Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late 1960s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenge Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.
As to the film itself . . . Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close-ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.
I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point . . .
Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties, though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.
The eight part serial Humans is a good example of what ‘global television’ can produce. Real Humans has been a successful long form narrative in Sweden starting in 2012 and subsequently selling to many territories around the world but not, as far as I know, to the UK. Instead we’ve been offered a remake by Kudos (best known recently in the UK for Broadchurch and The Tunnel, the Anglo-French remake of The Bridge), funded by Channel 4 and the US cable channel AMC. The serial ran roughly in parallel in the UK and North America throughout June and July and has just started in Australia. In the UK Humans launched as Channel 4’s biggest drama attraction for some time with a Sunday night audience of 5.4 million. This dropped significantly but remained above 3.6 million throughout eight episodes and therefore became the highest rated programme on the channel. (I suspect that I’m one of many who have watched the serial via time-shifting.) The UK DVD is released on August 17th. In the US audiences seem to have been much lower but I’m not sure what AMC looks for as an acceptable audience. A second serial has been commissioned for 2016 so presumably it has been deemed a success.
The UK production was informed by co-operation with Matador Films which made the Swedish original but this isn’t a direct remake since the Swedish serial had much more time – 10 x 60 mins as against 8 x 42 mins in the UK version. The interesting question for me is what difference the American investment made. The casting of William Hurt in a significant role means at least one actor known to an international audience. But I wonder also whether Kudos deliberately tried to expand the ethnic diversity of the cast. This is a question worth posing since the number of significant roles for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) actors in UK film and TV production is a live issue. The perception in the UK is that our BAME actors have to go to the US because of limited opportunities here. To be fair to Kudos and Channel 4 they do seem to be better than some other UK producers. I also raise the question about what AMC wanted out of the deal since this seems a very British show. Reading some of the comments on IMDB, US audiences seemed to have had problems with accents. I don’t understand this but I do think that the serial plays closer to the UK popular mainstream than some of the recent successful exports. I see the serial as interesting in combining science fiction with elements of family melodrama and even soap opera. There is a UK tradition of female focused prime-time TV dramas and though this is London-based (whereas many similar shows are Northern-based) it may still feel less familiar to American audiences. I think that this feeling is enhanced by the presence of two well-known UK actors with status as comedy stars – Katherine Parkinson as the mother of the family and Rebecca Front as a stern ‘synth’ care assistant.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
The setting is a ‘near future’/’parallel world’ suburban London. The Hawkins family is a typical middle-class suburban family with three children. Because his wife seems stressed and overworked (as a legal executive of some kind), Joe Hawkins rents a ‘synth’, a household android robot. The children are all interested in the synth, ‘Anita’, but Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is disturbed by Anita’s presence. In a separate narrative thread a group of synths are seemingly ‘on the run’ and not under the control of the Persona Corporation or the usual software protocols. A third strand involves a retired robotics engineer (William Hurt) who is unwilling to give up his obsolete synth with whom he has a form of paternal relationship. A fourth strand involves a pair of police detectives who routinely deal with minor crimes involving synths. In the conventional manner, all four strands of the narrative will finally come together when a government agency becomes aware of the activities of the ‘aberrant behaviour’ of the small group of synths.
There are many science fiction narratives that deal with androids or human-like robots. Perhaps the best known in contemporary film and television draw on Philip K. Dick’s stories and especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner). This serial specifically references an earlier collection of robot stories written by Isaac Asimov mainly in the 1950s which feature the ‘three laws of robotics‘ designed to ensure that robots cannot harm humans. The synths in Humans are easily identifiable because they move and speak in slightly ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ ways. (The acting style developed for the synths is very effective and certainly one of the pluses of the serial.) The potential narratives using these particular generic elements involve the possibility of ‘synth modification’ and therefore ‘rebellion’ with the synths potentially stronger and more efficient than humans – and also narratives focused more on the ‘what is it to be human?’ question. The first option suggests action narratives, the second more discursive and reflective modes. Humans has been criticised for both being ‘predictable’ or not coming up with new ideas and missing the chance to explore the philosophical and ethical questions in any depth. I think that this is unfair because it seems to me that the mix with the family melodrama/soap opera means that the audience is being invited to consider the ‘human question’ via the conventions and banalities of family life. All of the four narrative strands outlined above involve some form of both inter-human relationship and human-synth relationship. So, in the Hawkins household, each family member has a relationship with Anita that has an impact on their relationships with other family members. Laura is disturbed by Anita partly because Anita seems to be ‘better’ at parenting, particularly in relation to the youngest child Sophie.
I find it useful to think about the Hawkins family alongside the similar family in the sitcom Outnumbered (UK 2007-14). The age differences of the children are similar and provide the possibilities for different kinds of mini-narratives. I remember an episode in that sitcom when a young Australian woman came to stay and wrought havoc by her interactions with the children. It feels as if the scriptwriters of Humans are drawing on the same type of family model – i.e. the family is almost ‘ideal’ and care is taken with gender roles so that the father is not a dominant figure (Joe’s weakness may be a weakness in the script) and the children are intelligent, sensitive and talented even when they are ‘misbehaving’. (The typical family in the Northern-set primetime drama is more likely to be working-class or lower middle-class with more internal conflicts and possibly a less conventional family structure.) The synths too seem idealised as a group – three women, three men, an Asian woman (surprisingly East Asian rather than South Asian) and two African-Caribbean men.
The last two episodes are less about the ‘chase’ and more about this questioning of family relationships. I won’t spoil the narrative but I found that as all the characters came together there were almost comical scenes where they stood about like characters at the end of an Agatha Christie detective fiction when the ‘whodunnit’ is about to be explained. Yet in the next moment there might be a highly emotional exchange between two characters that could potentially be very moving. On reflection, there are several well-known scenes at the end of Blade Runner in which similar exchanges take place. Humans has an ‘open’ ending so that expectations for the second serial will no doubt already be growing in its fanbase. I will certainly try to follow what happens next year and if a subtitled UK Region 2 DVD of the Swedish serial becomes available I will look out for that also. The one obvious strand that is underplayed in the UK/US serial is the discourse about the social impact of synth workers in society as a whole. It is there but not developed as much as might be expected because of the attention on personal relationships. Perhaps it figures more prominently in the Swedish original?
Alex Garland is a British writer with a keen interest in SF which he has turned into interesting scripts for a number of films. Now he has become a writer-director and we can consider whether the earlier films owe more to directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. in 28 Days Later) or the original story (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro) rather than Garland’s own contributions. My initial thought about Ex Machina is that the direction fits the script but that the most immediately impressive features are the performances, the location, set design and cinematography and the sound design and music score (all of which are, of course, part of the collective work which the director co-ordinates). On reflection, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which Garland creates a discourse about Artificial Intelligence, partly through dialogue and the interaction of characters and partly through narrative development. In doing so he draws on the whole history of SF in literature and film. I think there is relatively little ‘new’ in the presentation of AI here, apart from the idea that the ‘scientist as God’ character, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has drawn on his experience as the creator of an internet search engine as the means of acquiring the data which has informed his programming of androids. But genre films don’t have to be original to work well and in several ways this is an exemplar SF narrative. I can see, however, that it might be seen as more like a filmic version of a classic SF short story or an episode of The Outer Limits. It is relatively modest in its reach, partly perhaps because with only $13 million and a need for extensive effects there are serious restraints on production. Still, better a modest success than a $100 million Hollywood mess.
The narrative set-up is straightforward. Caleb, a young coder working for the ‘Blue Book’ (?) internet search company, is flown to the remote house/research laboratory owned by Nathan, the firm’s founder. Here he learns that he has seven days to apply the Turing Test to the product of Nathan’s research, an android robot named Ava. This is the first conundrum which seems to have tripped up some reviewers. In the original test the idea was that the tester would not be able to see the computer but would be able to discern from its behaviour in answering questions (or playing chess) that it was human or a machine. The AI would ‘pass’ the test if it was impossible to tell the difference. But Nathan presents Caleb with the android itself. His task is to engage with the android and try to devise his own test to see if he recognises human rather than ‘artificial’ behaviour. This in itself raises an interesting set of philosophical questions – the test becomes about Caleb’s behaviour as much as it is about Ava’s.
Ava is clearly ‘artificial’ – we can see the elements of the machine. The next question is whether ‘she’ is ‘female’, or perhaps, is it possible for Caleb to conduct the test when the android has a woman’s shape and a face as beautiful as that of Alicia Vikander? In the blog by MaryAnn Johanson there is a sustained critique of the film, accusing it of being a male director’s version of a feminist film when in reality it is the opposite. There are many comments on Johanson’s blog in both support and opposition and it is an interesting debate. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll not discuss all the points but certainly we can imagine that the test Caleb devises is partly, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by Ava’s seductive charm. On the other hand, it is quite a leap to suggest that Ava is, or that she represents, a ‘woman’. The android has no sex even if ‘her’ actions are ‘gendered’ in social terms by Caleb and Nathan – as well as by us the audience. I think several viewings are going to be needed before I would be confident about embarking on a debate about the film’s representations of gender. Ava is an interesting name for the android. In one sense Ava ‘sounds like’ ‘Eva’, the first woman. It’s also the first name of the film star who in her time was argued to be the most beautiful, Ava Gardner and it is close to ‘Ada’ which might be a reference to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron and claimed by some as the first computer programmer.
A few days ago I was complaining about the script for Albatross and focusing on poor script development as a weakness in British cinema. I don’t think you could accuse Garland of producing a sloppy script. I read somewhere that he was attempting to achieve something like the closed drama of Sleuth, the 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer, first adapted as a film in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s possible to see elements of a theatre text in the lines of dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, enhanced by the tension between the two as Nathan sets out to ‘play’ the younger man like a fish lured to the fly. My only problem with this is that I’m not yet convinced by Nathan’s character – or rather his behaviour. I don’t think that this is the fault of Oscar Isaac as Nathan, but Nathan seems rather boorish and careless for a man who has designed an android and who lives in such a stylish house.
I think I’m convincing myself that this would be a good study text for students and I’m looking forward to mapping the references and influences. It seems fairly clear that the gender issues are central in some way and also all those Phil K. Dick obsessions with the interface between human and artificial intelligence. Ex Machina could be a Dickian short story. But the Hollywood Reporter gets it wrong in its review. At the beginning of Blade Runner, the ‘replicants’ (the film’s term for androids) are not being given a Turing Test – the society already knows that replicants can pass for human. Instead they are being given an ’empathy test’ as the only way to identify them. Dick referred to androids and to simulacra. Ava is presented as an android but the technology used could create ‘sims’, indistinguishable visually from humans. I’m not going to spoil the narrative but the Dick story that came to mind when I watched Ex Machina was ‘Second Variety’ (1953) – well worth reading and thinking about in relation to Garland’s story. The other major work that occurred to me was Tarkovsky’s Solaris but I’m not sure what triggered this memory (possibly it was the memory of Natalya Bondarchuk as the woman on the space station).
Ex Machina is an interesting and engaging SF film and following Under the Skin, presents a strong case for the health of British SF cinema. (IMDB bafflingly calls this an American film but as far as I can see it is entirely British – unless Universal invested in the film. Certainly it was shot in UK studios (and on location in Norway).
This is quite a good trailer (and doesn’t give away too much):
I saw Christopher Nolan’s new science fiction feature at the Hyde Park Picture House: where we enjoyed a fine 35 mm print of the film. Apparently Nolan used his clout to make sure that celluloid prints were available for the ‘few’ outlets that still provide this format. A couple of people from the Picture House has seen the film on the Imax screen at Bradford: they said it was really impressive. However, the screening alternated between the 70 mm format and the Imax format – I am not sure I would have enjoyed that, and I was uncertain if I could cope with what is essentially a narrative film on the Imax projection scale.
It is certainly a visually impressive film. Some of the sequences, like the far-away planets that the explorers visit, are awesome. The early part of the film has an intriguing dystopian plot which holds the attention. And the early part of the exploration is gripping. I found the later stages of the film lest involving. I found the plotting somewhat fanciful, and the film also intercuts between the ‘present’ and scenes in the ‘past’. I sort of understood why but I did not think it worked effectively.
The major problem with the film is the music score, not as reported some mumbled dialogue. The score is by Hans Zimmer, an experienced mainstream composer. But it struck me as fairly over the top, and increasingly so in the latter stages of the film. I found it the most obtrusive score for ages: and I do think contemporary films have a tendency to revert to the wall-to-wall scores of the 1930s: but then the form and music were rather different.
A friend afterwards reckoned that the theoretical model that the film bases its futurology on is good science, (based on the writings of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne). He also mentioned that the same ideas inform Contact (1997) and i could immediately see the connection. I found though that this film tended to melodrama, which dilutes the science. I did not pick up an explanation of the supposed science.
The other point is that Nolan appears intend on revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. We have the black obelisks, this time round computers of the Hal variety: recognisable vistas of the universe and galaxies: and the rather religious treatment of scientific theory: we were though spared the Apes.
The film’s basic premise definitely struck me as hard science fiction: however the treatment is sci-fi. Even so definitely worth watching, even at a 168 minutes. If you know the projectionist they might turn down the sound level for you.