See It Instead: The Avengers, Age of Ultron
Trying to talk you out of seeing Marvel’s latest blockbuster is akin to spitting into the wind. The movie has already made 200 million dollars without even opening (…in the US) and is on pace to make 2 billion dollars on popcorn alone. Hell, I’m going to see it and regale you with an insightful movie review as quickly as possible! So we can skip the pleasantries, and I can just tell you about these 3 wonderful films you can see instead. More likely as well, like after you get done seeing Avengers 2 for the 10th time.
The Avengers, Age of Ultron (2015)
So far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everything has been a prelude to the Infinity Gauntlet. Like Captain Planet, there exists 5 gems of ultimate power that combine to create an ultimate weapon. Unlike Captain Planet, these gems do jack shit for pollution, and are actually interesting. I’ve tried to follow how each individual movie has led us towards the goal of finding all 5 and establishing the forces that will contest control of the celestial MacGuffin. I cannot seem to find the way in which this film ties into the greater whole…and do not bloody care. This film has a villain with actual teeth. Ultron is a real threat to the Avengers, and therefore the universe. If they never mention an infinity gem, I’m cool. Just give me more scenes with James Spader literally dripping menace on our core team of do-gooders. This movie feels like it can stand alone, which is excellent for those who don’t want to play “Where’s Waldo?” with the larger MCU plotline. Just bring on the machines!
The Serious Pick: Metropolis (1927)
A machine intended for good turned to evil is not original to the Marvel Universe. Hell, it might not be original to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! In the 1930’s, visionary director Fritz Lang laid out one of the most important films ever made about just such a machine. In the fictional future city of New Babylon, nicknamed Metropolis, machinery has become the living heart of the populace. Envisioned by a pioneering plutocrat, Joh Ledersen, and implemented by an army of virtually enslaved workers led by chief engineer Grot, the city has led to a unparallelled level of prosperity for those who live amongst the clouds, and unrelieved level of misery for those who toil below the surface.
The story concerns Leder, Ledersen’s son, who lives a life of ease and affluence as a member of the plutocracy. One day, a young woman named Maria intrudes upon his idyll with an army of poor children, attempting to show them the luxury that Metropolis has to offer. Maria is a prophet of non-violent inclusion, hoping to convince all that they are brothers and sisters, and to make the Head (the rich) work in tandem with the Hands (the workers) by means of including the Heart (people of good-will who wish technology to benefit all.) She is quickly thrown out of paradise, but Leder is infatuated by her beauty and ideals, and begins a journey to unite the factions of the city in harmony.
All seems to be going in favor of Leder, who quickly makes himself a hero of the proletariat and manages to gain Maria’s love and support. Unfortunately, his father wishes to corrupt Maria’s revolution so he can gain absolute authority, and he seeks the assistance of Rotwang, a mad inventor who hates Ledersen and his family for having stolen the woman of his dreams, Hel, Ledersen’s deceased wife. He offers the plutocrat a robot who can assume any human form. Ledersen plans to impersonate Maria and smash her revolution, but Rotwang intends to use the machine to cause anarchy and bring about the destruction of Ledersen, his son, and his dream of a machine-based Utopia.
Metropolis is a groundbreaking film, shot for a ludicrous amount of money during the silent era of film. The movie is full of amazing visuals, technological feats which changed film making, and high-minded ideas which spoke to a world which was quickly to become inflamed with a war between capitalism, socialism, and the power of machinery to help and harm all of mankind. It is a watershed moment in film history. The story may seem idealized, and the silent film method of acting may not appeal immediately to modern audiences, but the film is absolutely mesmerizing, with sights, sounds, and concepts that would go on to influence history for nearly a century. When you see Ultron sneering at humanity, or Arnold taking human form as The Terminator to threaten the world, you’re watching the grandchildren of Fritz Lang and his monumental achievement, Metropolis.
The Lighthearted Pick: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Age of Ultron has riffed upon the idea of Pinocchio, about a creation which exceeds its creators control and attains a life of its own. Steven Spielberg had a similar vision in his visually stunning opus, A.I. At the cusp of human achievement, an artificial intelligence is created who can bridge the gap between man and machine. A young android, David (Haley Joel Osment,) is the first creation who can love. He is raised by two “parents” (actually employees of the company that manufactured David) and is given a warm and nurturing childhood. He becomes attached to his parents, and is dismayed to learn that he isn’t “real.” The two employees have a live child, Martin, who is suffering from a rare disease. When Martin returns home, he hates David, and eventually drives him out of the family. With his companion Teddy, David sets out into a dangerous world in order to attempt to find the Blue Fairy from the story of Pinocchio, whom he hopes can make him a real boy.
The story of David is essentially a hi-tech retelling of Pinocchio, but that doesn’t lessen the appeal of the film. Watching Spielberg transform the ancient tale to incorporate first rate futurism and Sci-Fi is well worth revisiting the story of a wooden boy, his conscience, and the adventures the two face. The special effects of A.I. are excellent, and manage to overcome the uncanny valley by incorporating human actors in innovative ways. The lead roles are played with real emotive power: Jude Law, as Gigolo Joe is transformative, David’s parents are emotionally powerful, and Haley Joel Osment was never more endearing. John Hurt plays a pivotal and unforeseen role in the film as well. John Williams’ score is rousing and deft, as is expected. This is vividly adapted and timely retelling of a classic tale, one not to miss.
The Unconventional Pick: Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ready to get weird? Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation of Masumune Shirow’s groundbreaking manga delves into very deep water: can machines have souls, what value do they have against the rights of humans, and can a detente ever emerge between a world of powerful machines and their human “masters”?
In the near future, cyber space has infiltrated all of society, and the police have a special division to handle cyber crime, Section 9. 9’s best operative is herself a cybernetic organism, Major Kusanagi, who is quick, intelligent, and seductively lethal. Along with two other flesh bag cops, she attempts to protect Japan from cyber-hackers and other deviants who try to use new technology to terrorize the populace. They come up against their biggest threat, The Puppet Master, a villain who can hack “ghosts,” the human consciousnesses that inhabit machines when a living controller operates a machines. From there, he can control people as if they were machines. The troubling issue confronting Kusunagi is whether or not Puppet Master is actually a hacker or merely a program trying to escape cyber space. She will have to confront him physically, mentally, and psychologically in order to triumph.
We’re set to see Scarlett Johanson, herself an Avenger, tackle the role of Kusunagi in a live action motion picture soon. Ghost in the Shell was part of the spear-tip (along with Akira, Ninja Scroll, and the work of Studio Ghibli) that introduced Western audiences to the audacious and intellectual work of modern anime from Japan. A seminal work, it has spawned several sequels, the aforementioned live action spin-off, and many television series. If you want to understand why Black Widow will soon be kicking through tanks and ripping robots to shreds, go back to the source and see Ghost in the Shell instead.