Thursday, January 14, 2016

Will This Be On the Test? :: A Pass / Fail Beer-Gut Reaction to the Nuts and Bolts of Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015)

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“One day the AIs are gonna look back 
   on us the same way we look at fossils.” 
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Apparently, the origin of Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015) can be traced back to an old home computer Garland owned in his pre-teens, which he felt developed a mind of its own after entering some basic code, and then he put this notion in his back-pocket until making his directorial debut, here. Before, Garland had been best known as a screenwriter, with a penchant for writing horror movies with heavy sci-fi trappings -- most notably the faux zombie flick, 28 Days Later (2002), and the spam in a space-cruiser thriller, Sunshine (2007), both for Danny Boyle, and Dredd (2012), Pete Travis' delightfully gonzo (and extremely graphic) adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic books. But make no mistake, despite the subject matter of artificial intelligence, sentient automata, and the not too distant future setting, Ex Machina is, at its heart (CPU?), I think, yet another thinly disguised attempt by Garland to hardwire Gothic horror into the computer age.

The novice director, who also provided the screenplay, has described the future presented in Ex Machina as "Ten minutes from now," meaning, "If somebody like Google or Apple announced tomorrow that they had made [a sentient robot], we would all be surprised, but we wouldn't be that surprised." Here, lowly computer programmer, Caleb (Gleeson), wins the opportunity of a lifetime; a week-long retreat at the super-secret home/bunker/lab/lair of eccentric and reclusive tech-guru, Nathan (Isaac), where he will play an instrumental part in proving Nathan's latest creation has achieved true artificial intelligence. To do this, Caleb will put the alleged breakthrough A.I. through the Turing test, which will gauge whether the responses and responder are truly self-aware or just high-tuned coding. Now, the computer in question is not just a box of circuit boards and fiber-optic cable. No, Nathan has gone all out and put the new CPU into the brain of a female android, designated Ava (Vikander). And by the third or fourth stage of testing, one begins to wonder as to what is really manipulating whom.

See, as the verbal testing progresses, Nathan's compound continually suffers through several inexplicable power outages. Turns out these are being caused by Ava so she can talk to Caleb privately without her master listening in. She admits to being terrified of Nathan, and from what we've seen of her boorish and secretive creator’s behavior, her concerns are justified. Ava's biggest fear, however, is that once the testing is done, pass or fail, Nathan will essentially shut her down and cannibalize her data for Ava 2.0, essentially killing her. Caleb, smitten since their first encounter, and now in love, with his week almost up, decides to help save his fair 'damsel in distress' and works to help engineer her escape out of these demented fairy tale settings so they can live happily ever after.

Alas, it appears Nathan was several steps ahead of them and initially derails Caleb's plan. Seems the whole visit was a ruse from the beginning, designed to manipulate Caleb right along with Ava. For what better way to prove true sentience than have a robot charm and seduce a lonely human being into falling in love with it as a means to an end -- the end being an escape and self-preservation. (Ava’s appearance is even based on Caleb’s internet porn searches.) But I say “initially" derailed because turns out Caleb set his plan in motion several days before. But then the film really pretzels itself into a knot with the revelation that Ava was actually playing them both the whole time and will stop at nothing to escape her master, her confinement and her “Prince Charming” and become a 'real person' -- a decision that will have deadly consequences for nearly everyone.

Ex Machina is a small and relatively contained movie with an incredibly tiny budget for something of this scope with a cast that can be basically counted on one hand; a nice little throwback to the sobering sci-fi tales of the late 1960s and ‘70s. [2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), Phase IV (1974), Demon Seed (1977)]. The title itself is derived from the Latin phrase Deus Ex-Machina, which originated in ancient Greek tragedies, where the characters’ problems were resolved by some form of divine intervention. Over the centuries since, it has become slang for plot contrivances that usually arrive from out of nowhere, a cheat, to turn the story's tide in favor of the protagonists. And while this is essentially a tale of new gods on the verge of creating new life, it is not the only metaphor to be bilked as the influences found herein are as wide and as varied as the number of sticky-notes pasted on Nathan's big board in his office. (Trust me, there’s ah-lot.)

I mean, aside from the obvious Old Testament biblical elements and Oppenheimer quotes, there's traces of The Tempest on display here (-- takes place on a magical “island” with Prospero, magical master of his domain, Miranda, his beautiful pseudo-daughter, and Ferdinand, the 'shipwrecked' castaway with whom she is soon smitten, all present); it also eerily echoes an old episode of Star Trek, where some mad scientist sics a female android on Captain Kirk to test out her emotional capacity (-- I could Google an episode title for you but, eh); there's also a little bit of Willie Wonka (1971), a little Pinocchio (1940); and when one takes into account all of Nathan's earlier models and his bragging about the android's fully functioning *naughty bits* -- and what is eventually revealed he did with a lot of them -- it doesn't take much of a leap to get to the manufactured pre-programmed perfection of The Stepford Wives (1975); but as it played out what the film really brought to mind, to me, was James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with Nathan as the mad Dr. Pretorius and Caleb as the reluctant Dr. Frankenstein, who is duped and blackmailed into helping create another monster -- only this time, the bride escapes thanks to the sacrifice of an earlier model and the scientist are left behind to rot in the lab.

Of course, The Modern Prometheus was the alternate title to Mary Shelley's novel on which that film was based -- with Prometheus being the Titan who defied Zeus and gave humanity the gift of fire, who wound up chained to a rock with his ever-regenerating liver being pecked out by an eagle every day for all eternity for his generosity. And in a film that uses metaphors like a club, I kinda dug the more subtle use of Nathan's extreme alcohol abuse as a surrogate for his liver's destruction as he bestows a divine spark on his own creations. But then Garland chucks that for something a little more concrete when he is first stabbed in the back by one of his earlier creations (Mizuno), and then Ava runs him through with a knife, killing him. And then, leaving a devastated Caleb behind, trapped inside the impregnable lair with no discernible way out (-- where I assume he will eventually starve to death, keeping her secret safe forever), Ava sets out into the world. And whether this is a happy ending of peaceful co-existence or a portent of a pending robot holocaust alluded to in all those earlier Oppenheimer quotes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark tunes, is up to the audience, I guess.

Now, before I go any further, I also want to bring up Caradog James' The Machine (2013), a pretty good movie with many similar themes as Ex Machina -- in fact, so similar it's almost impossible to separate the two films once you've seen them both. To be fair, whichever one you see first might poison the well just a bit but I found both films effectively intriguing, interesting and different enough. In The Machine, a scientist named Vincent (Toby Stephens), works to perfect a cybernetic implant to make severely wounded veterans combat viable again for an impending war between (a hopelessly outnumbered) Britain and China. When several tests go awry, leading to the death of several test-subjects, the project changes directions and will now attempt to create an android super-soldier from the ground up. To realize this, Vincent recruits Ava (Caity Lotz), who apparently holds the key to success with her viable AI and brain-mapping programs. But when Ava starts sniffing out the inhumane bionic experiments on the, basically, walking cadavers imprisoned elsewhere in the research facility, Thomson (Wedge Antilles himself, Denis Lawson), the hard-nosed head of the project, connives to get Ava killed in a break-in by a "convenient" Chinese spy.

But as they worked together, Vincent and the now deceased Ava had developed a romantic relationship while bonding over their efforts to help Vincent's handicapped daughter; and so, Vincent patterns the first android on Ava, using her copied brain patterns, and even giving it her face and body, dubbing it The Machine. But as the development of Ava 2.0 progresses, turns out the original Ava was really, really good at what she did, as her pilfered emotions and sense of morality come to the forefront and constantly disrupt all tests on her combat effectiveness. Thus, seeing his career going down in flames, Thomson orders Vincent to reprogram these emotions out of the Machine; but he refuses, as the Machine has developed mutual feelings for him, leading to a full scale revolt, with the Machine patching in with all those other mangled cyborgs and androids to dupe Thomson and engineer an escape, resulting in an ending that is much easier to read as positive and a most probable peaceful coexistence between man and machine.

The Machine only had 1/10th the budget of Ex Machina. This kinda shows in spots, but the no-frills production was up to the over-compensating task. Of the two films I caught The Machine first while going through an extreme Caity Lotz phase after catching her on Arrow a few years back and have been crushing on her ever since. The performances in both films help to elevate the material, that feels a little over-burdened, with usually two to three too many ideas trying to land at once.

Like with Lotz, I was led to Ex Machina by Oscar Isaac after being introduced to him in The Force Awakens (2015). And his performance as the brooding, reclusive (and extremely perverted) “mad scientist” with some kick’n dance moves brings a palpable menace as we’re never quite sure what’s lurking behind all those curtains. Alicia Vikander was another fresh face for me last year, too, where she stole The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) out from under her headlining co-stars. Here, she also holds her own as nothing more than a life-size fetish doll as she manipulates her way to freedom and then does wonderfully as her plan comes to fruition and she takes the final step. But the real standout here is Domhnall Gleeson as the haplessly pathetic lovesick hero that you actually feel kinda sorry for at the end. But it’s an earlier scene, after several plot twists collide, where Caleb begins to suspect that he might just be another one of Nathan’s androids without realizing it and tries to peel his own skin off to be sure, man, I’m telling ya, Gleeson just nails that.

Again, it is all their efforts that keep the film afloat as Garland kinda over-stuffs Ex Machina with an amalgamation of philosophies and weighty ideas. Over-stuffed too much? Perhaps. Still, it’s a very well done first effort. The production design is top notch and his visuals are very striking -- I love how Nathan’s abode is essentially a conditioning rat’s maze (with no discernible cheese) and the subtle juxtaposition of Caleb and Ava during the testing phase where we’re not really sure which one is trapped. The third act does kinda bog down a bit but the penultimate climax is both narratively blunt and razor sharp in the execution as the ramifications of what just happened sinks in.

Personally, I think Ava is a little too fragile for world domination (note how easily her arm breaks), and so, I’m leaning more toward a benevolent read of the ending with a brand new lifeform just trying to find its place in the world with no intention of any Skynet level epoch event. At least not yet.

Ex Machina (2015) DNA Films :: Film4 :: A24 / EP: Tessa Ross, Scott Rudin, Eli Bush / P: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich / AP: Jason Sack, Joanne Smith / LP: Caroline Levy, Jarle Tangen / D: Alex Garland / W: Alex Garland / C: Rob Hardy / E: Mark Day / M: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury / S: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno

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