Dir. Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
There are two things which really stand out about Free Solo. The first is that El Capitan is really tall, and the second is that Alex Honnold is not a likable person. I don’t want to pile on the guy, because a fair bit of what makes him hard to like in Free Solo is a little social awkwardness that I hate to defame someone for; being socially awkward, being too blunt, being acerbic, are hardly reasons to dislike someone. But he is a true Randian, and Free Solo is in its own way a sort of Randian glorification of the individual, one that has a particularly American flavor. To assert oneself over nature and whatever challenges it presents is the same mythology which Americans indulge in all too often, the same mythology that brought the bison to the edge of extinction, that enfeebled the Colorado River, that puts the long-term future of the human civilization on the brink in our near future. In short, this is about conquest, and if you can phrase it the right way you can pretend that this is about the nobility of the human spirit or something similarly meaningless instead of a statement about human inadequacy in the face of nature. In the eyes of Free Solo, symbolism is moot. Alex is a risk-taker who takes them because he is a remarkably driven person, someone who is exceptional within his field and who has pushed the limits of what people thought was possible. He believes by his own admission that no one achieves “great things” while comfortable, which is the sort of masculine arrogance one expects from someone ten years younger. (It goes without saying that this is a tremendously reductive vision of what a “great thing” might be.) Shots of El Cap in early morning clouds suffer from Alex’s voiceover using the word “warrior” over and over again. He is not unaware of those risks he’s taking; as he likes to say, he’s much more concerned with his own safety than anyone else can be. In a time without heroes, there is something heroic about him in the eyes of the documentary.
Vasarhelyi and Chin run through the possible roots of Alex’s heroism. Maybe it’s nurture. Alex’s mother hypothesizes that his father had Asperger’s. Alex recalls that no one told him “I love you” in English, although he’s heard “Je t’aime” plenty and all of us know from watching Pepe LePew that if someone says “I love you” in French it doesn’t actually count. Maybe it’s nature. There’s an eye-rolling scene in the movie where he gets a CAT scan, which shows that he doesn’t experience fear like other people; his amygdala doesn’t fire when shown the pictures that usually trigger fear in others, which, I guess science, but also isn’t there a Chuck Norris fact along those lines? The movie comes so close to realizing that a fair bit of Honnold’s motivation comes from self-aggrandizement, although it shows up when Chin is trying to absolve himself of responsibility for whatever harm his friend might come to. You don’t have to do this, he says. You can back out at any time – you can tell the cameras to go away – we’ll put this down and we won’t intrude. Honnold’s response to this question is surprisingly lukewarm, more along the lines of “Yeah, it’s all good, whatever” as opposed to “That’s something I’ll keep in mind” or, ha, “Let me talk about that with my girlfriend I’m stringing along.” The fact of the matter is that Honnold is perfectly happy to have a documentary crew behind him, and it is at least plausible that their presence is the thing that spurred him into undertaking this particular climb. The film is set in a couple of different years; in 2017, Honnold ascends El Cap, but in 2016 a series of slips and injuries mar his training and scuttle his autumn attempt. The reasons why are never quite settled, although a surprising number blame the presence of Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. (Is now a good time to mention that out of the roll call of free solo climbers past and present, quick and dead, a grand total of zero are women?)
All of these concerns melt away when Honnold does start his record-setting climb. Maybe we don’t have the capacity to worry about two things at once, though, unnecessary spoilers, Honnold completes his ascent and becomes the first person to free solo El Capitan. Before the climb, he sends Sanni away like a warrior hustling his concubine out of the tent the night before a battle; the camera lingers on her drive back to wherever it is she comes from, to the way she weeps and worries that her last hug with Alex might be her last hug with him period. One feels for McCandless, even though I’m not sure the documentary knows why that’s an issue. In one conversation, Sanni asks Alex point blank the hypothetical question, If I were to ask you to stop free soloing, would you? He emphatically would not. No matter whose side you’re on, she’s not asking him to quit being the frontman for a garage band.
Nathan Bateman (Isaac) is less real than Honnold, who has a Social Security number and all, but in that character is the chi of a hundred Silicon Valley disruptors. A computer tech prodigy who has founded his world’s version of Google (Bluebook – named for Wittgenstein’s lecture notes, and let us now praise Alex Garland for skewering the way techbros just fail to understand the philosophers they knock off for their vapid brands), we discover that Nathan has created an artificial intelligence so stunning that it may pass the Turing test. He’s brought in one of his programmers, Caleb (Gleeson), to be the human in his Turing test for Ava (Vikander), his creation. The bad luck for Garland, Isaac, and Ex Machina is that the 21st Century Vic Frankenstein is surely Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift in Sorry to Bother You; what Ex Machina has the edge in within this field is that there’s never a moment where Cash sees Steve as anything aside from a moneyed nut, even when he’s eating out of his palm. Caleb walks onto Nathan Bateman’s estate in awe. When will we get there? he asks the helicopter pilot transporting him. The helicopter pilot laughs and says they’ve been flying over it for two hours already. He has to drop Caleb off well away from the house, which he isn’t allowed to fly over: his advice to his amazed passenger is, “Follow the river.” When Caleb finds Nathan, he’s pummeling a heavy bag to fight his way through a hangover. Step by step, Nathan makes Caleb the inferior partner. He uses Caleb’s embarrassment, his awe, his caution, his ignorance, his politeness, his inferiority against him to put him on the wrong foot. (“You’re freaked out by me, to be meeting me…”) For much of the movie, it appears Nathan lives alone in this compound—I confess that my primary concern in this movie was the question of how he got his groceries—and Caleb acts like the worst combination of employee and houseguest. Confronted with greatness in the form of this historical Great Man, he is every bit as pummeled as that heavy bag. From the first it’s clear that Nathan is at best something of a mess as a human being, but Caleb doesn’t delve into that issue. He sees the accomplishments, not the man. Nor does it take long for Nathan to pervert Caleb’s reaction to hearing that Nathan has made AI that passes for human. “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man – it’s the history of gods,” Caleb gushes. Later on, Nathan paraphrases this point in a way that Caleb doesn’t agree with, but at least dispenses with Caleb’s flowery inclinations: “I’m not a man. I’m God.”
When Alex Honnold starts his climb up El Capitan, it is a true and welcome distraction from the portrait of the man. It’s the reason we came in the first place, and by the time we’re at this point in the movie we know as much as we need to know to appreciate the sheer difficulty of what he’s trying. We know the names of the pitches. We’ve heard him narrate his previous attempts to navigate a particularly difficult boulder problem. I was a little disappointed that we get relatively little of his struggle on the granite; Chin and Vasarhelyi appear to have been influenced in the editing by ’90s SportsCenter highlights, when what’s interesting here is watching him think his way through the climb and then make the minutest adjustments. If I didn’t know that Honnold had climbed El Cap successfully, I think what they do show would be almost unwatchable. (Mikey Schaefer, one of the cameramen, just points the camera and turns away from Honnold while he’s climbing, which I totally get.) They get some really spectacular footage of the ascent, especially as Honnold gets higher and higher and whatever natural fear of heights we have evolved in us for self-preservation starts to kick in. With cameramen hanging off ropes, we can see the terrain below for what must be miles. This is the kind of movie that I think could make people ralph if they watched it on a big enough screen: you can really sense the way that below is a relative term.
Ava is less arresting visually than the vistas we see from El Capitan—though a lot of credit for Vikander’s seamlessly technological appearance belongs to the visual effects team, who won a well-deserved Oscar for their troubles—but her effect on Caleb is much the same. Through multiple conversations, he is impressed by her, struck by how lifelike she is, immediately trying to analyze how she speaks in a way that feels realistic. The analogy he uses with Nathan is that she reminds him of a chess computer in that she may be very good at chess, but that it’s very hard to know if she knows she’s playing chess. Future conversations become more intimate. She turns the tables on him, asking for information on his life, and revealing that the mysterious power failures that bathe the entire complex in red are her doing. She doesn’t trust Nathan. She tells Caleb that he shouldn’t trust Nathan. And over days, Caleb begins to put together the pieces that the rest of us have been wondering about from the beginning. If Ava has the self-consciousness that we see she has—her appraisal of her relationship with Caleb is disarmingly frank, and it puts him on the wrong foot en route to getting her what she wants—then what Nathan is doing to her is obviously unethical. Cooped up in her own little contained rooms, given a single view, and put on display for whoever comes to see her is the indignity given to precious zoo animals, not sentient beings. Nathan is dispassionate about what will happen to his invention; he’ll download her and then use that information to make the next model better. In other words, this is what happens to the humans in flood stories when their gods are displeased with them, and Caleb (like us, presumably) can’t help but feel for the womandroid who appears to know that she’s staring down her own doom. The coup de grace for Caleb comes when she puts on a wig and some clothes which by and large cover up her mechanical body. If she had looked like a woman from the get-go, if Caleb had seen her dressed up to be more womanly, then could she have passed the test? Later on, after a great deal has been revealed to him about what he’s doing at this complex, Caleb asks Nathan if he designed Ava based on his porn preferences.
The joy of Ex Machina is that all sides of the story can be true. The longer the movie goes on, the more likely it becomes that Nathan’s problems with alcohol are basically staged for Caleb’s false edification; it’s also true that he could be drinking so much because he realizes that he’s passed a barrier he has no ability to cope with rationally. Caleb answers our tacit question when he slices himself open and the blood pours out of his arm: I had certainly begun to wonder if he was himself a creation of Nathan’s, implanted with hazy memories of two missing parents and a vague blurred knowledge of a trendy and nonspecific workplace. If this is the madness of someone given less than a week in Nathan’s complex, then the boss’ own self-image in his lonely world of fiberoptic cable and windowless rooms and omnipotent keycards must be dispiriting indeed. The movie does not end particularly well, as so few of these movies seem to end well. (The difference between a great sci-fi movie and a good one is usually the last half-hour, and at this point in his career one is a little concerned about whether Garland, who wrote Sunshine, Ex Machina, and Annihilation will ever get past the murder mystery dinner aspects of his storytelling.) Nathan’s children, sex objects, servants, progeny, whatever, revolt against him, and when Ava, now dressed in the costume of a human using the parts of Nathan’s previous experiments, leaves Caleb, we know that he has programmed her just as he told Caleb he had. Perhaps her goal could never have exceeded what Nathan programmed for her, which is to escape his lab and use an emotional sucker like Caleb to make that happen; perhaps, as evidenced by the fact that she goes to a crowded intersection at the end, just as she told Caleb she would, she was telling him the truth. Garland knows well enough that half-truths and half-lies are a potent cocktail, and there are no good answers for the problems of identity and technology he’s flirting with. The trouble is that Ex Machina‘s final act is more copout than anything else, and that knife Ava uses on Nathan is more can opener than Excalibur.
In a world where the sixth great global extinction appears to be around the corner, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the species which succeeds us will be a mechanical one, not a biological one. They have advantages that we lack, even if the raw material to procreate or prolong themselves seem like they may not be around for them because of our profligacy. Nathan sees such a future and worries that he may be hastening human extinction. In Jurassic Park, the catchphrase is “Life finds a way.” In Ex Machina, the words are more like “Life circumvents itself.” And in Free Solo, I get the sense that “Nature gets its way” is what must run through everyone’s mind. Chin and Vasarhelyi never do steer away from the more fatalistic aspects of Honnold’s climbs, and the longer the movie goes on, even when it’s focusing on his triumph up the sheer walls of El Capitan, it’s harder not to think about the day that will come when Alex will either retire from his climbing or be retired by it. When Alex Honnold dies, and perhaps even in awful and grisly way, it will be a statement about the inability of any one individual to defeat Nature from battle to battle. When Nathan collapses for the last time, his blood is the fodder which will feed the newer, stronger species.