Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ex Machina Review

(dir. Alex Garland)

A24 Films/Universal Pictures

“Is it strange to have made something that hates you?”

There have been dozens and dozens of films that deal with the creation of artificial intelligence. So what is it that separates Ex Machina from the rest? That would be writer/director Alex Garland. Though Ex Machina is the first feature Garland has directed, it should be no surprise how well it turned out. After all, he’s the mind behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go. Composed like a headier and subdued episode of The Twilight Zone, or I suppose I should say Black Mirror for the sake of its modernity, Ex Machina scales back from the outrageous concepts that border on fantasy and action beats that we’ve come to associate with robo-centric movies for so long. Instead Garland narrows the focus and concentrates on character interaction and developmental theory. It’s no stretch to say that Garland helps put the science back in sci-fi, at least as far as modern A.I. movies are concerned.

Selected from a workplace lottery, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) has the opportunity to spend a week with his CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote underground estate in the mountains. There Caleb becomes part of a Turing Test Nathan is running to perfect the artificial intelligence he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb grows closer to Ava, his doubts about Nathan’s intentions begin to grow until he is unsure who is actually being tested and for what purpose. The film builds slowly, allowing the characters, relationships, and scientific theories to develop naturally with an understanding that all are complex components that can’t be rushed through. In other words, the film manages everything that this year’s last A.I. focused movie, Chappie, couldn’t get a handle on. Despite the film’s slow build it never feels overlong, largely because it doesn’t try to cram in backstory or exposition. While we get brief and meaningful bits of information about the characters’ pasts, the film hinges on what we can actually see and hear. Body language and the space between what is said and unsaid is taken full advantage of.  Ex Machina’s foundation is a pitch perfect script that doesn’t take the audiences’ time for granted and neither speaks down to them nor over their heads. The direction, while stark and decidedly understated, consists of some wonderfully composed shots, particularly the silhouettes of Ava, and the repeated contrast between the artificiality of the facility and its natural scenic surroundings. There’s also a fantastic use of sound in everything from the glass doors to Ava’s movements that give the whole environment a sense of realism. Despite being a tech based movie, Ex Machina is relatively untechnical, at least when it comes to CGI and cinematography. The film serves as a reminder that stripped of dazzling special effects, money shots, and a booming score, the core of science-fiction films depends on what can be achieved with a pen and paper.

In terms of the performances, the small cast of three and the singular central setting means that each actor has plenty of moments to shine and play off each other. Gleeson’s Caleb is our moral center, the audience’s surrogate in many ways, but one that never comes across as a blank slate. Within the cold scientific compound that Nathan calls home, Caleb is the one searching for warmth and humanity. Vikander’s performance as Ava is necessarily hard to pin down. She exudes a kind of innocence in some scenes, and in other’s a mind that’s always at the ready. While her design is striking and elegant, there’s also something uncanny about it, an eeriness that’s only increased by a performance that’s so close to human you can barely put your finger on the aspects that aren’t. While the growing romantic tension between Ava and Caleb provide the film’s emotional core, it’s Oscar Isaac who steals the show with his completely disarming performance of the alcoholic, coding prodigy Nathan. His shaved head, beard, muscular physique, and ape like posture all present the image of a man who’d look more at home in a boxing ring than a research lab. He’s humorous, cruel, and underneath the ‘dude’ act there’s a lonely man no better than anyone else. Like the caveman who created fire, he may be the smartest human on the planet, but he’s still a primal brute living in a cave.

The film’s questions of humanity are very much tied to questions of God. Misquoting an earlier statement by Caleb, Nathan refers to himself as God. Though Nathan considers himself to be one, the film mocks that notion while alluding to mythology and religion. The film, which takes place over a clearly defined period of seven days, twists the notion of God being in full control of his creations and the ability to perfect anything in that amount of time. The title and plot toy with the very idea of Deus ex machina, effectively removing the Deus aspect from the equation. These aspects are handled subtlety throughout the film and given the core themes and ideas at stake, it’s pretty miraculous that Garland managed to make them all clear without ever becoming heavy handed or pat. There’s a lot Garland is dealing with in this film and 2nd viewing will provide notably different contexts for a number of scenes. All of these ideas of quantifying humanity, determining what is real and pretend, and gauging morality in the effort to find truth all lead to an emotionally conflicting ending you will not be prepared for.

Ex Machina is the kind of restrained, undiluted, performance-centric science fiction that I’d venture to say hasn’t been seen since Duncan Jones’ Moon. It screws with your head and your heart and leaves you plenty to think about after the fact, not least of all our concerns about how our cell phone and computer data are tracked and utilized. If from that information A.I. is created in our image, then what are we faced with? Certainly not perfection given man’s fallible nature. In its exploration of A.I., Ex Machina asks what it is to be human, but doesn’t ensure that we’ll like the answer.

Grade: A