Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Conceptually speaking, A.I. can be a scary thing.  No, I’m not talking about Allen Iverson – though the former NBA player’s crossover could be frightening for a retreating defender.  What I’m talking about is artificial intelligence – a term that can mean very different things depending on the layperson.  To some, it’s what makes their video games really difficult to beat; and to others it’s a fantastical concept born from the funny pages of the 1950’s.  Then of course there are the doomsayers, who see A.I. as the next step in evolution – an ill-conceived attempt on the part of humankind to play god – that will lead to the demise of human beings.  Does that seem over-the-top?  Yes.  Far-fetched?  Probably.   So far off in the future that it shouldn’t register as a blip on the alarmist radar?  Sure.  After all, back in 1985, Marty and Doc in Back to the Future had us all convinced the world would have flying DeLoreans by now.  But I digress.

Films like Terminator, I Robot, Alien, Terminator, and countless other movies have featured some manifestation of artificial intelligence as significant plot mechanisms and have done so with varying degrees of success.  This is a trend I am confident will continue in perpetuity until Skynet goes live and takes over the world (Terminator reference for the uninitiated).  In the interim, Hollywood will keep pumping out movies featuring A.I. once or twice a year and we’ll keep on watching them.  Given this context, what makes Ex Machina any different than its numerous predecessors?  The simple answer is “not much.”  The film asks all the typical questions that audiences have come to expect from movies with this premise.  When does programming and coding end, and actual consciousness being?  What are the implications of “playing God” and what are the consequences?

In writing this, I realize that I have not yet offered up a compelling reason for you or anyone else to rush out and watch this movie – a movie that I actually think is quite well done and absolutely worth your time.  But really, the merits of the film have less to do with artificial intelligence (though it is a compelling enough hook) than one would surmise from a distance.  Instead, what makes the narrative compelling is the use of space and time to create this sense of claustrophobia that pervades the protagonists’ fundamental struggle to find truth and authenticity while laying in a bed of lies.  Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Ex Machina is very much a textbook suspense/thriller wrapped up in a cloak of science fiction and to writer/director Alex Garland’s credit, he does a nice of job of dropping layer upon layer of conflict and misdirection in very small spaces.

A movie like this can only truly be successful though if the acting is up to snuff and Oscar Isaac (as Tech genius/mogul Nathan) and Domhnall Gleeson (as computer programmer Caleb) do a good job of establishing a dynamic in which their respective characters share a sphere of common interest but come to that place from polar opposite positions.  If their relationship is where the seeds of mistrust are sown, then their respective interactions (or lack of) with Alicia Vikander’s (Ava) is where the fundamental tension of the film is cultivated.  Vikander’s Ava uses her innocence to evoke a subtle foreboding sensuality that muddies what is already an incredibly polluted pool.

The pacing is methodical, like an iron on low heat slowly burning its way through a collared shirt.  The dialogue is smart but never aspires to answer unanswerable questions.  The direction of the film maintains its singular focus of telling a taut suspenseful tale.  The combination of these three elements makes the film very much a win for all involved, and one that is worth a look.  For Star Wars fans, it has the added appeal of featuring two actors (Isaac and Gleeson) who will be starring in Star Wars Episode VII at year’s end.


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