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

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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