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A critic once said that when you get down to it, there aren’t that many plotlines; after all, Frankenstein and Pygmalion are basically the same story.
This came to mind as I was watching Ex Machina, the new sci-fi drama written and directed by Alex Garland (who also wrote the very involving Never Let Me Go and the highly successful 28 Days Later…). For my money, what he’s done is basically combined both Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw’s seminal works into one narrative.
It’s intriguing. But for me, I also found it a bit slow, unfocused at times and, well, to be ruthlessly honest, more than a bit creepy in ways that may not have been intended.
The last is because the more I think about Ex Machina, the more it seems to me that what the movie is about is not what the movie is about. And what the movie is really about made me very uncomfortable.
The basic premise is that Caleb, a coder for the world’s largest internet company, is invited by Nathan, the company’s founder and owner, to come to his remote retreat. When Caleb arrives, he is introduced to Nathan’s attempt to create artificial intelligence, here named Ava, a beautiful woman whose inner workings can be seen in parts of her body.
Caleb is ostensibly there to see if Ava can pass the Turing test (if he can talk to Ava and not realize she’s an AI, then in true Henry Higgins manner, Nathan gets an A+, not Ava). But as time goes on, it seems that there is more to the visit than Nathan claimed as Ava shows more and more signs of independence and even elicits Caleb’s help in escaping.
Now, I know that, overall, one of the themes of the movie, perhaps even the central and intended one, is the old, if you can’t tell the difference between an AI and a human, then is there a difference. But there seemed to be something else going on here.
I found the movie to have a very unpleasant and even misogynistic attitude toward women. It’s not long before the audience realizes that Nathan is after something else (actually, one of the issues with the film is that Caleb seems to be quite slow on the uptake here).
In fact, Nathan doesn’t really need to have his AI pass a Turing test because it becomes very clear early on (through, Kyoko, Nathan’s Asian maid that he treats with utmost contempt) that Nathan’s already succeeded in creating an AI that can’t be told from a human.
So since the Turing test through line is dismissed almost immediately, what is Caleb there for?
Well, to be honest, I never was sure. I’m sure others might have an idea and it might be clear to my fellow audience members, but I was really never quite certain.
But what I found strange and creepy here is that we eventually discover that Nathan has created, not just Ava, but a series of AI’s. And that they have all been women. And that they have all been beautiful. And that they have all been capable of engaging in sexual intercourse.
But that at some point in their development, they fell short of Nathan’s ideal woman. They became so much their own person, they wanted to escape or to have nothing to do with their maker; they wanted to have autonomy. Even Kyoko is sullen and beaten down (she is treated the same way mail order brides are often treated by American husbands who want wives they can maintain absolute control over).
So in the end, he ends up destroying them, sometimes in very unnerving and ugly ways.
So, for me, Ex Machina is not about the creation of an AI, it’s about two men: the romantically and sexually inexperienced Caleb who is easily seduced by a femme fatale, and Nathan, the chauvinist who treats the female of the species with utter disdain. Ex Machina is about the male’s desire to control the female, and when they can’t, they destroy them.
After all, if his only intention was to create AI, he didn’t have to create only women and he didn’t have to create only beautiful women that he found sexual desirable. But this is what Nathan did and I found the implications as to why he did it to be…well, more than somewhat
I might not even have minded this so much, because there are such men in the world. But the reason why the movie doesn’t really work for me is that I’m not sure this was Garland’s intention, that this was actually his theme for his film. It may have been, but if so, it didn’t really come across for me that he was doing this on purpose.
In fact, I felt the movie was one of those kinds of films that tells us more than we would like to know about the filmmaker himself rather than tells us something about the characters on the screen. I’m not saying it is that sort of film, just that it felt that way.
In the end, how you feel about the movie overall might depend on how you feel about the characters and the actors who play them. Domhnall Gleeson, recently of Frank, plays Caleb and for me he didn’t really have that much of a presence on screen. And as I mentioned earlier, I felt that his character was a tad slow on the uptake here and there.
As for Oscar Isaac as Nathan, the moment Frank meets him working out, in hipster kickboxing mode and lumberjack chic beard, and the very second Nathan says “Dude”, I felt we were in trouble. Dudeness just never seemed a good fit for Isaac (though, does anyone really do dudeness like Jeff Bridges, as it is) and I never really found his performance convincing enough.
Ava is played by Alicia Vikander and she has the Sean Young/Blade Runner aloof sexiness that these sorts of parts usually have. She probably gives the best performance here.
But I also think the movie runs into trouble in the beginning when it becomes clear that Caleb isn’t there to test Ava and the plot gets lost since there doesn’t seem to be anything strong enough to replace that through line with.
In addition, the ending has all sorts of logic problems. Nathan’s home is a fortress of solitude with incredibly strict security regulations. Yet when Ava escapes and greets the helicopter that is there to take Caleb back to civilization, the pilot takes her away with no problem whatsoever, a plot turn I did not remotely believe.
And though there actually is something rather moving about Ava’s desire to be free and be her own entity, and one does have an emotional stake in the final moments, at the same time, all I could think of was, “Just how long does her battery last before it conks out”. Never during the story do we really get an idea as to her power source or how often it has to be replenished.
So her freedom may be moving, but I also know it’s incredibly short lived. But again, this seems to be a subject that the movie does not tackle.
I do have to hand it to Garland though in one area. He has created a movie that looks and feels somewhat big and even epic. At the same time, it’s actually very, very small, most of it taking place in one main location with only four central characters.
It is from that standpoint, very, very ingenious.
True Story, an inspired by true events film written by director Rupert Gold and David Kajganich, starts out in a very intriguing manner. Michael Finkel, a greatly admired journalist for the New York Times, fudges a few too many facts; instead of getting the Pulitzer he was expecting, he gets the sack instead.
Disgraced, he returns to his home in Montana, but can’t find anyone to take a chance on him again. But his fortunes change when Christian Longo, a man on the run from accusations of murdering his family, is apprehended actually using Finkel’s name.
This connection, in which there is no real connection, Finkel has no idea who Longo even is, gives Finkel a chance to return to glory. He gets a book deal to cover, Capote like, Longo’s trial.
So far so good.
But for me, from the very moment that Finkel meets Longo, the movie stops working. In fact, to be ruthlessly honest, I could almost never understand what everybody was trying to do, why they were acting or reacting the way they were, or often what all the fuss was about.
At one point, Longo lies to Finkel about his upcoming plea; when Finkel tells his publisher that the information he gave them at first is now incorrect, they become furious; all I could think is, why is everyone so upset—this only makes the story ten times more interesting.
At another point, an officer working for the prosecution asks Finkel to share his notes to make sure that Longo will be convicted. Finkel refuses, but based on what was dramatized in the movie, I had no idea what would be in those notes that would help or not help the prosecution in any way.
The nadir of the story has to be when Finkel’s girlfriend (The Theory of Everything’s Jane Hawking) visits Longo to tell him what a terrible person he is for what he is doing to Finkel. My problem was that I had no idea what she was talking about. Finkel at this point seemed pretty much to be the same Finkel he always was.
James Franco plays Longo and if you like Franco you’ll probably like him here. For me, he brings little to the part.
Jonah Hill plays Finkel and it’s a good roll for him. It is interesting to see Finkel at the beginning so full of himself you were salivating for the moment when the fall cometh after the pride. It’s hard to feel sorry for him, but at the same time, you actually do want him to find his way back.
I’m just not sure how all of this helped him find his way back. It’s a movie that screams character arc, but what that arc was, I’m really not sure.