Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ex Machina

Alternate Title:  PEBKAC

One sentence synopsis:     A young developer at a massive software company is invited by the company's reclusive CEO to participate in a Turing Test of his newly-developed AI robot.

Things Havoc liked:  So that was a pretty intense review last time, wasn't it, guys? What's say we take on something a little more relaxing and low-key? How about a weird, transhumanist sci-fi piece?

It's been a while since I saw a movie like this one, a movie whose intentions are decidedly non-standard and aimed at the existentialists among us, and whose ambition is to ask the Big Burning Questions and find highly debatable answers to them. I tend to be kind of lukewarm on this sort of fare, as it's a difficult balancing act to pull off. Too easily, movies turn into Transcendance or the Matrix sequels, bullshit luddite scare-story crap about how technology will ruin us all and science is evil. And Ex Machina's possession of the dreaded "universal critical acclaim" moniker, the one that has gotten me in so much trouble in the past, did not incline me originally to go and see it when it first came out. But several factors, including strong recommendations from real people whose opinions I trust, and the pedigree of the director, Alex Garland, better known as the screenwriter of 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine (all three of which are excellent films, even if it took me a year or so to recognize Dredd as one), finally convinced me that this time it was worth taking a shot. With a certain Dinosaur-related movie casting a rain shadow on the horizon, I wasn't exactly spoiled for choice.

After several years in which I didn't hear anything, all of a sudden I seem to be buried in Oscar Isaac. Early this year it was A Most Violent Year, a role entirely divorced from the last turn of his I'd seen in Suckerpunch, and now we find him here, playing Nathan Bateman, a Mark-Zuckerberg-style CEO/genius of a Google-analog search engine giant named Bluebook. Ensconced in his reclusive mountain hideaway (more on that later), he has managed to produce an AI of incredible complexity, incarnated in a somewhat human-looking robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He now seeks to test the robot's actual intelligence the only way he knows how, which is to have it undergo a Turing test administered by a randomly-selected employee from Bluebook, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). This basic concept underscores the entire film, albeit with increasingly strange intercessions from the insecurities and hidden agendas of all three of our protagonists, but serves as a compelling enough thread to hang the movie on. Isaac, whom I've been on record as praising the work of several times before, is just as good here as he was back in January, playing in this case a meat-headed, bro-ey super-techie, the sort of which abounds in Silicon Valley, I assure you. If he's not engaged in drinking himself into a blackout stupor, he's engaged in working out compulsively and being a giant DudeBro, a term which should require no translation if you think about it long enough. In between the slurred babble and the power lifting though, Isaac manages to easily get across the mad genius of the character, who obfuscates everything he's actually intending to do behind layers of comradely artifice, as well as the sociopathy inherent in anyone who would willingly construct a survival bunker in the middle of what appears to be the Yukon and there compulsively build and deconstruct robots by himself. This character would not have worked with a lesser actor behind it, but Isaac makes Bateman feel less like a contrived introvert than the natural consequences of mating a genius mind with an amoral god-complex CEO. Larry Ellison would be right at home with this guy, if he were smart enough.

The other half of the movie is anchored on Vikander's turn as Ava, and it's equally good, a performance that rides the line between an animatronic puppet and a calculating, thinking machine, dipping from one to the next periodically just to give the audience flashes of what might be going on beneath. Literally created to appeal to the guileless Caleb, she appears to know it, and confronts him, immediately, with questions as to whether or not Bateman is a reliable experiment-runner. The repeated question of what will happen to her if she doesn't pass the Turing Test, one which she brings up whenever she seems to feel it is safe to do so, is the occasion for one of the film's trippier (and more disturbing) sequences. By and large though, Vikander manages to portray a robot who, whatever your personal reaction to her might be (the filmmakers/Bateman clearly designed her with the uncanny valley in mind), always seems fully capable of the odd actions she takes, having established the character, initially, as one whose capacities are clearly deeper than anyone, including her is letting on.

As I said before, movies like this like to ask the Big Questions, and then have characters wrestle with them on-screen for the benefit of the audience. There's nothing wrong with this approach, particularly considering that the film sidesteps several elements that usually derail these sorts of movies, bypassing the inevitable "how did you do this" exposition dump with the clever conceit that the genius is sick of giving seminars and just wants to talk to someone. A lot of good metaphysical ground is covered here, with the movie quickly skipping past definitions and into philosophy, including the famous "Mary's Room" knowledge argument concerning qualia and the subjectivity of experience. One of the best sequences in the film in fact is when Bateman explains, not the means by which he created Ava, but the inspiration. The notion of a Search Engine as the model for consciousness and human experience makes a great deal of intrinsic sense when you stop and think about it, and the film posits several interesting suggestions both in the course of the discussions that Bateman and Caleb have, and via the slow revelation of the actual agendas of the characters involved. Consciousness is a difficult problem for philosophers even today, and the film at least acknowledges that this is not going to get any easier once we manage to make robots that are convincingly human. After all, the core problem with the Turing Test is that the best judges we have for evaluating them are humans.

Things Havoc disliked: I like a movie that knows what it's about, and doesn't mess around with frivolities, but there's a difference between a movie that cuts out the fat and a movie that cuts out the meat, and Ex Machina is quite unfortunately the latter case. I know that we're here to think about the philosophy and marvel at the metaphysics of it all, but all along, the grumpy old rational part of my brain kept chiming in with old-man arguments concerning that annoying little plot.

Remember what I said above, about a reclusive billionaire living in the Yukon and building AI-controlled robots? Does any element of that seem... I don't know... weird to you? I mean yes, Bateman's established quite well as a weird guy, but there's weird guys, and there's conceits that just make no sense. Bateman's private sanctuary is so far removed from civilization that it takes two hours in a helicopter just to get from the edges of his private estate to the center of it, which leads to inevitable questions concerning things like supplies. More importantly, he lives with no actual support staff, a servant named Kyoko is quickly revealed to be just another part of the experiment. Elementary precaution would seem to indicate that perhaps creating radical new forms of life is the sort of thing one might wish to do in a circumstance wherein there are faster means than Dogsled to reach you in case something goes terribly wrong. I'm aware that guys like Bateman or the other Silicon Valley demigods are more than capable of producing a God complex big enough to assume that they can personally take care of anything that goes wrong, but we the audience, as objective observers, are asked to accept that Bateman is a mad genius, orchestrating this entire thing for the benefit of his tests. That's hard to do when elementary mistakes that could lead to cataclysmic consequences seem littered about his setup. One of the worse is that he seems completely unable to master the seemingly random breakdowns in the compound's power systems that take place periodically, even though we've established that he is clearly the greatest mechanical and electrical engineer on the face of the planet. So incongruous is this that I, at least, assumed it was a plot point, to be revealed later on as "all part of the plan". Without spoiling too much, the movie seems to intend this to be the actual case, something mind-boggling to me, particularly given that we, the audience, figure out what the causes of these breakdowns are in very short order. I can't tell, at this juncture, if this is intended to be some commentary on the notion that Bateman isn't actually as smart as he thinks he is, or if the filmmakers actually thought that audiences would be kept in total suspense as to who was behind an unexplained phenomenon in a film with three characters, one of whom is incapable of producing that phenomenon, and the other of whom is trying to stop it. Indeed, the answers to this and other plot points were so obvious, that I, at least, out-thought myself in assuming that the film could not possibly be as simplistic as it was pretending to be, right up until it revealed that it was.

There's also the issue of the third of our three main characters, Caleb himself. Domhnall Gleeson is not an actor I know a great deal about, other than the fact that he's the son of the great Brandon Gleeson, whom I love dearly. But based on this performance, I'm not about to extend that love to the son. His character is simply all over the place, a confident, calculating, expert analyst in the sessions with Ava, who degenerates into a bumbling, overawed goofball in other sequences, before more or less going crazy and doing strange things for no reason. It's not entirely Gleeson's fault, mind you, that this all happens. About midway through the movie, the film has him undergo a personality shift so abrupt and involving actions so self-destructive that I was half-suspecting (overthinking again) that we were about to reveal some Blade Runner-esque twist wherein he was a robot all along. Nothing of the sort materializes of course, but it causes the movie to become very confused. You cannot make a film that is about grappling with deep metaphysical concepts like the nature of consciousness and the subjectivity of experience, and then turn around and also shoehorn in a plot about psychological obsession and madness. It's not that the movie gets overloaded, though it does, but that the very nature of a metaphysical argument requires that the participants be of reasonably sound mind for us, as the audience, to gain anything from their discussion. If we layer actual insanity (which appears to be what's happening here) on top of the metaphysics, then how are the conclusions to make any sense to those of us not suffering from total psychotic breaks with reality? Say what you will about the Matrix, they made the effort to make Neo into an everyman, a window whereby the audience could connect with the weird philosophical stuff on display. Without that window, there's no common experience to use as a bridge, which buries the movie's actual intended themes under a tangle of artifice and broken perspective. Artsy filmmakers may love that sort of thing. I don't.

Final thoughts:   Ex Machina is a good film, worth seeing in almost any context, interesting and engaging in its own unique way. It is not, however, a great film. It certainly aspires to greatness, as any good film should, but in its haste to get there, it did not sufficiently tie up the boring mechanics of plot and credulity and character development that are the bases for great films. It is also not the first movie I have seen to do this, as this sort of thing does tend to afflict high-concept sci-fi on the harder end of the spectrum, generally because a young, skillful, "visionary" director felt that this concept for the film was so far beyond the usual Hollywood fare that he needed to bring it to life, and could not be bothered to attend to the more boring parts of storytelling, so eager was he to produce something new. This is not really criticism on my part. New concepts do need to be nurtured and grown with care, often by directors and filmmakers with more enthusiasm and talent than mature judgment. But Ex Machina, for all its virtues, is not as revolutionary as it thinks it is, and certainly not revolutionary enough to excuse basic filmcraft mistakes as wide as these.

All that said, I don't want to leave everyone with the wrong impression here. Flawed though it undoubtedly is, there is something highly engaging about Ex Machina's simplistic structure and broad conceptual themes. They may not be completely revolutionary, but they are rare enough to be worth notice, and a chance to see good actors hashing these issues out is not one to be forsaken lightly. I am, after all, on record as having claimed more than once that a film does not need to be flawless to be a masterpiece, and that indeed, some masterpieces are better for the flaws contained within them. I wouldn't go so far with Ex Machina, necessarily, but it's a unique little film, and one worth checking out if high-concept is at all your thing.

As to Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson? They'll be appearing together once again in another little sci-fi film coming out later on this year. But we'll get to that one in good time...

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Time to go see giant, angry monsters killing people and rampaging across the screen uncontrollably, sending people screaming in every direction in their wake.

No, not the ones you're thinking of...

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...