Buddhist Film Review: Inside Out and Ex Machina – What is Consciousness?

Buddhist Film Critic, Inside Out Buddhist, Ex Machina Buddhist, The Road Home Ethan Nichtern, Elon Musk, Star Trek The Next Generation

“Materialism is the belief that “consciousness” is unimportant, that the mind is reducible to the brain, and therefore that the path to happiness involves precise chemical manipulation. Materialists don’t believe in the importance of the mind itself and instead reduce life to the pursuit of pleasure.” 
-From The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of The Buddhist Path 

One central theme that I took on in The Road Home is that when we don’t experience our own consciousness as the basic home of our experience, we fall prey to Materialism, the belief that everything is reducible to dead matter, that sentient beings are only chemical processes, not really “alive.”

With this in mind, I had the opportunity this weekend to watch two movies that each explore the nature of consciousness: Inside Out and Ex Machina. Both were highly touted by friends I respect, so it was a fun weekend for this Buddhist Film Critic to watch movies, even if I’m behind on both of these.

Ex Machina was beautifully filmed, but over all disappointing in terms of exploring the nature of artificial intelligence and what actually makes a sentient being “sentient,” which is really the entire question of consciousness. In it, Oscar Isaac plays a sort of Elon Musk entrepreneur crossed with a Google search engine mogul, who is developing early artificial intelligence “women” who all just happen, in true hollywood fashion, to be very pretty (occasionally naked) ladies as well :-). The movie includes a few great insights, including the theme that search engines like Google not only gather the content of information on a society’s shared experience, but also tell us all about the impulsive and emotional structure of human thought processes. Google reveals not only what we think about, but also how we think and feel, which would be the basis for re-creating an actually conscious and sentient subject, an actual artificial “mind.” However, the movie is really, in the end, more about two men’s need to objectify women than any real exploration of the creation of consciousness. Don’t get me wrong, I am also a straight male, but when it comes to androids learning to be “human,” I prefer Star Trek: The Next Generation and the less physically objectifiable character of DATA.

And then there is Inside Out. Talk about ground-breaking! Talk about a movie that might prepare children for eventual meditation and being familiar with their own minds, and making friends with their own emotions! Talk about a teachable moment! In this amazing Pixar movie, we are taken inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, which is its own world governed and facilitated by a cast of sentient and humanized core “emotions,” each  who work directly with the girl’s present experience and core memories. Luckily, the landscape of her consciousness is architecturally beautiful as well as psychologically acute and fun.The animated space of this movie provides so many new narrative tools to humanize consciousness, but it also demonstrates a real personal intimacy with the relationship between Joy and Sadness, which is an interdependence that the Shambhala Buddhist tradition explores in great length. I only wish Fear was a slightly more developed character, rather than just being a funny yet neurotic alarm for anxiety and danger.

There is so much insight and humor for adults in this movie, and it is definitely my favorite movie of 2015 so far. If anything, I left the movie wanting to see where this form of storytelling will go next. Some of the most truly interesting applications of this type of storytelling could be used to better understand trauma, social influence, and the experience of oppressed groups of people. I can’t wait to see who picks up this mantle and where they go with it. They will have big shoes to fill, but it will be awesome to see the birth of a whole new genre of “consciousness storytelling.”

2 thoughts on “Buddhist Film Review: Inside Out and Ex Machina – What is Consciousness?

  1. Thanks for writing this wonderful article. As a media academic and avid Shambhala Buddhist, I had similar thoughts when I took my 6 year old daughter to see Inside Out. I was pleased to have shared it with her, and her insights and discussions afterwards were amazing.

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