Saturday, May 9, 2015

Alex Garland's EX MACHINA

We all know the story of creating something that can, and will, get out of our control - hey, as human beings, what's more exciting and empowering and, sometimes, fun than not just playing God but BEING God - and a film such as Ex Machina goes for that and ready to make it fresh. It also has the benefit of being created/coming out in the time it is now, where systems and computers are becoming so advanced (drones, for instance, but also actual robots out of Japan) that it's not without reason that this can happen - it doesn't need to take place some 35 years in the future ala Blade Runner.  

So believability, and what a search engine can do - the 'how' of it working, and going into a being made with wires and electronics - is more than believable, it's palatable. But Alex Garland wants to do more, and he does more with Ex Machina as a character study of two men and one 'woman', these being Caleb, the Fresh-New-Guy to this situation; Nathan, the Billionaire-Genius with a beard; and Eva, the AI.

One observation, if not outright criticism, is that Domnhall Gleeson is playing a familiar character from others he's played, notably in Frank (the Fassbender-ina-Big-Head rock-n-roll movie), as the 'New Guy to the Scene', the audience avatar. At first, I thought I might be getting something familiar with him that I had before. But he actually impresses even more than with Frank, and has to get up to the level of Oscar Isaac and relative newcomer Alicia Vikander. This is a guy who technically works for this man's company (it's called Bluebook, which sounds similar to another search engine, but pay it no mind if you can), and has been chosen to do the 'Turing Test' - talking with a computer to find out what it really is, if it works - and there is much revealed over the space of this week's stretch of time that he's there under the guise of a 'contest'.

There are many surprising things about Ex Machina, and something that you should know is that there's a very sharp satirical edge to the film. I found myself laughing a lot through this film, and much of that is due to how Oscar Issac's Nathan interacts with Caleb, how he is this kind of isolated, Dr. Frankenstein in the mountains, and he does some very, shall we say, 'wacky' things and has a sort of sharp wit (when we first meet him he says "Dude, what's up", as if he's meeting a guy for a beer - which he is). At one point he even has a dance number (!) with one of his projects. This could be seen as over the top, but by this point Garland has set up the mood to where the absurd comes out and is more than acceptable, it's kind of required to off-set the dark mood of the rest of the piece (there may also be a reference to Ghostbusters at a point).

The heart of the film is with Vikander; as with the HAL 9000 in 2001 we really get to the heart of things with this film in how a computer system is created by humans and, as such, it has the ultimate aspect of having emotions. How is that not more controlled in these situations? What's fascinating in Ex Machina, unlike a 2001, perhaps closer (though not AS emotional) to the movie Her, is how Garland is exploring what happens when an artificial being has these capabilities for self-awareness, discovery, even sexuality (there may be a vagina-like part of her), and the ability to feel and have empathy.  And what sets this apart from other A.I. movies of this kind is that Eva is not going to "become" human, and it's not even exactly expected.  It's the human characters who have to change (or not) and decide what the next step is with evolution.  Will Eva be the last step, or just another on the "evolutionary" chain of robots going Skynet to take over the world?

When Caleb describes his past to her - they need to be 'friends' after all - watch Vikander's face and eyes. She's often seen in the film in close-up, and acts a lot of the time like how one might expect a Movie Robot/AI to appear: up-right, direct, movements controlled and kind of steely. But in these moments it's easy to feel for her feeling something. The actress sells it so completely - also in another scene involving a description of being a machine indoors and a human outside - that make it so masterfully done.

Some might see the final act as being predictable, but I'm not so sure it was. What Garland does is make the mind-games palatable and to a point where you almost know things may turn on a dime in a moment because, believably, these two guys are computer whizes (well, Nathan says, Caleb's "not bad, pretty good"). He sets up a story and characters who all want something, and you can't really be sure how it'll all turn out (maybe badly, but for who it really depends on how on their toes everyone is).

Issac, most especially, is a wonder to behold here, holding what he's really thinking in a kind of smoke-screen of his character's drunkeness (I didn't expect that for sure, maybe akin to Tony Stark but more bizarre in mannerisms and attitude), and that he is secretly one step ahead of characters' actions through his set up in his complex. He is funny, charming, off-putting, deranged, and really his situation comes from trying to have it both ways: create something no one has seen before, but keeping an iron thumb of control over his creations.

Also, the movie looks sleek, cool, as Garland really digs into visual contours and contrasts (how flesh looks on a person, and things like Isaac's muscly physique against Gleeson's slim frame), the environment they're in (isolation, full of technology but can't make a phone call), and windows that give the look of a prison in another movie. There's so much to mentally chew on with Ex Machina I can't help but feel like we got a future classic on our hands, or at least something that can talked and written about with the fervor given to Blade Runner, another film that asks what happens when artificial beings move past their master's intentions, but are still with the roots of the best (and worst) of humanity.

Or, at the least, another fine entry in the work of the creator of other genre-bender/enhancers, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, only, in a way, more confident in the intellectual engagement mixed with the feeling behind the writing of the characters. It's sharp stuff.

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