Friday, April 26, 2019

Dialectics False and True: Captive State and A. I. Rising

John Goodman and Ashton Sanders in Captive State (2019).

Look, some films are just garbage; that’s just a fact. But sometimes when you go dumpster diving you find something that, when looked at from just the right angle, isn’t so much garbage after all.

Captive State (2019) is ambitious and has no lack of “the vision thing.” Writers Rupert Wyatt (who directed) and Erica Beeney attempt to portray a Chicago succumbed to alien colonization by telling the story of Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) and the morally murky father figure he doesn’t want at all, collaborationist Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman), embedding them within a larger plot about an insurgent cell bent on hitting the aliens where it hurts. But – here’s the thing – the audience identification is whipped around from Gabriel, who’s the actual non-collaborationist here, to Mulligan, who’s the hinge of both plots, and back, once Mulligan starts to shake down Gabriel’s apartment building to look for him.

As Jordan Hoffman observes in his crusty review, “The disconnect is fascinating.” And it would’ve made for an entirely satisfying dialectical film, too, if it weren’t for those meddling writers and their need to shed moral clarity on Mulligan’s actions. I greatly admire stories and films that dig beneath the good vs. evil showdown to reveal the entirely understandable and sympathetic motivations of the ostensible villain, not moral ambiguity (either/or) but moral murkiness (both/and). Or in a similar vein, when the good guy and the bad guy penetrate through the other’s role in the morality play and actually see each other, like the diner scene in Heat (1995).

Here, though, there’s a big, long, musically over-scored reveal at the end that allows us to feel pretty good for caring about Mulligan the collaborationist. To paraphrase Harry Truman, “The dialectic stops here.”

Now the mention of “from just the right angle” in the first paragraph should’ve alerted you to the fact that neither of the films that this piece is about is straightforwardly dialectical. Captive State, aside from that cop-out of an ending, separates the thesis from the antithesis according to its two plots. As for Lazar Bodrosa’s English-language Serbian film A. I. Rising (Ederlezi ébredése, 2018, a.k.a. Ederlezi Rising), its banal story (by Dimitrije Vojnov, based on a 1980s short story by Zoran Nesković), unsalvaged by atmospheric cinematography (Kosta Glusica) and score (Nemanja Mosurovic), is elevated to dialectical heights by the genius casting of adult film star Stoya as the android, Nimani-1345.

In the far future, the Ederlezi Corporation is sending the antisocial Milutin (Sebastian Cavazza) to Alpha Centauri to install Juche, the authoritarian ideology. The Corporation’s social engineer (Marusa Majer, styled like a precog in clothes) has determined that he’ll need a companion on the journey, so they give him Nimani. The rest of the film essentially becomes a single-set two-hander, the classic setup for some dialectical fireworks.

On the face of it, said fireworks don’t really get off the ground; the plot, focused as it is on the question of “Is there a human inside the android?,” is little more than Ex Machina (2014), followed by Solaris (let’s say the 2002 version), and then Passengers (2016) with a tragic ending. Not that this would necessarily kill a film – see Annihilation (2018), another strung-together film – but A. I. Rising spends too much time on the atmosphere to add meat to these bones, or even to give Milutin a decent enough characterization to save his actions from idiocy.

Sebastian Cavazza and Stoya in A.I. Rising (2018).

Not to knock the visual and aural presentation. The mesmerizing wonders of outer space and the industrial-electronic soundscape (which resonates with the neo-industrial production design) are hypnotic, and added to the Stoya-enhanced sex scenes the whole shebang makes you feel like you have a contact high. It’s almost worth rendering the plot schematic and unconvincing to free up running time for these audiovisual delights. (Fair warning: the film makes extensive use of strobe lighting at high contrast, which can be taxing on the eyes.)

But you, like me, were probably drawn to this film by Stoya. The less intense body anxiety of adult film actors can be exploited to fully explore the presence and affects of the body in human relationships, which is not what happens here unfortunately. The sex scenes are just “index-card signifiers, giving visual evidence of the fact that the characters have sex at a given point in the story,” as the critic Richard Brody describes most sex scenes. Surprisingly, it’s the dialogue scenes that really captivate.

Nimani is operated by tablet, using which Milutin can choose from a menu of actions in various modes, with every menu ending in a big round button that says “SEX.” This means that, at least in the beginning, Stoya’s acting has to be modular instead of granular. Kind of like the acting in most porn. In porn, the acting is just an excuse for the sex; but what you may not have considered is that the erotic charge, the psychology that makes a porn scene more than just two bodies rubbing each other, derives from the acting and its premise. In a similar reversal, one could be excused for thinking that Stoya would deliver a stilted and modular performance, so the film cannily writes her character that way.

But just like the true connoisseur of adult film looks for and appreciates signs that the actors are drawing a genuine erotic connection from the campy realization of the premise, here the dialectical fireworks start going off when you pay attention to how Stoya shifts between modes. At one point Milutin changes Nimani’s role-playing characterization as she’s dancing erotically, and the shift is instant and emotionally palpable. At another point, as Milutin regrets having Nimani start an argument (which she promptly turns into a meta-argument about android constraints) and quickly hits the “SEX” button (with a sub-menu selection of “makeup sex”), Stoya freezes, closes her eyes, and opens them again from an entirely different emotional direction to deliver lines that build off her mid-argument resentment.

Then the film shifts gears. Milutin, desperate to free the human he’s fallen for from inside the android’s operating software, erases that software through some mission-endangering chicanery, but when the “liberated” Nimani reboots, all that’s changed is that she’s no longer pliant. Freed from Milutin’s menu, she no longer has to pretend to care about him as more than an essential mission component – or is her aloofness in protest of Milutin’s violation of her psyche? As he spirals into depression either way, the dialectic rears its head again in Nimani’s subtle slide from obligated caring to actual caring. Without breaking from her new parameters as guardian of the mission, without doing anything that she wouldn’t have done anyway, Nimani lets us (and Milutin, if he’s still able) to feel her genuine feelings for him – feelings of friendship and camaraderie, but feelings nonetheless.

It’s a sign of the dialectical power of Nimani’s characterization and Stoya’s acting that the only time the character loses its beautifully fragmented coherence is when the film has Nimani descend into melodrama in the final shot. As they say on the internet, “Put her in everything!”

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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