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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“Her” (Released in 2013; watched by us on April 3, 2020)
A science-fiction romance film directed by Spike Jonze. We watched it on Netflix!
Imagine, “the future!” dear reader (and yes, the exclamation point is absolutely essential). It is closer than we might think, and what a wonderful time it promises to be. Pretty soon you too can take a ride on flying cars, experience lifelike virtual reality, and have an awkward break-up with that Siri unit you’ve been dating.
Oh, and I should be clear; it is her who will break up with you.
This is the world painted in Spike Jonze’s “Her”… well, except for the flying cars, virtual reality or any of the cool stuff. It is a near-future, not all that different from our present. Life is going poorly for our protagonist, Theodore Twombly. He is lonely, sad and in the midst of a nasty divorce, but things pick up when he purchases an AI named Samantha. I assume you know where this is going, dear reader. Theodore stumbles into a romance with Samantha, and from there the film simply lets this relationship carry on, depicting the highs, lows and intimacies that come with it.
It is easy to imagine “Her” as a comedy, but Jonze takes this initially goofy premise and plays it very straight. And, though I poke fun at the idea, I do believe this was a good decision. It becomes increasingly real as we veer closer to this actual possibility. A lot has happened in the world of AI within the past seven years, and we have already gotten news stories about men marrying hologram anime characters such as Hatsune Miku.
Spike Jonze is a masterful screenplay writer, but he is subtler than what I am otherwise used to. I personally prefer a bit more pomp and circumstances with my films, but a more underplayed style fits this movie. “Her” makes it easy for the audience to believe that a human/operating-system relationship is possible; nay, inevitable, given Theodore’s current circumstances. I’d ship it!
Though, Theodore is only half of the romance. Samantha, too, is personified by some sharp dialogue and some excellent vocal delivery by Scarlett Johansson. Though Samantha is primarily represented by a voice, she has an undeniably human curiosity, which is emphasized enough to define her character. Our two leads are written well enough that I eventually just forgot about their — um … unusual — circumstances and started seeing this as a normal relationship. Interestingly, “Her” becomes less science-fiction over time … that is, until the last act, where our leads’ differences are tragically dragged back into the limelight.
It is great storytelling, but this also makes “Her” a romance film first and foremost, which is great if you’re into that kind of thing. I, however, tend to get a little bored with these kinds of things, especially when they are played so realistically. However, as a communication major who studies the implications of our relationships with digital technology — I point to a magical little thing called media equation theory, which suggests we have a natural tendency to see media as people — there was certainly enough there to retain my interest.
If the premise seems interesting to you, then you will enjoy “Her” — my verdict is as simple as that.
In “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly falls in love with Samantha, a hyper-advanced version of Siri that is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. This is a fascinating premise. After all, what does it mean to fall in love with an email organizer? Can this love be meaningfully reciprocated by an object that is programmed to respond? But you might object: What distinguishes the ways that human beings are “programmed” to respond from the way that an AI responds? One could argue that evolution has “programmed” into a majority of the human race a predisposition to falling in love with a member of the opposite sex. Most would argue that this doesn’t make the love that we may feel any less genuine — so what is the difference between a human’s emotions and a computer’s? If it’s complexity, we can probably conceive of situations in which computers are actually more equipped to feel love than the average human. If the distinguishing factor is reference to the physical world, then we can just plop Samantha into a robot and then we have that too. This question sort of forces us to have a sharper definition of what we think a human is because our current boundaries seem insufficient to grapple with a world where computers can have emotional responses as complex as a human’s. I’ve just tried to provide an overview, but if you think that questions of consciousness, humanity, emotion, or love are interesting, and you’d like to dig in deeper, then I have the perfect movie for you: “Ex Machina” by Alex Garland. “Her” is just a romance movie. It’s not a bad romance movie, but it’s just a romance movie.
I’ll start off with the good stuff. The aesthetic of this movie is crisply defined. The colors are all fuchsias, sherbert oranges, cremes and pinks. The piano is light and melancholic. The movie feels like a carefully curated lo-fi version of a future LA. This movie has an excellent, deep cast. The standout performance here is obviously Scarlett Johansson’s; she packs an extraordinary amount of emotion into her voice, and we are able to feel Samantha’s excitement at exploring the world, her love for Theodore. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an excellent performance as well, and the supporting cast, while not massive, is still excellent. Olivia Wilde is a convincing date, and Chris Pratt is well used as comic relief. Rooney Mara is also excellent, and one of the film’s best moments is the conversation between Mara’s Catherine and Phoenix’s Theodore.
Let’s talk about Amy Adams. It’s utterly flabbergasting to me that she doesn’t have an Oscar. She’s captivating in every movie. Even though she is relegated to the supporting cast here, she serves as an empathic listener and she delivers some of the movie’s most important lines. She’s been one of cinema’s best thespians for years now. It’s a shame that she is consistently passed over when awards season comes around. Watch the glint of exasperation that her character (who is not-so-creatively named Amy) shows to her boyfriend in the elevator, or the kindness she shows to Theodore. Amy Adams is brilliant here and in all the other movies she’s in.
So now, the shortcomings of “Her.” My biggest problem with this movie is its lack of ambition. That may sound crazy — it’s a movie about dating Siri, how much more ambitious can it get? But the problem is the movie doesn’t deal with any of the fascinating questions that arise from that. There’s a moment where Samantha asks another person to put on a camera and an earpiece in order to simulate sex with Theodore. That’s mind-bending! But instead of being used as a prompt to discuss issues of physicality and of romance in the abstract, it is instead used to set up relationship conflict between Samantha and Theodore. The reason that Theodore starts to question his relationship with Samantha seems high-concept, but is actually quite mundane. I don’t know how to discuss the details without giving away spoilers, but the gist of it is that every time we’re presented with a heady philosophical concept about the distinctions between AI and humans, or the nature of the mind or of experience, Jonze waters it down so it’s just a disagreement between lovers.
In this context, “Her” feels strangely insular. The charming aesthetic, which we were deceived into thinking was the staging ground for an assault on our senses of self, instead turns into yet another too-clean, bubblegum-colored set of a drama. It’s good enough drama, and I still definitely think “Her” is worth a watch, but I can’t help but feel disappointed at the squandered potential.
As a side-note, the best evidence of Jonze’s shortcomings in writing this script is Villenueve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” Villenueve uses very similar set-ups for some major pieces of the movie, but in his more skillful hands, the romance between K and the AI Joi has an unexpected punch and more philosophical meaning. I’d recommend watching that after you watch “Her.”
“Inception” (Released in 2010; watched by us on April 5, 2020)
A science-fiction action film directed by Christopher Nolan. We watched it on Netflix!
I, a product of modern meme culture, have come to associate the word “inception” more as a verb than a noun. To “inception” something is to basically take an idea or concept and make it either utterly confusing or absolutely mind-blowing — commonly, this involves one thing being inside another, similar thing! “Whoa, so a crownie is a cookie inside of a brownie … that’s just like inception!”
Looking back, that might have been why I didn’t initially expect much of “Inception.” I figured it would be something like “Kingdom Hearts”… pretension for the sake of pretension, made less to entertain and more to make the filmmakers feel smart. Dear reader, I have been wrong about many things before; in fact, I’ve once broken bones over these mistakes. But this takes the cake.
“Inception” is smart, sure, but it is more importantly one of the most thrilling pieces of science-fiction I had seen in recent memory. I believe this is first and foremost because Christopher Nolen has taken a unique concept and had fun with it.
This movie follows a team of thieves, led by Dominick Cobb, called “extractors.” Their job is to go into the minds and dreams of their targets to commit corporate espionage, stealing information straight from their subconscious (for those who have played “Persona 5,” think of that as a frame of reference). Cobb is given the chance to erase his criminal history, however, and finally return to his children … but in exchange, he must gather a team to do the impossible. Instead of extracting ideas out of the mind, he must plant a new one. However, an already near-impossible mission gets increasingly complicated as Cobb’s own traumas bleed into the dream world, in the form of his late wife Mal.
This is a cool idea … and clearly the director agrees. “Inception” goes through great lengths to set up its numerous rules, but it does so at a patient, methodological pace, so it does not (quite) overwhelm the audience. Before we even get the information, we are treated to amazing visual displays and amazing, clearly impossible feats on our character’s parts … It is made clear that something is amiss, but why? By getting the audience to ask the questions, the film is simply doing us a favor by giving us an explanation — this is how you do exposition! And said information always pays off; whether or not it is to fuel a character’s crisis, an outright subversion to increase the peril and confusion, or to feed into a mind-blowing — but sensible — solution. No exposition feels wasteful here — it all informs a better story, with some very cool scenarios that only this particular world could pull off.
But even if you are not able to follow the rules of the road (with all these dream inside a dream shenanigans, I can’t really blame you) there is plenty of fun to be had in the passenger seat. “Inception” is first and foremost a heist movie. The audience member is treated to grand plans and wicked action scenes that are more than capable of filling in the gaps if some in-depth world building isn’t exactly your thing. This is why I believe there is something for everybody in “Inception.”
Still, there is one instance of “Inception” not taking full advantage of its unique premise. A lot of the action scenes (set up by the dream world realizing our main characters as foreign agents and fighting against them) can feel quite same-y, mostly resulting in hordes of people shooting at them. But there are so many more creative ways to try and kill somebody in a dream world!
Here is what I wish they would’ve done. The closest thing to a main recurring villain in this movie is Mal, the subconscious representation of our protagonist’s dead wife. She embodies his guilt, regrets and his implicitly fleeting will to live. This is a dark but delightfully fitting concept for an antagonist, which can only really be done in a movie like this. Mal had the potential to be one of film’s most renowned villains … if only the movie did a little bit more with her. While she had that promise at the beginning of the movie, she gets left behind when the actual mission begins, only popping up suddenly towards the climax with just a little pea-shooter in her hands. Imagine if Mal was a recurring presence throughout the mission, and wherever she goes the dream world crumbles. The clacking of her heels bring about warps and fritzes to this artificial reality; with the snap of her fingers, a train could suddenly run through a hotel, or maybe a forest fire could spark in the icy mountains. “Inception” really could have used a face for its perils, and Mal could have played that role perfectly.
But alas, the movie we got is more than good enough to make up for that … and when I complain that a movie could have done more with its concept, it means I was invested enough to think about this in the first place. That, in and of itself, is among the highest praises I could possibly offer. I am not attracted to stories just for the concept, dear reader; anybody can have a good idea, but it takes a good storyteller to do something with it. “Inception” is a superb example of world building in my opinion, and I will be dissecting this story in the future to fully understand what it got right, and what I can learn. Perhaps I, too, might have to dabble in a bit of dream espionage to find out. Consider yourself warned, Nolan.
I’m just going to go for it. “Inception” is not a good movie. It’s a great viewing experience, and it’s had a massive influence on modern culture. But it’s not a good movie.
I’ll preempt the most common response that I’ll hear: “Nitish, you just didn’t get ‘Inception.’” Maybe that’s true. Maybe “Inception” is far, far more profound than I’ve given it credit for. But even if that’s the case — “Inception” is not a good movie, perhaps even because that could be the case.
So what’s “Inception” about? That’s a deceptively hard question. Nominally, the movie is about dream thieves who infiltrate other people’s dreams in order to steal their most closely guarded secrets, or in this case, seek to introduce information. But the movie quickly gets way more complex than that already heady premise. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominick Cobb, we find out, comes from a tragic past where he and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) were in a dream world for the real-world equivalent of decades, and Mal lost touch with reality. As such, Dom introduced the idea in Mal’s head that the world is not real, but it took such strong hold of her that once they returned to the real world, she decided that it too is fake and jumped to her death in an attempt to wake up.
But wait! Was she in the real world? Was Mal actually right? What is a dream anyway? I’ll give Nolan a lot of credit, because he is very effective at alienating the viewer from the structure of the world by composing an increasingly intricate maze of dreams and reality. This has the effect of creating a pretty interesting epistemological puzzle, as we have no idea what’s real and no real way of figuring it out.
As such, “Inception” has spawned a small cottage industry of people trying to try to ascertain the ever-elusive “point” of the movie. There are lots, and I mean lots, of interpretations. This video argues that the point of the movie is “ontological uncertainty,” the idea that our lives are so emotionally complex that we can’t know what is real. This video and this article argue that the point of “Inception” is actually much more meta, that it’s actually about the dream-like quality of movies and the ways that they can be used to forge alternative realities that while false, are still meaningful to the viewer. This article presents five views of the movie, arguing that the previous idea of it being a movie couldn’t be true because we know when we’re watching movies even though we don’t know when we’re in a dream. So what’s the verdict?
My takeaway from “Inception,” after almost a decade of trying to figure it out, is simple: “Inception” is bad. I’ve read a fair bit of complicated philosophy, and occasionally I’ve come across something that is just completely incomprehensible. I used to think that the problem was with me, that I was just too stupid to get it, but then a much smarter friend told me that good philosophy makes sense. It might be discussing a really complicated topic, like the nature of reality. In that case, it’s not going to be immediately easy to understand. But good philosophy can give you a place to start with, and a vocabulary with which you can pull apart these complicated questions. “Inception” doesn’t do that. If it is preoccupied with questions of reality, as it seems to be, then it should give us ideas of where to begin asking the questions. “Inception” does develop a complicated mechanism of totems and kicks in telling us when the movie is presenting us a version of reality or when it isn’t. But in the world outside “Inception,” we don’t have totems or kicks. If “Inception” is an allegory, then Nolan spends so much time setting up a convoluted architecture of the movie that we are ill-equipped to actually relate it to our own lived experiences.
After reading that, you’ll probably send me some 30-minute YouTube video (that I’ve already seen) explaining how totems can be understood not as a physical object but actually as the presence of a type of psychological alienation, and that as soon as that alienation is resolved the facticity of the world doesn’t matter so long as the individual can believe it as real or some bullshit like that. You’d cite some philosophers, saying that the irrelevance of the facticity of the world mirrors William James’ argument in his lecture “The Will to Believe.” “See!” you’ll say with the unnerving confidence and frenzy of a Q-Anon believer, “Nolan was a genius all along!” But “Inception” is so complicated, so engorged on its own largesse, that you could probably set up any number of explanations for what it means. The explanation that I came up with as a way to make fun of other explanations actually makes sense — read “The Will to Believe” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. “Inception” doesn’t have an actual argument about reality or ontology, and if it does, it’s a bad one because it’s so obscured by the plot-devices that Nolan uses to set it up.
Suppose that the movie is about the catharsis of movie-making, of the power of a shared dream. Nolan’s own “Dunkirk” touches similar themes and doesn’t have to do all the other weird stuff. So does “Blade Runner.” Suppose that the movie is about the unreliability of perceptions of reality. Watch Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” instead. If Nolan is trying to make an argument, then he could have done it a lot better by paring away all the unnecessary flourishes and instead just focusing on making that argument. And it’s not Nolan’s ambiguity in “Inception” that’s the problem. All of the aforementioned movies are deeply ambiguous to their endings. The difference is that they’ve pared down, and that they focus on their themes first and foremost. We don’t have to deal with four levels of dream world, or corporate espionage, or totems, or any number of weird plot devices that Nolan feverishly concocted for this movie.
“You’re getting it all wrong!” you shout. “It isn’t supposed to be an argument; it’s just supposed to make you think about these questions!” Fine. Nolan is successful in making people argue about reality after we watch “Inception.” But let’s look at the more traditional pieces of film criticism. The movie has way too much exposition, it has surprisingly weak performances from a ridiculously star-studded cast, and it doesn’t have that convincing of an emotional narrative. Look at movies like “Enemy” or “Donnie Darko” or “Mulholland Drive.” They have confusing endings, without a clear idea of what the movie is trying to tell us. But they still form a powerful emotional connection with the viewer even in the absence of a total understanding of what’s going on. Do I understand what the homeless guy behind the fast-food restaurant in “Mulholland Drive” is doing for the movie? Absolutely not. But I still felt sorrow for the protagonist, felt her manipulation, felt her failed attempts at love.
The best part about watching “Inception” is trying to figure out what it all means. The worst part about watching “Inception” is also trying to figure out what it all means. I’ll admit, I loved “Inception” the first time I watched it because I was utterly enthralled by the puzzle it posed. The second time I watched it, I was similarly in love, but I had a pen and paper, ready to reconstruct Nolan’s psyche like a detective. Now, a decade and many more rewatches later, I have realized that unfortunately, figuring out the puzzle is all there is to “Inception,” and there is meager emotional substance or narrative or philosophical depth to subsist on when the complicated skeletal structure of the dream world is pulled away. Hiding things from the viewer and expecting them to stitch together a movie like a forensic analyst is not a sign of good storytelling; in fact, it can be a sign of bad storytelling. I hope that you had a different reaction than I did, and I hope that you found it was just as profound as it appeared to be at first glance — if you did, please let me know, and I hope to change my mind. But I’m no longer optimistic.
“The Witch” (Released in 2015; watched by us on April 6, 2020)
A horror film by Robert Eggers. We watched it on Netflix!
For whatever reason, horror movies have never worked for me.
Oh, do not get me wrong, dear reader. I am a total wimp. I am in tears at the first sign of a cute animal coming to any harm. If a dog so much as falls over, I will sob uncontrollably. But, here is the thing; I care about dogs, therefore I care about their wellbeing. The same thing can apply when people are the subjects too… but only sometimes.
The most scared I have ever been watching a movie or television show is when a character I have grown to love is put in danger, and I am genuinely unsure if they will make it out. When I think of frightening movie scenes, I think of the end of Pixar’s “Wall-E,” when our titular robot is at risk of falling apart before getting to Earth. I think of “Jojo Rabbit” when the Gestapo conducts a search on Jojo’s house, coming dangerously close to discovering the Jewish girl he is hiding. I usually have a hard time imagining myself behind the screen, but when I care about a movie’s characters, I get scared for them. But, horror movies usually do not put as much effort into getting me to care in the same way … Ironically enough, that leads to me being less scared when they are put in danger.
Horror movies often disturb me, sure. But rarely do they scare me.
This would normally be the point in an article where I reveal that “The Witch,” or “The VVitch,” if you want to be annoying — is some sort of miraculous exception. But it wasn’t.
“The Witch” follows a puritan family that, through religious differences, is excluded from the rest of the community. The family’s infant son suddenly disappears one day, and tensions spike as the family begins to suspect eldest daughter Thomasin of being a witch. There are also actual witches, out and about, just sort of being weird.
This movie takes a more psychological, slower-paced approach to horror, setting it apart from the likes of “The Shining” and “Halloween.” The monsters barely show themselves, aside from some few exceptions, and the danger is expressed instead through subtle paranormal activity — like a cow bleating blood instead of milk. This is all in service of a wild and oddly hypnotic final scene that truly does live up to a feature-length’s worth of hype. Those looking for new, fresh takes on horror might be attracted to the more experimental vibe of “The Witch.”
I concur the film does its job … It is unsettling and disturbing. But still, it does not scare me. That is because I cannot see the characters as anything more than pawns — empty husks made to be tormented for my viewing displeasure.
We only see the family in times of stress and danger, and as a result, “The Witch” neglects their human side. The closest we get is our title character, Thomasin, playing peek-a-boo with her soon-to-be disappeared baby brother, but those 20 seconds can only go so far, especially as she forgets about the grief any normal person would feel having lost a brother and pretends to be the witch responsible for killing him, just to mess with her little siblings. Why?
I mean, I know why. This misunderstanding adds to the tensions later on in the movie. But why would she do this? Since the movie does not explore that, it feels less as though a family is bearing through a deadly misunderstanding, and more that we are watching a stock cast of horror characters, making decisions solely to progress the plot.
But, I suppose there was not much “The Witch” could do to endear me to a genre I just could not get into. While I can appreciate this film’s unique approach to the horror genre, it is still very much a horror movie, and it falls into the very same trappings. Your enjoyment, dear reader, will likely depend on how tolerant you are of them.
Maybe if they had included one dog things might have changed.
From my perspective, it’s a happy accident that “The Witch” is reviewed as part of the same group as “Her” and “Inception,” because I think it’s the perfect median between the two movies in terms of the way that they tackle philosophical concepts. I regret, reader, that this will not be a full review of “The Witch,” as I will take some time here to explain why I think it is the Goldilocks porridge between “Her” and “Inception.” Eggers’ “The Witch” certainly deserves a full review, as I think it’s probably one of the best horror movies that I’ve ever seen. However, I’m going to take advantage of the slightly different medium that I’m writing in right now to talk more about movies in the abstract.
In Goldilocks fashion, I’ll start off with the not-ambitious-enough: “Her.” As I’ve said, I think “Her” has an intriguing starting point, but it doesn’t really delve into the issues with sufficient context. You’d think that the themes of humanity, of false-humanity, of the reality of emotions would be central to the way that the movie actually plays out, but Jonze’s script didn’t really end up doing that. It repeatedly felt like Jonze was just using the existence of a hyper-advanced operating system as nothing more than a plot device to have romantic drama. I don’t think that’s a fatal problem for the movie, and I thought it was enjoyable character drama nonetheless. That being said, I don’t think the movie lived up to its potential, and I think it could have used more meat on its bones.
Now, the far-too-ambitious: “Inception.” Nolan’s “Inception” has been memed on as an incredibly complicated movie, and I definitely agree. It deals with ontological questions like the nature of reality, the substance of dreams and experience, of shared reality and intersubjectivity, and quite a bit more. But in my eyes, it doesn’t really successfully consider any one of these topics because it sets up a needlessly complicated plot in doing so. I think “Inception” would have benefited if they fired half the cast and committed to three-fourths of the runtime, forcing it to become a much more personal movie.
And now, the (more or less) perfect: Eggers’ “The Witch.” Eggers discusses similarly heady concepts of faith and sin, and there is a ton under the surface to mine from the movie, so he already surpassed Jonze in my view. But where he avoids falling into Nolan’s trap is in the parsed down story and writing. For example, a core theme of the movie is about the nature of sin, and how it leads to downfall. The most obvious example of this is with Harvey Scrimshaw’s Caleb. Caleb is lustful, and we see this when he peers down his sister (Anya Taylor-Joy) Thomasin’s dress. He is later seduced and driven mad by a witch. There’s a clear cause-and-effect here that develops the plot nicely. Similarly, Ralph Ineson’s William is prideful and gets cast out of the village as a result. His arrogance continues to harm him in the film, and it is a clearly identifiable, consistent character-trait. These ideas may seem abstract, but they are well-executed in the film. Take a similar thread in “Inception,” like Cobb’s guilt over Mal’s death. The cause-and-effect here is buried under dozens of plot devices, and even though we figure out what’s going about halfway into the movie, it wasn’t clear enough to be emotionally convincing for me, and instead basically just felt like yet another plot device, when it should have been the main theme (read Mark’s review of “Inception” for a creative way that this could have happened!). In “The Witch,” character motivations are far clearer.
“The Witch” also lends itself well to the sort of theorizing that occurs in “Inception.” One thread that I didn’t pick up on when I first watched “The Witch” was that the family’s banishment from the village at the beginning of the movie mirrors Adam and Eve’s banishment from paradise, and they were similarly doomed by their own sin, tempted by the devil. But as soon as I watched this theory, it made sense to me, as it was consistent with the rules of the world. Moreover, and this might be a little tricky to explain, but I was sort of emotionally convinced that it was true when I was watching the movie even if I wasn’t immediately aware of it, because it was thematically consistent with everything else that was going on. The theory then sort of just slotted into place. In contrast, with “Inception,” the theories relied on a bunch of plot devices and were thus less convincing. “The Witch” spent time allowing us to intuit the underlying structure of the world using strong religious imagery. In contrast, “Inception” spent a ton of time explaining the rules of the world but not a lot of time in terms of allowing us to understand the underlying structure.
So, yeah! I loved “The Witch,” and I liked the other two movies this week less. Sorry, this is a bit of a weird review, but I was inspired and thought I’d try to compare the three. Hope you enjoyed, and see you next week!
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.