Film reviews: Ex_Machina | A Most Violent Year

Domhnall Gleeson in Ex_Machina. Picture: Contributed
Domhnall Gleeson in Ex_Machina. Picture: Contributed
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ALEX Garland’s sci-fi thriller raises intriguing questions about online privacy, artificial intelligence and robot romance

Ex_Machina (15)

Directed by: Alex Garland

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno

Star rating: * * * *

Since writing his mega-selling novel The Beach, Alex Garland has specialised in scripting provocative genre fare for the big screen. 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd proved he had a knack for layering big ideas into blockbuster scenarios, be they horror, sci-fi or comic book in origin. His adaptation of Never Let Me Go, meanwhile, transposed Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle meditation on the dystopian implications of scientific inquiry into a moving exploration of its effect on the victims of progress. For his directorial debut, Ex_Machina, Garland combines both impulses, creating an intriguingly stripped-down sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence that’s fully attuned to its more blockbuster elements yet pleasingly cerebral at the same time.

It begins with Domhnall Gleeson’s coder, Caleb, hunched over a screen as he participates in a contest for employees of Bluebook, a next-level, Google-style search engine run by a mysterious billionaire called Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The prize is a chance to spend a week with Nathan, working on a top-secret project, something Caleb all-too-readily accepts when he wins and is rushed off to Nathan’s mountain retreat in the Alaskan wilderness. Nathan’s home is kind of a modernist spin on a Bond villain’s lair, all wood, chrome and glass on the surface, but ominously bunker-like on the inside – like a luxury hotel for the apocalypse.

The reason for the latter, Nathan tells Caleb, is that his home is really a research compound, a place designed to keep prying eyes out. The moment Caleb signs his fat non-disclosure agreement he discovers why: Nathan’s developing next generation AI and wants Caleb to perform a “Turing” test on his latest creation, Ava, to determine whether she’s a sentient machine. The test, developed from the work of Alan Turing (whose life was given the biopic treatment in current Oscar nominee The Imitation Game), is designed to determine whether a machine is capable of exhibiting behaviour indistinguishable from humans. Garland, however, smartly ups the stakes, presenting Ava (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) in her partially “naked” robot form with deft use of CGI making it impossible to forget her mechanical origins. Her torso is a mass of circuitry encased in translucent gel-like substances, her neck is little more than a conduit for tubes and wires, and the chrome dome that comprises the back of her head has the amorphous glow of the electronic brain encased within it. Yet even partially skinned, she has a lithe, attractive figure, and her face – that of Vikander’s – is supermodel beautiful, but in a non-threatening way. Caleb is hooked the moment he sees her.

It’s part of the film’s thematic design, however, that Caleb’s chemical reaction to Ava may not be entirely accidental. At a time when the data mining of giant tech companies is becoming ever more intrusive, Garland homes in on the anxiety this loss of virtual privacy is creating by imagining a simple yet provocative usage for the information we’re unthinkingly giving away every time we go online. Nathan, a former child genius who created the framework for Bluebook when he was 13, has been harnessing the data to create Ava’s mind and what follows is an intriguing three-hander as Caleb starts to doubt the integrity of Nathan’s work and begins fearing for Ava’s safety, unsure of whether he should believe Nathan’s warnings that Ava has her own agenda.

Garland isn’t covering territory that’s new to cinema here. From Metropolis through 2001, Blade Runner and the Terminator and Matrix movies, filmmakers have long grappled with robots in conflict with their human creators. And in the last year alone, Transcendence, Her and Lucy have all explored the arrival of the Singularity, the so-called moment when sentient machines will evolve beyond us humans. Nevertheless, Garland has come up with something arresting: a film that plays almost like a Planet Of The Apes prequel with chips instead of chimps. And he’s put an interesting female slant on it too, with the egotistical Nathan and the idealistic Caleb flipsides of the same patriarchal problem: one trying to play god, the other desperate to play the prescribed role of the hero, but both blind to Ava’s complexity and capacity for independent thought and action.

Isaac, Gleeson and especially Vikander do good work in teasing out the philosophical implications of Garland’s script and Garland proves a fine director too, in possession of an elegant visual style that enhances his ideas rather than getting in the way of them. Frequently shooting through the glass of a computer screen or via the numerous surveillance cameras lining Nathan’s compound, he may intensify Caleb’s increasing paranoia, yet in giving us a machine’s eye view of the world he’s also subtly making it easier to empathise with Ava, harking back to Mary Shelley to remind us that technology isn’t the monster, we are.

A Most Violent Year

Directed by: JC Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

Star rating: * * * *

A Most Violent Year begins with a slew of crime statistics to justify the title: New York in 1981 was, we’re informed, the period in which the Big Apple was at its most rotten. That fact provides the context for lawlessness coursing through JC Chandor’s gripping crime drama about a not-quite-legit businessman’s risky attempt to build an empire at the very moment the city is crumbling.

Intent on capitalising on lowered property values, heating oil mogul Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has put together a complex deal to vertically integrate his business. Unfortunately for him, the financing is shaky, his drivers are being assaulted, and his product is being stolen in broad daylight. Abel’s a smart guy, and while his associate (Albert Brooks) wants him to start arming his drivers, Abel doesn’t want to get his hands dirty in that way, knowing full-well that violence begets violence, and crime leads to more crime.

Having married into the criminal underworld, he certainly understands its allure, but he also wants to get his own family away from it, even if his wife (Jessica Chastain) is more sanguine about the benefits of her gangster father’s connections – or perhaps just more realistic about the crossover between big business and criminality.

Structured like and old-fashioned gangster drama and shot with the seriousness of purpose of a Sidney Lumet film, A Most Violent Year pays tribute to movies past in its look, tone and action, but Chandor’s perspective keeps it fresh by treating Abel’s story almost as a spiritual prequel to his brilliant financial crisis thriller Margin Call. Money and the thirst for power can’t help but corrupt, no matter how good one’s original intentions. A Most Violent Year understands that, which is why it’s ultimately not just another a story about a criminal trying to go straight. This is a film about the degree to which criminality as a whole can be legitimised. As such, it’s a far more timely and provocative film than its period setting suggests.

Beyond Clueless (15)

Directed by: Charlie Lyne

Star rating: * * * *

As hinted at by the title, this documentary about the American teen movie goes beyond the established canon of sentimentally anointed classics, barely giving Clueless or the movies of John Hughes a mention. Instead it fashions a new canon, using extended meditations on the likes of The Craft, Idle Hands, The Girl Next Door, Final Destination and dozens more to present an audacious, eye-opening look at the many tropes of this much maligned genre and exposing its myriad (and hitherto hidden) complexities along the way. Narrated with sultry intelligence by Fairuza Balk (star of The Craft), sly deconstructions of, say, the homoerotic longing in Euro Trip or the anti-feminist agenda of 13 Going on 30 are woven into a cogent thesis detailing the various stages teens must move through as they negotiate the clique-ridden corridors of high school and the hormonally charged nightmare of adolescence.

Written, directed and edited by 20-something film blogger and critic Charlie Lyne, it’s an auspicious debut, a wry but serious and passionate cine-essay, reminiscent of Thom Anderson’s seminal documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself in both its style and the alternative spotlight it shines on a side of cinema we tend to take for granted.

The Gambler (15)

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Starring: Mark Wahlberg,

Brie Larson, John Goodman

Star rating: * * *

It’s hard to tell if Mark Wahlberg is miscast or perfectly cast in this remake of the 1974 James Caan thriller. As a literature professor whose all-or-nothing approach to life makes his gambling habit a limb-threatening liability, Wahlberg is just preposterous enough to sell us on the vagaries of a plot that veers from illegal casinos to inappropriate romantic encounters to high-minded discussions about Shakespeare and Camus.

Where the original had gritty authenticity thanks to Caan’s ability to play tough guy and smart guy, plus screenwriter James Toback’s autobiographical understanding of the world he’d created (he was a compulsive gambler and city college lecturer before writing it), the new film is much slicker and much less concerned with plausibility.

Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett, is a professor in an Ivy League school and has one great-ish American novel to his name, the respectable success of which has convinced him he doesn’t have what it takes to be the literary genius he’d hoped to be. Instead, he parades around his lecture theatre, jumping on tables and teaching his class to give up or be great, a bridge-burning career strategy that’s in synch with his nihilism but not the reality of his chosen profession.

At the gambling dens he frequents he squanders money he doesn’t have, insulting his creditors and alienating his wealthy family by borrowing big to bet big, instead of paying off those he owes. In debt more than $200,000, and unconcerned with the effect this may have on his well-being, he’s happy to give crime kingpin Mr Lee (Alvin Ing) and gangster Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) the run around. Or at least, he is until they threaten to extract his debt from Bennett’s mother (Jessica Lange) and the cute student (Brie Larson) with whom he’s entered into an inappropriate relationship.

All of which might be grounds to up the threat and tension, particularly as Bennett seeks out the money and counsel of a ruthless loan shark (John Goodman). Instead, Wyatt plays the film more as a goof, which suits Wahlberg as he struts around acting like he has nothing to lose. In a film with zero depth, playing a rich asshole appears to come naturally to him.