Six months from now, in June 2016, you and your friends will be sitting around with an entire day to kill. Maybe it’ll be a Saturday. I have a suggestion for you: celebrate the Year of Great Female-Friendly Science Fiction Movies, which is 2015, and do your movie marathon thusly…Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is their alphabetical order and the order in which they were released. As it happens, it’s also a reasonable order of viewing them. Read on for your primer, summary, and guide.
2015 is thought to be the only year, ever, where four new science fiction films scored at least 92% on Rotten Tomatoes’ critics ratings. (The number is five if you count Pixar’s Inside Out.) Why 2015? Because everyone knew Marty McFly’s DeLorean would arrive in October? Probably not. Instead, credit feminism and what we might call the “Katniss Eberdeen-Ryan Stone Effect”: after The Hunger Games became such a breakout hit in 2012, followed in 2013 by its successful sequel in addition to the blockbuster Gravity, forward-thinking filmmakers began to realize that there was no downside to centralizing women in their thoughtful, thought-provoking science fiction stories; in fact, there was quite a bit of upside.
Starting your marathon with Ex Machina makes a certain sense, because of the four, it’s the most closely related to the first-ever English-language science-fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” as well as to the first film that could properly be called a science-fiction blockbuster, Metropolis. Most of the drama of the second half of Shelley’s novel arises because the doctor refuses his monster’s request to create for him a female alter ego; most of the drama of the second half of Metropolis arises because a female robot has been thrust upon the world. In both cases, men behave badly and are in dire need of comeuppances.
Ex Machina has been usefully compared to everything from Pinocchio to Blade Runner, but the comparison that reverberated through my head was The Silence of the Lambs. The spine of each film is a young person tasked to interview a monster-like “person” who, like a storefront capitalist object, is kept behind very durable glass. Our interlocutor wants information; our caged beast wants freedom; both seem ready to trade one for the other even as both learn more than either expected. We now see Silence as feminist, but it’s not exactly anti-feminist to turn the gender tables and make Clarice a man, Hannibal a “woman,” and see what happens. In any film where we wonder who is fooling who, our attention inevitably circles back to the superlative performances, and here we marvel at the outstanding Alicia Vikander as a robot more human than the humans. The supporting cast of Silence wasn’t given as much to do as Oscar Isaac is in Ex Machina, and Isaac, as the cyborg-maker, makes the most of what he has, making us wonder about the long-term effects of all the information we’ve been giving to Google. Small-scale filmmaking with big-scale ideas, this is as good as indie filmmaking gets.
From the lush verdant forest that surrounds the characters in Ex Machina, move to a place where trees are unknown and water is rationed, to a future where ingenuity isn’t about making robots but instead about eking out survival. If Ex Machina showed us perhaps the best robot ever, Mad Max: Fury Road is perhaps the best reboot ever, but that still wasn’t enough for any of the dozens of paid Oscar prognosticators to include it in their guesstimates…through November, probably assuming it was “too genre.” Then various awards-giving groups resurrected it, and the (self-appelled) “gurus of gold” all made about-faces. Is Mad Max sci fi or is it merely set in the future? (No robots, no aliens, no special powers.) Mad Max is an idea that goes beyond genre, or at the very least proves the importance of genre: ever since the first Mad Max film presented a post-apocalyptic wasteland of scavengers and savages, elected representatives and other cultural critics have invoked Mad Max by name and otherwise as perhaps the most cautionary of cautionary tales. If the first two Mad Maxes had a weakness, it was that the metaphor, the action, the production design, and Mel Gibson’s acting represented the sum total of their greatness.
In Fury Road, Max becomes almost a supporting character in his own film, yet despite what some misogynist bloggers would have you believe, this is motivated by the best of reasons: he is deployed as a “blood bag” into a battle between the concubines and their masters, and only gradually comes to see the women’s righteousness. Yet I’d argue that Imperator Furiosa’s crusade works better with Max than it would have without him; his creepy flashbacks give someone a character growth arc, the #notallmen crowd gets a reason to like the film, and the rest of us thrill to an astonishing Charlize Theron playing the most fully realized feminist action heroine since Ripley (sorry, fans of Lara Croft and Katniss, but they’re not fighting for women per se) as well as ass-kicking female senior citizens. The feminism is right out front: the former sex slaves yell at one who is considering surrender “we are not things!!,” and cast off a soldier essentially because he is a man, asking him, “then who killed the world?” (21st-century neocons tend to be born-again feminists, speechifying about how we have to invade Muslim countries to fight for women’s rights; it only serves them right to see what such concerns might look like after we have a nuclear war with Iran.) Somehow, this story hasn’t really been done, perhaps because Hollywood wouldn’t have invested the necessary budget without a brand, and all extant non-Disney brands are male-led.
This summary makes Mad Max: Fury Road sound preachy, but it isn’t; if anything, some people have dinged the story for being paper-thin. I believe they forgot how rare a flower is blooming in this desert. The narrative may be streamlined, but anyone who’s read Audre (“the masters tools shall never dismantle the masters house”) Lorde won’t think of it as insubstantial: women attempt to flee patriarchy, women get reluctantly drawn back (by Max) into ruling over former patriarchy. Again, though, style often makes you forget what you’re seeing. Editing and zooms and speed-changes within shots have rarely, perhaps never, been used as artistically and breathlessly as here. (And the timing: each sequence ends exactly on a half-hour mark, like some symphonies.) You were always going to walk away from Fury Road saying “wow, never seen anything like that before.” Give its team credit for making sure that feeling was intertwined with speculation about feminism and the future.
If Ex Machina was cautiously, cleverly dystopic, and Mad Max took dystopia to its natural endpoint, The Martian is about as utopic as a major adult-oriented film could possibly be. Join me as we gently leave Earth (we’ll return for various plot points) and figure out what to do with the first Robinson Crusoe on another world. Like Ex Machina, The Martian is set in the very near future; like Mad Max, this is sci fi without powers, aliens, or robots. In this case, we get the kind of optimism that would have made Gene Roddenberry proud: everyone joins together to try to save the guy who winds up living on Mars for two years. That’s Mark Watney, less played by Matt Damon than perfectly inhabited by the Damon persona (as few Damon roles have been, but ye shall know him from Project Greenlight), as though author Andy Weir had written it for Damon (it’s a faithful adaptation of the novel).
That “everyone” includes Commander Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, who had accidentally left Watney on Mars. The film beefs up her role from the book, particularly in the denouement, and the only time that doesn’t work is when the film diverges from the book to take Watney’s “Iron Man” suggestion too seriously. It’s true that The Martian is the least female-centered of 2015’s most critically praised sci-fi quartet; it’s also true that Damon is probably the most female-friendly of our major male stars. You read me compare Ex Machina to The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Lane in “The New Yorker” compares Mark Watney to another filmic-feminist icon by way of explaining how Ridley Scott was the perfect director to adapt Weir’s novel:
It is thirty-six years since Scott made “Alien,” and the true companion piece to that great film is not “Prometheus”—the gloomy, beautiful, and oddly superfluous prequel that he directed in 2012—but “The Martian.” Sigourney Weaver and Matt Damon are cut from similar cloth. True, the first is faced by a beast with acid for blood, while the second solemnly reveals that “it has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup,” but both are loners by force of circumstance and copers by instinct.
And for Lane, Watney, Damon, and Scott all find themselves thriving in isolation, unable to repress a certain can-do sarcastic effectiveness that isn’t seen as often as you might think – and even less often in sci fi. The Martian makes you think that when push comes to shove, America will recapture both its scientific prowess and ability to unify the world behind it. Like it’ll be the 1970s all over again. And the film boasts Lewis’s disco soundtrack to prove it.
Speaking of the 1970s, both the original Mad Max and the original Alien were made in the shadow of, or perhaps as dark responses to, the epoch-making Star Wars, and so it’s probably fitting to end our marathon with the latest iteration, a film that critics say best recaptures the feelings of that unlikely classic. Six hours into our marathon, we finally leave Earth for good. Watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, you may say to yourself: thank God for feminism on film, because it lets you put new wine in old bottles, and the wine doesn’t taste half-bad. In this case, the central wine is Rey, who sounds a lot more like vintage Leia (“somebody get this walking carpet off of me”) than watered-down Amidala. Rey is this movie’s Luke, scrappy and working-class, wondering at her origins, unhappy with paths others have chosen for her, slowly beginning to tap into the Force. And as incarnated by Daisy Ridley, she’s a bracing joy to behold for every second she’s onscreen. She’s joined by John Boyega as Finn, a black-skinned Stormtrooper gone rogue, and as with Rey you keep saying of Finn: why didn’t they do this before? And is the diverse casting enough to justify the project? Well…
After the somewhat deep philosophical questions posed by Ex Machina, Mad Max, and The Martian, does Star Wars still have anything to tell us? Perhaps the question should be phrased differently: since those outstanding films were just barely science fiction enough to harness the near future as pretext for other questions, does the full-blown science fiction of Star Wars – robots, aliens, and special powers jostling against each other in a disharmony that plays with utopia and dystopia – still have lessons to impart? Especially when we know that half of the reason for this film’s existence is to set up more sequels?
I’m going to say a cautious yes. In a previous post we reviewed the franchise’s well-established influences, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, John Carter, Dune, The Hidden Fortress and other jidaigeki, Metropolis, The Triumph of the Will, Casablanca, The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and fictional and nonfictional films about aerial dogfights. What I didn’t say then was that for probably half its viewers, Star Wars is their only engagement with any of the themes and meanings of those films. Most Americans aren’t going to see Westerns or period samurai films; if the warrior codes (or bushido) of those films are going to be debated, many viewers are going to get the Star Wars version or nothing.
And Star Wars: The Force Awakens is about something on its own terms, even beyond the diverse casting and the well-trod ground of legacy and destiny. Oscar Isaac is back, and unlike in Ex Machina, he gets lucky more than once; he feels the closest to the new Han Solo. Here in Episode VII, the real Han Solo has the right advice for everyone except himself. He makes more than one hubristic move – like putting the Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive in the wrong locations – and is undone by his hubris.
Much of the best science fiction is about space and time, and their value as metaphors. Our lead robot in Ex Machina bides her time to change her space. Furiosa in Mad Max is hell-bent on creating the maximum possible space from the patriarch in the minimum possible time. In The Martian, in a genre where we’re accustomed to hyperdrive and teleportation, Watney shows us what the hard way through time and space really looks like, with invaluable assistance from diverse decision-makers on Earth and in Earth orbit. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is partly about what happened to our favorite space fantasy; it turns out that certain realities of time caught up with Luke, Han and Leia, even as the times caught up with the franchise. None of us quite had the time or space we thought we had. Thus we could do worse than spending eight hours with these stories.