Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: EX MACHINA: Design by design

Geeky Caleb wins the chance to spend time with dot com genius and overlord stopped-counting-ionaire Nathan. The helicopter that delivers Caleb to Nathan's personal glacier almost presses Caleb to the ground with the force of its rotors as it takes off. We'll see that reprised in a few different ways in the next ninety minutes.

Nathan lives in a high security bunker. His bushy beard with suedehead crop is not hipster: he lives like no one's looking. Hungover at their first meeting he is asked about the greatness of the party that put him in the state of pain. "What party?" he says without a smile.

After being teased into signing a fearsome non-disclosure, Caleb is told that he will for the next seven days be testing Nathan's robot for self awareness. Caleb will be part of the greatest moment in the history of man. Caleb, awestruck, corrects this to the history of gods. It won't be long before we hear Nathan's streamlining of that thought.

In the next seven sections (partitioned with title cards) we see the progress Caleb makes with Ava the android, understanding or failing to understand the mind of his host and wondering about the origin of his own intelligence. It's a multi-layered game of cat and mouse between the Kurtz-like Nathan, the pixie-like Caleb who has wandered in from the forest and the born-adult Ava whose test-nailing attribute might well be guile. And that is what keeps the well-worn theme of the meaning of humanity when faced with a superior machine version of itself: humanity is over; how smooth and warm shall we make our death beds?

That isn't a spoiler. This is a film of fulfilled foreshadowing and surprising plot developments but neither of those devices is delivered as a twist. Rather we witness stations of progress in characters' awareness of the situation and their varying capacity to propel beyond them. This takes some fleet footed writing which then must be borne in exacting performances. These things we get.

Irish actor Domnhall Gleason's Caleb holds a weight of intellect and melancholy but keeps these beneath a light and airy glow. He is someone who has come to know his place in life, is saddened and kept lonely by it but has developed a kind of comfortable ache to cope with it. He lights up at the challenges in Nathan's bunker, animated at the gift of purpose.

Oscar Isaac dominates without visible effort. As Llewyn Davis, he was uptight and middle American. In A Most Violent Year he was all svelte self-made elegance. Here he plays a kind of real life Zeus, pummeling a punching bag like a Neanderthal but soaring through concepts like a beam of light. My first comparison was that of many who have reviewed this film: Kurtz. But Kurtz, highly civilised European brought the darkness that old Europe never shook free upon the unspoiled primeval world he found at the end point of empire. Nathan might well feel the self-loathing that plagues Kurtz (and drinks like a fish to prove it) but the sole power left to him that does not engender this points toward a more rarefied than Kurtz would have comprehended: he is not saddened by the discovery of his own nadir but by his apex; his own personal Turing test result is his awareness that he has created his own annihilation and that, in his view, it is just.

The performance that rivets us, though, is that of Alicia Vikander as Ava. Most of her body is mesh over transparent plastic which, like all difficult thinking, shows her workings. She is left with human-like hands and a Scandinavianly perfect face. Her near-human movements (accompanied by the slightest of mechanical whirs) and gaze must keep us watching and guessing as we sit with Caleb on the other side of the glass wall that divides them and look for signs. Given the technology that we witness in the build to her first appearance we will not be satisfied with a monophonic wind up toy but will demand awe at the sight of a machine whose thoughts, like our own, have travelled beyond initial programming to pursue that all driving remnant, desire. Vikander brings a classically trained dancer's control to keep shy of full human fluidity yet stop us with the possibilities of her development. This also goes for her vocal performance. We wonder if we are in uncanny valley and about to feel alienated or viewing it from a distance, fooled by own our best wishes.

The immersion of the world of this film must be celebrated here too for it strikes me as designed rather than art directed. What I mean by that is not just the expensive noiseless hush of the beige walls and the glass surfaces that give us a constant reminder of the notion of the copy; I mean the hot and cold electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's own Geoff Barrow which pours like cream and razor blades into the soft light; I mean the opportunity to savour the technology the way we did with 2001, The Andromeda Strain, and the opening sequence of Colossus; I mean the contrasting chaos and bad temper of the expensive Jackson Pollock on the wall which creates its own expansive dialogue; I mean the silver society lady in the Klimt portrait who seems at once armless and crucified; and I mean the restless unsettling questioning set before us, our own as well as the characters' that keeps us guessing throughout the digestibly brief running time. Alex Garland who penned the screenplays of the draggy 28 Days Later and the soggy Never Let Me Go has saved up his best for his directorial debut. He gives us a test. Take it. See how you do.

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