‘The Revenant’ – Film Review and Analysis

What happens when you push a man to his utmost limit? What occurs when you take everything from him including his wife and child? At the point of both physical and mental exhaustion, what carries the man forward to keep on fighting and to keep on living? Few films really probe these questions related to the power of the human spirit as realistically as ‘The Revenant.’ An excellent and unique film that was propelled to success, both commercially and critically because of the acting brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio and through the special direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu.

‘The Revenant’ is a 2015 film that is both a sprawling epic and an intimate biography, which covers a time in American history where the West was not yet settled, and both the elements and the native population could cause a settler or a trader to lose their lives all too quickly. The film is also a western in that it depicts the rough and tumble life of a frontiersman who was at the whim of not only nature but also hostile animals and native tribes who were lurking just behind the shadows of the mountains and the forestry that surrounded them.

Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) is one such frontiersman who was a real-life person skilled at being a fur trapper, explorer, and a hunter. While his story was embellished for ‘The Revenant’, the legend itself while it may not have happened in all of its audacity still makes for a great movie adaptation. The legend surrounding Mr. Glass involves him being left for dead after he was abandoned by the fur trappers, he was assisting in their quest to participate in the burgeoning fur trade in the Far West of Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska.

After a vicious attack by a grizzly bear while out hunting for food and provisions for General William Ashley’s expedition, Hugh Glass was essentially left for dead by those men who had abandoned him even though he was still alive. Glass had killed the grizzly bear who had attacked him but was essentially rendered immobile by the attack and could not talk or walk on his own two feet for weeks. In the historical accounts, Hugh Glass was able to somehow heal himself enough to crawl, stumble, and walk over 200 miles (320 kilometers) to Fort Kiowa, South Dakota to survive.

In the meantime, he had survived attacks from the native tribes, living in conditions of winter weather and brutal cold, and avoiding potential hazards such as icy tundra, treacherous mountains, and other elements. The one thing about both the historical portrayal of Hugh Glass’s story and that of ‘The Revenant’ was how he thrived in those brutal environments given his history as an explorer and a fur trapper. If you are able to live at the edge of civilization and make a living for yourself in doing so, you should never be counted out when it comes to surviving when all hell breaks loose.

Compared to the historical legend, Hugh Glass, thanks to the brilliant acting of Leonardo DiCaprio is given a more substantive background that makes him a more relatable figure. In the two and a half hours of the film, Glass is portrayed also as a family man just trying to make his way in the world by making himself useful to both the fur trappers and the U.S. Army personnel who have come to take territory for themselves and make themselves rich in the unforgiving North American wilderness. In this cutthroat environment, there are no room for careless mistakes and the viewer will see in the film just how deadly each day can be. If there is any wisdom that Hugh wishes to impart on his family is that he wants to give them the tools for survival even if that means his own demise.

Glass is not a perfect protagonist and it is clear from the beginning of the film that he is out for himself and his family alone as he does not let anyone, or anything come between him and his son Hawk. His deceased wife was a Pawnee Indian and his son, Hawk, is half-Pawnee. After the death of his wife, Hugh Glass is extremely protective of his son, Hawk, because he knows that the men, he is traveling with do not see him as an equal because of his Pawnee background. Glass is committed to protecting his son because that is all he has left to live for.

While respectful towards the Pawnee, Glass and the other fur traders are fearful of the Arikara who are out to find their tribe chief’s abducted daughter, Powaqa, even though they didn’t take her. In order to survive, Glass has to defend himself and the other traders from the Arikara who are vicious in their hatred of anyone who has invaded their territory. After the fateful bear attack that severely wounds Glass, Hawk prevents the trappers from killing his father and they move on without him leaving John Fitzgerald and Hawk to carry him back to the Fort where he can get medical attention.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald is a sociopath only concerned about his own survival and terrified of the Arikara attacking again. Fitzgerald kills Hawk as Glass watches in agony because Fitzgerald was selfish in his desire to survive and leave Hugh to die. Another man, Bridger, leaves Glass to die as well and they take his gun and all of his provisions leaving him defenseless against the brutal elements. While Bridger is complicit, it is Fitzgerald who draws the ire and contempt from Glass in his quest for vengeance.

Despite being left for dead, Hugh Glass is hellbent on getting vengeance for the death of his son, Hawk, and wanted to get revenge on John Fitzgerald for killing his son, taking his provisions, and leaving him to die in the wilderness. Through his knowledge as a fur trapper, his ability to track both people and animals, Hugh was able to survive the treacherous winter conditions, heal himself and his wounds, and able to eat buffalo and horse meat to survive. So much was Glass’s desire for vengeance that he was able to travel the 200 miles to get to the Fort to seek treatment for his wounds and gather up the strength to set himself on the trail of John Fitzgerald. In the case of Hugh Glass, an eye for an eye is warranted when his whole life (his wife and his son) have been taken from him.

While the real-life story of Hugh Glass is up for debate, ‘The Revenant’ draws the audience in through its stunning visuals, powerful acting by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and the visionary directing by Iñárritu whose tracking shots from the opening battle to the bear attack scene to the final fight scene between Fitzgerald and Glass will leave the viewer breathless. This is a pure survivalist movie of man against man and nature but it also revolves around an emotional core of someone who is trying to do his best to sustain himself and his son in harsh living conditions. The movie’s setting is strongly intertwined with a perilous time in American history where Native Americans, fur trappers, French explorers, and even the U.S. army were fighting to the death for control of lucrative trades and future security in the untamed yet wild territory of the Northwest region.

DiCaprio and Iñárritu made ‘The Revenant’ in mind for its unabashed portrayal of both the beauty and the brutality of the natural environment. It is a movie that highlights how precious and fragile our climate is and how men can negatively affect it through their desire for greed and power. ‘The Revenant’ is as much as a morality tale as it is a tale of the utility of revenge. Two men, one whose world has been ripped apart due to the loss of his wife and son, and another man who fears losing his money, his fur pelts, and his life to Arikara attack are brought together in a struggle of good against evil. The film poses the question of is vengeance worth it? and how can justice be served in a world that is based on survival and not codes of morality or law? Arguably, one of the best films of 2015, ‘The Revenant’ was one of the best films of this decade and deserves a viewing.

Led by an Academy award winning director (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu) and starring an Academy award winning actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), ‘The Revenant’ is a jaw-dropping and powerful film that will stay with you after the credits roll. The film’s themes are extremely relevant in terms of its varied focus on family, revenge, survival, and how to seek justice in a lawless environment. More than anything, it shows the fragility of civilization and how important it is to be able to put yourself in difficult and challenging situations to show what you are made of. Hugh Glass was not a perfect man but he knew what it took to survive against all odds and seek justice against those who had wronged him and his family even if it meant certain death.

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‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950’s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.

Television shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ by the latter half of the 21st century.

While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film ‘Ex Machina’ deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, ‘Ex Machina’ is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.

While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, ‘Ex Machina’ released in April of 2015 in the United States garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.

The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.

At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.

After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.

What once starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.

Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.

The end of this film, ‘Ex Machina’ has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.

There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd.

I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film ‘Ex Machina’ is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at ‘Ex Machina’ with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on.

We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by the author Yuval Noah Harari titled, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.