Films reflect the times they are created in, and the mid-80s there was a streak of optimism in science fiction.* Maybe it was that fact tech was still on the edge of larger society. We had cool home computers, IBM PC-ATs, Apple Macintoshes and and the occasional Amiga 1000, but no real internet to speak of. We were in full control. Fast-forward exactly 30 years…
|"So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?"|
It's so charming and innocent in retrospect that
a woman who just materialized out of a computer
would have to even ask that question.
Ex Machina, currently out in limited release and will be available for download June 1st, is the Millennial generation's answer to Weird Science. Caleb (Domhall Gleeson, who played the protag in Frank), a gifted coder in a very large tech firm, wins a contest to spend a week with the firm's CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis himself) in his private underground lab in an isolated corner of what seems to be Iceland. Caleb finds out he is supposed to deliver the "Turing Test" for indisputable cybernetic self-awareness to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android of Nathan's creation. Ava is a stunningly good combination of seamless VFX and perfectly executed, full-body acting by Ms. Vikander, by far the best part of the film. Caleb quickly falls for Ava, who is confined to a glassed-in room. Tension soon develops when, during a power cut when Nathan's cameras are knocked out, Ava says that Nathan cannot be trusted. A strange power struggle develops between the secretive Nathan, the inquisitive (and smitten) Caleb, and Ava, who may well be manipulating him to prevent her erasure and gain her freedom.
All in all, it is a fascinating movie which asks some rather important questions about our current relationship with artificial intelligence, a popular cinematic subject these days (Autómata, The Machine, Chappie, etc.). However, in the late second act the limits of writer-director Alex Garland's vision become apparent. You never quite get ahead the central plot of the film, but you realize there is only one outcome for this story and that is the one that happens. Afterwards you are left with a large series of "what ifs" and "what the hells" similar to the questions audiences had after screening Prometheus: Not nearly as much or as bad (Prometheus squandered a lot of the goodwill of the fans of the Alien film series) but a realization that this film could have been much more if a few more rewrites could have been knocked out. Notes:
|We just got our second-round VC funding, bro!|
• Sexy female robots have been around since at least the 1920s (Maria from Metropolis). Ava is clearly a part of this continuum, which explores the fetishization of technology. This is the fist film I can remember where a robot's sexuality is held up as a question: Caleb asks Nathan why he would muddy the waters of a Turing Test by introducing something as distracting as giving the subject AI a female body. Nathan's answer was, amazingly, ten minutes of hanging a lantern on this subject: all lifeforms come gender-specific, sex makes life fun, it makes the Turing Test more interesting, and shut up that's why.
|The answer to the encroachment of AI and the|
inevitability of both the Singularity and the
eventual extinction of the human race: Drink up, bro!
• Seen at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, up in the balcony of Theater 1. This is their biggest screen and back when the Kabuki was an AMC theater I saw some amazing stuff there: Jurassic Park, Fargo and the industry screening of Starship Troopers. The balcony is amazing now: there are tables between seat pairs and you can order booze from the 3rd floor bar. I spent half the screening a little ticked off that I wasn't drinking an IPA with my popcorn.
So ultimately I'd recommend Ex Machina-- but you may be happier about it if you wait for the download.
* Doing the research for this piece I have to say the biggest surprise was what a banner year 1985 was for science fiction films. Aside from Weird Science, Back to the Future, Brazil, Cocoon, Enemy Mine, Re-Animator, Legend, Lifeforce and Return of the Living Dead all came out that year. The only franchise installments of note were Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, both rather good films.