Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence

Ex Machina is, much like It Follows, the sort of film that I'm impressed even got a wide release in the US (even if, again, it was in just 1,255 theaters, barely above the threshold). It's a modern science fiction film that's light on action but heavy on ideas, combining the time-worn subject of artificial intelligence with modern issues of "big data", sexuality, and Silicon Valley culture. It's the sort of film that could only have been made outside of Hollywood, wearing its Britishness on its sleeve (even with both of its main human characters being Americans) with its cerebral approach. And for me, it was a monumental breath of fresh air in sci-fi cinema, a genre that seemed to have been lost to the likes of Michael Bay and J. J. Abrams with films that, even when they're good, operate almost purely on a visceral level with action, one-liners, and fun characters while any deeper ideas are streamlined, simplified, and homogenized for mass consumption. (There are exceptions, like District 9, the Hunger Games series, many -- though certainly not all -- of Christopher Nolan's films, and some of the better films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But they're just that, exceptions to the rule.) This is the sort of modern film about AI that Chappie wanted to be, and while it does have some problems with running a bit too long towards the end, it's a film that I am glad I did not miss out on.

Our protagonist is Caleb Smith, a programmer working for a Google pastiche called Bluebook who, one day, wins a company lottery to meet the CEO, Nathan Bateman, at his secluded home in the mountains. Nathan is a frat-house version of Steve Jobs, a grade-A alpha male with a big beard and a shaved head who pumps iron, drinks lots of alcohol, and enjoys the fame and fortune that his brilliance and hard work have delivered to him. He hasn't brought Caleb to his place just to chill, though. He's working on a secret project, a robot with artificial intelligence named Ava, and he needs Caleb to act as the human side of the "Turing test" -- a test to see if an AI can pass for human, by having it interact with a real human and getting him to believe that the "person" on the other end is a genuine consciousness. However, it soon becomes patently obvious to Caleb that the scenario he's in is many different shades of messed-up, with both the vainglorious Nathan and the manipulative Ava having their own agendas.

One of the most important parts of any story is the people in it, and that is true of science fiction as much as any genre. It doesn't matter how many explosions you have, or what kind of subjects you're tackling, if you don't have those vital anchors called "people" (even if, in your story, said people are robots or aliens) who can get us invested in those explosions or big ideas. (It's why I find the whole "Sad Puppies" affair going on in sci-fi literature right now to be regressive in the worst possible way, even more than the questionable politics surrounding it.) And here, we get three very interesting people. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is pretty much the straight man, chosen to participate in the project precisely because he was a blank slate -- dead parents, no siblings, no girlfriend, living alone, and exceptionally skilled as a programmer for Bluebook. He's the man whose shoes the viewer is supposed to step into as he, and we, explore the strange new world around him. Gleeson pulls this off wonderfully, reacting in awe at Nathan's creation and puzzlement and concern at the increasingly crazy scenario he finds himself thrust into. Next, we have Nathan himself. Oscar Isaac plays this guy as every stereotype of a Silicon Valley "tech guru" brought to life. It becomes patently obvious very quickly that this guy is less interested in advancing humanity's knowledge and more interested in the money and especially the media attention that inventing artificial intelligence would bring. He has zero concern for the ethics of what he's doing, whether he's using Bluebook to hack people's phones and computers in order to build Ava's mind, or treating what is clearly an intelligent, sentient being the same way a mechanic might treat an advanced prototype sports car. When Caleb remarks to him about how Ava isn't just the most important development in the history of man, but in the history of gods, it goes straight to Nathan's head.

And finally, there's Ava herself. Ava represents many of Nathan's worst tendencies -- he not only gave her a sexy female form (which Caleb speculates was an attempt to cheat the Turing test by having the robot flirt with him), but as he proudly tells Caleb, he designed her with a "pleasure zone" between her legs, something that only gets creepier the more we learn about this guy and his research. Ava is smart, and unfortunately for Nathan, she knows more than anyone that he's not to be trusted, hoping to show Caleb why. However, as Nathan tries to tell Caleb, she has her own plan to escape her captivity and see the outside world, and without spoiling anything, we get all manner of reasons not to trust her either. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is absolutely mesmerizing as Ava, playing a character who is clearly robotic in both her physical form (even when she's dressed as a human; this is the part where I must give credit where it's due to the SFX department for making Ava look absolutely lifelike) and in her mannerisms, yet still manages to convey genuine intelligence and emotion, straddling the line of the uncanny valley. As good as Gleeson and Isaac were, it's Vikander who's going to come out of this film a star in the making.

To go into more detail on the story, especially on its themes and ideas, would require giving away major plot points. Rest assured, though, that when they come, this film's true brilliance shines through, asking big questions about what makes us human and about how we'd treat an artificial human -- and unlike many of the more pseudo-intellectual examples of the genre, actually moving to answer them. Writer/director Alex Garland, making his directorial debut after writing 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, has made an expertly crafted thriller here, weaving all manner of misdirection and suspicion into Nathan and Ava and making us wonder who Caleb should trust, if anyone. Filming in a hotel in Norway and in the surrounding valley, he combines the sleek Apple aesthetic, gorgeous natural vistas, and an eerie score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barlow (who previously worked with him on Dredd) to produce a setting that feels truly isolated from the world, a place where something dangerous and forbidden is going on. It's obvious that he's a first-time director, as the pacing starts to suffer in the last act and the film seems to keep going for quite a bit of time after it really should've ended. However, it's clear that he's learned a lot from Danny Boyle, who directed his scripts for Sunshine and 28 Days Later, as he is already an amazing visual stylist who, in a proper world, would have a long career in front of him.

Score: 4 out of 5

It's not without its problems in the pacing department, but a combination of great actors, outstanding visual and audio design, and an intelligent script that tackles big ideas and pulls no punches makes this a science fiction film that truly stuck with me. Highly recommended.

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