Sunday, 13 December 2015

Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect/Ex Machina (2015)
At the core of humanity’s fear of all that is different and/or strange is the ultimate embodiment of that fear. The unknown to end all unknowns, the dark abyss, eternal inferno and pearly gates all wrapped into one: Death. I’ve discussed before fiction in relation to the idea of avoiding it entirely through immortality, but there still exists a certain fascination within us about what lies beyond the veil. I’d even argue that the question of what happens after that final heartbeat is the source of one of the longest-running debates in human history: Religion. Do we ascend/descend to another plane, or just rot in the ground? Personally, while we have access to enough medical technology to determine what happens to the body post-mortem, I still think we don’t have the means to absolutely determine what happens beyond that. As such, any speculation to that end is just that: Speculation. I have no more right to say that it’s abjectly wrong than anyone else does. With all this in the melting pot, time to slice into today’s film about what happens when you mess with the natural direction of life. This is The Lazarus Effect.
The plot: Frank (Mark Duplass), Zoe (Olivia Wilde), Eva (Sarah Bolger), Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover) are all university students working on a project meant to help coma patients. However, after medical trials involving animals, they discover that the serum they use is capable of bringing living things back to life. In the face of their experiment being shut down by the university dean, and after the untimely death of Zoe, Frank decides to use the procedure to bring her back to life. She may not be the only thing they brought over, though, as she starts exhibiting strange powers.

The cast here is really good, which is honestly surprising considering the writing they’ve been saddled with. Duplass, indie film circuit superhero and executive producer of previous review subject Tangerine, gives a decent performance as the typical obsessed scientist; Bolger just gets thrown the main character baton at one point, but she does an okay job; Peters as Clay is the snarky stoner(?) of the group and he plays that note well; Glover as the tech guy Niko was nice, and he probably came out with the best performance as not only does he stay consistent throughout but his character also stays at a good level while he’s on screen.

Given the extremely hit-or-miss expectancy that comes saddled with the double-digit number of productions that Jason Blum is attached to this year, it’s nice to see that this film is actually scary at points. It may delve into previously seen material concerning fear of death and what lies beyond, but between the sound design, the acting and the director’s ability to build some reasonable tension when it’s needed, it’s a fairly suspenseful watch. Of course we get jump scares, the first of which is one of those “character intentionally tries to scare someone and, by extension, the audience” that are always annoying, but they’re at least handled well and aren’t as annoyingly prevalent as I’ve seen in other films this year.

The writing… oh dear God, the writing for this thing. I have probably built an unhealthy reputation in my reviews for fixating on the script more than anything else, but allow me to try and justify myself. Everything that takes place in a film, along with how those aspects are realized, starts with how it is depicted in the script; it is the words on paper that form a foundation from which the rest of the film is borne. If the writing isn’t able to maintain the reality of the film’s universe, and thus make us believe what we are seeing for the sake of escapism, then the film has failed at one of its main goals. Let’s start with the “science” at work here. Okay, they keep bringing up DMT, a psychedelic drug that is what the all-important serum is based from, except I highly doubt that the writers even know what it is. Primarily through Frank, we get reiterations of scientific theories about DMT and its presence in the body after death, which is the reason for what are described as “near-death experiences” and why the light at the end of the tunnel is so frequently brought up; they’re just hallucinating. This theory has no real scientific basis, nor any evidence to back it up aside from New Age holistic medicine peddlers, which might have been fine except the film is accepting that being DMT’s use as fact. Where at least Lucy was smart enough to realize that its core notion was pseudoscience at best (at times), this film serves it up as real-life basis for the story. What’s telling about this is how they actually acknowledge that film’s “10% of our brain” myth as being a myth… and then proceed to compound that by misunderstanding how the human brain actually works despite that revelation, not to mention making a mess out of explaining human evolution.

However, this is under the assumption that this film is trying to be believable as science; for the sake of fiction, I am willing to ignore that. What I can’t ignore, on the other hand, is how this film uses its main premise about essentially bringing people back from the dead. To start off, it feels like the filmmakers were almost afraid to even address the theological implications of being able to reverse death. Again, through the character of Frank, we see someone who is willing to completely ignore any implications their experiment may have, which he does through spouting the aforementioned woo woo about DMT. I don’t care what your theological leanings are, some level of curiosity has to kick in to make a person wonder if they are presented with that opportunity. On top of that, there’s also how the film doesn’t know how to focus on said idea, which includes possible depictions of Hell and the thought processes when it comes to dealing with a person who used to be dead. Rather than actually devoting the time needed to these concepts, it again borrows from Lucy and focuses on the magic science serum that brought Zoe back and it giving her conscious power over 100% of her brain. These two ideas are perfectly fine on their own, but they in no way work well together. This isn’t helped by how, because of the two intersecting concepts, Zoe’s character continuously shifts in terms of who or what she is. Come film’s end, it’s unclear whether she’s meant to be sympathetic or an unrepentant villain, or even both, resulting in the antagonist being rather hazy when it comes to motivation. Since the majority of the film is about Zoe’s… arc(?), this ends up harming the film’s efficacy overall.

All in all, while it definitely has its more suspenseful moments, its stance of constantly leaning on what it believes to be a scientific backbone combined with a lack of clarity when it comes to tone both do a lot to hurt this film’s overall quality. Credit where it’s due in actually featuring decent human beings as characters, if a little misinformed, but it’s not quite enough to save the rest of the film. It’s better than Terminator: Genisys, as this film has some moments that are genuinely effective that aren’t hurt by the surrounding material. However, since this 77 minute film (without credits) is so bogged down because of the non-logic put into the writing, it falls short of Boychoir which isn’t nearly as annoying.

Once the ‘fear’ response wears off, human inquisition starts about what exactly it is. Add to this our conflicting need for companionship, and it results in posing the big question: What counts as human? Speculative fiction owes about ¾ of its internal organs, and maybe 6 fingers, to this notion because it has resulted in some of its greatest work based on it. Take this notion about “what is human?” and give it to one Alex Garland, a man who might be one of the optimistic in terms of humanity as a species. Best known for his work with director Danny Boyle, and that kick-arse Dredd movie from a couple of years back, he has a thing for including characters, even villains, who are willing to help heal the world in the face of oblivion; It’s just that they went about in very different and morally opposing ways. Putting these two together has, apparently, lead to a highly acclaimed production that is being compared to seminal sci-fi works like 2001 and Solaris. As you can probably tell by my blog background, this sci-fi geek really hopes that its hype is justified. This is Ex Machina.

The plot: As a result of a company raffle, programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to the private estate of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to be part of something great. Nathan wants Caleb to administer the Turing test, a means to determine if an AI is equivalent to a human, to his latest creation: An android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of seven days, Caleb will interview Ava to determine if Nathan has indeed developed a sentient robotic lifeform.

There’s a trend that keeps popping up with certain filmmakers that clearly shows that some directors genuinely feel more comfortable as a writer than as a director. I like to call it ‘scriptsploitation’: Word-savvy filmmakers who primarily focus on shooting what are essentially filmed conversations between characters, pretty much making a film that would work just as well as a radio play or even as a novel. Not to say that this is automatically bad: Some of my favourite filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon operate primarily in that style; it’s just something I’ve noticed. This is also a main reason why directors like Smith and Whedon do end up taking the director’s seat: Because who better to handle how a script is delivered and realized than the person who wrote it? Well, a good script, at least? In this capacity, Garland does exceptionally well at the helm of this film.

Going just by the dialogue here, I can only assume that Garland has watched a lot of bad sci-fi in his life. Specifically, the kind of bad sci-fi that is riddled with plot holes and doesn’t end up holding up to scrutiny. What brings this across is how the characters actively question what is happening around them. If a plot hole exists in the film’s framework, particularly involving the whos and whys, the film itself addresses it. However, that’s not to say that the film will just apply the brakes to give exposition. Instead, it waits until it is appropriate for the characters in-film to realize it and, considering this film is all about asking questions in the first place, it feels disarmingly natural as a result. Hell, it even gets to a point where the question crops up long in advance of being acknowledged but, when it’s answered later on in the film, it doesn’t feel like the script is failing to catch up with its audience. When we see scars on Caleb’s back, it doesn’t immediately cut to a flashback where we learn how he gets them as an ordinary film would do; instead, we learn the causes of those marks through natural conversation when a suitable line of questioning is brought up.

What makes the near-constant questioning about the nature of AI and humanity not only work, but work brilliantly, goes back to my running theory about Garland learning from the mistakes of his predecessors. With certain sci-fi writers, especially those who are overtly positive of their own intelligence, what characters end up saying comes across far less like conversation and more like drug-addled naval gazing, e.g. Yo, what if, like, we were robots but, like, didn’t realize it, you know? Here, the espousing and musings about the line between computers and humans come across in dialogue that feels like what would come up in actual conversations about the subject. This is helped by the actors, as Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander are all fantastic at delivering the lines they are given. Caleb’s slow growth of understanding about his surroundings and his circumstances is conveyed very well by Gleeson, Nathan’s egocentricity as well as his intuition about human emotions are done expertly through Isaac’s delivery, and Vikander shows Ava’s knowledge concerning her environment as well as her own identity fantastically.

At this film’s core is the need to have the audience unconditionally invest themselves in the events taking place, as if they were actually happening. It’s an old-school rule of science fiction that creators have one impossible thing that is clearly made-up, yet surrounded by so much believability that the fact it is impossible becomes irrelevant. Aside from the acting and sharp writing, the overall production is determined to make you believe it exists and does so amazingly well. The effects work done for the robotics is phenomenal, with Millennium FX, Milk Visual Effects and our old friends Double Negative well and truly selling the idea that we are watching an android on screen. It’s a little wonky when it comes to showing blood, but considering this was done with rotoscoping and camera tracking, this might go down as some of the best CGI I’ve seen full stop. Beyond the computer effects, the set design feels futuristic without needing to make it obvious, i.e. the inclusion of useless doo-hickeys that serve no other purpose other than to look futuristic, and the music features downtempo electronica courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow of Portishead fame that not only sets the tone and mood of each given scene, but can legitimately bring intensity when it is called for as well.

All in all, this is the kind of film that SF geeks like myself live for. Its brand of sci-fi builds on previous ideas, both good and bad, and delivers some genuinely provocative ideas in astoundingly smooth ways. Great dialogue, great acting, great set design and animation that all go towards selling the smart ideas it presents? It’d be inhuman to not recommend this movie; hell, I’d even recommend it to non sci-fi fans because it’s just that damn good. It’s better than Big Eyes as, when in direct comparison, it loses points because there were times when Waltz’s performance was a little too overblown. However, in terms of making use of the film medium, Wild made vibrant use of its editing and soundtrack to create an even more cerebral experience.

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