Thursday, April 30, 2015
Nightmares won’t trouble you after watching the subtle but suspenseful science fiction fright flick “Ex Machina” (***1/2 out of ****) about a sentient robot with enough cunning to escape from its crafty creator. This cautionary futuristic fable about artificial intelligence dramatizes the quintessential question pondered by all classic robot movies: can man design a robot that is not only conscious of the world around it but also has awareness of itself? In his dazzling directorial debut, British novelist-turned-scripter Alex Garland refuses to pander to us with a spectacular “Star Wars” universe as a setting. Instead, he relies rather on the sheer simplicity of a condo lab facility nestled in the middle of a far-flung mountain paradise. This ultra-literate, atmosphere-laden chiller, with just enough full-frontal female nudity to earn an R-rating, occurs in the near future, not a decade down in the road but right around the corner. Although it is a foregone conclusion that the sagacious robot will triumph over her creator and break out of captivity, Garland’s staging of the action building up to the escape is just as hypnotic as his gifted cast with Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as the humans and Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno as the automatons. Sci-fi aficionados should know that Garland has disposed of Isaac Asimov’s three rules of robotics for this dystopian tale. At 107 minutes, “Ex Machina” amounts to a contemplative, indie-style, art film rather than an obnoxious Hollywood blockbuster. Mind you, “Ex Machina” boasts a wealth of computer-generated special effects, but nobody brandishes outlandish plasma pistols or ducks into a time machine. Watching this movie is comparable to being mesmerized by a beady-eyed rattlesnake in an immense glass jar and then wondering what will happen if you place your hand on the glass. Clearly, Garland has seen all the seminal robot movies, such as “Metropolis,” “The Forbidden Planet,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” “Short Circuit,” “I, Robot,” and “Her,” and he is familiar with the formula. Imagine a no-frills version of Steven Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence” (2001) transpiring largely in a laboratory setting with two human characters, one more sinister than the other, and you’ve got the gist of “Ex-Machina.”
Garland’s film unfolds with a brief prologue set in New York City. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson of “Unbroken”) is a nerdy, sandy-haired, 24-year old, Internet programmer who works for the global computer search engine company BlueBook. Comparatively, BlueBook dwarfs Google. Smith wins a company lottery to spend a week with his eccentric CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac of “Sucker Punch”), who lives alone in a secluded research facility. Suffering from a hopeless God complex, Nathan seems to be channeling Dr. Frankenstein. Indeed, he named his company after Frankenstein’s notebooks. He flies Caleb in by helicopter because his laboratory is basically inaccessible. One look at Nathan and you’ll know he is villainous. He sports a bushy beard but wears his hair shorn to the scalp in a gunpowder buzz-cut. Heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles straddle his nose, and he uses words like “cool” and “dude” to sound like a friendly, ordinary geek. We learn during the conversations between Nathan and Caleb that Nathan is a teenage progeny who wrote computer code at age thirteen and now owns the biggest search engine company in the world. Meantime, Nathan implores Caleb to treat him like a pal. Essentially, Nathan has summoned Caleb to participate in a “Turing” test, named after the real-life Alan Turing, the genius whose life was chronicled recently in the World War II movie “The Imitation Game.” Nathan has designed a truly sophisticated, female-gendered robot that he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander of “Son of a Gun”) and has even endowed her with appropriate genitalia. Nathan wants Caleb to determine if Ava is self aware or merely simulating self-awareness. Ava looks like no other android in cinematic history. She possesses soft, delicately-sculpted, distaff facial features with slender human hands, while the rest of her body consists of exposed wiring housed in a see-through mesh structure. Bits and pieces of the exposition from this epic make the story really compelling. For example, our mad scientist billionaire has drawn on thought patterns appropriated from data generated from computer search engines. Most search engine corporations content themselves strictly to monetize their information about what consumers want. On the other hand, our wily villain occupies himself with how people search for their needs rather than the needs and then he exploited this information to enable his robot to behave like a human.
Inevitably, the impressionable Caleb falls in love with Ava, while Nathan is monitoring their every move. He has surveillance cameras planted in every room so that he misses nothing. Ava wants so desperately to get away from Nathan’s laboratory that she turns Caleb against his boss. Eventually, Caleb learns that Ava qualifies as just another prototype in Nathan’s chain of robots. Indeed, Nathan reveals how he plans to download Ava’s brain into another newer version and scrap her memories. This seals Nathan’s fate as far as Caleb is concerned, and he decides to help Ava find her freedom. Before “Ex Machina” fades out, Caleb and Nathan are no longer friends, and Ava has acquired the upper hand, farther up than even her perceptive creator has imagined. Moreover, Ava has turned Nathan’s personal sex robot Kyoko against him; Kyoko enjoys the freedom to roam around Nathan’s research condo. When he isn’t satisfying his sexual urges with her, Nathan uses Kyoko as a personal servant. Most of “Ex Machina” involves apparently monotonous conversations between either Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava. Nevertheless, Garland insinuates enough fascinating dialogue into those exchanges to make them more than just loquacious chatter. The performances are robust, with Isaac and Vikander taking top honors respectively as the villainous Nathan and the deceptive Ava. Sonoya Mizuno deserves honorable mention as the mute robot Kyoko who surprises Nathan in the final quarter-hour. Don’t mistake “Ex Machina” for a run-of-the-mill female robot actioneer.