Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In Theaters: EX MACHINA (2015)

(UK - 2015)

Written and directed by Alex Garland. Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson. (R, 107 mins)

It's easy to make surface comparisons to Caradog James' 2014 sci-fi film THE MACHINE, but Alex Garland's EX MACHINA, while sharing some similar ideas and, unfortunately, a focus on female android protagonists named Ava, goes in an otherwise completely different direction. A twisty, often philosophical mindbender, EX MACHINA marks the directing debut of novelist Garland, who's been a frequent Danny Boyle collaborator (he scripted 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, and his novel The Beach was adapted into a 2000 Boyle film by TRAINSPOTTING screenwriter John Hodge), and also wrote Pete Travis' instant cult classic DREDD (2012). Garland lays on the Kubrick worship a little thick, especially in the back end of the film, but he does it right, and the film's cold, clinical look, its long hallways, its recurring use of mirrors, and its limited number of protagonists in an isolated, claustrophobic location make it particularly indebted to THE SHINING. In conjunction with a throbbing electronic score co-written by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and the cinematography of Rob Hardy, EX MACHINA is one of those hypnotic films whose visual intoxication works on you quickly, but unlike many such instances, it's got the story to back up the style.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a code writer for Bluebook, a Google-meets-Facebook-like behemoth and the internet's most utilized search engine. He wins a company-wide contest to spend a week with reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a billionaire several times over who lives in a distant, subterranean fortress that doubles as his secret research facility. Nervous Caleb wonders why he's there and why he has to sign a confidentiality agreement, but Nathan soon reveals that he wants Nathan to administer the Turing Test--whether an artificial intelligence can engage in human behavior and make human decisions on its own--on an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). After several interview and observational sessions with Ava, an odd mutual attraction forms, and during periodic power blackouts that Nathan claims were caused by faulty installation but now has too much top-secret research to allow the electricians back in--during which time Nathan loses security camera access to what Ava and Caleb are talking about--Ava secretly warns Caleb "Do not trust Nathan. You can't believe anything he tells you."

Roles eventually shift in unpredictable ways, but as heavy-drinking Nathan becomes more erratic, Caleb grows more paranoid about his host's intentions, and Ava begins to exhibit more signs of intelligence and independent thought, the film definitely starts to resemble THE SHINING, with evil Nathan subbing in for Jack Torrance and Caleb and Ava functioning as Wendy and Danny. There's a fourth major character in Nathan's mute Japanese servant and sexual outlet Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn't understand English but clearly has secrets of her own and knows much more than she lets on. But little is at it seems in EX MACHINA, which doles out its plot twists in a restrained, organic fashion rather than ridiculous reveals that negate what's happened prior. Garland engages in some clever misdirection designed to make you think you've got things figured out in a "maybe Caleb isn't the one conducting the Turing Test" sort-of way, but ultimately, he isn't interested in going down that road. It's a near-flawless fusion of intelligent, hard sci-fi and rich, vivid atmosphere that just gets better and more intense as it goes along, though if it ended one scene before it did, it would've been flirting with perfection. All four stars are superb, with Isaac turning in another dynamic performance right on the heels of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Shot at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen, Norway, with the long hallway shots done at Pinewood Studios in London, EX MACHINA is a remarkable film, intelligently written, visually stunning, and with top-notch android CGI on Vikander, proving that CGI can look good, and doing so on just a $16 million budget.  It belongs on that short list of almost trance-inducing modern sci-fi cult classics like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, UNDER THE SKIN, and the little-seen THE MACHINE, which also deals with AI and a female android named Ava but in an entirely different, post-apocalyptic setting and, it should be noted, lacking an amazing Isaac-Mizuno dance scene.

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