Imagine if the Internet and social media had been around for every film that came out before, say, 2005. Those movies would have an alternate history that goes like this:
When Harry Met Sally … is in theaters, and you haven’t seen it yet, but you’ve tweeted the part in the restaurant where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm. Jurassic Park is about to come out, and you click on a headline that says, “You Have to See What a Brontosaurus Looks Like,” and now you know what a brontosaurus looks like. You haven’t seen Alien, but you’ve watched something explode out of a dude’s chest, you’re not sure what the hell it is — probably an alien? — but you’ve got tickets to go find out on Friday. “Oh my god,” your brother writes when he posts the video of the Anchorman fight on Facebook. “You won’t believe who shows up in this.” Why does Jared Leto get pulverized like a bunch of wine grapes in Fight Club? Who the hell knows, but you’ve watched it happen, like, a dozen times already, and you’re not sure Fight Club’s even reached your town yet.
I’m not trying to go Luddite on you; I’m not saying Google should divest YouTube and let the domain name run out, though if Google did do that it would be bold as hell, and I’d respect it. What I’m saying is that, in the age of Internet video, the way we consume movie moments has changed.
Even if, before YouTube and its ilk, you, as a moviegoing adult, might’ve heard of those scenes I mentioned well ahead of sitting to see them, you hadn’t watched those scenes yet; they still meant untapped potential. To enjoy them, you had to see the movie from start to finish, where you would encounter that scene in context, in its natural habitat, with scenes preceding it and scenes following.
Right now, Ex Machina, a psychological thriller written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, is in theaters. About midway through Ex Machina, a movie that delights in undermining your expectations and confounding your sense of its contours, something happens that I found truly surprising, that I was not prepared for whatsoever. It caught me defenseless: It seemed at once to be coming from a different film and yet made succinct, hilarious sense within the terms of the one I was watching. It was as close to a perfect curveball as a film can throw, and I left thinking about that scene with the kind of joy I usually save for things that happen to me in real, actual life.
As Ex Machina has risen in profile, that scene has become the part of it that lives beyond theaters. Googling “Oscar Isaac dance scene” brings up thousands of results. Isaac danced on James Corden. i09 put the scene on YouTube, where it has 70,000 views. When the average moviegoer walks into Ex Machina now, they probably (1) know it’s a film about artificial intelligence, and (2) have seen the Isaac dance already.
Do I fault websites for posting this, or the film’s team for allowing the scene to live online? I absolutely do not. The only responsibility producers and distributors have once their movie reaches the marketplace is to convince as many folks to see it as possible while maintaining its integrity as a piece of art. Posting the Isaac scene in no way violates Ex Machina’s integrity, and it almost certainly means some people will see it who wouldn’t otherwise: “that one where the new Star Wars guy dances” is an aphrodisiac in certain subcultures. Giving and taking online — the word “sharing” has always rang super-false to me when it comes to transactional experiences like the Internet — demands a piece of value to pass around, and this scene is, unquestionably, a piece of value.
But excising this scene from Ex Machina warps it unrecognizably. In the context of the story, it’s a remarkable insight into just how deranged Isaac’s Nathan has become in a life of isolation; it has huge significance for the character of Kyoko, who dances with him; it marks a major milestone in the shifting of the moral alignment of Gleeson’s Caleb, with regard to Nathan. And most important, in a movie whose mastery of mood and tone might be what distinguishes it most, the scene serves as a virtuoso exercise in tensile bloodletting. By simply dancing to disco, Isaac lets out all the air in the bursting balloon, and while he does it, you’re subtly aware of his intention. Why is he letting that air out, when what he seems to want most of all is for the balloon to burst? But, distracted by the dancing, you’re no longer asking that question. You’ve been disarmed.
When we strip-mine our entertainment for parts, we risk hamstringing what makes the whole experience remarkable: this capacity to transport us emotionally and psychologically to destinations we couldn’t anticipate. Encountering that scene within Ex Machina, it’s a masterpiece of unpredictable filmmaking. Encountering it outside of Ex Machina, it’s a viral video. There’s nothing wrong with viral videos. They’re just a poor substitute for art.
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.