Thursday, April 16, 2015

EX MACHINA Is a Riveting Robot Frankenstein Story


- If you're into dark, psychological, head-trip-inducing sci-fi (and who isn't?), then EX MACHINA is a must-see. This is the movie Chappie wishes it could have been - a clever, ultra-intense Frankenstein-inspired fable about sentient robots, man vs. machine, and about what it means to be human. Written and directed by Alex Garland - the man who wrote the scripts for genre-film fan favorites like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd - EX MACHINA firmly establishes Garland as one of the canonical voices doing sci-fi films today. The guy is the real deal, and he brings the same sort of visionary skill to directing that he does to writing. Tension-packed and mind-expanding - while still focusing on character - EX MACHINA is a first-rate mind-%$#& that I can't recommend enough.

In many ways, the film has the trappings of a stage play. It takes place in a single location, and focuses almost entirely on three main characters (though a fourth eventually becomes a significant factor in the story). The plot sees a brilliant, slightly geeky young coder for a huge, Google-like corporation whisked away to its CEO's remote, top-secret underground compound - after being chosen in a company-wide lottery granting its winner rare access. The coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is unclear of what his purpose is as the guest of his enigmatic tech icon boss. But when he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac) - the man behind the curtain - he soon finds out. Hidden away from prying eyes, Nathan has been conducting groundbreaking research into AI and robotics - and in doing so he's created the remarkable - and remarkably human-like - artificial being known as Ava. Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava - to spend sessions with her determining just how high-functioning her AI really is. Is there still an uncanny valley between Ava and a real human woman? Or has Nathan successfully erased the line between natural and artificial life?

The movie takes plenty of time to just let Caleb and Nathan bounce off of each other, ruminating on all manner of philosophical issues. But with actors the caliber of Gleeson and Issac, it works. Both are fantastic in the film, but what adds an extra layer to every scene of the film is the obvious tension that underlines their dynamic. Isaac's Nathan is clearly a bit off his rocker, but we're never quite sure just *how* far. Is he a well-meaning, brilliant inventor, or a dangerous Doctor Frankenstein? Whatever the case may be, he's clearly a wild-card, and his unpredictability - and Caleb's nervousness around him - keeps you on your toes. But the movie's most mesmerizing aspect is most definitely Ava. Played by newcomer Alicia Vikander, Ava is as fascinating for us to observe as she is for Caleb. Vikander plays her to perfection. Ava's movements are measured and deliberate - robotic at times. But there's also a spark of life in her eyes that is undeniably more-than-mechanical.

I've got to give a ton of credit to the movie's f/x team. In a decidedly non-flashy, stripped-down movie, Ava is nonetheless a next-level revelation, and a miracle of art/costume/character design. A mix of human flesh, mechanical limbs, and exposed mid-section wiring, Ava's artifice is on full display, yet so is her all-too-human face and expressiveness. That odd, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her allure is on full display in her scenes with Caleb. At first, the two engage in standard sorts of AI limit-tests. But soon, their relationship becomes less about AI patterns and more about much more human concerns. Is the developing friendship between them genuine? An AI-aided illusion? Or is it, in fact, a manipulation by Ava in order to create an ally for herself? The same sort of psychological tension that's present in the Noah/Caleb scenes is also there in the Ava/Caleb scenes. And that sets up a gripping cat-and-mouse game between the three leads. Who can trust who? What's real, and what's illusion and/or deception?

At times - with its atmospheric lighting, pulsing synth score, and constant sense of bird-on-a-wire tension - EX MACHINA almost feels like a horror movie. And sometimes, in its most genuinely disturbing moments, it straight-up is one. The film doesn't skimp on science or science-fiction trappings, but it is above all else a dark, Frankenstein-esque parable about humans playing God and Creator vs. Creation.

Garland proves himself here as a director - making the most of a confined location, but still giving the film a big, sweeping feel. The exotic locale in which Nathan's compound is hidden feels suitably epic - it's surrounded by waterfalls and soaring mountain ranges. The inside of the compound feels eerily claustrophobic and mysterious - a corridor-filled maze of locked rooms and real and metaphorical skeletons-in-the-closets. But to me, Garland still truly shines as a writer. There are obviously some familiar elements in the story of EX MACHINA, but Garland does a great job of keeping things unpredictable. There are certainly nods to the likes of Blade Runner and other genre classics, but the movie never copies those stalwarts. The film is filled with jaw-dropping twists, but Garland wisely eschews some of the more overdone tropes of this sort of film, while still acknowledging them as possibilities and having some fun with audience expectations. This is the rare twisty movie where the big revelations feel appropriately huge, yet never forced. And Garland brilliantly continues to escalate things throughout the film. By the end, the movie is just gloriously, giddily insane - but, again, in a way that makes sense given what's come before.

EX MACHINA is an instant contender for the sci-fi movie cannon. It's one of the best films about AI and robots and man vs. machine that I've seen. It's thought-provoking, scary, cool, and even darkly funny at times (actually, surprisingly often). Ava is an instantly-iconic robot, and Vikander kills it in the role. Isaac and Gleeson nail their parts as well - a good sign for Star Wars given that both star in future installments. But this ain't Star Wars. EX MACHINA is a does of real-deal, old-school, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi. A dark parable that deserves to be seen by many.

My Grade: A-

No comments:

Post a Comment