Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Ex Machina

This movie.  You guys.  This movie.

Okay, look, I love a good science fiction movie.  I think "fantastic future technology" has become more than just a regular "genre" of movie, it's become something you can tell any kind of story in.  You can tell romances (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Time Traveller's Wife, Wall-E), you can tell adventures (Star Wars, The Matrix, Terminator, Wall-E), and you can tell horror (Alien, The Thing, Predator, Wall-E).

But there are very few "science fiction" movies willing to spend more time on the "science" than they are the "fiction."  Hollywood doesn't like to tackle big new ideas that often, so while something like In Ti- ...hold on, I never reviewed In Time?  Okay, that'll be happening this week.  Anyway, while you might have something like Moon every now and again taking an idea and expanding on it until it becomes a complete story in its own right, more often than not you have something that has to abide by the rules of Hollywood storytelling.  You can't challenge the viewer too much, you need explosions to hold their interest, and special effects trump characterization.

Then something like Ex Machina quietly slips by.  You catch a glimpse of it in all the movie hype about other, bigger blockbusters that the critics inevitably pan, but it isn't until later that you start to hear the rave reviews and realize there's something out there you have to see.

So, since I had a long flight ahead of me several weeks ago, I finally downloaded it off Amazon Prime and watched it.

Holy crap, everybody.  This movie is amazing.

Okay, here's the pitch.  A young programmer named Caleb works for the biggest software development company in the world (essentially their universe's equivalent of Google).  He wins a contest to spend a week at the compound of the secretive owner of the company.  He's flown out by helicopter or miles of untamed wilderness owned by this man until he's finally dropped off and told he'll have to walk the rest of the way.

Once at the compound, he meets Nathan, the young genius who created the biggest company in the world and is now working on something even bigger.  See, Nathan believes he might have just invented the world's first true artificial intelligence, and he needs someone to perform what's called a Turing Test to see if it's actually self-aware and could be described as being "human."  The AI is named Ava and exists in a feminine robot body, and Caleb's job is to spend the next week talking to her and figure out if she's, for lack of a better word, "alive."

If I say anything else, I'm starting to spoil the movie more than I already have (though most of the stuff up above is in the trailer), but I will say that what starts as two guys hanging out, drinking, and talking about what makes people "people" starts to take a dark twist.  Power fluctuations affect Nathan's compound every now and again.  Ava starts to hint that Nathan can't be trusted.   Nathan's assistant/servant, a young Asian woman who doesn't speak any English, shows up sometimes, but otherwise the primary cast are Nathan, Caleb, and Ava, all alone.

The movie hits a lot of notes of Frankenstein, as the weary creator of new life ponders just what he's done and what the consequences will be.  The two characters debate that if a computer is truly "alive" then how would it view humanity?  Would it want to help us or destroy us?  If Ava really is alive, has mankind already become the past and we're witnessing the birth of the most evolved life form on the planet?

There are long drawn out conversations with characters that are richly developed and interesting to talk to, with very little in the way of "action" or "excitement."  The atmosphere of the movie is thick with tension and suspense as Caleb starts to wonder what's true and what's a lie being told to him, including, at one point, his wondering if he, himself, is actually human at all.

I like a good suspense movie.  It doesn't even need to be a dark suspense movie, it could be something like 12 Angry Men where the room just starts to feel claustrophobic as the film progresses and the camera moves in, taking away space from the room.  This film builds suspense as good as almost any I've seen, where it starts with huge, open spaces and then starts to pull everything in tighter and tighter as you watch characters lose control of the environment around them.

The acting from every character is tight and believable, and the writing and directing from Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) is a great showing for a rookie director.

If I could move this post back to 2015, this movie would easily have made my "best of the year" list.  As it is right now, it's an early contender for the top of this year's list.  It's just that good, you guys.  Watch it.

1 comment:

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