Science fiction is a genre too often misunderstood as something entirely fictional and futuristic. But if we dig deep and undress the carefully constructed metaphors (such as the presence of aliens, monsters and human mutants) we will find that the foundation of such films is always a commentary on our contemporary world. Somewhere under the surface, between the lines, science-fiction is always addressing our political, socio-economic or environmental situation, tapping into our collective fears and with a cathartic ending reassuring us that, no matter what dangers the humanity faces in a certain socio-historical moment, everything is going to work out just fine. Whether it is a sci-fi movie from the Cold War era, influenced by the nuclear threat and fear of communist Russia taking over the world, a post 9/11 alien-invasion movie that taps into people’s fear of terrorist attacks, or an environmental catastrophe movie from the early 2000’s when the reality and undeniable threat of global warming entered into our collective consciousness – there is always an important correlation between a science fiction story and an era in which it was made, even if such films do not always approach these subjects in the most impartial and non damaging way. But this is where Arrival so extraordinarily stands out from alien films that we have seen in the past, proving itself to be one of the most outstanding and humanist science fiction films of the past decade.
The Congress is an ambitious dystopian film made by Israeli film-maker Ari Folman, best known for his 2008 masterpiece Waltz with Bashir. It is based on the sci-fi novel Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote Solaris, a book that was later adapted for screen by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Robin Wright (played, naturally, by Robin Wright) is a 44-year old actress who’s career is about to end. She has a reputation of being hard to work with and making bad choices when it comes to her professional life, considering that most of the films she starred in turned out to be commercial failures. She’s also over 40 years old – and that’s the main reason the all-powerful “Miramount” studio (a made-up name that derives from “Miramax” and “Paramount”) doesn’t want to hire her anymore. But before letting her go, they decide to give her one last chance. They want to buy her looks and identity and create her digital image that would film movies in her place. After some serious doubts and consideration, she finally agrees to sell her persona in exchange for a nice payment and a promise to never act again.
The first half of the film is a very strightforward critique of how Hollywood (that glorifies the “young and beautiful”) treats actresses, especially those who reach a certain age. It critiques the pressures the film studios put on women; how they dictate them how to look and who to be. This is very clearly represented in a scene where Robin Wright and her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) argue about selling her identity to the studio:
Keitel: It’s not like anything has changed. You’ve always been their puppet. All of them – the producers, the directors, they told you what to do, they told you how to behave, how to act, how to smile, how to love. And when you hit 35 they told you how to look young. Because if you didn’t do what they wanted you to do, shave off a couple of years from that beautiful face of yours, you would cease to exist! So…what’s the difference?
Wright: It is the gift of choice that is being taken away! I don’t want somebody else deciding when I can be, what I want to be, I want to decide. That’s my choice.
Keitel: You’re dellusional. All the women who were face-lifted to death, they can’t smile or show pain or emotion, that’s a choice? That’s just staying on as their tools, don’t you get it?
Shortly after this scene the film jumps 20 years into the future. It continues with Wright coming back to Miramount for the Futurological Congress – and it’s at that point that a powerful dramatic live action suddenly turns into a bizarre animation. Miramount’s new technology allows people to transform themselves into animated avatars. It allows them to step into a hallucinogenic, illusory state (ironically called “Free Choice”) in which they can become anything they want to be. There’s Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Tom Cruise. There’s also Queen Elizabeth and Jesus. The choices are infinite, you can become whomever you want. Robin, too, becomes an animated version of herself, that (in her own words) looks like “a Cinderella on heroin”. (The hallucinogenic state in which they live after they consume Miramount’s drug reminds me of Huxley’s drug “soma” from Brave New World – of a drug that became a new religion in a world without religion and that had the ability to transcend time and space and made the whole population happy.)
At this point the film lost its initial edginess and became a bit confusing, since it wanted to include too many complex ideas into a film that is only 123 minutes long. Critique of the film industry alone is complex enough – when the film continues with even larger themes, such as a critique of technological and scientific advancements, it becomes hard to follow. But even though the film wanted to be too many things at once, it was still an interesting and engaging watch with one of the most bizarre animated LSD trips that you can imagine. I definitely recommend it, although it can’t really measure up to the greatness of Folman’s debut film and award winner, Waltz with Bashir.
Directed by: Ari Folman
Written by: Ari Folman
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 122 minutes
Her is Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film and the first film where he wrote the screenplay entirely by himself. But even though this is considered to be one of the best films of 2013 (that brought Jonze nothing but praise and won him the Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), I can’t really share any enthusiasm about it. I think that, while visually stunning, greatly directed and wonderfully acted (with always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), the screenplay was weak and – in some aspects – a bit problematic.
The story is set in a pastel-coloured dystopian future, where almost all human connections are replaced with technology. The city, even though highly populated, seems empty and cold and people, who seem introverted and lonely, spend most of their time talking to their computer programs instead to each other. One of those lonely people is soon-to-be-divorced Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) who purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence that is designed to adapt and evolve. Within seconds Twombly’s OS knows his likes, dislikes, Mommy issues and insecurities. But he’s desperate to have someone in his life, which is why Samantha (that’s how OS names itself after he decides he wants it to have a female voice) soon begins to control him; she controls every bit of his hard drive, she even watches him sleep. But Twombly doesn’t mind this invasion of privacy – instead he falls in love. When they start having cyber sex, Twombly moans: »I’m inside you«. But in reality, it is Samantha who is inside of him, recording his every move, his every thought as data for her own development. Since Her was released almost the same time that Snowden leaked informations about NSA collecting our data, it amazes me that more people didn’t drew any comparisons between the two – instead, most people viewed this film as one of the most romantic films of 2013.
This is not the first time in film history where a man tried to replace his human relationships with a machine – just remember the 1975 cult film The Stepford Wives where women were turned into perfect and submissive housewives/robots who were only concerned about how to satisfy their husband’s needs and had no intellectual interests of their own. It’s also kind of an unwritten rule that this »female machines« have to be extremely good looking. Samantha Morton was the one who originally gave voice to the OS, but was later replaced with Scarlett Johansson. Even in a film where female is an actual object (and not just an objectified subject, as is usually the case) and doesn’t have a body, she still needs to be sexy and good looking for viewer’s imagination – and who’s voice is more sexy and easily recognized than the one from Scarlett Johansson?
This film had a great potential and could go in many other directions – but Jonze decided to write a movie about a narcissistic, emotionally immature guy who isn’t capable to deal with any real emotions – and an OS is actually a perfect girlfriend for a guy like that, considering it’s always in a good mood, smart, funny, without any ups and downs – just trying to satisfy his every need.
However, there is one scene that stands out from all the rest – it’s when Twombly meets with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). It is her character that brings some realness to the table. When Twombly tells her that he’s been seeing someone for the last few months and how »it’s good to be with somebody that’s excited about life« (which means with somebody without any existential problems or doubts and insecurities about oneself) and when the waiter walks to the table, interrupting them by asking how they’re doing, she responds with: »We’re doing fine. We used to be married but he couldn’t handle me. He wanted to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop.« And this is it: this is what this film is all about. It’s about a man who couldn’t handle a woman with an existential crisis that probably ended in depression. It’s so much easier to fall in love with a computer that is designed exactly for you – whose job it is to satisfy your every need and desire – and without expecting anything in return.
Breathtaking cinematography is the work of Hoyte Van Hoytema, best known for his work on Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In and on British thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The pastel colouring of the surroundings, as well as the people’s clothes, brilliantly emphasize the melancholy feeling of Twombly, or rather of the entire city. This is Jonze’s best directed film to date and all the performances are nothing short of perfect. There’s no doubt that this film is visually stunning and in every way nearly perfect – but the story lacked any real depth and it was impossible to connect to it.
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Running Time: 126 minutes