samantha" is the one of the most original and stellar roles committed to film in recent memory. If there's any justice, she should get more recognition for her (voice) acting in this film. Indeed, together with the abstract, highly formalist and NF's recent favorite Under the Skin also released the same year, Scarlett Johansson has staked her claim as among the very finest American thespians in operation today. 

Much like Ex Machina, Her is an indoor drama. Again, much like Ex Machina, its science fiction is of an understated, somewhat unobtrusive variety. The protagonist's job seems to take him to both LA and Shanghai with equal frequency, suggestive of substantial efficiency gains in air travel; and there's a funny news announcement about the impending merger of India and China. What does differentiate, more explicitly, this society set in the near future is not the glitter of special effects but the subtle channel of everyday economics, design and fashion sensibilities. This has been Jonze's eternal playground and he excels in his quiet, background shots featuring near future office and home decor, current, in vogue fashion styles (observe Phoenix's rocking trousers), quirky-yet-not-outlandish near future job descriptions; and a gentle undercurrent of situational humor and romance that transform it from a merely well executed thought experiment to a beautiful and surprisingly touching love story.

Upstream Color is more radically formalist, much like its director Shane Carruth's previous, undecipherable Primer. While its take-no-prisoners-unapologetically-abstract approach could draw parallels from Under the Skin (also released in 2013, making it a watershed in artsy science fiction filmmaking), a more fitting influence seems to be Terence Mallick, whose shadow looms large and whose imprint upon this film (especially Tree of Life) is undeniable. 

In Upstream Color, Shane Carruth sticks with his fluid, scenes-melding-into-each-other approach. Dialogues are minimal, camera movement maximal and the plot (which involves two people infected by a mysterious worm which renders them slavishly pliable to hypnotic suggestions of which no memories survive, as well as telepathic connections mediated by pigs in whose bodies the worms are provided refuge) somewhat threadbare making sense only slowly as the film meanders its way towards conclusion. In common with Ex Machina and Her, Upstream Color's intrusion into explicit science fictional territory is minimal indeed, the only few seconds it occupies is the footage of a drone on a computer there are hardly any special effects and one may even be forgiven into thinking the film to be completely disconnected from science fiction and being merely an arthouse offering. 

However, much in the same way as mathematical maturity is found not buried beneath formidable equations but in the style and characterization of formal argumentation, exploration of science fictional themes occurs not in overt displays of neon sparkle and action sequences in deep space but in the casual interstices of ordinary scenes played out by ordinary humans under the yoke of an alternative reality. It's in this subtle, unobtrusive, ethereal background noise that the future is dispersed in the present; and it's in this mould that these new films are welcome intrusions into our present space.

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