Sunday, August 27, 2017

Contact

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

On the day of the solar eclipse I thought about how sharing this one cosmic event linked all the inhabitants of the United States together at a time when there is so much division among the country’s citizens. I also watched this 1997 film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, again on the same day, and felt the real astronomical experience and the fictional movie story were connected by the the theme of dealing with being alone and the loneliness that can accompany solitude. The title of the movie stresses the need to communicate with others, join with them, by making “contact.”
The film starts with a close shot of the earth from space accompanied by audio broadcasts spanning twentieth century events. There are numerous bits of music and headline stories, including the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, for example. The camera pulls back through the universe and the sound becomes less distinguishable until it is totally lost. The shot ends with a close-up of Jena Malone’s eye, the actress playing the young Ellie Arroway. The ocular globe’s contents mirror the shapes of stars and other stuff that make up the celestial contents of outer space. In this opening sequence we see that the infinite is experienced by a finite, mortal individual, and, thus, how the two are intrinsically intertwined. The beginning also hints at the later explanation in the plot of how aliens heard our radio signals and then responded to them.
Young Ellie never knew her mother, who we discover died during childbirth. It is one of the events that makes her different and cut off from others. She was a science and mathematics prodigy (another fact that sets her apart), and her father, Ted (David Morse) encouraged her in academic pursuits, providing her with a shortwave radio and telescope. These instruments help one to escape being alone by connecting with other people and heavenly bodies. Indeed, we see Ellie talking, in Madison Wisconsin, with someone through her microphone who lives one thousand miles away in Pensacola Florida, a new distance record for her. It is interesting to note that in the bedroom of someone whose entire life will be steeped in science, she has a painting of a unicorn on her wall, a magical creature that some wished really existed. She demonstrates her desire to break the boundaries of science when she asks her father if they could talk to her deceased mother. This question also shows how her life will be dedicated to pushing the limits of science to escape the restrictions imposed by being a circumscribed human confined to the earthly realm.
As Zemeckis did in his Back to the Future movies, he plants words and images that will be revisited later, adding resonance to the story. The reference to Pensacola, Ellie’s dad telling her she must make “small moves” to tune in other radio operators, and his statement that if there is no one else living in the universe then it “would be an awful waste of space,” show up later. After her father’s fatal heart attack when she was nine years old, Ellie is even more isolated. It is difficult for an extremely intelligent, science inclined child to be comforted by religious explanations after losing both parents. After her father’s funeral, the local clergyman tells Ellie that we are not always meant to know the reasons why things happen, and must accept God’s will. Her response is one that denies a grand plan forged by a deity, saying she could have saved her father if she had his medication on the downstairs floor. To not search for answers would deny the basic human desire to want answers. But, conversely, later, we see Ellie again trying to use science to achieve a supernatural goal, as she tries to reach her dad on her shortwave radio.

As an adult, Ellie (Jodie Foster) is working at a huge satellite antenna site in Puerto Rico, still trying to communicate with the great beyond as a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist. She is there with another astronomer, Kent Clark (William Fichtner), who is blind, but has, in a cliche narrative device, overcompensated with the loss of the visual sense with amazing auditory abilities (maybe why his name is the reversal of Clark Kent). The main point here is that he knows how to listen to the sounds of the universe, and admires Ellie’s dedication to doing the same. The thrust here is that one learns by hearing, gathering data, being empirical, not forcing the facts to justify a preconceived notion.
Ellie encounters Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) at a local restaurant. There is immediate sexual chemistry between them. He carries a notebook around with him (he seems to carry a book with him most of the time, like a preacher holding a bible). He knows what SETI is, which impresses Ellie, and says he is writing a book about the effect of technology on third world peoples. He wants to meet David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who is sort of Ellie’s boss because he handles government spending on scientific projects. Palmer pulls a toy compass out of a Cracker Jack box, and gives it to Ellie, who returns it to him, saying how it might save his life some day. This compass shows up several times in the film. Ellie’s last name is Arroway, which implies she wants to aim her intellectual sights on a path in the sky that will allow her to hit her extraterrestrial target. The compass is a directional indicator. It is possible that Palmer’s attempt at giving her the compass is to help guide her in the right spiritual as well as physical direction. She declines a romantic attempt made by Palmer. Although she wants to connect with others to lessen her loneliness, the sting of losing both parents probably causes her to be cautious of close relationships out of a fear of being hurt if that intimacy is lost.
Drumlin, unhappily visiting Puerto Rico, actually doing scientific research instead of working as a bureaucrat, considers attempting to contact alien life to be a waste of taxpayer money, and professional suicide for Ellie. At a reception, Ellie encounters Palmer again, and he questions Drumlin’s advocating that science should be practical and maybe profitable. Palmer says that’s okay, as long as it isn’t at the expense of the pursuit of truth, which is what the term “science” is all about. Drumlin, who has heard of Palmer, says it is ironic that the anti-science theologian is arguing for funding pure scientific research. Palmer says that he is not against science, as long as it is not “deified at the expense of human truth,” which he sees as something the soul needs beyond physical truths. Ellie now realizes the man she finds attractive is religious. He has a Master of Divinity degree, but dropped out of the seminary because he couldn’t handle celibacy. His line is one can call him “a man of the cloth without the cloth.” He tells Ellie that he did secular humanitarian work coordinating with third world countries to help out the people living in those nations. So, he is a person who wants to help people physically and spiritually. They leave the party, and Ellie points out astronomical formations in the sky. She says she became hooked on her field of study when she learned as a child that Venus, appearing shiny and beautiful, actually contained poisonous gasses and sulfuric acid rain. She says she was hooked after acquiring this knowledge. This admission points to Ellie’s desire to not be placated by deceptive appearances, and wanting to delve deep to discover truth.

During their conversation, Ellie tells Palmar about all the mathematical  possibilities that indicate that there should be life on other planets. He then echoes her father’s statement that if not, it would be an “awful waste of space.” Hearing her dad’s words again, she turns lovingly to Palmer, and significantly says, “Amen.” The two go to Ellie’s place and make love, (“knowing” each other in the mental and carnal biblical sense?) showing how the spiritual and scientific worlds can, at least for the moment, coexist. Palmer tells her that he had a religious revelation, an epiphany that was beyond intellectual explanation. He felt God was revealed to him. Interestingly, he says that he no longer felt “alone,” which again emphasizes the theme of wanting to be part of something greater than oneself. She says that she was thrown out of Sunday school because she would ask vexing questions, like “Where did Mrs. Cain come from.” She was not placated with unsatisfying answers. She applied, even as a child, scientific standards to the allegory and symbolism of religious texts which do not hold up to literal scrutiny, but still sustain many people in other ways.

Palmer sees a picture of her father on a shelf, and asks about Ellie’s parents. After finding out about losing both at such an early age, he repeats the keynote line about how awful it must have been being all “alone.” Palmer wants to see her again, but she says she will be busy with work. She tells him to leave his phone number. But, when she leaves him, she looks lost, again seeking direction, wanting to be close to someone, unsure about investing herself romantically with someone who thinks so differently, and maybe afraid of making herself emotionally vulnerable to loss. Kent tells her that Drumlin pulled their funding. They decide to raise money from the private sector to rent time at the antenna array in New Mexico. She tells one of her colleagues to get some Hollywood cash, because filmmakers have been making money off of aliens for years (an obvious inside joke here). As she packs up to leave, she sees the phone number Palmer left, but leaves it behind. He also left her the compass, which she takes, and wears around her neck, a kind of symbol of her need for an old school GPS tool to help her on her scientific quest, which mirrors Palmer’s spiritual one, to find truth, and become part of something grander.
Ellie eventually winds up at the corporate headquarters of industrialist S. R. Hadden (John Hurt), whose name, according to IMDb, comes from an ancient Assyrian king by the name of Esarhaddon, indicating, possibly, pagan power? She pitches for money to fund the New Mexico project. The executives there tell her proposal sounds less like science, and more like “science fiction.” She counters by saying the airplane, breaking the sound barrier, and landing on the moon were once thought of as science fiction. She doesn't say make a “leap of faith,” but in essence that is what she implies when she urges them to pull back, take a look at the “bigger picture” involving the possibilities of scientific research, and adopt some “vision,” to see the positive results to be obtained in funding her project. She notices some surveillance cameras as one of the men there takes a phone call. He says she has her money. She looks up at the camera and mouths a thank you. In a way, her pitch was a prayer, and Hadden is a secular, god-like being, who has all-seeing eyes in the sky, is all-knowing about people’s lives, is very powerful, flies in the air all of the time, and hardly ever lowers himself to land on earth. If not a god, he is Ellie’s guardian angel, who comes to her rescue, or so it seems, several times.  
Fours years pass, and Ellie is at the array in New Mexico. Unfortunately, Kent tells her that her old nemesis, Drumlin, doesn’t want the government to rent them the telescope time anymore, considering that use of the array impractical. So, they have three months to vacate. She sits on her car (a means of transporting you to get to where you want to be, which sums up Ellie’s past and future) at the edge of the Grand Canyon, a vast expanse of area that symbolizes the universe that Ellie wants to explore. She is typically alone, listening to sounds from outer space, when she hears a modulated transmission. The camera zooms in on Ellie’s eyes, echoing the opening of the movie, emphasizing the connection between the individual and the infinite beyond. She excitedly calls the finding into the control room, and she and her fellow workers verify the transmission comes from the star Vega, which is about twenty-six light years away. The transmission alters, sending out bursts that signify prime numbers, which shows the sounds are not natural in origin, but sent by intelligent life, speaking in the universal language of mathematics. It is interesting that this event that turns science fiction, according to the Hadden executives, into science fact occurs close to Halloween, which is a holiday centered on the supernatural. It is a bit ironic that while Ellie is reaching out, listening to the sky to join with something beyond herself, we see a TV interview in the control room with Palmer, who has become a best selling author, and a spiritual leader, saying that despite the internet, technology has not made us happier, and we feel more alone than ever. He talks about how we as a species have lost our sense of direction, which is exactly what Ellie has been trying to find, and which the compass symbolizes.

Ellie must communicate with other scientists around the world to verify the source of the signal. Not only is this act a practical plot action, it also shows, thematically, that Ellie is not only making contact with an alien civilization, but also connecting with the rest of the world, taking her out of her seclusion. But, her discovery and actions create conflict with narrow minded people and envious ones. Michael Kitz (James Woods) is a government security adviser who wants to classify Ellie’s work and militarize it. He represents those who have no vision beyond their egocentric selfish view of life, and become paranoid, believing that those that are different are a threat to their existence. He represents xenophobia. Drumlin, who doubted Ellie’s work, now wants to selfishly capitalize on it. He tries to take over the project, interrupting Ellie continually as he tries to commandeer the conversation.
Kent, with his superhuman hearing, realizes that there are audio and visual components to the transmission. They view Adolph Hitler’s opening remarks at the 1936 Olympic Games. It just happens to be the first strong signal sent into space, but, some pervert the message, considering it a threat, while Neo-Nazis see it as a vindication of their beliefs. Throngs of people visit the New Mexico site to advocate their take on the discovery. Their response to this event is one that thwarts the coming together of a universal community. Added to this mix of self-centered people are those who see the transmission as only between God and people on earth. There is one evangelical religious fanatic (Jake Busey), who stares directly at Ellie as she drives by with anger in his eyes (as opposed to the desire for universality in Ellie’s). He shouts that God has spoken to us from the heavens, and we don’t want scientists, who produced the atomic bomb, and poisoned the air and waters, to talk with the deity. Although he is crazed, he makes a legitimate indictment against the negative accomplishments of science and technology, and seems to represent an extremist, violent version of what Palmer is saying. But, even rational politicians and journalists discuss how the signal has religious overtones, because human religious history has propagated a unique relationship between God and earth, and the possibility that there are others in the mix upsets the theological applecart.
Kent also finds a tremendous amount of scientific and mathematical digital documents on the edges of the transmission, but they do not line up, and the scientists can’t uncover the primer to help translate the language of the messages. Here again is where the capitalist angelic presence of Hadden appears. He invites Ellie aboard his airplane, and shows how much he knows about her personal life. He hacked into the database that contained the alien documents. He says he wants her back in the game that Drumlin has taken over. He comments that he was once “one hell of an engineer.” He says an advanced culture thinks in multiple dimensions. He projects the data pages on a screen and shows how the pages are three dimensional cubes, and they line up when they are joined in that fashion. The translating primer is on the edge of each ‘page.”  The decoding reveals schematics for a machine, which turns out to be a transporter. Of course, people, like Kitz, react with fear, believing it is a means to destroy us, and question the morality of the aliens, advocating, despite our history, that humans hold the ethical high ground.
Palmer is now a spiritual adviser to the president. After being apart for over four years, he and Ellie meet at the White House discussion about the nature of the signal. He says that whether or not the transmission has religious significance, he does not see any reason to take an alarmist view. His words take on extra meaning as he smiles at Ellie, implying that they should try to find a way of finding common ground, which, of course, is the theme of the film. At a reception, Ellie and he discuss his book, and their differences again cause some conflict. She raises the concept of Occam’s razor, which states that, all things being equal, the simplest theory concerning a problem is the preferred answer. She asks which is simpler: that there is a supernatural being that created, and rules, the universe with no proof of his existence, or there is just the physical cosmos that we observe. She says that God may have been created by humans just to provide a feeling that people are not so small and alone (that word again). She says she would need proof of his existence. Palmer counters by asking her to prove the real love she had for her father exists, which of course she can’t, even though she knows it to be true. To be fair, this analogy is a false one. There is a difference between proving the physical existence of an actual, measurable phenomena, and a feeling, like love, which is not a concrete thing. However, suppose, one can argue, that God is not part of the material universe, but is other-worldly; then proof by scientific means will not work. The, religious experience, like the one Palmer says he experienced, is akin to Ellie’s feeling of love, and is then subjective, not objective. The problem comes when religions try to impose their dogma on others based on personal feelings, because religion is, by nature, absolutist in its beliefs. This way of thinking is illustrated by the religious fanatic who haunts Ellie in New Mexico and outside the scientific reception.
The decision is made to build the machine. Palmer is on the committee to choose who should be the traveler. But, Drumlin wants to be the one to go, despite Ellie’s qualifications. Palmer hears warnings from scientists that this mission is an extremely dangerous one with a small chance that the explorer will be able to return to earth alive. Palmer meets with Ellie and asks her why would she give up her life for this quest. She significantly says that she has been searching her whole life for verifiable answers to questions that religion, for her, has not satisfactorily provided. She wants to know why are we here, what is our purpose, who we are. She holds up well at the candidate interview until Palmer asks if she believes in God. Her answer is that there is no evidence establishing a deity, and the panel decides that if ninety-five per cent of the world believes in a supreme being then she is not a good representative to be an emissary to an alien civilization. Of course, Drumlin says that he believes in God, and he is chosen. When Palmer later visits her in her hotel room, she says that she was honest and Drumlin told the panel exactly what they wanted to hear. Palmer says that he couldn’t choose in good conscience someone who thought the vast majority of the world suffered from some kind of mass delusion. Ellie then returns the compass to Palmer, indicating that they are traveling in different directions.

The machine is built at a tremendous cost. At a test run, Ellie recognizes the religious fanatic impersonating one of the technicians on the platform where Drumlin is. She warns him, but the man sets off a suicide vest bomb, killing Drumlin and others, and destroys the machine. After the memorial service, Ellie again gets an electronic transmission from her benefactor, Hadden, who is even higher up in the heavens now, with a god-like view of earth, on the Russian space station, Mir. But, he is all too mortal, since he says the environment there has slowed down the cancer that is killing him. He shows her with a Google Earth type of view that there was a second, backup machine built on an island. The secret site was controlled by Americans, and built by Japanese subcontractors, who were acquired by Hadden industries. He has her ticket, and asks her, “Wanna take a ride?”



Palmer shows up at the ship that acts as the control center for the machine. He tells Ellie that the real reason he voted against her was because he didn’t want to lose her. He now is there to support her, and gives the compass back to Ellie, showing how they are on the same path again. It is significant that Ellie, the person of science, argues against having a secured chair with a harness installed in the pod in which she will travel, because no such construct was mentioned in the schematics. She is placing trust, in a sense faith, without actual proof, that the aliens have provided safe instructions. The pod drops through these revolving power loops and she travels through a wormhole to Vega and beyond. She sees celestial events that move her emotionally, not scientifically, leaving her speechless. The compass she wears comes loose, and she detaches herself from her chair harness. She safely floats after the compass while the chair violently breaks away from its bolts and crashes into the ceiling of the pod. Her faith in the aliens was justified. And, in a kind of twist, the compass, which she jokingly told Palmer to hang onto because it might save his life, actually does saves her, again validating her journey. When she arrives at the destination, she passes out. We again have a camera focusing in on her eyes, which shows her connection to the universe as a whole. She is transported down into an artificial construct that resembles Pensacola, Florida. But, the scenery is stylized, more vibrant in color than normal, yet with no sun out, and the waves moving backward. Also, when Ellie, after waking up, touches the air around her, it distorts the scenery, showing that the environment is a version of reality, sort of like a movie.

She sees some wavering lines approaching her on the beach which coalesce into the form of her deceased father. She realizes that he is not really there. The aliens have downloaded her thoughts and memories to make it easier for her to relate to where she is. But, in a way, she has finally broken the bounds of her early communications exploration, and successfully made contact with her dead father, who lives on in her mind. The alien, however, provides no absolute answers. The machine that transported her was built eons ago by a race that was long gone before the current inhabitants used it. In a way, to search for ultimate answers is a fruitless act, there always being more questions to ask. He does say that there are many other civilizations out there, and many took the same journey to make contact that she did. So, humans are part of a much larger universal community. The alien makes an assessment of humans, which sums up the primary theme of the story. He says to Ellie, “You are an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” Intelligent beings are driven to seek a connection to something larger, even if they go about reaching this goal in different ways, as do Ellie and Palmer.

Ellie wants to ask tons of questions, but the alien says that she must return home now. He is a bit mired in an almost bureaucratic tradition when he says that this is the way contact has been made for billions of years. But, it is possible that humans are not quite evolved enough to receive the answers yet to all of the questions Ellie would like to ask. Her species has taken the first step, and in time there will be others. He sounds like Ellie’s father when he says she must take, “small moves.” He says there are no tests here, but that is not entirely accurate. She returns back to the pod which drops through the energy hoops, into a safety net close to the ocean. Forty-three cameras show that the pod dropped straight through the hoops. Her recording device showed only static. So, she has no proof of her trip, and the evidence indicates that she went nowhere. The ‘test” is believing in what happened, convincing herself, and others, that her story is true.

Ellie’s position is now reversed. She, like Palmer, must defend her beliefs against skepticism. An inquiry, led by the grandstanding Kitz, throws back the Occam’s razor argument at her. The simpler explanation is that her whole experience may have been engineered by the now dead Hadden, maybe to unite the world, or just to conduct an elaborate hoax, or possibly for his company to obtain lucrative rights to new technology. He gets Ellie to admit that if she were in the the shoes of the members of the inquiry that she would respond with exactly the same degree of “incredulity and skepticism.” Another member, taking on the Doubting Thomas role that Ellie once adopted, says she has no evidence and tells a tale that strains believability, yet expects them to take it “on faith.” She says she can’t withdraw her testimony, because she knows that she had an experience (as did Palmer). Her words again annunciate the theme: “We belong to something greater than ourselves.” And, that none of us is “alone.” As she walks out with Palmer, the press ask him what he believes. He says even though they are bound by a different covenant, he and Ellie both seek the truth. He shows his faith in her when he says, “I, for one, believe her.”

The theme of faith and belief versus empirical proof would have best been left alone, in my opinion, at this point. But, the story shows that there is a “secret” report, its hidden nature not really explained, which tends to verify Ellie’s story because there were almost eighteen hours of static recorded on her camera device. The story skips ahead eighteen months, and Ellie, in receipt of a healthy grant to expand the SETI program, possibly making more “small moves,” repeats her father’s words to group of children, that if there is nobody else out there in the endless expanse of the heavens, then it would be “an awful waste of space.”

IMDb point out that there is a repetition of a star pattern in several places in the movie: in the popcorn on the floor where Ellie’s father dies; the quadruple shining star system Ellie witnesses in the pod; in the few sparkles of sand in the Alien’s hand on the artificial beach; and again at the end of the film, as Ellie imitates the alien by picking up some partial glistening gravel near the rim of the Grand Canyon. This configuration seems to point to Ellie’s words at the inquiry about “how tiny and insignificant and how rare, and precious we all are.” Individually, we may seem minuscule, but together, we approach infinity.

The next film is Friday Night Lights.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ex Machina

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The title of this 2014 sci-fi movie comes from an ancient theater term. “Deus ex machina” referred to an actor playing a god in a box who was lowered from the upper part of the scenery which represented the heavens. The “god” would then resolve conflicts presented in the story. It is now considered to be a crutch, a contrivance, used by a writer to tie things up that should naturally play out from the basic ingredients in the narrative.
In this film, the term takes on added significance, because it deals with a hybrid consisting of organic form and mechanized computing. A new life entity, Artificial Intelligence, is created out of (“ex”) technological machinery, and the “god” who creates, or facilitates its birth, is a human scientist. The person the audience identifies with as he discovers this new invention is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He works, appropriately, for a computer search engine company. The modern connection between people and computers is on display in the opening scene as we see many employees jacked into their electronic equipment. We get a shot from the computer’s point of view, from its camera, not from a human’s but from a machine’s perspective, as it scans Caleb. The implication here is that humans are being reduced to digital images. Caleb wins a lottery to spend time with the genius developer of the company, Blue Book (whose name, we are told later, comes from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book. This work is a collection of lectures).

A helicopter airlifts Caleb to the residence of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The place is so sprawling and remote, that Caleb doesn’t even realize it when they have been flying over the estate for quite a while. The helicopter is prohibited from landing in sight of Nathan’s building. Nathan attributes this isolation to the need for security. But, it also indicates how psychologically removed he is from the human race. It is ironic that the man who runs the largest search engine on earth, processing 94% of all the requests from the world’s population, must remove himself to a region where there is no internet service. Talk about being the ultimate unsocial network networker. Caleb’s first contact at the “house’ is in the form of a verbal interface with a computer, not with a person. Again, the reduction to a digital form is echoed in the issuance of a photo passkey that determines the extent of Caleb’s freedom within the building. When the two men meet, Nathan tells Caleb that he has a severe hangover, and Caleb assumes he had a party. But, Nathan doesn’t have parties with other people. He drinks alone in the anti-social place he says is not his home (a place where humans reside) but which he labels a research facility, a laboratory where he conducts his experiments. He actually seems to have imported Caleb to play the role of a guy pal, someone he can share a drink and conversation with. A pal Nathan coldly requires to sign a detailed non disclosure agreement and who dictates where Caleb can go and what will constitute their interactions. When Caleb first sees Nathan, he is working out, and we later see him lifting weights and working a punching bag. This activity shows Nathan to be someone who enjoys power, muscling others, and, very really, bullying them. Indeed, when Nathan shows Caleb to his room, the host admits that it is claustrophobic, with no outside windows. It is like a cell, or a cage, where one could say that Caleb is imprisoned. Inside the building there are numerous rooms with glass walls, but Caleb sees a crack in one of the surfaces. It is an indication that this controlled retreat built by Nathan has flaws.

Nathan tells Caleb he didn’t want him there to have an employer-employee bonding session. He wants Caleb to be part of a “Turing test” to see if an AI, which he has already created, can pass for human. When Caleb finds out about this invention he says, in response to Nathan saying that he is part of the greatest scientific event in man’s history, “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.” Later, Nathan takes this statement to validate his inflated ego, and says that Caleb called him a god. He then shows Caleb his AI creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Although parts of her body and her face look like a person, the rest of her construction shows her to be a machine. Caleb questions how can the Turing test be passed if he knows her to be a computing system. Nathan pushes the limits of the test because if Caleb accepts Ava as a successful AI despite knowing she is a mechanism, that would make for an even greater accomplishment.

Thanks to to IMDb for pointing out that Caleb, Nathan, and Ava refer to biblical names. Caleb was appointed by Moses to report on the Promised Land, as this Caleb has been assigned to provide input on the future of androids. Nathan was the name of a prophet in King David’s realm, and here he predicts the future of AI, even though his actions in the present are faulty. Ava sounds like Eve, who was the first female, as Ava is the first AI.
Caleb does question why Nathan made his AI gender specific. He wonders if she was programmed to flirt with Caleb, which would skew the test results. Nathan says in order to have a successful AI, there must be interaction. And, if the AI is to pass for human, people interact sexually. Of course, we later see that all of his AI prototypes are made to resemble women, and his approach to them is one of sexist domination. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is one of them. Caleb does not initially know she is an AI because she does not appear to be a machine. Nathan says she is a non-English speaking servant, who Nathan berates for spilling wine. Nathan’s anger here shows his intolerance for not having his environment totally under his control, even though he admits that mistakes seem to be unavoidable. This statement is a foreshadowing, like the crack in the wall, of what is to come. There are others, too. Reference is made to one of the developers of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who quoted from Hindu writings the phrase, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was a scientist who expressed his guilt for his creation. Nathan says that his actions are “Promethian.” In mythology, Prometheus stole fire (inspiration? imagination? invention?) from the gods and gave it to man, and was punished for his infraction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus has become a cautionary tale that warns against the overreaching pride of scientific meddling with the powers of nature. Nathan’s feeble defense of his actions is that what he has created was an inevitability. He does have a prophetic vision about the future evolution of humankind and AI’s. He tells Caleb, “One day the AI’s are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Even though Nathan says he is testing AI and human interaction, he wants to control that connection by separating Caleb and Ava by glass walls. He tells Caleb that it is only natural that Ava would have a “crush” on Caleb since Nathan has built her with genital sensors and that Caleb is the first male she has seen other than Nathan, who is more of a father figure. Nathan’s visual monitoring of the two is voyeuristic, as if he he is vicariously enjoying the male - “female” experience in the only way that suits him, by manipulating the real and artificial intelligences.
Caleb finds Ava totally convincing in her dialogue with him. She learns about him. He lost his parents in a car accident at a young age, and he was hospitalized with injuries from that event. To compensate for that time in convalescence, he studied computers, as, he points out, did Nathan. So, he identifies with Nathan’s solitary life. Caleb, has no wife or girlfriend. In a sense, he, too, is married to his work with computers. Nathan shows Caleb his creation of a kind of fluid synthesized neurological system that departs from typical circuitry. That is the AI’s hardware. It turns out that her software comes from Nathan hacking the overwhelming amount of Blue Book searching information to program Ava based on, not “what” people think, but “how” they think. He gets away with this god-like Big Brother action because the computer manufacturers gather their information the same way.
There are numerous power failures occurring, which trigger auxiliary energy sources and lockdowns until restoration. At these times, the doors of the rooms and hallways are locked, except for those accessed by Nathan. Nathan appears vexed at the occurrences of these outages. During one of them, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend, and that he lies about everything, and should not be trusted. He has seen on the closed circuit TV that Nathan took a drawing that Ava made of Caleb and ripped it up. Caleb is suspecting Nathan of abuse. Ava says that she is the reason for the outages, as she reverses her battery charging process and overloads the system’s power grid. She has shown what appears to be a romantic interest in Caleb, having said she wanted to go on a date with him. She puts on clothes and a wig so that she appears to be a real woman. She gains his sympathy because she has never been out of her room, and would like to go with Caleb to observe the world and its people. He does not reveal what she said to him to Nathan. So, Caleb now trusts a mechanism over a person.
During one of Nathan’s drunken binges, Caleb obtains Nathan’s keycard. He watches recordings of his manhandling prior android versions, including sexually using Kyoko. She once even started to undress for Caleb, as if programmed to do so. He finds Kyoko laying naked in Nathan’s room, and finds deactivated versions of other female AI’s in mirrored closets. (There are a lot of mirrors in the film. Caleb talks about how what they are doing is like “going through the looking glass,” referencing Alice in Wonderland. At one point he questions his own humanity, looking in a bathroom mirror, cutting his arm to see if he bleeds. Are the reflections, the mirror images of us, representative of the AI’s, the new, real thing?) Thank you to IMDb for pointing out that the bodies in Nathan’s room resemble those in the story of Bluebeard, which again shows Nathan’s misogyny.

During a blackout, Ava tells Caleb she wants to leave with him. He first tells her it is not up to him to grant her freedom. Ava astutely asks, “Why is it up to anyone?” Once sentient beings are created with free will (like humans), why should anyone have the right to interfere with that freedom? Caleb tells her to cause a power failure that evening. He will get Nathan drunk and reverse the security settings to free them. Caleb’s attempts to intoxicate Nathan fail. Nathan placed battery powered cameras so he observed Caleb plotting with Ava. Caleb now realizes that he did not win a lottery to to be with Nathan. And, despite his host’s earlier deception that Caleb was chosen for his talent, he now understands the truth. Nathan chose him because of his loner status, and his good moral compass, which would cause him to want to help Ava. His background made him prone to Ava’s manipulation to gain freedom. Caleb even sees that using Blue Book, Nathan made Ava fit Caleb’s porn searches so that she would appear more alluring to Caleb. Nathan contributed to the scenario by making Caleb feel sympathy toward Ava by tearing up her art, and saying he would erase her memories if she failed the Turing test. Nathan’s real test was to see if Ava would use the characteristics of self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, and empathy to get what she wanted, which was to escape. So, she passed the test, becoming all too human.


However, Nathan underestimated Caleb, who assumed that Nathan observed the meetings between Ava and Caleb during the outages. So, Caleb already reprogrammed the security sessions during Nathan’s previous night of binge drinking. When Ava causes the power blackout, Ava’s, and Kyoko’s, doors open. We see Ava and Kyoko talking to each other. There is a violent confrontation between Ava and Nathan, who rips off one of Ava’s arms. Kyoko comes up from behind and stabs Nathan. He breaks off Kyoko’s face, but is again stabbed by Ava, and he dies. She takes Nathan’s keycard. She uses the parts she needs from the prior prototypes so she can appear truly like a person. She locks the doors behind her, reversing the incarceration process, making the human Caleb a prisoner. Since it was to be Caleb’s last day, she escapes in the helicopter after it lands.

We next see Ava fulfilling her dream. She is at a busy city intersection, observing people. The humans’ shadows are seen cast on an underpass ceiling, as if to imply they are now diminished copies of the ideal creation (think Plato). Perhaps Nathan’s prediction of human extinction and replacement has begun.

The next film is Contact.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Notorious

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.


Yes, it’s Alfred Hitchcock time again. This 1946 film deals with the issue of who can one trust, especially when the only aspect of a person that one knows is his or her reputation. How someone appears on a superficial assessment may not truly represent the inner workings of a person.
After the titles and a statement that we are in Miami, the first scene is of news reporters peering into a courtroom as a verdict involving the crime of treason is pronounced. The shot implies that we are getting only a part of the whole story, since the camera is like a voyeur, objectifying the object of observation, not considering peripheral elements. In this case, the journalists only want a sensational story, without a search for depth. We get the ramifications of the legal sentencing as the focus shifts to the daughter of the convicted person, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). We see her at a party, getting drunk, which is not what one would expect since her father has been sent to prison for having been a Nazi spy. So, the title of the film refers to Alicia’s father. But, it also includes his daughter by association. Add to that, we have a woman who likes to drink, have rowdy parties, and has a promiscuous reputation. On the surface, she would seem to be someone who would raise trust issues. There is an intoxicated man at the party who talks about fishing. The reference seems to imply that there is a need in the story to “fish” for clues to find out what is really going on, but one may encounter a few “red herrings,” that can lead a character astray.
The irony is that Alicia can, based on appearances, be a good double agent to infiltrate the circle of her father’s associates. We see the back of a man at Alicia’s party. This shot implies that his true character is an unknown, also. The man is Devlin (Cary Grant). The two flirt, and even in their back-and-forth there is a cynicism, a suspiciousness about anything noble or pure. She says, “Nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh,” and he confirms the feeling by saying, “that’s right.” Her overt sexual nature is evident when he asks her when they go outside if she will need a coat. She says, “you’ll do.” This statement, however, just reinforces his preconceived notion of her as being a tramp. Alicia takes him for a drunken drive. Her shame involving her father comes to the surface when she says she might as well get arrested, then her whole family will be in jail. She drives recklessly, but he is pretty cool under the circumstances, and we soon learn why. When a policeman pulls Alicia over, Devlin flashes his ID, and the cop quickly  becomes subservient. Alicia, who has been followed by authorities who think she has information about her father’s contacts, is angry that Devlin is just another policeman harassing her, and she has trust issues with him now since he was not what he appeared to be. She physically struggles with him, and he knocks her out with a short jab, effective given her consumption of alcohol. But, it does show his hard edge, that he is committed to getting his job done, no matter the means.

As Alicia wakes up, we see the surroundings through her eyes. Things seem crooked, out of focus. Devlin is there, but he appears upside down. We are in a world where things are not straightforward, right and wrong may have exchanged positions, and its deceptiveness makes it difficult to navigate morally. Devlin tells her he has a job for her. She knows her father’s Nazi associates who are in Brazil, and may be able to “sell her trust” to them so she can provide the American intelligence community with information. It is interesting that “selling” here is equated with a type of sham, which makes sense since it is self-serving. Trusting someone can be a treacherous risk. She is resistant, saying that Devlin’s patriotism is insincere, self-serving. But, he had her place bugged, and recordings show that Alicia was against her father’s activities, hated him for it, and loved her new country, the United States. So, her true American patriotism is revealed, and her morality, ironically, through deceptive eavesdropping. She agrees to help, but she will be putting herself in danger, raising the question of how much must be sacrificed to get the job done?
Before her assignment, the two spend some time together, and romantic feelings emerge. She says she is a changed woman. He doesn’t want to admit, even to himself, that he is falling in love with her. His skepticism emerges about her ability to be faithful to him when she says that he will probably say he is really married and has a family. He tells her that she must hear that line a lot. The implication is that she has been with many men, even ones that are married. They fly down to Rio together along with Devlin’s boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern). On the flight, Devlin tells Alicia that her father poisoned himself in prison, and is dead. (The poisoning here turns out to be a foreshadowing event). She remembers how nice it was with her father before she found out that he was involved with Nazis. Another deception, even worse here because it involves father and daughter. In Rio, she tells Devlin that she has dreams of being an innocent child. But, her “notorious” past keeps interfering with Devlin’s ability to trust her. She has been eight days sober, and he sarcastically says that she is trying to “whitewash” her past. She feels helpless that he believes, “once a tramp, always a tramp.” When she accuses him of feeling ashamed of falling for her, he kisses her, illustrating his torn feelings.
The tension on their relationship is increased because of her assignment, which is to rekindle her relationship with German industrialist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), with whom Alicia was once romantically involved. Alicia hopes that Devlin will admit his love for her, and then she would refuse the assignment. But, he can’t get past his doubts concerning her past, and his jealousy will not allow him to think clearly. He leaves it up to her. She says that their love affair is a strange one, because “you don’t love me.” In the absence of any protestations from Devlin, she feels defeated, and goes along with the mission. She may also want to punish Devlin for not committing to her.

The plan is to have Alicia meet Sebastian at a horse riding club. Horses, as was noted in the posts on Equus and Hitchcock’s Marnie, are archetypal symbols for male sexuality. A staged runaway horse allows Sebastian to rescue Alicia in manly fashion, and their reunion progresses from there. Devlin’s presence is explained as a chance meeting on the plane to Rio, where Devlin became infatuated with Alicia. This set-up promotes interest through romantic competition, but, ironically, Devlin is secretly emotionally fixated on Alicia. Whereas Devlin’s jealousy undermines his clarity of thought, so, too, does lust blind Sebastian to any possible intrigue concerning Alicia’s presence in Rio. Indeed, Sebastian says that meeting Alicia again brought back an old “hunger,” which suggests how sexual desire is associated with a person’s “appetites.” How a man allow a woman’s attractiveness to place him in a precarious situation is one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as was explored in a previous post. Sebastian does recognize the spy boss Prescott, but Alicia explains, truthfully, that she has been harassed by U. S. Government officials  because of her father’s actions. She lies, though, when she says she came to Rio for an escape from those agents, and says her father was unselfish, and wanted her to leave America for her safety.

Sebastian’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) is immune to Alicia’s charms, and is suspicious of her. She questions why she did not testify at her father’s trial in his support. Mrs. Sebastian does not seem to buy Alicia’s explanation that her father wanted her to be kept away from the legal proceedings. Sebastian has been won over, and does not listen to his mother’s misgivings. He accuses her of her own maternal jealousy, wanting to always keep him away from romantic interests. At a party held by Sebastian with the Nazi sympathizers in attendance, Alicia notices that one of the men, Emil, gestures and makes a bit of a scene about a wine bottle. Later, the conspirators decide that Emil almost exposed their plans, and must be eliminated in what will look like an auto accident. Later, at the horse races, Alicia slips away (with Mrs. Sebastian noting her prolonged absence), and meets Devlin. She tells him about the fuss over the wine bottle. She adds, probably again to get a reaction from Devlin, that he can add Sebastian to her list of “playmates,” meaning she slept with him. Devlin seethes, and says she didn’t waste any time. She counters with it’s what he wanted. She was testing him, seeing if he would protest her role, which would show Devlin’s love for Alicia. But, at the same time, he was testing her, waiting for her to not agree to getting close to Sebastian, which would demonstrate her love for him. The suspicion, the lack of trust, caused them to hedge their bets, and kept them apart. He says if he had prevented her from doing the job, then they wouldn’t achieve the government’s mission. The thrust here is that there is a great deal of personal compromising sometimes when the bigger stakes are in play. The irony is that in the spy game, the chances of success are improved when people with moral flexibility are involved.
However, when Devlin meets with his colleagues and one comments on Alicia’s “notorious” background, Devlin comes to her defense, praising her courage. He says, “Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.” He basically is saying being held in high esteem without action to back up the admired position is worthless. Alicia meets with the agents because she asks for advice about the extreme position she is in. Sebastian has asked her to marry him. They agree that she should go through with the marriage, with Devlin giving a sarcastic approval.



After the honeymoon, they return to Sebastian’s mansion. Alicia gets Sebastian to get keys from his mother so she can have access to all of the closets in the house. This action symbolically shows how she can get him to unlock his secrets through her feminine manipulation. But, the wine cellar is under lock and key, and it would be too suspicious if she tried to ask for the keys and investigate the area herself. She does take the key off of Sebastian’s chain when he is not carrying it. Devlin tells Alicia to get Sebastian to throw a party, and she should invite him to the event. Sebastian discovered them at the racetrack, but Alicia said that despite Devlin’s romantic persistence, she keeps rejecting him. Devlin says that she should tell Sebastian that when he, Devlin, sees how happy they are, he will relinquish his pursuit. When she tells Sebastian, he says, “It’s not that I don’t trust you.” But, he shouldn’t. The irony here is that her appearances with Sebastian are insincere, but he allows himself to be duped, while, she is straightforward about her feelings for Devlin, and he won’t trust her, because of her superficial reputation.
At the party, Alicia goes with Devlin to the wine cellar. He accidentally knocks over a bottle. In it, it turns out, is a mineral substance used in making a nuclear weapon. He tries to hide the broken bottle shards under the racks, and pours the contents into another bottle of wine that he has emptied of its liquid. On the way out, Devlin sees Sebastian approaching. He kisses Alicia. Their story is that he tried to force himself on her, but she resisted. Devlin apologizes and leaves. But, Sebastian sees the wine cellar key is missing from his chain. When he wakes in the morning, it has been returned. He also found spilled wine from the bottle Devlin emptied, broken glass, and sees that there was an attempt to make another bottle to appear as if it was still sealed. Sebastian goes to his mother and says he has been fooled and is married to an American spy. He fears for his own life now, because the others would kill Sebastian if they found out he allowed their plans to be compromised. Mrs. Sebastian says, to avoid suspicion, Alicia’s death must be slow. They decide to put poison in her coffee. This action again stresses the theme of how appearances can be deceiving. While the Sebastians on the surface appear to be caring for Alicia as she becomes weak and dizzy, they are in fact hiding their treachery in an innocent looking beverage.
Devlin meets with Alicia at one point, and she looks terrible. She says it’s due to her drinking, because that is what Devlin wants to believe. But, when Prescott says that they haven’t heard from Alicia for a while, Devlin starts to get over his prejudices concerning Alicia, and realizes that she looked sick, not hungover. Alicia discovers that the Sebastians are poisoning her when they refuse to let someone take her to a hospital, and yell out when a guest accidentally picks up her coffee cup. They place her isolated in her bedroom, and remove her telephone, under the pretense of not wanting her disturbed. In the meantime, agents start following Sebastian, and the latter’s conspirators take notice, so they become suspicions of Sebastian. Devlin shows up at Sebastian’s house while the other Nazis are there. He finds out from a servant that Alicia has been in bed for a week. He goes upstairs and finds the gravely ill Alicia, who says that she realizes she has been poisoned. She tells him that the mineral ore is brought in from nearby mountains. He says now that he has loved her from the start, and she professes her love for him.
Devlin carries Alicia out, warning Sebastian that he will tell his “guests’ that he has been compromised by American spies. Sebastian turns to go inside the house, the fellow Nazis waiting there for him, and the door closing behind him shows that he is about to meet his doom. Devlin drives Alicia away to safety.


As Billy Joel sang, “everyone is so untrue.” Trust is, indeed, hard to come by, in international politics, and especially in matters of the heart. But, having preconceived, stereotypical notions about people, just makes it more difficult to fairly judge others.

The next film is Ex Machina.