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The Village

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M. Night Shyamalan's newest film, The Village, is an uncanny journey to America’s heart of darkness. Less a sustained teaser like his earlier films – The Sixth Sense and Signs – The Village feels like a sort of fable, or commentary on our national character, rather than a suspenseful thriller.


Whether you enjoy the film or not will depend entirely on your level of expectation. The Village is a dismal failure as a vehicle for the sort of explosive twist we’ve come to expect from a Shyamalan film. This doesn’t make it a bad film, only a poor example of the cunning reversal and possibly a fan letdown.


The village of Covington is dark, occulted and strange, part of an America ripe with secrets: A nation of guilty trespassers and people with histories they’d rather forget or bury underground. The grotesque fiend at the window is just the outer-most sign of the thing growing below the surface, in the root cellars and crypts.


You don’t want to dig too deep in this world. You never know what might be beneath that fertile soil, trying to burrow its way out of you, what sort of thing has been aborted and buried there, what mysteries you might unwittingly reveal. This culture of secrecy bears down on the residents of Covington, a small, close-knit colonial New England village.


Covington has a very special secret. The township is penned in, isolated, cut off from the rest of the world. The village elders have made a pact with the things that live in the wooded darkness, promising never to go beyond the prescribed barriers.


This fear taints the tiny utopia, leaving its imprint in every villager. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) are young lovers denied the bourgeois pleasures of fitting in because they live in prolonged terror and dread. Lucius in particular feels the pull of youthful wanderlust and domestic duty, feels that he must slay the dragons penning his people in, while fearing for Ivy’s safety.


Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) is emotionally and mentally unstable, but his parents have never ventured outside of the village to enlist help. Instead of learning how to be a fully participating member of the community he has been reduced to a sort of shared burden, a ‘village idiot.’


The schoolmaster, Edward Walker (William Hurt), lectures his pupils out the meaning of the watchers in the woods, not the A, B, Cs, and keeps them on the edge of their seats as he discusses how these monsters had spared the village. Parents shield their children from the horror of the creatures, but the real beast is inside them, cocooned in their fear.


The elders’ pact binds their children to this life, to the fearful co-existence with nameless monsters, and the entire town attempts to appease the creatures through sacrificial offerings and altering even their most basic behavior. But even carefully obeying these rules does not ensure that the creatures will keep the peace, and odd invasions are not at all odd at Covington.


A series of weird invasions begin after Lucius violates the boundaries of the village. He feels that the town has been breeched because he disobeyed the law, and tries to make amends for his crime, but the trespasses increase and livestock are left skinned and dead after a wedding ceremony.


The film builds momentum slowly, relying on quiet scenes and charged dialog, but its climax, when it releases its secret twist, is ultimately unrewarding. It’s not just that the turn is predictable – anyone who didn’t catch onto the real plot behind the Sixth Sense probably shouldn’t be allowed in an adult movie – but that it seems contrived, self-consciously clever, more like an episode of the Twilight Zone than a feature film.


All the pregnant anticipation fizzled from the audience at the showing I attended. The collective deflation was a palpable force – like a wet balloon letting go in the middle of a birthday party – and some people were still grumbling when I walked out of the theater. The irony is, of course, that these people paid to have their expectations defied, and Shyamalan does just this in The Village.


No one would predict such a forced ending to a film that otherwise conducted itself as a stylish and intense psychological thriller. What saves the film, in my estimation, is the excellent direction, fine acting and thoughtful delivery.


The Village is in part a commentary on American life and its foundation of fear and isolation. It reveals how our utopian dreams are interwoven with irrationality, madness and fear. Fear and love are bedfellows in our collective imagination, and we cannot escape what we create ourselves.

 

The film is also a critique of the Baby Boomers, that generation that went from believing in the enduring power of innocence to overprotecting and stifling their children in two short decades. In the sixties these people championed cleansing the doors of perception and returning to Edenic communes, not unlike Covington; but a large number of them live in gated communities by now, bug their children’s rooms, and now see the garden of innocent love (sexuality) as fallen adults.


Covington is a fallen Eden, not only because it seeks to ensnarl its youths using fear, but also because it conceals a dark secret, transforming the power of love into a sort of web of deceit.


Shyamalan's scenes are genuinely scary. He has a knack for framing his subjects in innovative ways, so that a lot of the action appears off screen, or we catch a glimpse of something otherworldly out of the corners of our eyes. The film leaves a lot to the imagination, and The Village seems eerily like a territory of the mind, rather than a real place.


An atmospheric and uncanny film, The Village is also a unusually thoughtful and poignant film exploring a failed American utopia.

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I, Robot


“Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box; Religion is the smile on a dog”
- Eddie Brickell & New Bohemians, What I Am

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Loosely based on an idea of Isaac Asimov's, I, Robot is the rare big-budget sci-fi that is slick, exciting and smart – like all three of Charlie’s Angels bundled together. And with exploding robots tossed in for good measure.


It’s natural to be suspicious of goofy summer blockbusters spouting epistemological riddles while giving their beefcake heroes ample chances to showoff their bow-flex bodies, but I, Robot works on so many different levels that you really need to suspend your disbelief.


Will Smith plays Del Spooner, a police detective in Chicago 2035. The world is largely on automatic pilot, with people giving up all sorts of control to robots, computers and other machines. Computers open doors, pilot cars, and oversee all information systems, while robots walk dogs, bake pies and do basically everything short of butt wiping.


Humans basically just… Well, go to work. Mass society seems to be as clunky and unrewarding as ever, despite the slave labor provided by these machines.


Robots are, of course, not human, and are subject to the three robotic laws, hotwired into their programming: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These laws render robots “safe” while reasserting their basic difference from human beings: Our moral privilege to choose right from wrong.


The laws are reasonable, logical safeguards to ensure robots understand their place in the world, but things go afoul when a famous robot scientist, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) ends up dead. At first the case is thought to be a suicide, but Spooner notices the shatterproof window scant seconds before finding a renegade robot at the crime scene.


Sonny (Alan Tudyk) isn’t like other robots. He seems to exhibit a free will and is not connected to the mainframe, where the other robots receive their information and programming. He is, in a sense, free, a creature without the laws embedded into his system, capable of making moral choices independent of the system around him.


Spooner follows the bread trail back with the help of a scientist who had worked with Lanning – Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) – which leads to a deeper conspiracy, involving the nature of free will and calling established categories of matter and essence into question.


Sonny could be a killer or he could be a saint, and the film allows for this sort of ambiguity, allows for the possibility that the machine might evolve into something more than a useful tool, might yearn for freedom, like a man This illogical spirit is called the ghost in the machine, but the terms could just as well describe how people connect in the mechanical world around them, how they rebel against organization and exert free will in the face of a cunning intelligence that is, in its nature, nothing more than a apparatus of control.


Man and machine collide in a world that tries to strip the definition of both.


Smith is seriously buff and the director isn’t afraid to linger on his body. One scene shows him waking up in the morning and immediately starting a rigorous exercising routine. Despite the heavy R&B background music and Smith’s own personal charisma, there’s a sense of the machine at work in the scene, a sort of unconscious reference to the way Spooner mistreats his body as a sort of organic mechanism.


The world is also oddly robotic, with men acting as machines using their bodies. Both men and women wear formless metallic suits, erasing their bodies, and the city surges forward less like an organic creature than a sort of clockwork beast, where every irrationality is transformed into a cold mathematic equation.


Men have become machine, so perhaps its natural for machines to become more human. That’s the conceit of I, Robot. The middle ground between machine and men has vanished, and there are strange opportunities in that uncertain space that used to divide them. Sonny and Spooner represent two types of synthesis between men and machine: The man who has allowed himself to become mechanical – both inside and out – and the machine that has been imbued with human emotions and uncertainty.


Spooner listens to a holographic message from Dr. Lanning, who tells him that he’s sorry, but his responses are limited. But like the hologram, Spooner is himself just a pre-programmed recording, responding to the world in fixed ways. One of the most eerie moments of the film occurs when we realize that even Spooner’s actions are predictable, part of some super-rational understanding of synchronicity.


The special effects are a bit too plastic at times, and only really succeed on the small-scale, in the faces of the robots, and when depicting how these creatures contort themselves. When the camera focuses on large, sublime landscape – usually the forte of these sorts of films – it fails utterly to capture the complexities of the enviroment, and looks cartoon-ish and silly.


I, Robot reveals the ghost in the machine, and it looks a lot like us.

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