Sunday, 17 May 2015

Androids Do Not See As We See

I've finally had the chance to take in Age of Ultron. As a pre-emptive TL;DR, I thought it worked pretty well.  I wasn't quite as impressed as I was with its predecessor, though in part this might just be that it's inevitably less impressive to see Whedon pull off the same exceptionally difficult trick a second time.  But in general it struck me as strong. Nevertheless, I'm going to do exactly what I always do, and focus on the elements I didn't like and slap them mercilessly around.

Join me after the jump for spoilers and complaining.

I'll do what I always do, though, and start with what I really liked, so I feel better about putting the boot in later. First of all, it's definitely not a sub-par Whedon script. It might not reach his top tier either, but median Whedon is sufficiently wonderful that I've no intention of lamenting the fact that it could have been even better. In particular, Whedon once again manages to juggle an utterly extraordinary number of characters and ensure everyone gets at least one moment to be funny, and to be cool, in ways that flow naturally from their characters without feeling too predictable. The party scene early in the film is a particular delight, a tremendously impressive demonstration on making group seems feel neither crowded nor unfairly focussed on a small subset of characters, and in addition manages to throw in a standard comic-fan argument - who but Thor can lift Thor's hammer - without it excluding the rest of the audience. It's a shame Ultron (wonderfully rendered to include all of James Spader's advances in jaw acting) crashes the shindig, actually, I could've watched that party play out for hours.

Indeed, the need for fisticuffs is a recurring problem here.  Whedon is by no means a bad action director, and he's become quite adept at making his fight scenes do something beyond just look cool. Witness how effortlessly the initial attack on the bunker reintroduces our main characters, and how differently it's shot and edited compared to the Hulk/Iron Man throw-down later in the film.  The former is all balletic precision (that shot of the whole team coming together is pure smug showing-off, but when you can show off that well, I'm happy to let it go) as a well-honed team goes about another day at the office.  The latter is a scatter-shot, jittery affair full of shaky cameras and rapid cuts, as Iron Man finds himself alone and out of his depth, the only member of a fractured team still standing.  The result of this change in style was rather unfortunate for me - I get motion sick during this kind of fight and become unable to stay awake - but my sudden outbreak of exhaustion does rather demonstrate the effort Whedon is putting into keeping his extended punchathons varied. But action-Whedon still remains very much behind dialogue-Whedon and character-beat-Whedon in terms of what I like watching. I'm not suggesting an Avengers film needs far less explosions - I knew what I was getting when I walked in - but I'm sure I remember the first film feeling a little less hollow in its spectacle.

What I really regret though is the missed opportunities in theme.  Again, let's start with what I liked. With the film taking the tremendously obvious approach of having Tony Stark create Ultron through his own towering arrogance, I was delighted that Stark's response was to remain arrogant enough to try the exact same thing again, and it turn out to work brilliantly. The "arrogant scientist meddles with forces they cannot understand" trope desperately needs to die a painful death and be buried in an unmarked grave, and this film made a decent fist of pointing out why: progress and discovery is not a straight line. Sometimes scientists fuck up. Sometimes they fuck up huge. But the lesson to be learned is not that experimentation is bad or that meddling with nature is fundamentally unwise.  It's that people aren't perfect. Yes, we should clean up our own messes, but once that's done we should try again to succeed.

But there's another level to this that the film almost gets right. Stark isn't wrong because he dreams big and works fast, it's that he's completely clueless about the central problem with generating an AI: there's not the slightest reason to believe that your creation will share your biases. Stark is the classic cis-het rich white guy; it never occurs to him that his definition of peace might not tally with those of an outside observer. Indeed, to the extent he considers this at all, it's likely he believes he himself is an outside observer, because there seems to be no end of men like him who are convinced not belonging to any oppressed group somehow makes them neutral judges of humanity. It's understandable why they cling to this obvious slice of make-believe. Thinking your status as cultural default is natural rather than imposed is much less upsetting than facing up to the fact that belonging to no oppressed group must mean you lie in the intersection of all oppressive factions. But an understandable horrifically damaging fiction is still all the other things I said after "understandable".  The way someone like Stark imagines world peace looking like is desperately unlikely to match what a lesbian Zulu or a transgender Indonesian would understand by the term.

I mean, I'm just guessing; I'm a cis-het white guy too. But my point is that Stark assumes his AI will take after him and not want to consider any solution to the world's woes that wouldn't allow him to keep being tremendously wealthy whilst others work three jobs just to feed their kid. That if a machine intelligence were programmed to want to improve lives, and didn't judge Stark's existence as any more important than that of an impoverished Nigerien millet farmer, that somehow the former would still get to keep his penthouse suite. Obviously, this is grotesque self-absorbed bullshit, and via Ultron Whedon comes so close to properly calling him on it. I can't remember the last time I heard so gorgeous a slap-down of apologists for the status quo as "I think you're mistaking peace for quiet".   That has to leave a mark, even through forcefield-strengthened gallium-arsenide fibres. Ultron's point that Stark wants the world to be safer but doesn't want it to actually change is less poetic, but just as cutting. This is a film about how a bunch of white people fly to Africa to threaten the locals into helping them clear up a mess they made themselves, and end up totalling several blocks of a local city because they didn't really have any idea what they were doing or who they might have to deal with. As unsubtle hammer blows come, this isn't all that far below Hulk level.

But ultimately this doesn't go anywhere. The film follows a long tradition of substituting the ostensible, entirely sympathetic motivations of its villain for generic cackling villainy halfway through so no-one, character or audience member, has to feel too conflicted.  Ultron starts out as something between an anarchist and a Marxist revolutionary; pointing out there can be no lasting peace without the destruction of people like Stark, and that we should reject utterly calls for peace from those who can't even understand the difference between a peaceful society and one which is at war, but via violence which is institutional and inescapable and utterly one-sided. A almost indestructible self-replicating robot determined to liberate the voiceless would be a genuinely terrifying threat to, well, pretty much everyone with the time and money to see this film, actually. But instead Ultron quickly falls into the standard "destroy mankind to save Earth" approach that's been old hat since the '60s, only now with the added lunatic desire to wipe out all life, because apparently humanity is so appalling in is destruction of itself and all other life the only thing to do is wipe out that life immediately. The most interesting scenario in blockbuster films since, well, probably ever, is shoved aside so we can all agree Ultron is a nasty robo-turd and destroying him is the only sensible option.

Which is a real shame.  To come so close and then turn aside.  I mean, I'm not an idiot.  I know there's literally zero chance that Whedon would write a film about how world peace is impossible without dismantling the capitalist machine  - his political bugbears are elsewhere, and utterly awful they are too. And even if he did want to write that film, it could never be in the form of an Avengers movie. Hell, maybe it shouldn't, maybe the best vector for such an idea lies elsewhere. But that vector must exist somewhere, and I remain a little disappointed that Age of Ultron didn't run parallel to it for just a little longer.

(Disclaimer: I know a lot of people are really bothered about the gender politics of the film. I haven't mentioned this not because I disagree, but because I haven't yet dug into exactly what the criticisms are, my own criticisms are sufficiently diffuse and ill-formed that there's little point in me trying to add to the discussion, and I wanted my points about Ultron's politics to stand on their own.)

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