Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg or: The Modern Prometheus

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Technology is evil and we should be afraid of it. This has been a running narrative of filmmaking since the very beginning. Henry Frankenstein learned the consequences of playing God in the 1930’s, 1950’s scientists wreaked havoc in their reckless pursuit of knowledge in nuclear flicks like Godzilla or Them!, and technology usurped humanity in the likes of Demon Seed and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then things got real weird in the 80’s as machines grew self aware in The Terminator, WarGames, and even the crummy slasher Evilspeak.

Then, once we escaped The Matrix, came the Japanese fears of their own accelerated advances in Ringu, Pulse, and One Missed Call. But as society flashes forward in leaps and bounds, so do our celluloid perils. We are no longer afraid of clunky VHS tapes and desktop computers because we’re dealing with tech on a global scale Every computer is connected via the Internet and harm can come to you remotely, whether it be a virus, a catfisher, or merely sustained surveillance. This has been the subject of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and even this month’s Spectre. But while technology’s scope has expanded, our contact is more personal than ever thanks to social media, online shopping records and browser histories.

Ex Machina has entered the room.

In Ex Machina, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working for an enormously profitable tech company. When the reclusive company owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb to spend the week at his secluded mountain lodge/fortress, he jumps at the chance to meet the great man. He’s surprised to learn that Nathan is a hard-drinking, lascivious man with a strange, glaring intensity, but he’s even more surprised to learn that he has been invited to test Nathan’s new prototype of artificial intelligence, a female android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

He discovers that Ava has an astonishingly human personality, which causes him to question her artificiality as well as his own identity. When tensions arise in the compound, he must decide whether to side with Ava, who appears to be growing a romantic interest in him, or Nathan, whose intentions seem more and more murky.

I mean, he didn’t even include a “dislike” button.

Forget that Spectre “Christoph Waltz is monitoring our YouTube videos” claptrap, this is the true tech suspense film for our generation. Ex Machina explores our implicit trust of gadgetry within the context of a burgeoning relationship. It’s a more twisted version of Her, a dark attraction that could easily be superimposed with a tech-obsessed dad and Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. Aa we grow more introverted and cut off our human interaction, technology slowly begins to fill the void. Of course, there are two sides to every modern development, but Ex Machina is an eloquent argument for the opposition.

Ex Machina’s thesis is delicately painted on a visual canvas by writer-director Alex Garland, with an attention to detail that matches his incredibly nuanced script. Working closely with production designer Mark Digby’s stark, modern steel and glass architecture, Garland creates vivid images, utilizing pristine reflections as a recurring motif. The rest of Ex Machina’s aesthetic builds off this cold but impeccably composed photography, coming to life in equal measures during dangerous situations that are flooded with blood red light or reflective moments realized in crisp black and white.

The film moves through space and time like an intricate ballet with a equally mechanical perfection. It does not rush its story, nor does it press its symbolism, some of which is strikingly obvious, but all of which allows the viewer to approach on their own time. One early on reveal is the slightest bit clunky, but the plot otherwise slides powerfully forward like a sinuous snake, fangs bared to deliver the killing blow.

Ex Machina inspires spontaneous poetic rapture in film critics. I apologize for the inconvenience.

The film’s unbearably slippery, sleek aesthetic carries over to the score, which is halfway between the guttural synth of The Guest and Disasterpeace’s electric serenade from It Follows. It’s a hardly original post-Carpenter sound, but it flows through Ex Machina like an electronic river, powering its dark, emotional left.

However, the true centerpiece of Ex Machina is its human, or rather – inhuman element. Alicia Vikander’s performance is a flat-out stunning piece of character creation. Her complex motivations and unnatural physical poise are captured flawlessly by her wide, expressive eyes. Ava is no droning Doctor Who Dalek or monotone sci-fi creation with arms covered in rubber tubing. She is a shaded, detailed being, far more than either of her onscreen companions. And yet she is unmistakably, uncannily artificial. The single best acting moments of the entire film come when her voice acquires a subtly robotic catch in the middle of certain sentences, betraying her fabrication. Just like the rest of the film, it is elegant and unimaginably precise.

Gleeson and Isaac also have their moments of glory (especially the latter, whose larger-than-life portrayal is ineffably unnerving), but this is Vikander’s show through and through. She is Ex Machina in a microcosm: incredibly calculated and accomplished, hiding a dark secret behind a modern, accessible exterior. It’s an exciting, atmospheric watch. Don’t bring the DVD along on a date night, but the next time it rains (which might be never, here in California), put on your thinking cap and pop it in. Just make sure your phone is shut off, or Siri might get jealous.

TL;DR: Ex Machina is a sleek, chilling technological thriller with razor sharp subtext.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 943

1 comment:

  1. Still *very* much my favorite movie of the year, and would probably remain my favorite even if 2015 hadn't started shaping up to be a bit of a weak year. I'm glad you finally got the chance to screen it, and enjoyed it!

    (Incidentally, I totally saw it on a date. Worked out fine. It's a pretty fantastic conversation piece.)