September 25, 2015
Strange news out of Japan this week: It appears that the humanoid companion robot known as Pepper — which can read emotions and converse with humans — has a curious clause in its user contract. Buyers must agree not to have sex with the merchandise.
Pepper, you see, is designed to use voice analysis and facial recognition to respond to human emotional cues. But not, evidently, like that.
Look, this is delicate. But we’re all grownups here, right? The truth is that, as a civilization, we will be dealing with robot sex sooner than later. Sociologists are already predicting it, ethicists are already debating it, and others are just dismissing it as another historical sex panic.
In any case, as a concept, it’s really nothing new. While we usually avoid specifics, we’ve been telling ourselves human-machine love stories in science fiction for decades. As with so many things in life, we can turn to Hollywood for profitable instruction. Forthwith, in no particular order, the sexiest robots in the history of sci-fi movies.
September 11, 2015
Fairly or not, when you go into an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you expect a twist. The director made his bones in Hollywood with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which features one of the most cleverly obscured script flips in the history of scary movies.
Shyamalan’s plot-twist movies since then have usually been underwhelming (Signs and The Happening) and occasionally underrated (The Village). In his prior effort, the breathtakingly awful After Earth with Will Smith, Shyamalan pulled off his greatest trick by turning a $130 million budget into nothing at all.
The director’s new film, The Visit, is being marketed as a return to old-school Shyamalan territory. It’s a horror movie with a twist—and a pretty good one, too. The twist, that is. I didn’t see it coming, and I was looking pretty hard. The actual horror movie part of the endeavor … well, that’s another story.
Teenage Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her little brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are being shipped out to see their grandparents for a weeklong visit at an isolated country home. The kids’ mom (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for many years, ever since she eloped with the untoward young man who would later become Becca and Tyler’s dad.
Dad, unfortunately, recently abandoned the family for another woman, leaving mom and the kids traumatized. Tyler’s emotional wounds present as hysterical germophobia—this will become relevant later. Becca is processing her grief, meanwhile, by making a student documentary film about “the visit.”
It’s a terrible decision because it means we’re forced to watch this story through the truly exhausted found-footage narrative device that’s been haunting the horror genre for far too long. Significantly, the makers of the Paranormal Activity franchise are on board as producers.
The found-footage conceit nearly sinks the entire endeavor. The script contorts to accommodate the contrivance of Becca’s camera—always in just the right place at just the wrong time. To his credit, Shyamalan salvages several scenes with inventive and disturbing images. As a visual stylist, he is gifted at finding the things we’re scared of in commonplace scenarios.
Here, he digs deep into fears of old age, decrepitude and dementia. The spooky grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, are clearly hiding something. But like the increasingly terrified kids, we don’t know what it is. We get some clues, like when grandpa gets caught putting a shotgun in his mouth, or when Becca stumbles on grandma laughing hysterically at a blank wall.
“You have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in the cave,” grandma explains. Zoinks, Scoob!
When we discover what’s going on, the film accelerates nicely, and Shyamalan’s script reveals its hidden twists and depths. It takes some sleuthing, toward the end, to piece together events at that creepy old farmhouse. I like that Shyamalan trusts us enough to connect the dots on our own.
That found-footage decision, though—ugh, what a mistake. The Visit is mightily diminished by the cheap jump scares typical of the genre, and the perpetual distraction of wondering, “Wait, how did the camera get there?” Had Shyamalan chosen a more traditional filmmaking approach, this could have been a nice little horror story with a few good laughs, some real emotional resonance and a pretty great reveal.
But as it stands, it’s just a scary movie with a twist.
The latest collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig is a fast and funny indie comedy with a heart of looming darkness. Mistress America is packed with charming, narcissistic people doing reckless, selfish things in the name of self-actualization. It’s a lot of fun.
Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-something New York City creative (that’s a noun these days, apparently) who has several dozen entrepreneurial schemes in the air at any given time. Brooke is a frenetic presence; a whirlwind of ideas, inspirations and flights into dime-store psychology.
Most of all, Brooke is an achiever. She wants to open a Brooklyn restaurant called “Mom’s” that will be all things to all people—an eatery, hair salon and art gallery where everyone in the city can feel at home.
The other lead is Tracy (Lola Kirke), an NYU freshman and soon-to-be-stepsister of Brooke, as Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad. A talented writer, Tracy needs a New York City mentor to help her navigate the city’s treacherous waters. It’s an ideal setup: Tracy adores Brooke, and Brooke is happy to be adored.
In her short career, Amy Winehouse stunned the music world as a genius-level jazz vocalist and natural-born songwriter. She was an artist of massive wattage—a feisty North Londoner with a smart mouth and a fragile heart.
In the devastating documentary Amy, director Asif Kapadia tells the story of Winehouse’s tilt-a-whirl life and sudden, tragic death. The approach is simple and direct. Voiceover interviews with friends and family are fused with archival images, performance footage and handheld video. Every combination of sound and picture is composed to bring us viscerally into Winehouse’s world.
Kapadia and his producers managed to secure amazing access for their film. Childhood friends and Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, provided hours of candid home-movie style video footage. The first half of the documentary is flat-out fascinating if you’re interested in Winehouse’s artistry and incredible music.
We see her performing in small clubs as a young singer on the London jazz scene and working with her producer, Salaam Remi, on new songs. Even as a teenager, her sophistication with melody and phrasing seems almost supernatural. Later, we watch her skills as a songwriter and lyricist emerge. The melodies may be sad, she says, “but I always put a punch line in the song.”
That’s exactly right, although they were invariably gut punches. Winehouse’s Grammy-winning breakthrough album, Back to Black, is a masterpiece—an aching study of the love song as a bloody wound.
I could have watched the first half of Amy for another 12 hours, but inevitably, the film turns toward a profile of the Winehouse of the tabloid era. The second half follows the singer through rehab stints, public humiliations and a lethally toxic marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin and crack cocaine.
As the death spiral accelerates, Kapadia stitches together home movies with tabloid news reports and increasingly infrequent concert appearances. Many scenes are hard on the stomach. In one freeze frame, we see in Winehouse’s eyes the raw, demonic hunger of her addictions. The filmmakers hold the image for an excruciating interval. It’s one of the most disturbing compositions I’ve ever seen.
The documentary presents everything at an artistic remove, with implicit critiques of media and society. But it still trades in ghoulish tabloid imagery, and it still feels awful. We already watched Winehouse die in public. Watching it again, in close-up, is painful.
Amy is an intimate and profoundly sad chronicle of an artist chopped down in her prime by fame, disease and personal demons. It’s a tremendously powerful film, but one that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend seeing—not if you ever loved Winehouse through her music. I had the strangest sensation after watching Amy: I admired it very much and wished I’d never seen it at all.
July 7, 2015
When the original Jurassic Park hit theaters in 1993, it was blockbuster movie-making done right. The special effects were like nothing we’d ever seen, and director Steven Spielberg—the planet’s leading expert in this sort of thing—provided humor and heart along with all the shock and awe.
Twenty-two years and several sequels later, the operation has fossilized into JURASSIC WORLD, in which only the tradition of dazzling digital effects remains. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard play the odd-couple leads—he’s loose, she’s uptight—and a couple of bland kids are put in peril as dinosaurs once again run amok.
The dinosaur action scenes are fun, especially on the big screen (with the big sound), and director Colin Trevorrow stages a few effective sequences featuring a kind of human hamster ball vehicle. But the rest of the movie is an assembly-line franchise endeavor, with phony emotional swells, dumbed-down dialogue and relentless product placement. The makers of Jurassic World don’t think much of their audience, and it shows.
Happily, we have the perfect summer movie antidote with INSIDE OUT, the 15th animated feature film from Pixar, maybe the single most reliable entity in the entertainment industry.
Audacious and overflowing with ideas, Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley and the five color-coded Emotions that live in her head—golden Joy (Amy Poehler), blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), purple Fear (Bill Hader), red Anger (Lewis Black) and green Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Director Pete Docter creates a visual extravaganza inside Riley’s mind, where emotional traumas are seismic events and memories are stored in bright orbs. Joy and Sadness team up to navigate Riley’s crises by journeying—via the Train of Thought—to notional nooks such as Imagination Land, the scary Subconscious and the under-construction realm of Abstract Thought. (Riley’s just 11, after all.)
The story delivers a parade of delightful concepts—how facts and opinions get mixed up; how brain freeze works—with humor, goofiness and the kind of emotional intelligence we’ve come to expect from Pixar. The filmmakers clearly like and respect their audience. And it shows.
Together, Jurassic World and Inside Out present a fascinating contrast. Both are big-budget summer tentpole movies, aiming to please. But as actual filmgoing experiences, they couldn’t be more different. Jurassic feels like a product assembled by skilled merchants. Inside Out feels like a creation shared by inspired artists. My suggestion: Skip the former and see the latter twice.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Claws and Effects.”
November 10, 2014
Director Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated sci-fi epic Interstellar is a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp by several light years. The film evokes grand questions of cosmic significance in its first half, then abandons them to goofball blockbuster conventions in the second, trusting that viewers won’t notice or care—so long as the eye-popping spectacles keep coming.
The hell of it is, it’s a strategy that pretty much works. The movie’s jaw-dropping visuals and sound design go a long way toward obscuring the story problems. You might ponder the plot holes later, in the parking lot. But when Nolan’s flipping you sideways through the gravitational lens of a fifth-dimensional wormhole, your mind is really on other things.
Here’s the gist: On a near-future Earth, ecological degradation has turned the planet into a spinning dustbowl. Droughts and crop blights have returned humanity to subsistence farming. The situation is so grim that governments can’t even afford wars anymore, so you know it’s serious, and NASA has been reduced to a couple of dozen scientists in a secure, undisclosed location.
Pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) may be mankind’s last hope. Through a series of events too spoiler-y to get into, Cooper is sent into space with scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a couple of redshirts. Their destination—a wormhole just past Saturn that has apparently been placed there, by a superior race of beings, so that we might find a new home world.
The wormhole is the first of maybe a half-dozen spectacular set pieces in which Nolan provides sights and sounds you’ve never seen before on the big screen. On their celestial scouting mission, Coop and his crew hike over frozen clouds and narrowly escape planet-spanning tsunamis. Also on board, a genuinely new kind of spaceship robot that defies all expectations as to what future androids are supposed to look like.
Running parallel to all of this is the story of Coop’s family. Thanks to the vagaries of the time-space continuum, Coop doesn’t age, but the 11-year-old daughter he left behind does. She eventually grows into Jessica Chastain, and there’s some barely coherent business toward the end about the power of love to span epochs of space and time.
I didn’t mind any of that stuff, but I didn’t buy into it either. The performers do an admirable job of selling the story’s emotional threads—especially Chastain—but the dialogue just keeps getting clunkier as events in space get weirder. At one point, poor McConaughey is asked to deliver a couple of minute’s worth of clumsy exposition as he’s floating weightlessly through an infinite mirror tesseract (don’t ask).
For fans of the genre, Interstellar is worth seeing in theaters for an undeniably fun thrill-ride. The sound design is bonkers, too, with deep bass roars that will rattle your rib cage. It’s too bad that the story can’t hold the center, but let us be optimistic. In the last of several awkward third-act developments, Nolan follows his blockbuster instincts and sets us up for a potential sequel. Might I suggest: Interstellar 2: Interstellarer. That thing will write itself!
November 10, 2014
Thirty years ago this summer, author William Gibson released his debut novel, “Neuromancer,” and pretty much single-handedly changed the trajectory of science fiction. Gibson’s story – of virtual realities and insane artificial intelligences – pioneered the genre of cyberpunk and folded in dozens of details that would prove remarkably prescient.
Gibson’s work over the years has gradually crept from far-future speculation toward contemporary observation. His most recent books – concluding with 2010’s “Zero History” – are set about five minutes into the future and examine a world changing so rapidly that science fiction is becoming indistinguishable from everyday reality.
Gibson’s much-anticipated new novel, “The Peripheral,” splits the difference. By way of an alternating-chapter structure – and an exceedingly cool time-travel premise – “The Peripheral” toggles between near-future and far-future settings. Using high-tech “peripheral” technology, characters are able to project their consciousness into machines and effectively move through time.
“The Peripheral” is a murder mystery wrapped in cyberpunk noir, with some spooky conjecture on our weirder modern technologies – including drones, 3-D printing and virtual reality gaming. Calling from his home in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Gibson recently spoke to The N&O about time travel, apocalypse and hope for the future.
Q: Time-travel stories are notoriously difficult to pull off, because of the causal paradoxes, but you find an interesting solution in the book: The characters project their consciousness into machines that exist in alternate timelines. Can you talk about how you arrived at that?
A: Well, in part it’s an appropriation, because my favorite story from the cyberpunk era is a story called “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. The rules of time travel in that story are as they are in “The Peripheral.” The idea is, as soon as you make contact with your own past, it’s no longer your own past. It splits off and is headed in its own direction.
So I happily appropriated that, then added the rule that physical time travel is utterly impossible. Thirty years ago that would have left you with no room to have a story. But in a world in which a pilot can sit in a warehouse outside of Las Vegas and kill people in Afghanistan in a flying robot – which is our world – then you can have a total story. The mechanics of that called the whole peripheral thing into existence.
Q: The two timelines are separated by an apocalypse called The Jackpot, which turns out to be more of a gradual deterioration than an event. What was your thinking behind that?
A: I realized how the mythology of science fiction Armageddon tends to be uni-causal. It was the one thing – the triffids, the Russians, whatever. It’s this one bad thing that happens one day. I realized how much that’s changed. The apocalyptic events that loom for us now are kind of hard to get a handle on, because they’re not like that. They’re political and ecological and have been going on for hundreds of years.
Q: The characters in the story are regularly off-loading themselves into machines, essentially. It made me think about how we delegate parts of our thinking and memory these days to our phones and devices.
A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And I think that’s something that’s in my work back to the beginning. The first short story I ever wrote is a about a kind of memory peripheral. It was called “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” It probably doesn’t even have the word digital in it, but it’s really about digital prosthetic memory. It’s such a profoundly different mode of memory that we all live with now.
Q: Our heroine in the story, Flynne, seems similar to young people today in that she accepts radical technological change easily; she rolls with things. She’s not passive, though – she’s heroic and lovable. She just doesn’t fret much.
A: Well, that’s heartening to hear. She must be based in some osmotic way in my sense, today, of people her age. Some of them anyway. I’m not consciously trying to do that when I’m writing. But I’m getting it from somewhere. A good character for me, when I’m writing, is a character who will surprise me and occasionally dumbfound me. In that I’ll be sitting there going, “Why did she do that?” I mostly have to let them, if the book is going to work itself out.
Q: Your books all deal in some degree with near-future or far-future fictional scenarios. Are you hopeful for our actual future?
A: The uncomfortable thing about this book, I realized as I finished it, is that it seems to say: It’ll all be fine – so long as you’ve got a really powerful fairy godmother in an alternate timeline … Otherwise, you’re going to have to figure out something else.