We don’t really know where we’re headed. Scientists, politicians, preachers, teachers and the rest of us out there in dark share one common question – what is our near or long term future? It’s frightening that we have no clue. No one really knows where this whole climate change thing is going. Nor do we have any idea what being raised on a steady diet of consumerism and social networks are going to do to the millennials. We don’t know what’s to become of the rising tide of angry voices, each signifying a movement or a protest. Half of our country is out of their minds with stockpiles of automatic weapons waiting for the end of the days. The other half of the sane among us are divided up between apathetic numbed-up branded spenders, well meaning Facebook sharers, signing petitions or mostly just sitting on our couches and watching television. Let’s face it. Things are kind of fucked up. Maybe even way beyond fucked up. Maybe even beyond repair.
In the recent past, Hollywood and its arbiter of trends and tastes has reflexively looked backwards to a time before cell phone and Facebook, before television. Before civil rights and the feminist movement – when men and women had their place in a structure that made sense in hindsight, even if you could pull off a layer or two and find terrible things. Hollywood’s whitewashing of our past is something most of us have agreed to forget and instead try to enjoy as a deliberately shaped memory, not unlike the happy selves we offer up to our friends on various social media – our avatars that represent not who we are but who we’d like to be.
Hollywood most often tries to reflect who we’d like to be, from the uniquely tiny size of its heroines, to the impossible goodness and fidelity of its heroes. Steve Jobs, like The Social Network, lives in the circulatory system of our daily lives. One of the many beautiful things about this film is how little of it dwells in the online world. Sorkin wouldn’t do that to his audience. We already live too much of each day online. His movie was never going to be about what people are saying on Facebook or Twitter or on blogs. His Steve Jobs resides in a different realm entirely – partly because it’s about a kind of modern God addressing his constituency, explaining the origins of computer life as we know it. But also because his interest is more in Bob Dylan lyrics. In other words, Sorkin’s modern world is still one of deep thinking, self-reflection and the ongoing plea to humanity to remember where we came from. Our most meaningful social groups are real people we can touch, not people whose faces we never see.
We, and the people who vote on movie awards, fumble towards goodness in ourselves – real or imagined or invented. What makes this year different is that Hollywood’s version of the future presents very different outcomes planned for humanity that spring from the ways we define ourselves in the right now.
Take, for instance, two of the year’s best films so far – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. We are soon to fold in Star Wars: The Force Awakens which will make four major science fiction films that will likely define this year in film for posterity, even if not the Oscars. Two out of the three hand over the future decisions for our civilization to women. Mad Max does it outright – handing over man’s survival to Furiosa, a one-armed warrior out to free the enslaved. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Eva embodies artificial intelligence – or uncorked, unimaginable power in the hands of a new Eve. Even Star Wars will supposedly focus on a young heroine for the first time in the lumbering series.
Both Jurassic World and The Martian remind us of where there once were women at the frontier, now there are men. It’s hard not to remember Ridley Scott’s Ripley when watching Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Although, to be fair, Gravity was the film with a lost woman in space so how could The Martian also be?
Jurassic World offers us a glimpse of a truly unbearable future for Hollywood movies. As much as I appreciated its anti-SeaWorld message, it is a difficult film to watch for its utter obliteration of female power. Why would the Bryce Dallas Howard character even have that job if she didn’t have some sort of knowledge or love for animals? It painted women as stupid and put all of the men in charge. That may play internationally but it is a terrible precedent for the future of Hollywood. Now, because Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t make that kind of coin, word has it there will be no Furiosa in the sequel – unless that’s Charlize Theron’s decision.
Andy Weir wrote the novel The Martian as a kind of thought experiment. Since he was doing a little virtual dreaming, putting a woman in the lead role might have been off; much of what he wrote was factoring in everything that might and could go wrong. Or maybe it’s easier to excuse The Martian because it is just such a good movie. And features one of the most diverse casts of the year.
What The Martian offers up in the age of desperate confusion is faith in science to solve things. Where Mad Max relied ultimately on a family of women to fix what the men fucked up (and clearly George Miller has given much thought to this) The Martian offers more optimism for a world not yet destroyed. This is a world that works with other countries to fund and launch space missions. This is a world that is very much our world. There is no reference to a planet destroyed because presumably everything has gone right. With Mad Max, it’s clear that everything went really really wrong.
Ex Machina takes a different approach to a world gone wrong by presenting a world dominated by smart, rich scientists to be another form of an oppressive regime. To that extent, it is much closer to Mad Max than it is to The Martian’s version of our future. Both Ex Machina and Mad Max are about women wrestling free from bondage and assuming power.
In each of the strong contenders for Oscar so far, traces of these basic ideas about the future can be found. In Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, there is a pressing sense of the loss of investigative journalism in the era of commentary. Though it’s about uncovering abuses in the Catholic Church in Boston, really it’s about journalism, about getting the story right, and about the way that so rarely happens today. Todd Haynes’ Carol is a love story, yes, but it is also about the growing awareness of LGBTQ community’s right to live out and proud, married with children if they so choose. It is about what’s happening right now: the fight against obstructive forces that dwell in darkness.
Lenny Abramson’s Room, David O. Russell’s Joy and John Crowley’s Brooklyn are singularly female-driven stories where the trajectory of their inner worlds matter. While I haven’t seen Joy, I can make this assumption based on what I know of the story. Room is about a woman freed from bondage who then must try to live a normal life with her young son. Brooklyn is about a woman torn between two men and two countries, but it is also a story of an immigrant trying to find her identity here in America or not.
Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is about an American icon, Brian Wilson, whose mental illness nearly took him under. Love & Mercy is about inward destruction and rebuilding from the outside. Here, strength is drawn not from male energy but from female energy – a woman strong enough to tell him the truth, and strong enough to pull him free.
In Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies the palpable fear we Americans confront daily is present in every frame. The movie is a meditation on fear. Today we don’t know who our enemies are, yet specific ethnic groups are being targeted because of their religion or the color of their skin. Bridge of Spies is about patriotism gone wrong. It’s also about doing the right thing, and making sure the future is in the hands of the rational, not the irrational.
The Revenant remains a mystery. One thing we do know about it is that it’s about fear and survival. That makes it fit right in with many of the themes running through the films at play in the Best Picture race. It is also about America’s beginning, how we introduce ourselves to other cultures, how we stake our claims on people and places we have no right to.
Finally, Cary Fukunaga’s masterpiece Beasts of No Nation hovers on the fringes. Its presence in the race means we have to confront trivial and big things. Can a Netflix movie be taken seriously by the traditionalists in the Academy, and if so what does that mean for the future of Hollywood? How could ever major studio have turned down Beasts of No Nation, which was directed by wunderkind Fukunaga, whose True Detective captivated and enthralled viewers in a way no television show has ever done? How could they have that little faith in what people would pay for. Worse, how could they make that decision so casually? You see, in not choosing to distribute what is one of the best, if not the best, of the year Hollywood is giving us their version of our future.
Beasts of No Nation is one of the few films in the race that is about the banal inhumanity taking place in war torn regions all over the world. It doesn’t take place in Syria but it might as well have. It doesn’t depict Isis capturing 12-year-old girls, raping them and making them slaves but it cracks open the door of things that are happening every second of every day that get swallowed up in the hysteria-driven news cycle. We never see it.
Whichever films resonate most with voters will help define what we’re doing with all of this fear and anxiety about where we’re headed. What characteristics will rise up to matter most? Where will we all be twenty years from now when we look back and try to make sense of it all? Will we still have artists who put themselves through hell-fire to bring us things of unimaginable beauty and unbearable truths? Will there be no more movies as we know them and if so, what will happen to the Oscar race? Will it have to admit that Netflix and VOD is a legitimate enough platform to launch a Best Picture contender, as it now does with documentaries? Will Beasts of No Nation change Hollywood?
One thing we do know is that this is a group not accustomed to change. Even just the simple act of awarding a sci-fi film for Best Picture, like The Martian or Mad Max, or even Star Wars would be an act of rebellion. For a sci-fi film, The Martian does what many can’t, and therein might lie the secret to the whole thing, for it offers us something that’s in short supply – the one thing we can’t live without – hope.