Almost any film (or narrative story) is about “the journey.” It is what gives a character their arc and shows their growth. Sometimes there is a very literal metaphor of this arc with a character climbing a mountain or driving across the country with a friend or their father’s ashes…or Einstein’s brain. Regardless, something they all have in common, though, is that the journey is the means by which the character grows. This is the essence of “The Hero’s Journey” and the well-trodden Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces and what not.
But what about a film that is not about the hero’s journey and how it changes them? What about a film in which the journey itself is the point? A journey that, while somehow revelatory of the character and either their motivations for the journey or society as a whole, rather than changing them or causing them to grow as a person, instead ends up either not affecting them or, if anything, leaving them worse off for making the trip.
If there is one question left in my brain at the end of Ex Machina, it is “who was the true villain of the film?” For so much of its runtime we are left in a state of unease at the actions and personality of its erstwhile genius creator Nathan (Oscar Issac)—some sort Steve Jobs crossed with Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist—and we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Nathan is erratic, quick to anger and just as quick to soften; unpredictable, clearly an alcoholic, and also paranoid. His security measures prove to be his very undoing, and also cause the death of his unwitting test subject/examiner, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of Nathan’s employees who is there to perform a Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s android creation.
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), written by the future Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) writer/director Alex Garland, was, for me, the film from which I learned the phrase “third act problems.” In this way, it was a seminal film in my development as a critical viewer and analyzer of the cinematic arts. And yet, despite these problems, it remains, in my regard, an outstanding example of the science fiction genre and a film that I whole heartedly recommend.
The following essay had its start in my long delayed hauntology project (I promise that will begin posting soon), but in the process of streamlining that series and removing a number of films because the essays I was writing kept getting longer, I decided that both Sunshine and Ex Machina did not really fit with the themes I was developing…though Sunshine was heartbreaking to remove because I do want more people to watch it, flaws and all. Continue reading “Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)”→