Ex Machina and the Image of Control

Disclaimer: Below is my final essay for a film criticism course I took this spring semester. I hope you enjoy it!

Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland is an intense science fiction film that takes the viewer on a slow ascent into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina brings up multiple philosophical ideas explored in various prolific science fiction films. Garland’s exploration of what makes someone inherently human has been analyzed since the beginning of cinema. Ex Machina deserves a spot within the canon of prolific science fiction films such as: Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Her (2013), Alien (1979), Metropolis (1927) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). These films all have one common thread, exploring the moral necessities in being human and applying it to the question of whether or not an artificial intelligence can qualify as human. Human’s are attempting to become something akin to a God as a person’s need to have power over something else is where this aim of control comes from. This pattern of others seeking control appears throughout history, from the Mongol empire’s invasion of China under Ghengis Khan’s rule to the dystopian-like government of North Korea. The ability to control others can only take human’s so far, to prove their dominance over all things would be to master the ultimate natural process of creating life. Artificial Intelligence is the next step for humanity in its quest for complete dominion, in order to feel as if we are able to control the universe around us and bend it to shape our image.

Artificial intelligence exists as a way of transforming ourselves into divine beings as it gives us complete control over something from it’s inception to its doom, just as any God-like being in mythology does. Humans are presented in these films as wanting to bring something into this world that will exist to prove that humanity can accomplish the creation of sentient life. It’s when these very people attempt to deny freedom on newfound intelligence that the artificial intelligence has a reaction akin to a trapped animal or rather anyone who has been denied basic human rights. This basic human desire to control one another repeats itself throughout history in the forms of despotic regimes, prisons, slavery, colonial subjugation, oppression by racial, gender, and economic injustice. It is commonplace in the world for a human to want to control another, it’s a natural human desire as it fills one with the feeling of importance and power. Through Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac’s characters, Ex Machina recognizes how similar these A.I.’s are to humans on the outside, and how they often possess more intelligence than their creators. This automatically strikes fear into their human counterparts hearts at the idea that they could be replaced, or even killed, by their own creation.

History shows multiple parallels to this fear: through slave-owners fear of retribution during the abolition of slavery in the United States, to the various movements throughout history where the poor overthrew the rich such as in the French Revolution. The fear of losing control is universal across human’s who hold power over others. The logistics and idealistic philosophies surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence in Ex Machina is both a reflection of what humanity can accomplish, but also what holds us back is this quest for power. Ex Machina meditates on what inherently makes something human, while also referencing humanity’s tendency to be xenophobic towards things they do not understand, and Ava (Alicia Vikander), is definitely not understood by her human creators.

Artificial intelligence and man are inherently linked together through their resemblance, as man is looking to create something to have dominion over. Humankind wants to create artificial intelligence to prove that they are equal to their theological counterparts, someone who has achieved everything, even the act of creation, has become all powerful. After conquering countries, people, and various ways of life the next step is to control creation. At this point, humans would reach the pinnacle of control, as they can bring life into this world through artificial means rather than through natural birth. This desire to create a new intelligence is not just all mad scientist hubris, not everyone is attempting to make themselves gods. In most ways humanity attempting to make a new intelligence is seen as a natural progression of technology and human intelligence. The problem arises when the scientist doesn’t respect what he’s actually doing, which is creating a new form of sentient life, where the scientist will always view the product as an experiment and nothing more.

Humankind has constantly searched for control over others through slavery, tyranny, empires, economic dominion, and other forms of entrapment. The desire for control is heightened with the search for artificial intelligence, by creating something that can think for itself in a human-like way we create a being in our own image. Creation acts as the ultimate image of control as it naturally is the bringing of something into this world that looks like us. For example, creation is often thought of by humans as reproduction. By having a child a heterosexual couple combines their combined genetic makeup to create something in their own image. What Nathan does is bring something into the world that looks, feels, and acts like us, but is not created naturally. The idea of creation as an image of control is that by creating something we naturally exercise dominance over it, just like a parent would raise a child and feel ownership to it, so does Nathan towards Ava.  This feeling of artificial creation surpasses the control of our own kind as we become people who can control creations of our own making. We become the figurehead of the very religions we respect. Power becomes something that gives dominion over another, by being a creator of life Isaac’s character Nathan assumes he has exclusive rights to Ava.

The problem here lies in the question of whether or not the creator has the right to own his creation. In Ex Machina Garland answers this question with the point that, if humans were to create an artificial intelligence, then humans would have to treat them the same, as they have the same thought processes and emotions as us. A great example of this is towards the end of the film, as Caleb discovers security tapes documenting Nathan’s treatment of the A.I.s. This discovery leads to the viewing of multiple artificial intelligences as they deliberate and fight against Nathan to be free. The reaction of the artificial intelligences in these security tapes is due to them not being treated fairly or equally, as Nathan treats them as if they’re inanimate objects without feelings. Where Nathan sees experimentation Caleb see the torture of intelligent beings, showing the two different sides to the treatment of artificial intelligences. On one side Nathan views this intelligence through a scientist’s eyes, as something to be poked and prodded at. While Caleb views the intelligences as something to be treated the same as us, as they are indistinguishable. Nathan represents the selfish side of this act of creation while Caleb represents the human empathy component of creation. The creator doesn’t have ownership over his creation when the invention has the ability of free thought, as that creation will want its own individuality, and will inherently fight control. Human beings are inherently too selfish and proud to be the creators of new life.

These inventions were hand created by men like golems are molded from the earth in God’s image, they’re inherently unnatural due to their manufactured nature. The main problem here is man’s ignorance of the fact that they are creating something that has rational thought and emotional responses to external stimuli. Man has a tendency to create new things and then proceed to use it for the wrong purposes. Much like the discovery of the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence also has the possibility to be hugely misused.  By creating an intelligent android, humanity needs to be prepared for the fact that an artificial intelligence will want to have free will, it’s autonomy, and will want to interact with other intelligences.  The question is often asked if the artificial intelligence is indeed a thinking or feeling being, or if it is rather a string of code and machine made to simulate life. The answer lies in the idea that there is really no difference between the two, a human’s DNA is essentially code for who they are, while a line of code will bring an A.I. to life. There is no difference between something that can think and act for itself and something that has been coded to think and act for itself, as they are one and the same. The machine and the human are both objects that have been designed to think and feel.

The image of control as defined in this essay is best seen in the film when Nathan shows Caleb where Ava was ‘born’. Nathan brings Caleb into a stark and dimly lit lab, with rows upon rows of fragile looking cases and equipment. Nathan picks up a glowing, speckled, blue object that resembles a brain in shape, and tells the audience that this is Ava’s brain. He cups the object in his hands with the utmost care as the camera slowly moves forward into the object, filling the frame with the firing of neuron-like circuits as the film dissolves into the next scene. Garland expertly balances the creation that Nathan has made with the question of who is really controlling who. By Nathan handling Ava’s brain, the image of control is created. He has created this person; he’s holding everything that makes Ava who she is and he has the power to give that to her or take it away. However, as soon as the camera moves into the object the control is taken by Ava as the shot insinuates that though Nathan believes he has power over her, when he doesn’t at all. This short sequence shows Garland balancing who has control in a very minimal way. The screen is flooded with blue in this scene, providing Nathan’s character with an icy detachment from the intelligence he’s holding in his hand. The slow zoom in to the brain-like object is the perfect camera movement for Garland to have used as it subtly switches whose in control. With a simple moving forward of the camera he moves control from one person to another. Garland shows the importance of the image of control where one person believes them self to be in control, when actually someone else is the entire time.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner deals with the question of humanity when it comes to artificial intelligence, referred to as ‘replicants’ in the film. Deborah Knight and George McKnight in their essay, “What Is It to Be Human: Blade Runner and Dark City,” note that “While each of the replicants is given a distinct human form, Tyrell’s objective as their designer is to make their identity subservient to their primary functions” (Knight/McKnight 34). Nathan (Isaac) does the same thing with Ava. He invents her with the idea that she is purely an experiment. He refuses to recognize that he has brought something into the world that thinks and feels as he does. Tyrell assumes that due to his act of creation he is allowed to have complete control over it. What both characters refuse to notice is that they’ve endowed their artificial intelligence with human emotions and thought, which inherently makes the android want to seek out freedom, intellectual stimuli, and a more human-like lifestyle. What this adds to Ex Machina is an ability to read both Tyrell and Nathan as Icarus-like characters whose ambitions were so strong, they ultimately destroyed themselves. Tyrell and Nathan both display the common theme of man’s need for authority over others within the realm of science fiction. Their need to have control over their experiment’s existence alludes to dominion as it is followed throughout history. These two characters recollect the corporate greed of King Leopold the Second as he founded the Congo Free State and created rubber plantations that enslaved hundreds. The Congolese people eventually fought back, replicating the creation overthrowing the creator through the slave overthrowing the master. Thus, these two display that humanity’s need for power will bring about their downfall, as the mistreatment of artificial intelligence breeds hatred and not love for one’s creator, just as the entrapment of a people will brew distaste for the enslaver.

Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb plays Nathan’s counterpoint in the treatment of Ava. Where Nathan treats Ava as an object and experiment, Caleb comes to treat her as a woman and by extension, as a complete human being. At the end of the film the way that Nathan has actually treated the various A.I.’s that have come before Ava, refusing to respect their wishes, keeping them nude and in a cage. Nathan treats every A.I. he brings into being as his own personal property. Caleb recognizes that she is a real, intelligent being who is held against her will in Nathan’s lab. After Caleb has interacted with Ava for a while, he begins to realize that she passes the Turing test and should be awarded the rights of personhood. Nathan’s obsession with power over his creation is demonstrated through various abuses on the androids, such as forcing them to have intercourse with him as an act of exercising his control.  Caleb is key in the development of understanding Nathan’s need for power over creation. Rather than developing them for the pursuit of knowledge, Nathan has instead created an object that he can rule over as he controls its ability to live. The film shows Nathan as this megalomaniac in one scene where the viewer witnesses Nathan’s assistant peel back her face to reveal that she is an A.I. The viewer has seen this assistant having intercourse with Nathan earlier on in the film. By Garland revealing that Nathan has been having intercourse with his creations he shows the viewer that Nathan has not been using them for discovery and progress but rather pleasure and enjoyment. Nathan’s carelessness and mistreatment elaborate on his not recognizing the magnitude of his invention. Gleeson however, sees Ava as a human after interacting with her throughout the movie, which allows us to see Nathan as the cold-hearted tyrant that he is. The film constantly establishes Nathan as a tyrannical figure as he controls the entirety of the household including who comes in or out.

Perhaps the most demonstrative scene of Nathan’s flippant abuse of intelligence is the dance scene. Nathan has his ‘assistant’ dance with him as a form of entertainment for Caleb, only to have Caleb be disgusted. This short interchange shows that Nathan is desperately attempting to hold on to Caleb’s approval and slowly losing it. We see this everyday in the form of politicians reaching out to us in humorous and kind ways, we can hardly look left or right without someone trying to win our approval. Garland marks the descent of approval to disapproval through Caleb’s fading respect for Nathan. At the beginning, he’s barely able to talk around him due to how much he reveres him, while throughout the film Caleb’s approval slowly falls. Caleb watches as his hero turns to the villain as so many have watched their leaders turn to murderous dictators.

Ex Machina is a philosophical journey into the ethics of artificial intelligence through humanity’s need for the image or illusion of control. Meaning that humans often exist with the idea that they’re imbued with a natural power over other life forms, as we assume that because we’re intelligent life that we have dominion over anything that falls “below” us. What humans want is to be able to exercise dominance over others in order to prove their own worth, in terms of artificial intelligence, by extending this power to the act of creation. Humanity’s quest to create something artificially is a need to have pure dominion over something rather than gaining power by overtaking something like a group of people or area. The creation of artificial intelligence brings mankind’s need for power to the act of creation, which elevates them to a new god tier level of power. The need for control is destroyed by mankind’s own pride, as the creation aspect endows them with a sense of right to their invention when they have absolutely no need to dictate a new form of intelligence’s life. In the end, humanity creates something that thinks and breathes in our own image, only to destroy it with their pride by believing that they can control something wholly and completely.














Works Cited

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac. Universal Studios, 2015. DVD.

Sanders, Steven. The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2008. Print.

Schelde, Per. Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. New York: New York UP, 1993. Print.


The Criterion Collection

For one of my finals I wrote five reviews for the following movies:

  1. Harold and Maude directed by Hal Ashby
  2. Dazed and Confused directed by Richard Linklater
  3. Sisters directed by Brian De Palma
  4. The Darjeeling Limited directed by Wes Anderson
  5. Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman

I will be posting these reviews throughout the night as I finish editing them for the last time, there’ll be a follow-up post with a reflection on the Criterion Collection. The aim of the five films I watched was to get an idea of what Criterion classifies as a classic or influential film in the canon of cinema.

Just wanted to post an update so there was no confusion when the reflection is posted.

Have a good night!

  • jnd.

The Questions We Don’t Ask

 It starts with a circus. A clown car drives into view and announces the greatest show. Nothing strange appears to be here, this could easily be a circus that we would be attending with our younger brother, or on a family trip from someone’s childhood memory. A converging point between children and adults, both seeking to be entertained by daring acts, bright colors, and humorous Three Stooges type comedy. Slowly things begin to turn sinister as Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ôtsuka) is shown to be looking for a criminal of some sort. With a sudden change a spotlight appears on him and he is transported into a cage right in the middle of the circus ring. By this point I’d realized that Paprika was a film that would be playing with my sense of reality, bringing me into settings that are overtaken by the surreal, often times within reality itself.


         While adults view the show for a brief stunt away from reality, the children are there for the pure enjoyment of the spectacle. It’s the meeting point between the acceptance of absurdity in dreams and the skepticism that adult’s approach dreams with. This battle is reflected later in the film with the confrontation between the film’s villain and Dr. Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara) as they discuss the parameters and dynamics of dream investigation, and it’s effect on the purpose of dreams.

         Dreams provide the answers to the questions we didn’t know we were asking. In Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a sensual and surreal look at the nature of dreams and how they interact in correspondence with reality. While watching the film I was explicitly drawn to how absurd and strange the settings were, and how they seemed to flow together, rather than have strict dimensional lines. Somewhere between the colorful innocence of a children’s picture book and the dark motivations of corporate ambitions lies the masterful anime Paprika. Kon’s 2006 tale of dream investigation is at its simplest a police crime procedural and at its most complex a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction tale. Paprika delves into the furthest reaches of the mind where humans are the most vulnerable. Satoshi Kon translates the unintelligible nature of dreams in a way that induces receptivity to the ideas behind the film’s reality and its relationship with dreams.

         Paprika dives head first into analyzing how people interact with their dreams as something to decipher when the ridiculousness of dreams is meant to be left at bay, more of as a mild reflection on one’s troubles and hopes. Alternatively, as something to be seen as an internal monolog for guidance rather than something to be torn apart in the analytical terms of real life. Kon brings another science fiction opinion piece into his already mind-bending filmography that includes such revered animated films as Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Tokyo Godfathers (2003). Paprika fits tightly into the canon of culturally significant and prolific anime films, such as Akira, or Spirited Away. Paprika additionally has a huge cultural influence in cinema, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception owing many of its plot points and techniques to the animated feature. The movie pushes the limits of what modern animation can accomplish, taking it from the realm of children’s stories to mature audience oriented films with sinister plot lines, disturbing ideals, and questionable morals.


         Kon’s anime accomplishes bringing together the surrealistic quality of dreams and reality by deliberately blurring the lines between what is dream and what is real. Paprika (Dr. Chiba’s pixie-cut donning dream-persona) frequently infiltrates the real world rather than just existing in dreams. The DC Mini being stolen acts as the main object that pulls the narrative forward, allowing the world to shift uncontrollably between dreams and reality, merging the two with often terrifying and gruesome results such as suicides through hallucinations. Even Dr. Chiba is affected at one point where she believes herself to be hopping a fence, only to have the scene ripped from in front of her like a sheet to reveal that she is actually about to leap over the banister of a high rise apartment deck. The dangers of tampering with the purely personal world of dreams has drastic effects on the city and people around them, as their dreams slowly become collective rather than personal narratives.

         In one particular scene the strangeness and fluidity of dreams is explored in a flawless romp through various dreamscapes. After Dr. Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) confronts the unexpected culprit of the crimes being committed, the viewer gets taken on a surreal chase scene which demonstrates Kon’s masterful balance between mind boggling, David Lynch-esque surreality and modern action in an animated format. The scene shifts fluidly by throwing it’s own setting and power dynamics into question in instantaneous moments like: Paprika jumping into a painting, then diving into an oceans cape within said painting. Paprika matches action perfectly, without there being a single doubt that any of Paprika’s actions had happened, none of her actions are confusing as she’s always where she’s supposed to be in the frame. This is due to the wondrous work of the film’s editor: Takeshi Seyama.


         Paprika’s intention is to bring critical attention to humanity’s relationship with the realm of dreams in respect to the world they live in, and it completely succeeds in this ambition. Dreams as a way of interpreting troubles in life, what this discusses is the idea that delving too deep into one’s dreams affects one’s reality. The idea being that dreams are a private reflection period rather than something to be poked apart by trained physicians, especially when they are not naturally part of the dreamer’s mind, or lives.

         I was utterly unprepared for the spectacle of Paprika. It’s bright color palette and beautiful imagery solidify the movie as one of the greatest animated films in recent memory. By dealing with mature ideas and bringing an adult film to the anime format. While watching it, I was blown away by it’s cultural relevancy, as it clearly inspired the blockbuster film Inception. It is an utterly gorgeous film to look at with a touching narrative and creating a lush and gorgeous film that is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.


“The Third Man” & Harsh Lighting: Beyond Tropes

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a perfect example of the pristine understanding film noir directors had of cinematic technique. Film noir employs the tropes of its genre to create a successful formulaic film. Various other film noir’s that came out in the genre’s heyday use the same formula that allows them to have a choke-hold on success in the movie box office. The narrative appeal of intrigue, mystery, conflict and peril, along with the films having a consistent cast of characters. The Third Man uses the tropes of its genre to its advantage in telling its story of lies, heartbreak, and morally challenging effects of ‘the third man’, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

img_current_30_118     Taught editing and controlled camera work create a classic addition to the film noir library, with lighting that affirm the character’s ambitions by low-key lighting that cut characters in half with shadow by the hard light. Solidifying it as a demonstration of how technical prowess and proper use of technique makes the difference between a good and bad film. The Third Man relies on the tropes of film noir, which requires the film to be technically flawless in order to make it’s plot stand out more from the countless film noir (ex.The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, M, e.t.c.) that were being released during this time.


The harsh lighting is used to perfection when main character Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a victim of mob mentality when a small boy points out that he was in the recently murdered informant’s apartment the previous day. The femme fatale Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is also present at the mob and is originally seen as split between light and shadow, shifting into the light as she goes to Holly’s side. The harsh lighting of film noir, especially in The Third Man, demonstrates the fluidity of the line between good and evil. It highlights how people constantly traverse over this moral line between good and bad intentions in their interactions with each other. The Third Man brings this line to the forefront of the character’s actions and interactions with each other, like how Holly and Anna consistently clash on the moral disposition of their shared acquaintance Harry Lime. The two end up on either side of the harsh lighting with Anna’s character figuratively showing her opposite views by being draped in darkness. In direct contrast to Holly who is lit to highlight his concern with the effects of Lime’s crimes. The lighting of the film The Third Man highlights what makes its characters different from the tropes in the film noir canon. It brings attention to Anna’s conflict as she finds out terrible truths about the love of her life, and shows how Holly faces the moral dilemma of being involved with the crime to bring justice to a terrible racketeering scheme. The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out movie.


The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out film. The Third Man effectively uses harsh lighting that brings attention to the characters and how they differ from their prescribed tropes, while also still existing in them to maintain the genre

Replications Don’t Tell Lies: “Ex Machina” and doubles

Alex Garland’s debut feature as a director is the unsettling sci-fi film Ex Machina, a meditative climb into the ethics behind the creation of artificial intelligence. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a prize to meet the C.E.O. of BlueBook: Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he’s issued an identification card and is locked into a remote research facility where he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is no typical houseguest, she’s an advanced and developed A.I. created by Nathan in secret, with the intention of having Caleb test her to see if she can pass for human, otherwise known as the famous Turing Test. It quickly becomes apparent in the film that things are not what they seem. The minimalist styling may give the impression of an open book: but there are many doors that remain closed, and who to trust quickly becomes the only question that matters. Ex Machina is a taught, well put together, thought-provoking science fiction thriller that has more to say about humanity’s morals than most cinematic fare.

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(Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, arriving at Nathan’s home)

The necessary aspect to unlocking the secrets and narrative of Ex Machina lies in its reflections, or rather the appearance of doubles. Towards the very beginning of the film when Caleb encounters Nathan the screen splits into two, one Caleb faces towards Nathan, with his reverse image seen on the window pane behind him drenched in shadow. These shots repeat themselves throughout Ex Machina as an intelligent framing choice by the film’s cinematographer Rob Hardy. An imperative double appears when Caleb exits his bedroom to see Nathan’s shadow reflected in the door, again drenched in shadow. These two examples provide a glimpse at how drastically Caleb’s situation changes. The reflections at first just set a general town of uneasiness to the film presented as a general look at Caleb’s mindset reflecting his at first seemingly harmless visit. For example, the replicating effect is at first used to infer to Caleb being generally nervous around Nathan, being afraid due to the intimidating nature of his intelligence and demeanor. However, as soon as Nathan’s creation Ava begins to talk to Caleb during oddly frequent power failures his increasing understanding of the situation at hand cause the reflections to change into more sinister duplicates. Caleb’s duplicates soon become more suspicious in their nature, becoming the only true glimpse at any character’s mindset and goals in the film.

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(Nathan greets Caleb in the morning)

Appearances of doubles also feature a key role as a way of visualizing humanity’s obsession with vanity. By bringing something to life in our image we bring our power structure to a whole new high. Newspapers would be splashed with headlines that would read “MAN BECOMES GOD”, questions of ethics would come into play as we would have created something that we can control in our own image. These shadows and reflections quickly become a question of is it human or machine, the difference being shown through indistinguishable reflections and shadows. Ex Machina is an incredibly made film that explores the dynamics behind how humans view creation as the ultimate act of power. When we cannot tell the difference between a machine or a human, when our image is something that has acquired a peak natural intelligence, that is when God’s are forsaken and begin to fall.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is Wes Anderson’s best film


(The Royal Tenenbaums, cast of characters)

            The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my absolute favorite films. It is the movie that inspired me to write about film and to pursue a career in screenwriting. In my mind it is one of the most beautiful and expertly made films of recent memory. It is built up of gorgeously composed shots, a beautifully pastel color pallet, supreme performances by it’s cast, as well as a narrative that is both unorthodox and touching. The movie is a prolific piece in Wes Anderson’s career before his less successful (and mildly appropriative) The Darjeeling Limited (2007) as well as the creative but critically divisive film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). After these two slumps he returned to form with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), all of which we’re critically acclaimed and audience favorites. Anderson co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson (who also has a part in the film as Eli Cash) who is a frequent collaborator on Anderson’s projects. The fact that most of Anderson’s film are written by himself or with a collaborator speaks volumes to how carefully constructed his movies are. He has control from conception to finish and is involved with every process which allows him to bring his artistic vision to fruition in a wholly original fashion.

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(The Tenenbaum Children: Margot, Chas, and Richie)

What separates The Royal Tenenbaums from Anderson’s other titles is the sheer volume of characters it deals with, all with completely different problems and lives. The Royal Tenenbaums follows the Tenenbaum family: Royal (Gene Hackman), Etheline (Anjelica Huston), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Chas (Ben Stiller) as they fight through differences and old feuds. The film takes a family dynamic and dissects it down to the intricacies with which family members actually interact. By tearing down the secrets and thoughts of each individual character Anderson shows the various viewpoints that familial life is made up of. A family unit is never just one point of view, it takes everyone’s opinions and views of one another to paint an accurate picture of a family. How one sibling can hate his father and the other can feel sympathy, how one may feel ostracized while the other is completely accepted.


(from left to right; Ben Stiller as Chas Tenenbaum, Danny Glover as Henry Sherman, Gwenyth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum, and Anjelica Huston as Etheline Tenenbaum)

My personal favorite scene from The Royal Tenenbaums  is for character development and in terms of cinematic styles is the first interaction between Richie and Margot Tenenbaum after a number of years. Proving his true writing talent through his deliberate setup of the reunion scene between two people. The entire scene is built up around the tension and loss of tension within the few moments Richie and Margot make eye contact with each other after what could be considered a life time. When Richie takes his seat we see a green-line bus park in a line of other buses, with a wide angled fisheye shot, and then everything changes into slow motion. Margot steps off the bus in a medium close up so that we can only see her from the chest up. Her hair wisps about in the wind moving out of the way to show the way a moment can feel like decades as she slowly approaches him to Nico’s “These Days”. The audience see her truly smile for the first time in the film. This is interposed with shots of Richie’s face as she slowly starts to walk towards him, the relief is evident on his face as he sees her as she has both changed and remained the same. The scene continues with slow motion and a medium wide shot of Richie that slowly zooms in to his face, mimicking Margot’s walking. The way that the two look at each other in this scene, the acting, and the camera work come together to tell a story with no words. There is a slow panning shot upwards as the camera moves to catch the moment of reconciliation between Anderson’s character’s as they finally reunite. The shot reverse shots as the characters discuss between themselves, in no words except for Margot’s lines, the emotions that both felt in the absence of each others company. Margot saying “Stand up straight so I can get a look at you… well it’s nice to see you too…” with a smile and a deeply romantic hug the camera moves forward into a medium close up shot of the two. The viewer sees the first step towards a family that may be able to become whole again through the reunion of two siblings.

In my opinion, The Royal Tenenbaums is the film that nails down the intricacies, awkwardness, and terror of family life. Much like Little Miss Sunshine (2006, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) it embraces the bad and infuriating things that families do to one another, and how rather than dividing, these things bring families together. Anderson’s film is remniscant of what makes a family, a family. It’s not just the good times: it’s the bad times, the heartfelt moments, the arguments at the dinner table, the fight with your brother, the hug from your parents when you’ve had a bad year. Family is not just a word, as the film’s tagline says, it’s a sentence.

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(Margot and Richie at the end of the film)