Friday, April 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Ex Machina" by David Pretty

Translated from Latin as "the machines of god", deus ex machina refers to five year old story-tellers (or lazy screenwriters) who come up with inexplicable and hitherto-unknown forces or events to miraculously redeem seemingly-hopeless situations. 

On the other hand, Ex Machina, literally translated as "from the machine", is certainly one of the best movies I've seen in recent memory.

Caleb Smith (The Force Awakens' Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder for Blue Book, the world's largest search engine. He wins a contest to visit the company's CEO, an obscenely-wealthy, reclusive, eccentric genius named Nathan Bateman, played by The Force Awakens' Oscar Isaac. Bateman soon reveals that he's been working on the first true example of artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (The F̶̷o̶̷r̶̷c̶̷e̶̷ ̶̷A̶̷w̶̷a̶̷k̶̷e̶̷n̶̷s̶̷'̶̷  Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander), a humanoid female robot. 

Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing test to Ava to see if she's passable as human. This leads to one of the movie's more portentous exchanges:

Caleb: It's just in the Turing test, the machine should be hidden from the examiner.
Nathan: No, no. We're way past that. If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she's a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.
Caleb: Yeah, I think you're probably right.   

Nathan's unconventional thought process isn't just limited to lax testing procedures. He's obsessively health-conscious but also a borderline alcoholic. He treats his gorgeous Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) like dirt. And he develops a nasty mean streak when Ava and Caleb start to bond during their conversations. This all leads to some explosive revelations and a denouement that justifies the film's abbreviated title.

Just when I'd feared that original, cerebral, artful sci-fi had all but vanished, Ex Machina comes along to prove me wrong. Credit writer Alex Garland, who also penned one of my all-time favorite novels, The Beach. No, I'm not talking about the Danny Boyle / Leonardo DiCaprio flick, I'm talking about the original book. The movie's a piece of poo.

Sorry, I digress. Garland's script is everything I'd ever want in a sci-fi film. It dumps Caleb smack dab into the middle of Nathan's spider-web right away and almost immediately things start to percolate. There are just enough early tells to convince the audience that things aren't quite as they seem. The dialogue as a whole is organic and interesting to listen to, with the scenes between Caleb and Nathan growing increasingly tense and combative while the interviews between Caleb and Ava slowly lead both of them into deeper waters. 

Not only is Garland's script tremendous in a nuts-and-bolts sense, it also serves up plenty of unexpected revelations. Unlike so many other films of its ilk, I was genuinely pleased by the final ten minutes of the film. Even better, the script is rife with interesting sub-text. As someone who's acutely interested in Ray Kurzweil's theory of technology singularity, words can't describe how excited I am to see a cinematic work of fiction wrestle with deep thoughts like exponential tech growth, a lack of privacy in the internet age and the hubris inherent in creating an AI superior to humans.   
The concept of artificial life run amok is certainly nothing new, but when you consider how old 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) are, we really needed a more modern take on the subject. Since we're essentially living in the future depicted in those films right now, we really needed a more contemporary snapshot of where we stand. And Ex Machina does this with chilling aptitude.  

Serving double duty as the film's director, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have produced a coolly-distant-looking movie that, dare I say it, looks downright Kubrickian from time to time. From the epic expanses of Bateman's wilderness retreat, to the antiseptic halls of his research facility, to the reflective inner sanctum of Ava's glass cell, the film sports a pronounced visual tone of detachment and mechanical alienation. By keeping his camera in motion and indulging in off-center set-ups and top-down angles, Garland cultivates a nigh-intolerable level of unconscious discordance and paranoia. Adding to this is the dreamy, ethereal synth score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which evokes shades of Giorgio Moroder, Brad Fiedel, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. 

The film's unsettling tone is heightened considerably by some simple, yet highly effective, special effects that bring the aliens in Attack the Block to mind. By all accounts, everything was shot practically in-camera with Alicia Vikander's hands, face and feet rotoscoped onto a digital robot body. No green screen. No dot-covered faces. No motion capture. The effect is breathtakingly flawless and works perfectly within the context of the film's sober climate of realism.

The cast is all universally awesome. While watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens I could tell that both Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac had considerable acting chops, so it's wonderful to watch them sink their teeth into something so rich and substantial. Gleeson is eminently relate-able. He's kinda awkward, passionate about his work and clearly has a good heart. We're pulled right along with him as he starts to develop feelings for Ava and his mistrust of Nathan continues to build. Eventually Nathan's incessant mind-fuckery starts to wear on him, leading to a crises of self-doubt that's particularly harrowing to watch.  

Isaac is even better. At first introduction, Nathan Bateman comes across as your average eccentric, hipster-dot-com, Elon Musk-flavored, mock-informal tech genius. But, right from the beginning, he's also a bundle of walking contradictions, insisting on the best food and exercising obsessively while getting blind drunk almost every night. Isaac makes sure that there's something slightly askew with the whole "I'm your boss but also your buddy" tone. He's so intense, so focused and so supremely confident that he adopts Caleb's off-handed "god" reference as fact. Even after the beans are finally spilled RE: Bateman's icky motivations and past dealings, Isaac insures that our thoughts about him remain surprisingly complicated. 

And then there's Alicia Vikander, who turns in a brave, bold and heart-rending performance as Ava. She does a great job embodying this sweet, innocent, likeable captive and you really can't slight Caleb for developing feelings for her, regardless of her odd appearance and slightly-off-kilter demeanor. Vikander easily clears her biggest hurdle: retaining all of these likeable qualities while betraying certain limitations that are maddeningly obvious to her creator. Her motivations for impressing Caleb, her inability to comprehend her lot in life and her final acts of desperation all make perfect sense in the end. All of this leads to an unconventional and highly-welcome resolution. 

Now, I'm sure some people will watch Ex Machina and be bored by it. I am not one of those people. I'm one of those people who thought that the Will Smith / Alex Proyas bastardization of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was dull as shit. Anyone can decree a CGI-soaked action sequence but very few people can craft a compelling, thought-provoking script which creates a sustained sense of dread whilst inspiring the actors to deliver three-dimensional characters that we care about.

If this movie had been handled by lesser film-makers, it probably would have ended with the inexplicable, convenient, last minute arrival of some previously-unseen "rescue 'bots" to save the day. Instead we ended up with a movie where the title Ex Machina makes a lot more sense.    

       Tilt: up.

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