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Ex Machina

There's appropriate touching, there's inappropriate touching,
and then there's "This touching is an abomination unto the Lord".

dir: Alex Garland


It’s funny that I’ve gotten to watch two films with pretty much the same premise within less than a week of each other (or their release), and yet they take the same basic story (artificial intelligence) and go in two completely oppositional directions.

Both have flaws, but they’re interesting, to me at least. The other flick I’m talking about is Chappie, but I’m not going to spend this review talking about a different flick. Even if there’s far more bizarre stuff to talk about with the other flick.

This flick takes a cool, calm approach to its subject matter. It’s basically a three-hander, well, maybe four, confined to one location (an incredible looking place in Norway, part carved out of the earth, part high tech glacier?), with muted themes and even more muted action (before the ending). Mostly, it’s a film where a guy called Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) chats with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and someone else called Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Someone else… someone else. This someone else is not as others might be. She possesses a very expressive face for something that is basically just a very complicated iPhone. And boobs too. Why would you put boobs on a robot?

Well, apparently there are very good reasons. Boobs can be a lot of things to a lot of people. They can also be a great diversion or an even better distraction.

Caleb’s job, as he is told by his genius and oddball employer (who, we are meant to think, is some combination of Bill Gates / Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg), is to test Ava. The test to be applied is the Turing Test. The test isn’t to see whether a socially awkward genius can be ostracised and hounded by the cops for his ‘lifestyle choices’ into killing himself despite having played a large role in the war effort against the Germans. It’s to see whether Ava could pass for a human, as in, whether her artificial intelligence is sophisticated enough to interact with another person in a seamless manner that would fool the average person who knew not her origins.

At least, that’s what Nathan claims is going on. He’s a strange, cagey fellow, who seems to booze constantly and alternates between camaraderie and thinly veiled hostility. There’s something more going on than just the boss-subordinate dynamic in how Nathan and Caleb get along. They’re both presumably very smart, because otherwise why would Caleb be working at Nathan’s company BlueBook (which is this world’s Microsoft/Google/Facebook), and why would it be Nathan’s company?

And there is an even weirder sexual-jealousy dynamic going on as well. Even though Nathan seems to have his own mute Japanese servant / sex slave, he has an oddly protective / dismissive vibe towards Ava. Lest I’ve been a bit obscure until now: whatever Ava is, she or it is Nathan’s creation. She has a very expressive face but a body (despite the boobs) that leaves you with no confusion as to whether she’s ‘real’ or not.

But to Caleb, who appreciates her on a technical level, yet over time seems to forget he’s dealing with a significantly more complicated version of Siri: he comes to believe he’s dealing with an actual intelligence, an actual being. He even seems to be entranced, one could say. She seems, except for the mechanical body, to almost be Caleb’s ‘ideal’ woman.

Funny, that. This is the point where you start wondering whether the Turing test is being applied on Ava, or on Caleb.

As far as I know, this is Alex Garland’s first time out as a director. Mostly he was known as a novelist, having penned The Beach, a book which an inexplicable amount of people (including myself) read and were disappointed by. Once that book was adapted into a film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton in it, well, his fate was sealed. His fortunes became inextricably linked to Danny Boyle, his vision turned cinematic (or at least in terms of churning out screenplays), and the world is the better for it.

Well, mostly. Like pretty much everything Garland has done since The Beach, and like The Beach itself, almost everything this chap is involved with suffers horribly from what I call ‘last act malaise’. Enjoying a movie or story isn’t always completely dependent on the ending, but sometimes a terrible or out the fuck of nowhere ending can really mess with your enjoyment of what came before, and render the experience a waste of time.

As Exhibit A I submit Sunshine. Now Sunshine is actually, in my humble estimation, quite a great science fiction film about a bunch of scientists trying to save humanity by doing something to the sun. Unfortunately, it’s only about two thirds of a good film. The last part of the flick is taken up with a completely out of nowhere psychokiller psychokilling his way through the crew. It’s nuts, and it wrecks the flick.

Actually, as Exhibit A I should have submitted The Beach, both book and movie, but that’s redundant by now. Terrible ending, probably terrible story from the start, but it’s hard to completely dismiss something that has a Tilda Swinton in it.

To be fair it’s only really these ones that have sucked so horribly because of how they end up. Most of the rest of his stuff is actually quite solid (screenplays for Never Let Me Go, 28 Days Later, the recent Dredd remake which I quite liked).

Garland seems to have realised that the only way to get your film made exactly like your screenplay is to direct it yourself. Also, he’s realised that being a director is a piece of piss, and anyone can do it, including him.

Basically, all you have to do is get the actors into a space, an attractive space helps, then plonk a camera in front of them, film them talking, then let the effects people worry about the effects, and the editor worry about the rest. Piece of piss, it’s done.

Maybe he’s not wrong. I dunno about Gleason, son of the rightly famous Irish actor Brendan Gleason, who is solid in everything I’ve seen him in but not spectacular, but Oscar Isaac is great in everything he does. I’ve only ever seen him give one less than compelling performance, but that was because it was an entirely horrible movie (the incredibly superbad Sucker Punch. Anyone remember that terrible fucking movie? Brrrrrr). Not his fault.

He’s great. Creepy, but great. He’s a very charismatic, controlled actor, and he makes whatever role he’s in seem both believable and uncomfortable. Whether he’s playing a likeable character or not, he is generally never less than compelling.

As Nathan here, he’s everything the character needs to be. I don’t know any billionaire tech geniuses (I know at least two people with genius-level IQs, but they ain’t rich, so what’s all their booksmarts worth anyway, eh? Less than Nothing! I kid, I kid, because I admire), but I’d like to think that Isaac gets the feel right of how much of an oddball one would manage to be. Working on multiple levels, multiple agendas, completed disinterested in anything not central to his goals, completely monomaniacal in his pursuits. Kinda like a sociopath, but with lots of money.

This is not an action-y kind of flick. This is vastly moreso in the wheelhouse of science fiction flicks where people sit around talking about concepts rather than flashy special effects or explosions. People might spend fifteen minutes arguing over what really constitutes free will, or sentience, or love, or the purpose of sex, and then all it will lead to is another conversation a few minutes later.

And then people disco dance. In this flick almost anything can happen.

That being said, the effects in making Ava look like a constructed being are pretty strong. She (as in how they represent her) perfectly straddles the line between being believably ‘real’ and Uncanny Valley-artificial simultaneously, and it works well in the film.

The ‘last act malaise’ doesn’t really strike or apply here. Things do go bugfuckingly crazy at the end, but it seems like, when the script is flipped and we see what was really going on, and ultimately who was playing whom, the ending, though grim, makes a hell of a lot of chilling sense. It’s an ending as chilling as the environment where most of this flick transpires, an incredibly expensive place built near the edge of a glacier. Cold, beautiful, and completely inhuman.

And like with a glacier, whatever its intentions are, however slowly it achieves its objectives, it is, in the end, like the last person standing at the end of this flick, implacable.

Of the two flicks with this theme I saw recently, this is the more thoughtful one, but I’m not sure the questions it raises (what is self-awareness, what is identity, who or what can rightly be called a person etc) resonate after the film ends. As far less abrasive and outright nuts compared to Chappie, it’s the latter film that actually has something to say about what and who we become, regardless of our origins, and in some ways, unintentionally I assure you, again it’s Chappie that’s stayed with me longer.

Ex Machina… well, I do remember its central point: don’t fall in love with robots, but I already knew that.

7 times it’s hard to buy the concept of all powerful AIs when I can barely get my phone to work properly out of 10

“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” – why not sugarcoat it some more, why don’t you – Ex Machina