Yes, ‘Ex Machina’ is Better Than ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
The Academy Awards – as they do every year – just tumbled down upon our heads like a basket of wet laundry, and now all we can do it comb the hair out of our eyes, mop up the dampness, and sort through the old socks for recognizable trends. The big winners this year were Spotlight (which, perhaps unexpectedly, won Best Picture), multiple wins for Mad Max: Fury Road including Best Costumes, and, most hearteningly, Ex Machina for Best Special Effects.
The most notable absence from this list is, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams’ boffo supra-blockbuster was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Score, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. It won none. While the quality and artistic merits of The Force Awakens can be debated, it’s not an enormous leap of logic to assume The Academy would want to give some notable honor to what has become the most popular film of the year. It’s been said that the Oscars are a popularity contest, so why not honor Star Wars?
I think it has to be said: Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t win multiple Oscars because, well, it’s just not that deep. Oh sure, it’s a rollicking adventure film, and the myriad fans of the series found it to be a nostalgic salve, especially after the poor reception gathered by the Star Wars films of the early 2000s. But, at the end of the day, Star Wars was thematically flimsy and dramatically unambitious.
Let’s put Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ex Machina next to one another. We see one pop entertainment, and one complex, heady essay. One ride and one thesis.
Ex Machina is a complex examination of the way humans relate to technology. It’s about how we determine artificial intelligence, and whether or not building AI is a noble goal. It’s about the way we perceive ourselves. And, more than anything, it’s an underhanded jab at misogynist thinking. You can bet that a story of two men trying to create a robot of the perfect women is most certainly going to be about gender politics. The conclusion arrived at by Ex Machina regarding the male ego, and about how tech and misogyny are weirdly linked, are timely, salient, and clearly thought out. Ex Machina will start conversations. It’s about something.
Looking at Star Wars: The Force Awakens reveals very little. Like many movies, The Force Awakens is not a film about its themes, but a film about its plot. It’s about story beats and what the characters go through. There is no message under the actions. The best themes I could come up with were a few obvious allusions to family, to legacy, and – to make a leap – how the family unit is doomed in this universe; sons are destined to defy their fathers. The biggest questions in Star Wars are about whether or not you’re going to imitate your parents. These may be relevant to real life, but the themes are vaguely and perfunctorily explored. It’s just a little extra tidbit of actual substance in a pile of opulence.
Ultimately, though, it’s not those themes of legacy and family that people are going to take away from The Force Awakens. The real function of the film was to link up with a previously beloved film. Many of the emotions evoked were grandfathered in from whatever good will you have toward the Star Wars movies in general. The Force Awakens cannot exist in a vacuum. It’s most important themes lie in its very sequel-hood. It may have new characters, but those characters are merely a comment on older ones. The Force Awakens is, then, a movie about other movies. It doesn’t link directly to the grander notion of cinema. It has other Star Wars movies as intermediaries.
Ex Machina is a well-written, striking, original drama that comments on real issues. The Force Awakens is a super-slick and perfectly exciting adventure fantasy that is doomed to comment on the Star Wars series and nothing else. I suppose the real difference is this: One film seeks to stimulate the mind with new ideas and intriguing themes. The other sought to deliver an adrenaline rush. I appreciate a good adrenaline rush, but it doesn’t take much to get one. It’s a worthy goal, but not a very sophisticated one.
So when Ex Machina is honored by awards, it is deserving. When Star Wars, meanwhile, gets nothing, it is equally deserving. Besides, Star Wars is one of the most popular things ever. It doesn’t need Oscars. It’s already here to stay.
Top Image: Disney
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.