After Yang (2022)

Do you think Colin Farrell starts his workdays by looking in the mirror and declaring, “I’m going Lobster Mode on ’em”?  At the time, The Lobster felt like a significant departure for the pretty boy Irish actor, but he’s played enough emotionally hollowed sad sacks in the years since that Lobster Mode Farrell has become its own subgenre: The Beguiled, Voyagers, Widows, Killing of a Sacred Deer (obv), and now the sentimental sci-fi chiller After Yang.  I expected Farrell’s post-Lobster run to show off much more range in his new turn as a Serious Actor, but he only breaks out of Lobster Mode when he’s working in goofball genre films (see: Farrell going Penguin Mode in The Batman).  For the most part, if you’re casting Colin Farrell in a sincere drama, you’re going to get the same quiet, inward brooding with the same furrowed brow and the same gravely grumble of a voice he’s been delivering since he first worked with Lanthimos in 2015.  He’s good at it, but it would be nice to see him perk up a bit.

The gloomy predictability of Farrell’s performance aside, I was thrilled by After Yang as an ultra-modernist sci-fi picture . . . for its first half hour.  It leads with its best scene: a DDR-inspired opening credits montage where several families compete in an online dance-off in impossible, isolated photo-shoot voids.  It really gets the blood pumping, only to coast from there on waves of loneliness & grief.  Farrell stars opposite Jodie Turner-Smith as adoptive parents of a young Chinese girl (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).  They are loving but inattentive, purchasing an android model (Justin H. Min, the titular Yang) as a babysitter & Chinese Cultural Ambassador, looking after their child while feeding her a steady stream of “Chinese Fun Facts.”  Most of the movie is concerned with what happens after Yang stops functioning and is effectively decommissioned.  Is he an appliance they should leave on the curb with the rest of their weekly suburban waste, or is he a legitimate member of the family deserving of a respectful burial?

Reductively speaking, this is the mawkish family-drama sci-fi of Bicentennial Man repackaged as a quieter, more cerebral meditation like Marjorie Prime.  My declining interest in its central story was more a question of genre tastes than artistic success, as director Kogonada only uses the thrills of future-tech paranoia as a starting point for a much calmer, less sensationalist conversation.  Farrell’s rattled patriarch starts the film skeptical of the inner lives of the clones & technosapiens that now live among traditional humans, a cultural conservatism that’s reflected in his life’s work cultivating & brewing authentic teas (in a future-world that’s converted to single-use packages of flavor crystals).  He pays shady characters to break into the deceased Yang’s memory banks, fearful that they’ll find spyware recordings of his family’s intimate moments, but instead he discovers that Yang was his own separate person with his own inner life.  Yang’s stored memories play like a film school thesis project from a young director who just saw their first Malick – collecting small, sunlit details from the world around him in a digital scrapbook that’s useful to no one else outside his head. 

That switchover from cybertech paranoia to lingering questions about the borders between humanity & its closest imitators is admirable, but it doesn’t leave much of a narrative drive to propel the movie across the finish line.  When it’s a seedy backroom thriller about A.I. surveillance, it has its hooks in my flesh.  After the switch, it’s just mildly melancholic & sweet, with about ten consecutive endings it quietly drifts past in search of a grander purpose.  It doesn’t help that Farrell goes full Lobster Mode in this instance, since his low-energy moping does little to fill the void left by the genre switch.  I had some hope in the opening minutes that Kogonada made the actor jump around to shake himself loose & awake with some DDR choreo, but he immediately regressed to his Lobster state in the very next scene.  At this point, I have to assume that’s exactly the performance he was hired to deliver, considering that he’s been reluctant to try anything else in recent years, at least not when the role calls for a Serious Actor.

-Brandon Ledet

Bigbug (2022)

One of the more delightful side effects of Netflix spending ungodly amounts of money producing in-house Originals is that they often fund dream projects for established auteurs who’re struggling to adapt to a post-MCU movie industry, where every single production has to be either a multi-billion-dollar tentpole or an Oscars prestige magnet to be deemed worthwhile.  There’s something wonderful about the likes of Scorsese, Fincher, and Cuarón finally enjoying total creative freedom and unrestrained access to a corporate checkbook, all for a profit-loss streaming giant that has no tangible plans to make short-term returns on those investments.  It’s wonderful in concept, anyway.  Despite sidestepping the creative & budgetary restrictions of the traditional Hollywood production process, none of these legendary directors have been doing their best work on Netflix.  Mank, Roma, and The Irishman are all perfectly cromulent Awards Season dramas, but none can claim to match their respective auteurs’ creative heights in previous works made under more constrictive conditions.  Netflix should be an auteur’s paradise, but somehow the work they’re platforming from cinema’s most distinct artists is coming out bland & sanded down in the process.

What I cannot tell about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first Netflix project is how much of its blandness is intentional.  The basic premise of his sci-fi comedy Bigbug feels like classic Jeunet in that it’s a collection of oddball characters competing to out-quirk each other in a retro-futuristic fantasy realm.  However, Jeunet abandons the lived-in grime of his usual schtick to instead try out an eerily crisp, overlit production design that recalls the Spy Kids franchise more than it does anything he’s directed before.  It almost feels as if Jeunet is making fun of the Netflix house style with this cheap, plastic playhouse aesthetic, as it resembles the bright colors & bleached teeth of other Netflix Originals more than it does the sooty, antiqued worlds of films like Amélie, Delicatessen, or City of Lost Children.  I don’t know how much credit you can give Jeunet for making a film that’s bland on purpose, especially since plenty of Bigbug‘s slapstick gags & shrill one-liners are 100% intended to be funny and land with a miserable thud instead.  At the same time, Jeunet breaks up this single-location farce with totally unnecessary fade-to-black commercial breaks, reinforcing its production values as a TV-movie in an act of self-deprecation.  Questions of how good, how self-aware, and how critical of its own straight-to-streaming format Bigbug is persist throughout its entire runtime.  It’s undeniably the least idiosyncratic film in Jeunet’s catalog to date; the question is how much of its familiar, off-putting artificiality was the intention of the artist.

The truth is likely that Bigbug‘s plastic, sanitized production values were a circumstance of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and not a metatextual joke at the expense of the Netflix house style (a likelihood reinforced by a dire one-liner about a COVID-50 outbreak in the distant future).  In the film, several mismatched couples are locked inside a futuristic automated home to wait out an A.I. revolution that’s raging outside.  The humans in the house are all desperate to find privacy in lockdown so they can have sex.  The home-appliance robots they share the space with are desperate to be respected as fellow autonomous beings, mimicking the humans’ shrill, erratic behavior in idolization.  Both factions—the robots and the humans—must join forces to outsmart the fascistic A.I. supersoldiers that inevitably invade their prison-home, but the movie doesn’t feel all that invested in the terror of that threat.  Instead, it works more as a brochure for fictional automated-home technology, like the retro-future kitsch of 1950s World’s Fair reels promoting far-out kitchen appliances.  Treating this trapped-inside surveillance state premise as a thin metaphor for the limbo of COVID-19 lockdowns, Jeunet doesn’t stress himself out too much in pursuit of a plot.  The setting is mostly an excuse for a series of one-off gags involving navel-gazing vacuum cleaners, short-circuiting dildo bots, and the ritualistic humiliations of Reality TV.  It’s all extremely frivolous & silly, and some of it is even halfway funny.

At its best, Bigbug plays like The Exterminating Angel reprised on the set of the live-action Cat in the Hat.  At its worst, it plays like excruciatingly dull deleted scenes from the live-action Cat in the Hat.  I honestly don’t know what to make of that cursed imbalance, but I do know that it is at least a huge creative departure for Jeunet as a visual stylist.  All Netflix-spotlighted auteurs have done their blandest, most overly sanitized work for the streaming behemoth, but only Jeunet has leaned so far into that quality downgrade that it feels at least semi-intentional.  No one makes a movie this bizarrely artificial by accident – least of all someone whose work usually looks like it was filmed at the bottom of an antique ashtray.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Your Man (2021)

I’m not convinced that Dan Stevens ever fully achieved the movie star dream career he abruptly left Downton Abbey to pursue.  Between his career-defining run on that glorified soap opera and the Disney Prince paycheck he cashed after the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, he’s probably financially set for life.  I get the sense that he’s still not creatively fulfilled, though.  After a strong start in the weirdo action thrillers The Guest and Legion, he’s mostly been doing anonymous, supporting work that doesn’t draw much attention to his movie-star potential as a leading man.  The German sci-fi romcom I’m Your Man is a welcome corrective step in that treadmill career trajectory.  In the film, Stevens stars as a perfectly calibrated robot boyfriend, a role that emphasizes both his generic handsomeness and his eerie, inhuman coldness.  Instead of running away from his default perception as a dime-a-dozen Ken Doll hunk (the exact reason Stevens fled from Downton Abbey as soon as he could), I’m Your Man leans hard into that quality, pressing both on its charms and its limitations.  It’s a perfect encapsulation of what makes him unique as a screen presence, which is something he doesn’t always get to showcase.

In I’m Your Man, robo-Dan Stevens is beta-tested by a recently divorced research scientist (Maren Eggert), who is reluctant to treat him like a potential A.I. life partner instead of a household appliance.  She reluctantly agrees to the study in a bargain that will land her own academic research future funding opportunities but finds the implication that a robot boyfriend would fulfill an emotional need in her life insulting.  Initially annoyed by his machinelike perfection and his servantile attention to her every need, she gradually learns to love the walking, talking dildo despite herself.  Their dynamic feels like a broadcast from a slightly brighter world where heartfelt romcoms get to tackle heady subjects usually reserved for eerie sci-fi chillers like Ex Machina.  It’s a very familiar Turing Test story structure that’s not usually played with such a lightness in its doomed human-robot romance.  It balances its romcom cuteness with just enough melancholy & heartbreak to feel sophisticated, but not enough to match the dramatic despair of much drearier sci-fi romances like Her and Never Let Me Go.  Like robo-Dan Stevens, it’s perfectly calibrated for what it is, with all the charms & limitations implied.

If there’s some larger topical or philosophical statement I’m Your Man is trying to make about humanity’s evolving relationship with technology, I’m not able to fully pinpoint it.  It romanticizes the shortcomings & imperfections that distinguish humans from machinery (most starkly in a slow-motion montage of “Epic Fail” YouTube clips).  At the same time, it’s also honest about how comforting & safe it feels to interact with machines instead of our fellow fuck-ups (maybe as subtle commentary on the distinctly modern isolation of smartphone addiction).  I don’t know that it makes any grand, definitive statements about human nature or technological comforts, though.  It instead gently pokes at the boundaries between the natural & the artificial, finding odd moments of peace & romance in their overlap.  For me, the movie’s clearest purpose is in highlighting the eerie charms of Dan Stevens as a screen presence, finding his exact sweet spot as a potential leading man.  Otherwise, it’s just an above-average romcom with a fun sci-fi spin.

-Brandon Ledet

Replicas (2019)

Often, when we have fun watching “bad movies” for sport, we’re indulging in the over-the-top camp & below-par craft of outsider art: finding amusement in the handmade, weirdly delivered oddities that could never make it to the screen in more professional, homogenized studio pictures. The latest Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie (in a tradition that includes such esteemed titles as Chain Reaction & Johnny Mnemonic) is an entirely different, more rarified kind of “bad movie” pleasure. Replicas is less of an over-the-top, straight-from-the-id slice of schlocky outsider art than it is a confounding puzzle, the kind of “bad movie” that inspired the idiom “How did this get made?” There are a few laughs to be had at Replicas’s expense, but not as many as you may hope for from a dirt-cheap sci-fi picture dumped into an early-January theatrical release (when it obviously deserved the direct-to-VOD treatment). Chuckling at its robotic line-deliveries & Lawnmower Man-level CGI can only carry you so far in a movie that’s too somberly paced to fully support the MST3k-riffing treatment. Replicas does not amount to much as a laugh-a-minute camp fest, but it does excel as a puzzling piece of screenwriting, a bizarre act of storytelling so emotionless & illogical that there’s no recognizable humanity to it at all, as if its conception itself was a work of science fiction.

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist & a family man, toiling away in a Puerto Rican lab on a research project meant to transfer human consciousness to A.I. machines. His closest collaborator, a perpetually nervous Thomas Middleditch, is simultaneously working on a seemingly unrelated project involving human cloning. When a freak car accident kills his wife & children, Reeves makes a panicked decision to combine the two projects, creating clones of his deceased family and importing the “neurological data” from their former selves, so it’s as if they never died. To its credit, Replicas almost establishes a genuinely unnerving source of tension there – finding chilling moments of unease as the dead family’s “living” replicas occasionally half-remember the crash that killed them as if it were a dream they once had. The movie isn’t especially interested in building on that theme, however, as it instead chases a go-nowhere conspiracy thriller storyline involving the company that paid for the cloning & A.I. research. Even that narrative thread is illogically patterned, however, delivering none of the usual payoffs you’d expect from its genre. Replicas ultimately feels as if it were written by a malfunctioning algorithm that became self-aware midway into the process and decided to self-destruct rather than construct a third act. Its various narrative threads & motions towards thematic reasoning are ultimately an act of total chaos, a meaningless collection of 1’s & 0’s. It’s oddly fascinating to behold as it devolves into formless nonsense, like listening to an A.I. machine babble as it loses power & effectively dies.

Keanu Reeves does deliver some traditionally funny “bad movie” line-readings throughout, recalling his befuddled family-man schtick in Knock Knock. His attempts to imbue pathos into lines like “I didn’t defy every natural law there is just to lose you again,” & “Boot the mapping sequence, Ed!” hit the perfect note of failed sincerity & meaningless one-liner script punch-ups. His wife (Alice Eve) sinks even further into inhuman “bad movie” performance than he does – speaking in a dazed, dubbed, robotic cadence about the difference between “neuro chemistry” vs. the human soul as if she were calling in a lunch order. Still, these moments of absurdly mishandled drama are too far spaced-out to recommend Replicas as a laugh-a-minute camp fest. The movie is much more enjoyable for the value of its bizarre construction as a piece of writing. Its mystery thriller tangents, loose Frankenstein-style themes of playing god, and desperate scramble to reach a coherent conclusion all clash spectacularly as its hopes for a clear, linear storyline fall to pieces before our eyes. Most so-bad-it’s-good cinematic pleasures are enjoyable because they offer a glimpse of humanity that shines through the usual machinery of professional filmmaking – whether in a poorly made costume, a wildly miscalculated performance, an unintentional expression of a creator’s id, or what have you. Replicas is a different kind of “bad movie” delight; it’s fascinating because it seems to display no discernible humanity at all, as if it were written by a machine on the fritz. Its only value is that it can be taught as an example of what not to do in a screenwriting class, or enjoyed for its puzzling questions of how & why it was made in the first place by the lucky few who mistakenly find themselves gazing at its confounding, cheap CG splendor.

-Brandon Ledet

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Upgrade (2018)

Often, when I prattle on about my deep love of Evil Technology luddite genre films, I tend to cite recent examples like Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror as the defining works of the canon. There are plenty of pre-Internet Era luddite thrillers I love just as deeply, however; they just already have established cults that don’t need the awareness boost. Films like Hardware & Videodrome have, even if only through the passage of time, already earned passionate fanbases that haven’t caught up to more recent, less prestigious works like, say, the Snapchat filter horror film Truth or Dare. The recent Blumhouse sci-fi thriller Upgrade seems to be transcending that limitation, instantly earning a fiercely dedicated fanbase that isn’t typically afforded tech-obsessed genre films. It’s highly doubtful Upgrade will ever be as culturally iconic as a classic example like The Matrix or The Terminator, but it is bypassing the long road to genre fans’ respect suffered by just-as-deserving works like Unfriended. This might be partly due to its avoidance of exploring the evils of the Internet specifically, since that topic is often dismissed as being too frivolous or too silly to justify a feature length movie (as if a movie could ever be too silly). Instead, Upgrade largely exploits & satirizes luddite fears of self-driving, automated technology. It also, smartly, buries that satire under the surface of a comedic, hyperviolent, cheap-thrills action film that plays much dumber at face value that it actual is in its core cultural commentary. What I’m saying is that that Upgrade is the RoboCop of the 2010s (not to be confused with RoboCop [2014]), an instant genre-fan favorite because it channels the thrills & tone of an undeniable classic without directly copying it.

Paul Verhoeven’s sly satire of police privatization, Reagan Era fascism, and governmental control over personal autonomy is what makes RoboCop an enduring classic, not necessarily its over-the-top violence & (admittedly great) character design. Plot-wise, Upgrade only superficially resembles that time-tested work, touching on themes of police surveillance & the melding of the human body with creepy future-tech only in passing. Its own satirical target is the discomfort people feel with the increasing presence of self-automated technology of “smart” domestic appliances, self-driving cars, and predictive A.I. This is a violent action film about a self-driving body, where the only freedom of choice presented is how much permission is allowed a human body’s implanted operating system to act as its own discretion. And, of course, even that freedom is chipped away. It specifically focuses on the challenge automated technology presents to macho men who long for a now-extinct world that values their brute strength & ability to achieve labor-intensive tasks with their own hands. This very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

In a near-future dystopia, a classic macho man mechanic bristles at his wife’s love of & reliance on self-automated tech, nostalgic for a world where his hands-on skills were more useful. This anxiety is only made more extreme when his motor skills are taken away from him completely in a senseless act of violence that destroys his family & leaves him physically crippled. A fey tech-bro offers him the promise of a better future through an advanced version of the automated technology that made him so uncomfortable to begin with, affording him a new chance at “self” sufficiency by implanting a “new & better brain” (a biotech computer chip) in his body. Mimicking the humorously calm, sinister tones of HAL 9000, this new operating system, STEM, reinvigorates the fallen mechanic to enact revenge on the brutes who ruined his life. The problem is that he’s not particularly skilled at revenge. Even with his motor functions fully restored, he struggles to best the goons he hunts into physical confrontations, as they’re more skilled in brutal violence. He then must overcome his macho pride and allow STEM to take over as the driver of his own body, closing his eyes as the computer inside him enacts horrific atrocities that make him want to puke. From there, Upgrade is a race to see if the revenge mission can be completed before police-drone surveillance blows its cover completely. Honestly, the resolution of that plot is not nearly as compelling as the over-the-top violence & satirical comedy that drives it. As gore-soaked & boneheaded as the film’s action can frequently be, the overall tone is so cartoonish (especially in the internal arguments with STEM) that Upgrade effectively plays like an action comedy. It’s an indulgence in grotesque slapstick that hints that maybe its hero’s macho paranoia shouldn’t be taken as seriously as you might expect in a more standard thriller. It’s easy to imagine a straight-faced Hollywood version of Upgrade that plays this same self-automation anxiety for genuine tension (presumably starring Liam Neeson) but it’s difficult to imagine that version being half as fun or worthwhile.

A longtime collaborator with modern horror mainstay James Wan, Upgrade director Leigh Whannell impressed me once before with his willingness to go over the top in the evil doll horror Dead Silence. Just like how that bonkers horror frivolity transcended its limited means by feeling like two dozen Charles Band scripts crammed into one monstrosity, Upgrade is endearing in the way it overloads itself with ideas. Neon lights, body-mounted cameras, and intense practical gore effects complicate the humor of the film’s action sequences. Throwaway potshots at VR gaming, police drones, and erudite tech bros threaten to distract from the film’s central satirical target: macho men’s fear of approaching obsoletion through automated tech. This is the exact overstuffed, go-for-broke dual indulgence in absurdity & craft that I love to see in my genre films. Its bifurcated nature as both a gory action comedy spectacle and a subversive act of cultural commentary is indicative of the film’s “Have your cake and eat it too” attitude at large, something that was much more common in high profile genre films back when Paul Verhoeven was making mainstream hits that played a lot dumber on the surface than they truly were. Upgrade isn’t one of my precious Evil Internet horror cheapies that needs to be championed for people to see its value (I may need to conserve that energy for the upcoming Unfriended 2: Dark Web anyway). Its approach to luddite genre filmmaking is more instantly recognizable as a crowd-pleaser, with all its cultural satire buried under the surface of a hyperviolent action comedy. It’s the modern RoboCop in that way, as opposed to the more common approach of remaking & reshaping the original film’s exact plot through updated tech. This is more of a spiritual descendant than a carbon copy, something that’s much more difficult to achieve.

-Brandon Ledet

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #3 of The Swampflix Podcast: A.I. Sci-Fi of the 2010s & #horror (2015)

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Welcome to Episode #3 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our third episode, James & Brandon discuss ten sci-fi films from the 2010s that explore the concept of artificial intelligence with author/blogger/friend Bryan Perkins. Also, Brandon makes James watch the anti-social media bullying slasher flick #horror (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical bumps on this episode were provided by the long-defunct band Polterchrist.

 

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Ex Machina (2015)

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Sometimes a straight-forward, low-key picture is the exactly correct approach when dealing with larger than life concepts. This can especially be true with sci-fi. I had a lot of fun with the twisty trashiness of this year’s Predestination, which was anything but tasteful, and the ludicrous world-building of last year’s The Zero Theorem, but neither of those examples haunted me quite as much as Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina. There’s something about Ex Machina’s straight-forward, no nonsense approach to sci-fi storytelling that struck a real chord in me. It’s not likely to win over folks who are looking to be surprised by every single development in its plot, but for those willing to enjoy the movie on its own stripped-down terms there’s a lot of intense visual rewards & interesting thematic explorations of, among other things, masculine romantic possessiveness that can be deeply satisfying. It’s a cold, tightly-controlled film that somehow echoes both the overwhelming psychedelic claustrophobia of Beyond the Black Rainbow & the you’re-in-over-your-head-kid misanthropy of last year’s brilliantly dark Frank without coming off as at all showy in the process. That’s no small feat.

Holding down the Frank end of that formula is incredibly talented Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (who also starred in Frank, go figure), playing a young computer programmer who is recruited by a villainous half-Steve Jobs/half-Howard Hughes bro-type (played by the also talented Oscar Isaac) to test the consciousness of a just-invented AI robot called Ava. Despite her artificial appearance, Ava is incredibly human and challenges both her creator’s & her observer’s views of who & what she is, calling into question whether her confinement & lack of freedom is a form of abuse. As more is slowly revealed about Isaac’s mad scientist & the depthless intelligence Ava is hiding, the movie takes on a deeply sinister, misanthropic tone in which no one comes across as a good person, but rather all three parties are complicit in attempting to control, mislead, and manipulate, all for their own selfish reasons. In the cold confines of the remote compound where this three-way power struggle unfolds, there’s a deeply unsettling revelation about the worst aspects of human nature at play here, one that is in no way lessened by being able to see where the story is going before it arrives there.

The truly impressive thing about Ex Machina’s calm, controlled style is how striking of a visual effect the movie accomplishes through very simple, straightforward techniques. Throughout the film, there are frequent “power-outs” in the setting’s remote facility that bathe the screen in a threateningly intense red light. When the camera cuts from these images to the contrasting bright greens of nature outside, the movie not only draws a visual comparison between nature & artifice, it also creates a surprisingly psychedelic experience that recalls the futuristic medical facility of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Just like with its acting, story-telling, thematic explorations, tone, and pacing, the visual aesthetic established in Ex Machina is surprisingly effective for something so intentionally simple. It’s an impressive picture in how it makes no grand gestures to impress, relying on its inherent strengths instead of showy gimmickry to establish itself as a unique work. I found the effect of this approach both eerie and refreshing, both disturbing and poignant. In other words, it’s a great film.

-Brandon Ledet