Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ex Machina (2015) - Movie Review
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.

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 realised 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 realise 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 realise 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.

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