Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ex Machina (2015) Movie Thoughts

It's always a tightrope act when a lauded scribe gets his first crack at directing a feature. And yet, novelist and occasional Danny Boyle collaborator, Alex Garland startles with unexpected ease. Brilliant young search engine coder, Caleb finds himself a winner of his company's lottery, and wins a trip to meet his oufit's reclusive CEO deep in the mountains. Completely unaware of what to expect in this clinical environment surrounded by miles of natural beauty, he is invited to participate in what could be the scientific discovery of a generation. Perhaps, of all generations.

Upon meeting the unexpectedly masculine and coolly unnerving Nathan(Oscar Isaac), Caleb is then let in on the purpose for his mysterious visit. He will be spending a week, tasked with meeting Nathan's latest technological breakthrough in hopes of performing a rigorous rendition of the Turing Test. A means by which a human can be completely fooled by a computer. When faced with this proposal, matters take on a more sinister bent when it is revealed that the subject for this test is in the form of Ava, a near-perfect replica of a humanoid machine. Featuring a body composed of largely synthetics and mesh, Ava's very human face and curiosity about Caleb makes for a powerful impression. But it isn't long before the young man, his new machine charge, and the troubling supergenius forge an air of curiosity and suspicion as Garland's tale comes up short on simple answers, but offers up a challenging bevy of questions about our current precipice of technology and philosophy.

When cinema tends to reach for answers to the ever-prescient question of the inevitable consequences of artificial intelligence, the reply almost always seems to hash out the same technophobic slant. (Just look to last week's Avengers: Age Of Ultron for yet another example) Time and again, we have been witness to morality tales about humanity's reach versus its grasp. And rarely do films that tackle the more open ends of this discussion with such openness and candor. Garland takes the quiet approach by making Nathan's stone and white colored home into a series of cells and corridors blocked by specially selected code keys, and surveillance cameras on every corner. The mountains and vegetation make for a world that makes our boy wonders on this voyage of the mind seem that much smaller.

And by that, I mean that placing the wiry, gaunt Caleb alongside the beer chugging, weight lifting Nathan, we are privy to where nerds have come over the generations. Both men have seen themselves products of a technological renaissance of sorts, and yet Nathan seems geared toward seeking a world that is more based upon controlling nature, while Caleb finds himself more and more at odds with his role in the testing. Ava seems to know more than she's letting on, and is growing more and more fond of him with each meeting. Even more disconcerting, is the only other person in Nathan's home/research facility, the practically mute Kyoko, who seems to only serve as a house servant. A game of who is playing who kicks into gear, and the screws begin to tighten to almost unbearable levels as it comes clear that what we are witnessing is a play on empathy, and what happens when we lose it in the name of juvenile desires.

And by this, I speak of the film's equating of our relationship to technology versus our most base desires. The film toys with not only Caleb's, but our collective habits in the wake of the internet, as well as many other breakthroughs in the past. There's almost always a hint of the hypersexual in ways that the average human considers advancements. So when we realize that Caleb's job, and Nathan's company is a world renowned search engine known as Blue Book, not to mention a discussion of what happens when all seach data is collated for ulterior purposes, it's not a stretch to consider Ava as a walking embodiment of the human id. In a film that could on the surface be seen as objectifying of the female form, there's a dimension at play here that harkens to a masculine world that seems to stutter behind with every new discovery with our lizard brains struggling to keep matters from evolving too rapidly. When we meet Nathan for the first time, it's clear that his demeanor defies every movie scientist archetype, and is closer to an "alpha-bro" with some serious masculinity issues. Sure, he's socially inept and bordering on megalomaniacal, but there's also a hint of perpetual pre-adolescence that pervades Isaacs' performance, and it is very much by design. Caleb, while more sedate, resembles a quiet, inquisitive teen who's a little more balanced, but racked with doubts as to Ava's motivations, and in turn Nathan's. He sees the man behind the machine, but is also in quiet awe of Ava. It's a tricky counterbalance to play, and Domnhall Gleeson slinks into it with unusual weight.

But the real find here is Alicia Vikander, who's Ava, exhudes the enthusiasm of a well-mannered and curious being who has only known a cage her whole brief life. Longing to know more about the boy sent to test her, and definitely exhibiting signs of a clear desire to embrace more colors of life, her role is all in the body language. All constantly creating a gravity with each title card designated meeting, she is magnetic, especially when her performance delivers hints at the complexity underneath her curious demeanor. Which makes for some surprising developments as the tension rises.

With a sure-handed demeanor, Garland and crew find themselves ready to tackle themes of The Singularity, and our role in it with often astonishing grace. Also important players in this piece are DP Rob Hardy, and music composers, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who create a calmly sensual aura throughout.  About the only real complaint that one can lob around here, was that some of the more provocative ideas were piled upon others. The end result of course, making the whole film feel more like a weighty discussion than a solid story. Which would only hurt it if it were aiming for something that traditional. With the self-imposed budgetary restrictions on hand, Ex Machina finds itself most comfortable tackling our collective worst habits as not merely dominator male legacies, but as creatures of convenience. What the film ultimately shares is a post-human notion that perhaps the machine futures of films past had yet to allow the processing of our inevitable new roles in the evolutionary chain. And that perhaps it's of our own undoing that we find ourselves so unwilling to keep up the race as creatures of understanding. Much in the way that gender and sexual mores of the past are at last leaving the pastures of the past, so shall our technologically enabled brothers and sisters.

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