The Monsters, real and imagined

In this past week, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina. Both feature women with a need to escape prisons created by men.  There’s a certain amount of violence associated with both movies, a certain amount of sexual and physical ownership that the women characters must both endure and work to subvert. Angela Watercutter at Wired addresses Ava’s problematic mode for escape, and its mistaken feminist identity.

Both movies have their male champions – Caleb in Ex Machina and Max in Max Max – but their roles are complicated and less than heroic.  This nice guy persona has been nicely unpacked by Jacob Hall in a terrific article about feminism in these movies:

“Because we see the movie from his [Caleb’s in Ex Machina] perspective, we miss that his falling in love with Ava — his instant, desperate affection and desire to spring her from captivity — is almost as shallow and dangerous as Nathan’s more overt misogyny. To Caleb, Ava is still an object; a symbol of sex that needs to be saved, not a sentient being who deserves to make her own choices. Nathan created women so he could own them and control them. Caleb is just seeking permission to do the exact same thing.”

So Caleb dies because he is just as dangerous as Nathan, ultimately.  Max bows out because “The times are changing and men like him are being left behind.”

What struck me as strange, however (especially in Ex Machina), is how uncomplicated both Nathan and Joe are. While Immortan Joe’s cartoon brutishness is played for laughs and squicks, Nathan’s off-putting intensity belies nothing at all.  He appears cruel and controlling in the beginning, and dies cruel and controlling at the end.  Oscar Isaac, of course, is such an arresting actor that I’d probably watch him in a Transformers movie.  I kept waiting, though, for Nathan to crack open and reveal something more nuanced – evidence of a truly brilliant mind, or a truly sinister mind, or both.

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Instead, there are a few strangely weightless conversations about consciousness and existence, and one mountain-top admission of drunken, apathetic nihilism.  This is where the film breaks down for me.  He’s easy to discount, easy to dismiss as drunk and crazy and completely avoidable.  Apart from his role as the creator and owner of what is essentially a fictionalized Google, he’s a jacked, drunk, mad scientist in a lab-castle on a hill in the middle of nowhere.

I expected him to be insidious, smarter than me, smarter than Caleb, smarter than Ava, even.  I expected him to be the Promise Keeper Baptist Youth Leader of my youth who successfully enticed my smart, sweet friends into his control and then tried to have sex with them. The desire and wind-up of the truly nefarious.

I suppose I should end this by saying something about how I’m just glad that I’m able to write about mainstream movies and their differing feminist perspectives, but I’m not going to do that because remember the ’90s?  We were like: things are totally changing for women on the radio and in the movies and on the TV.  And that was 20 years ago.

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