Sunday, August 9, 2015

Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Four & Pattern Recognition

It's important to note that Marvel Comics is split into three, with Sony owning the rights to Spider Man, and Fox owns X-Men, Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantastic Four while Disney owns The Avengers and Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, etc. So, this is a Marvel film, but it's not one with The Avengers-universe. It seems to be making news that Fantastic Four hasn't done well at the box office; is that a big deal? There might be a big disadvantage working against Fantastic Four before it even began filming: they aren't going to be a part of a larger, grander narrative, like Ant-Man being in Captain America: Civil War, or Wolverine being in X-Men Apocalypse; it's just them. We've gotten use to inter-related stories, and for this to be a stand-alone doesn't really compel audiences to go and see "another super-hero film" that doesn't appeal to a larger cultural context of promoting and protecting traditional American values. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger made about $65 million its opening weekend, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier made $95 million; why? It was a part of a larger story going on. Even Ant-Man, which had a good but not impressive opening weekend, integrated itself with The Avengers Age Of Ultron and CACW coming up. IF Fantastic Four is part of a larger story-line, I haven't heard anything about it (which isn't saying a whole lot, but if I haven't, then there are far more people who haven't either). Another reason, regrettably, could be the generational warfare going on in America: all of the Fantastic Four are young (read: Millennials). Given the regrettable divide in America today between older and younger generations over socialism and the direction of the country, it's possible that, even while Fantastic Four was meant to be a testimony to younger generations to stand up to socialism, it didn't successfully translate as such in trailers and other promotional venues. As I have said before, it's not that it's the "super-hero" genre that is doing so well right now, it's that these are the only films promoting and protecting traditional American values, and that's why audiences have been happy to invest in them (along with the rest of the world). Without this feature (like what I think Deadpool is going to do) Americans aren't going to be interested just because it's a "super-hero." 
There are numerous ways to approach art, strategies on "how to eat an elephant," and connect with the artist(s) and the message they attempt when creating a work of art; perhaps the most important of these strategies are the strategies the art itself will introduce within its own mechanism: when this happens, it is as if the artist hands us the key and shows us exactly which door to go through, like on Let's Make a Deal and choosing which door hides the prize; in this instant, we are told which door, but we have to open it ourselves. In The Fantastic Four, Sue (Kate Mara) excels in pattern recognition, one of the many branches of chaos theory, and Sue uses it throughout the film, but the film makers also use it throughout the film, which itself presents us with a chaotic model, so how is this achieved?
One of the vehicles of pattern recognition in the film is Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) chewing gum. When we see him, as a adult, he seems to be chewing gum all the time. We know the mouth symbolizes the appetites, and there are good and bad appetites: bad appetites constitute addictions (drug, alcohol, sex), the appetite for power/control, material goods, etc. Good appetites begin with wisdom, self-reflection and understanding. When Ben chews on his gum, he meditates upon what Reed (Miles Teller) is doing with his teleporter and what that means on a deeper level, even though, it seems, he doesn't actually come to a conclusion about it, which is why he becomes a walking rock (more on this in a moment). After the four have been to the other dimension, Dr. Allen (Tim Nelson Blake) begins chewing gum, and this is the exact opposite meaning as when Ben was chewing gum. Dr. Allen  "chews over" how best to exploit the Fantastic Four for his own ends, so it's the exact opposite of Ben chewing on how Reed is trying to come up with something totally different for the good of the world.  We know Dr. Allen's "chewing" is bad because he dies, the same kind of death we see Victor dying (more on this in a moment), but Ben lives and, like the other three, he becomes better for it, although it might not seem that way to the audience.
The simplest example of "pattern recognition" is in Reed's science teacher, Mr. Kenny: when we first meet him, he dismisses Reed's "career choice" of wanting to become the inventor of the teleporter as not being a real career; when he judges Reed's science fair entry, he deems it as science fiction, not science, and calls it magic, so in this instance, Mr. Kenny's establishing a pattern of behavior by demonstrating his inability to conceive of anything greater than himself or what he all ready knows, and this example is important: there has to be a behavior established before it can become part of a pattern which can then be recognized as a pattern. So, if Reed hadn't mentioned to Sue that he liked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then she would not have known to look for him under the name Captain Nemo. This leads us to the "false" interpretation Sue makes about Reed; or is it "false?"
When he's first at Baxter, Reed goes through the library and finds a copy of Jules Verne's science-fiction classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and tells Sue it's one of his favorite books. That's also when we learn that Sue specializes in pattern recognition. The film patterns itself (loosely) on Vern's narrative: in this scene, for example, the Quantum Gate that has been opened and is causing destruction is akin to the whirlpool Captain Nemo puts the Nautilus into in order to destroy it.
When Sue and Reed are in the library talking, Sue demonstrates "pattern recognition" for him by stating that Reed wants to become famous, which he denies. Why would Sue see a pattern in Reed seeking fame? Victor. After the teleporter is complete, and Victor, Johnny and Reed are getting drunk, what does Victor ask them? "Who built the Apollo space shuttle?" No one knows, but we know who Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alderin are, so, Victor argues, if they want recognition for their achievement, they have to be the ones to be first to the other dimension. That is what Sue saw in Victor, and because Reed is as smart (smarter) than Victor she assumes the same about Reed wanting to be famous.
Is she wrong?
Yes and no.
An important development with Sue is her hair style: after Reed escapes, she lets her hair grow out some. Why? Hair symbolizes our thoughts, so her longer hair suggests that she has been thinking "longer" about things, rather than just problem-solving physics and quantum problems. 
As always, the villain, in this case Victor, is a part of the hero, and the hero--in this case, Reed--must overcome whatever that villain is and symbolizes so he can gain in virtue and become the hero he is supposed to become. When Sue tells Reed, "You want to be famous," she is going back through the data stored in her own experience of Victor and applying that to Reed because she knows Victor is a part of Reed, even though Reed and Victor haven't met yet. Why does art do this? Why is the villain a part of the hero? Because we all have a villain and a hero living within us, and we have to be instructed on how to overcome the villain so the hero can be strengthened. The film uses the inter-dimension/alternate universe to show this to us.
This is probably the most important moment in the movie, because it's the moment when Reed's own personality is split into two. If you will think back, when Reed and Sue had finished the teleporter, and Reed was sleeping at his station area, and Sue came up and woke him, Reed had been sleeping. If we were doing a psychoanalysis of the film, we would start with that point and go with everything that happens after that point as part of Reed's dream he comes up with while sleeping and that explains why they have such weird powers: that is how Reed's unconscious sees each of them. How could a interpretation of the film be valid? Reed has been working on the teleporter his whole life, and in that moment, it's done, and what else does he have to dedicate himself to? As Freud tells us, "All dreams are a fulfillment of a wish," so he doesn't wish these powers upon his friends, however, he does wish to continue having something to work on and be an important part of something. Leaving psychoanalysis, we can still understand Victor as a dual personality to Reed because it's this moment of not being able to hold onto Reed that makes Reed's arms become longer and elastic, but if Victor didn't fall, worse things would have happened to Reed because he wouldn't have been rid of his darker side, it would still be within him and he wouldn't be a hero. 
When Reed, Johnny, Ben and Victor go to the alternate universe, Victor can't make it back up the side of the cliff in time, and he's overtaken by the green "energy" field and they have to leave him behind. Why does this happen? Because it's actually a visualization of Reed himself: Reed doesn't want to leave the place he has spent his entire life trying to get to, but, the film warns us, if we don't resist the temptation to consume power and be consumed by it, which is what happens to Victor, then we will end up like him. So, through the character of Reed/Victor, we are given a path, a choice, and the end result of each of those choices. What about the other characters? We experience the same with them as well.
Why does the suit fuse with Victor to become a part of him? Because he wanted him and the others to put on the suits and go to the alternate universe themselves, so he wanted to be remembered for having been one of the first to wear the suit. Because this is about personal power, fame and glory for Victor, he has turned dark. "Black," as we know, symbolizes death, but there is good death and bad death. Reed, Johnny and Sue wear black "uniforms," because they have died to their old ways of living and are now living to help others. Victor, on the other hand, has died to others and wants everyone else to die as well, leaving him to be the only one living (just as he was alone in self-exile when Franklin first went to talk to him). Just as Reed is a Captain Nemo figure, so too is Victor, but Victor embodies the worst qualities of Nemo, while Reed embodies would could have been the best qualities. 
Why does Ben become "The Thing," a pile of rock? Because that is what he chose to be in life. No one would chose to become the pile of rocks that Ben becomes in the film, you might argue, and he's certainly miserable and doesn't want to be that way, but, how else did we see him act? He rarely said anything, he didn't seem to learn anything, and didn't really take an interest in anything. He helped Reed, but only minimally. Ben acted like a rock, so a rock he became. Because we see him getting clobbered by his older brother at the start of the film, clobbering others is what Ben comes to do as "The Thing." This is one of the film's employments of "pattern recognition," what we have seen done to Ben, Ben now does to others (beating them up).
What about Johnny?
It's important that footage of Ben Grimm was removed from the film; while he's described as "the muscle" in the trailer, for example, he isn't in the film nor do we see him doing anything requiring a lot of muscle. Why? Because it's his being like a rock that is important for the film makers, not the emphasis on his brawn. Ben doesn't ever show emotion, until he's locked up after he's been through the Quantum Gate; or are we projecting our emotion onto him? This is one of the advantages of art: it can do things to phrase difficult questions for us. Are we ourselves like Ben, just living like rocks so that we could be turned into rocks, too?
 We saw Johnny racing, and the back of his car blew out in flames, so as the Human Torch, Johnny can now go super fast and he is lit up in flames. The inter-dimensional travel to an alternate universe, then, is actually the travel of meditation within ourselves to see how we really are in our essence and who that makes us really become. Sue, likewise, exemplifies pattern recognition herself: all she lets other people see of her is her intelligent side, and so her intelligence becomes manifested through her mental powers; instead of using her intelligence to strip people down to their basic, raw data (their behavior to be interpreted by her), she now has the ability to protect people rather than just use them, which leads us to Franklin Storm.
Why did they make the teleporter like this? It resembles the "chambers" of the heart, because they are actually traveling "into" their own hearts and discovering what there is within themselves.  Each chamber is like a coffin, because they are being buried as they think they are and exist, and are going to be "reborn" as they really are, with these powers.
For being such a likeable character, the film offers us a hard lesson through Franklin Storm's death. We know that a character doesn't die unless they are "all ready dead" (sacrificing themselves not included) and so there is something about Franklin that is not agreeable to the film makers which is why he has been made a lesson for the audience. We also know that Dr. Allen dies, and that it's Victor who kills both of them which suggests the reason why Franklin doesn't survive the film: he went along with Dr. Allen in agreeing to study the kids' powers so they could continue researching and be funded by the military. "How would they have continued researching to find a cure for the kids?" you might ask. We know, however, that a cure wasn't being worked on; discovering the limits and possibilities of the kids' power was though. Ben was being used, and Sue knew Johnny was going to be next, which is why she found Reed. So, why does Franklin Storm die?
Another aspect of Sue's "power" is that, to her, she is invisible to everyone except as a brain, or she exists like a "brain in a vat," the old science fiction motif from the 1950's films. This presents the difficult part of being a parent: how to do it. How does one motivate your children to achieve and not waste their talents, or does one not interfere in their lives? Is it worse that Franklin goes to pick up Johnny after he was racing cars again, and that Victor was wasting his talent away, or is it worse that he has to see Sue appearing and disappearing and Reed escapes to South America? 
As the father to both Sue and Johnny, and a important mentor to both Victor and Reed, we can say that Franklin (as in, "Benjamin Franklin") symbolizes a "founding father" especially when he talks about "my children," and the kids want to re-name Central City (research facility) after him. Franklin dies because he was a researcher first, and a father second, and he should have been a father first. Was Franklin wrong in bringing Victor back into the group?
I don't think it's an accident that the "energy" on Planet Zero is green and so are the suits the scientist wear in this scene. Why green? Green, as we know, can either symbolize hope, as in the rebirth of spring time, or something rotten, like the mold growing on old food in your fridge. The energy, at first, symbolizes hope because that's why they are there, to discover new forms of energy; it comes to symbolize something rotten after Victor becomes immersed in it because he uses it for his own ends, not the benefit of humanity. Likewise, with the doctors in the suit, they are initially Reed's hope they can help him, but it's obvious they mean to exploit them for military use instead. On another note, we should see the pattern recognition in Reed's developing "rubber" body: when Mr. Kenny, his science teacher, criticized Reed for not picking a real career, or doing real science, Reed bounced right back, and withdrew within himself, knowing that what he was doing was important and it would payoff someday. Likewise, there is the Scripture of Isaiah 42:3, and the reed that is bruised but will not be broken: Reed is bruised by no one (except Franklin and Ben) believing in him and his work, but he carries on himself anyway.
Victor abused his free will (symbolized by getting drunk) in getting the others to agree to go to Planet Zero with him and that is no one but Victor's fault. An important detail about Victor comes from Johnny: when Johnny sees Victor for the first time, he refers to Victor as "Adolf," a reference to Adolf Hitler; why? Victor symbolizes, even at that early stage, the socialist drive to dominate and control the world; if he can't control the world, he will destroy it. Like Tonto (Johnny Depp) walking into the empty desert at the end of The Lone Ranger, Victor goes back to the desolate landscape of Planet Zero because he has stood as judge over all humanity and decided they weren't worth it (we can say that we also see this in the characters in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and their decisions about who will live and die).
While the others are rather reluctant to embrace their powers, Johnny is thrilled to have his, realizing that being the Human Torch is what he was meant to do. 
Why are they the "Fantastic Four?" We can say they are fantastic because they put aside their own lives and wills to be what humanity needs them to be. Likewise, we can say the film itself is "fantastic," because it wants us to cross over into it, just like the kids finding a way to cross-over into the next dimension, and that means the film has a message for us, as a culture and individuals. Let's not ignore it.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner