Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week. Posts marked with a * have additional notes available here.
“I’ve got good friends who I really respect who I’ve shown “Men” to, and their convinced interpretation — “I know what this film is saying, it’s saying this”— is 180 degrees different from what I thought it was… I have such distrust in my own responses and other people’s responses as being reliable — they could vary on a day-by-day level. So when I offer something up, I have no expectation that everybody’s going to agree on it. I have a full expectation that people will disagree, and I see it primarily as a reflection on them.”
So I knew this was gonna be a fun one to review. /s
Men belongs to the class of Big Idea horror stories that want to scare you, but want to make a point while they’re doing it. In Men‘s case, that point is about, well… men. Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a woman whose husband threatened to commit suicide upon hearing that she wanted a divorce, and who moreover told her that if he did kill himself, it would be all her fault. After making good on his threat, Harper is haunted by her memories of him, and retreats to the countryside for two weeks in order to recover.
Once there, she has a sequence of interactions with the men in the village – all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear – which escalate from awkward, to leering, to threatening, and finally to downright violent in the case of one naked itinerant who stalks her out of the forest and tries to break into her house. Even after this episode tension continues to mount for Harper, culminating in a final home invasion sequence filled with gruesome imagery and taking several hard left turns whose meaning is left almost cruelly open for interpretation. I was honestly left unsure of how much of it I was supposed to take seriously. Again from the New York Times:
“Over the years, I have been consciously putting more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to it, too, if I’m honest, which is that it’s making the viewer complicit. This is another reason to pull back, because there’s a part of me which is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, I felt with “Men” that I’ve gone so far that it’s borderline delinquent.”
There are some ideas in the film that I think any viewer can be confident in. If nothing else, it’s impossible not to come away impressed with how effectively the film is able to capture what it feels like to be a woman who is constantly manipulated, dismissed, and objectified by men. But beyond this, things get tricky.
I have my own ideas about how some of the pieces fit together, but most of the big questions (what is the purpose behind having Kinnear play all the parts? How much of the last quarter of the movie was real? How does all the Garden of Eden and Green Knight-esque imagery fit in?) I’ve kind of just given up on. Knowing that at least some parts of the movie were just meant to mess with people makes this easier to justify, but nonetheless I feel a bit guilty. Garland’s intention here is to provoke, and he apparently feels that this is best accomplished by withholding the answers and letting the act of reflection and interpretation itself be the takeaway for his audience. As a viewer, I appreciated that kind of faith being placed in me. But in this case, I perhaps was not up to the task.
Overall, though, I did enjoy the movie. Garland did a very good job directing the horror elements, and even if the last section of the film got too weird for me, I like his style of weirdness enough to at least appreciate the effort. But I’d go back and re-watch Ex Machina or Annihilation long before I picked up this one again. 6.5/10
Love Death + Robots – The Netflix animated short film anthology is back for its third season. Overall, this season was much stronger than the second, and honestly I’d probably rank it even better than the first. It’s certainly much tighter, if nothing else. Thoughts on each of the nine episodes are below, but for the sake of brevity, my top three were: Jibaro, Bad Travelling, and Swarm.
Three Robots: Exit Strategies – A sequel to one of the shorts in the first season, this episode follows three robots as they tour the locations where various groups of humans tried (and failed) to outlast the end of the world. Along the way, we are treated to a handful of visual gags relating to the piles of skeletons found littering each outpost, some uninspired jokes riffing on each group they look in on (“What’s a tech millionaire?” “It’s a lot like a regular millionaire, but with a hoodie and crippling social anxiety”), and finally a rather sanctimonious lecture on how humans could have fixed their world if they just hadn’t been so greedy. This speech bothered me in particular for its lack of self-awareness, seeing as the episode had just spent 10 minutes gleefully parading the same cruel indifference to human complexity that its final appeal claimed to transcend. I ended up pretty disappointed by this one. The setup was strong, but the writers took the easy way out instead of doing anything really fresh with it. 5/10
Bad Traveling – A fishing vessel comes under attack by a titanic sea monster, which manages to consume half the crew before becoming trapped in the ship’s hold. Taking control of one of the dead men, the monster manages to convey a demand to the new captain: take it to a nearby port, where it can feast to its heart’s content. From here, the remainder of the crew must make a choice, though not everyone may be happy with the result. Writers Neal Asher and Andrew Kevin Walker manage to pack as many twists into 20 minutes as most movies manage in 120, and director David Fincher (!) shepherds the tight, excellent story through at breakneck pace without ever slackening the tension. Particular credit for this one must also go to Blur Studios, both for how much dread they were able to imbue the monster with, and for two separate action sequences that are among the best I have ever seen in animation. 9/10
The Very Pulse of the Machine – After an accident destroys her rover and kills her partner, astronaut Martha Kivelson must trek 40km across the moon of Io to reach safety. However, once she gets underway, a series of hallucinations makes her suspect the moon itself is trying to communicate with her. This is one of those shorts that tries to make you think it’s saying something important by having its characters quote deep-sounding poetry while psychedelic imagery swims in the foreground and ambient music swells in the background. None of these pieces ever clicked for me, though, so I was just left feeling that it was all a bit pretentious. But at least I had some very interesting animation to gaze at in the meantime. 6/10
Night of the Mini Dead – It’s the zombie apocalypse, but told as if through one of those tilt-shift lenses that makes everything look like a toy miniature. This zippy 6 minute short fast-forwards (literally) through an escalating series of battles between humans and the zombie hordes, mixing death with cuteness in a way which left me positively tickled. 8/10
Kill Team Kill – This will probably be the episode that turns the most people off. Kill Team Kill is an unapologetically violent, gory, and dirty-talking action short about a group of soldiers who have to fight of a cybernetic bear-tank that has gone rogue in Afghanistan. As you can likely tell by that description, its story is not exactly revolutionary, but so long as you can stomach the viscera it turns out to be a another strong entry to the subgenre of high-octane, stylized action tales that Love Death + Robots has made its trademark. And as a bonus, its star-studded voice cast do a great job with the frequent riffs on tough-guy humor. 7/10
Swarm – Far in the future, humans have discovered a hive mind quietly occupying a remote corner of the galaxy. The queen of this hive sits at the center of a complex ecosystem featuring hundreds of different castes of insectoid drones as well as various other alien species that over the millennia had been assimilated into the colony. We are introduced to this world through the eyes of the newly-arrived Dr. Afriel as he is led on a tour by another scientist, Dr. Mirney, who has been studying the hive and its creatures for several years. The first half of the episode is a visual delight as the two scientists glide through the hive and admire the order that lies beneath the seemingly chaotic frenzy of life. Blur Studios once again earns a call-out here for their beautiful animation, and proves that apparently their team has a gift for anything involving arthropods.
Of course, then the humans have to go and do what they do in every sci-fi story: try to find a way to exploit what they’ve found to further their own ambitions. Afriel’s goal is to take the genetic material from a drone and use it to hatch a new queen and a new hive that humans can use to serve Earth’s expanding interstellar population. At this point, I groaned, expecting the rest of the episode to play out the standard formula of “humans poke the bear” -> “the bear wakes up and attacks them” -> “the humans die to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance.”
Now, I’d be lying if I said that isn’t basically what happens (I’d apologize for spoilers, but it really is so obviously telegraphed that there’s no surprise in it). Fortunately, though, the episode anchors the climax in some deeply penetrating questions about the value of intelligence that I can already tell will stick with me for a very long time. To say more about it would be to spoil the entire plot (even more so than I have done already), but I may try to include something next week that goes into more detail, because I think the conclusion of the story raises some genuinely important questions. 8.5/10
Mason’s Rats – This short leans heavy on the Death and Robots part of the series title. Mason is a farmer who’s been having a rat problem. Not just that they exist and are eating the food in his barn, but also that they’ve suddenly learned how to make weapons and organize a tiny militia against him. To fix this problem, Mason turns to a smarmy pest control salesman who insists that the latest in rat catching technology are a series of fixed turrets and scorpion-like battle droids that Mason can use to turn his barn into a killing zone. Mason grudgingly agrees to purchase the bots, and is rewarded with a gruesome spectacle of rats being decapitated or machine gunned into mist. This is another one like Kill Team Kill that is likely to cross a few lines for viewers, and even I squirmed a fair amount trying to decide whether it all was a bit too much for me. The animation is great, and the ending somewhat counterbalanced the darkness of having to watch a rat version of the Omaha Beach landing, but this episode is definitely not for the faint of heart. 7/10
In Vaulted Halls Entombed – Following LD+R’s first season episode The Secret War, Vaulted Halls continues what I hope will become a tradition of having one episode each season feature photo-realistically animated soldiers being thrown into a war against some infernal threat. The episode starts off with a squad of Marines tracking a band of insurgents through a tunnel system as part of a hostage rescue operation. Things quickly begin to go wrong, however, once carnivorous spiders start swarming out of the walls and attacking the troop. As the soldiers retreat deeper into the mountain, the episode takes a turn towards cosmic horror as they discover the titular tomb. Director Jerome Chen, who also directed one of my favorite season one episodes, Lucky 13, skillfully manages to balance between the immediate suspense of the soldiers facing the spider swarm with the creeping sense of otherworldly foreboding that is so hard to nail in cosmic horror. A great entry in the season. 8/10.
Jibaro – I had very high hopes going into this one, and it did not disappoint. Not that I really doubted it would. Alberto Mielgo was already the king of Love Death + Robots in my eyes by virtue of his eye-popping season one entry The Witness, and his recent Oscar-winning short The Windshield Wiper dispelled any doubt that he lacked creative staying power.
Jibaro continues Mielgo’s interest in angular explorations of love and desire, this time through a 16th century tale of a bejeweled siren who preys on greedy conquistadores. After her call sets off a bloody frenzy among one such pack of explorers, her curiosity becomes inflamed by the single deaf knight who manages to escape. There is much to love about this short, from the sound design oscillates between alien melodies and sudden soundlessness to the intricately detailed textures of the treasure covering the siren’s body. But the primary joy of this episode is assuredly the urgent, jagged kineticism of the characters as they dance, contort, fight, and seduce one another while racing through the jungle. Words don’t do it justice, so just take my word and pull it up, then join me in counting the days until Mielgo’s first feature film gets released. 9/10.
Everything Studies has a great piece out about how people’s politics is often based on the incorrect assumption that everyone else shares their same psychological profile. For example, if someone finds it easy to accept and adapt to big changes to their life situation, they may be more willing to support policies that would be highly disruptive to others’ lives, falsely assuming that everyone else can cope as easily as they could. Another example are libertarian individualists who can easily regulate their own desires and willpower, and assume that the same must be possible for everyone else. There is more at the link, but overall I think this piece is a great prompt for reflecting on your own biases and exposing blind spots that shape your assumptions about the world.
Parrhesia wrote a good summary of the history of genetic engineering and the potential social consequences of that option taking off in the next 50 years. It mostly treads on familiar ground, but I did appreciate the focus on what would happen if iterative embryo selection becomes possible and we could see IQ 200+ people within 50 years. A lot would depend on how genetic engineering intersects with AI progress, but I find the self-segregation dynamics he sketches out to be highly plausible.