Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ex Machina (***)

Written and Directed by Alex Garland


The kind of science fiction that we get from Alex Garland feels inherently cynical. It's based in a latent distrust in humanity and convinced of their inability to adjust to the speed in which technology has evolved in the last century. It's Bradbury-esque: humans are too insecure to deal with their own intelligence properly; they will eventually be the basis of their own undoing. Ex Machina, Garland's directorial debut, is another story in this tradition. If 28 Days Later... and Sunshine is Garland showcasing the futility of human existence when they have good intentions, then Ex Machina is going the other direction. Dealing with the creation of artificial intelligence, we're shown the thin line between genius and madness, with a tight focus on the ego of the human race and it's inability to deal with a form of life that could be more intelligent than them. Like most Garland scripts, we're shown characters that reach desperately past the limits of technology, and what they confront in their journey is not very pretty.

Caleb (Dohnhall Gleeson), a twenty-something New Yorker who works as a computer programmer for the most popular search site in the country, wins a contest that allows him to spend a week with the site's incredibly reclusive, increasingly eccentric CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The week will be spent in Nathan's compound in the middle of the woods, and getting there requires Caleb to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere via helicopter and follow a stream to a subterranean modernist home where he finds Nathan in a tank top working a punching bag. Caleb explores Nathan's home; he's given a key card with his face on it that allows him limited access to the various rooms of the house. Nathan seems less like a computer genius and more like a Silicon Valley bro, with a bushy beard to contrast his buzzed haircut. He drinks himself into oblivion every night and wakes up every morning to exercise and drink mineral water and wheatgrass. His solitude has left him with his own health regiment which is aggressively self-destructive - like a nerd trying too hard to over-compensate with his party skills. It doesn't help that Nathan is immediately challenging Caleb's obvious discomfort. He realizes that his lifestyle is unorthodox, but that realization doesn't exactly help Caleb find solace in his new week-long residence.

After signing a nondisclosure agreement, Nathan finally reveals the point of the week: Caleb is to perform a "Turing test" on Nathan's latest A.I. creation, to see if it's ready to be revealed to the rest of the world. This creation is called Ava (Alicia Vikander). When she emerges, she has a seemingly functional, very attractive human face, but her torso is a mixture of wires and whirring mechanics behind glass. She moves around her room - which she's never aloud to leave - with precise movements too perfect to seem human, and she's immediately friendly with Caleb. Caleb asks Ava basic questions about herself, but Ava responds with surprising interest in Caleb. As he "tests" her to see how effective the A.I. is, Caleb begins to see Ava as more than an android. Her feelings and emotions, so uncomfortably human, appeal to Caleb's better nature. Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan, that the brilliant CEO is not a benevolent creator, but a megalomaniacal sadist whose interest in A.I. is perverse, possibly insidious. This is intensified as the week goes on, where Nathan's defensive temper flares up more and more, and the presence of his silent Japanese assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who he frequently belittles in front of Caleb, makes the week more and more unnerving.

Garland was granted unusual amounts of access to sets when he was simply a screenwriter on the two Danny Boyle films, 28 Days Later... and Sunshine, which explains why his transition to the director's chair feels so seamless. Sure, the technique feels like Boyle-lite, but it also has the directness of a filmmaker sure of his style and tone. And tone is incredibly important for Garland. All of his films have that subtle disturbance simmering constantly below the surface of the scene. Boyle is a talented enough director to create that tone himself, but Garland leans a lot on Isaac to make this film the grungy, millennial Blade Runner that it's attempting to be. At this point, Isaac is near the top of the acting talent you would want to carry your movie, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that there is very little that he isn't capable of doing. His performance here is so unsettling, because his version of Nathan is so unlike what most actors would do with the character. His habits are not unlike those of your average NYU frat boy, and it's horrifying to think what someone like that could do with the technological capabilities that Nathan has. It works because Isaac is so committed here. His embodiment of twenty-first century douchiness makes it believable, and it makes Nathan's overall nefariousness incredibly watchable. There's a moment where Nathan attempts to diffuse a tense moment between he and Caleb by turning on a disco song and dancing with Kyoko. For a minute and a half, Ex Machina turns into a tightly-choreographed disco video where Isaac and Mizuno move fluently on the screen. It might be the film's greatest moment.  

Ex Machina is also an achievement of cinematography (director of photography, Rob Hardy) and production design (production designer, Mark Digby), and it's this technical competence combined with Isaac's performance that makes the movie eminently entertaining. Ex Machina is at it's most successful when Nathan is holding the audience's attention, but the film is ultimately about Caleb's growing relationship with Ava. Domhnall Gleeson, the son of veteran actor Brendan Gleeson, plays Caleb with the same mopey impishness that he brings to most of his roles. The younger Gleeson has been working a lot over the last few years and I've yet to see anything worthy of the leading roles he seems to keep getting. He's often overshadowed by supporting performances. He's earnest enough and has the ability to give characters subtle details that may not be apparent in the script, but he too easily gets sucked into the background. It's hard to get invested in Caleb's story, because I don't really care too much about Caleb. As Ava speaks more and more with Caleb, she begins to reveal her own sense of cunning more and more. Vikander's performance here is impressive - she's playing an android who's actually more human than she wants to let on. The gorgeous Swedish actress has an obvious sensuality, but in roles like this, as well as 2012's Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair, she seems capable of using it for something beyond sexuality.

Ex Machina is an incredibly intelligent, character-oriented sci-fi film. Garland understands the larger scheme of things, and he has a writer's knack for making sure all scenes have their appropriate place in the flow of the story. His preciseness as a director is impressive, if only because it's only officially his first time. And yet, Ex Machina doesn't exactly feel substantial. For all it's stunning visuals and tight storylines, it still doesn't venture far from where most android films go. There are only too options for movies about A.I.: the robots must be freed from their cruel human creators, or the superior intelligence of the robots leads them to overtake humanity. Garland manages to mix in both here and it still doesn't feel like enough. There are moments when the film begins discussing the possibility of Nathan forcing his female creations into sexual slavery, but it's never fully discussed, only left as one of many quirks in Nathan's personality. That's a science fiction film that's never been seen before, but Garland didn't seem too interested in making that a true focal point. Still this is one of the better films of the first half of 2015, made with deliberate care and substance. If Garland has left behind his days of being just a screenwriter, then Ex Machina is a nice preview of what we may have in store in the future.

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