Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sense and Sensibility

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY            A-                   
USA  Great Britain  (136 mi)  1995  d:  Ang Lee 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error and upon me proved,
     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

─William Shakespeare, Sonnett 116, Sonnet 116 - Shakespeare's Sonnets

Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director who acknowledged in interviews to having never read the Jane Austen novel upon which this is based, may seem like an odd choice to direct a British comedy of manners that is so thoroughly ensconced in early 19th century literature, as it’s his first film shot completely in English, as his first three efforts were shot in Mandarin Chinese, yet he proves to be a worthy choice, an ardent admirer of casting sweeping romance dramas in natural outdoor settings while retaining the poetic intimacy of complex personal relationships, so superbly rendered both here and a decade later in Brokeback Mountain (2005), while remaining an advocate of self-restraint, a character trait of the social period that is at the heart of the novel and film.  Lee visited museums and art galleries for visual ideas, turning to the British Romanticist landscape paintings of John Constable and J.M.W Turner, where cinematographer Michael Coulter matched the sweeping majesty of painterly compositions.  But like most British dramas, acting is the key ingredient, toned down here to match the atmospheric mood of strict social constraint.  Adapted by actress Emma Thompson, who spent five years writing and revising a screenplay, which eventually won her an Academy Award, she reshapes the novel by eliminating the narrator’s voice, which is largely that of Austen herself, while incorporating the author’s keen insights into the character of the elder sister, played, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Emma Thompson.  The film, as the title indicates mirrors the interior lives of the two oldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, who are ages 19 and 16 in the book, altered somewhat here to accommodate Thompson’s actual age of 36, while Winslet was 19.  Elinor’s elder status reflects a sensible and more reserved personality, perhaps past her marrying years, where she’s like a second mother looking after the interests of others, demonstrating a sense of duty, as she’s already assuming much of the responsibility when it comes to the behavior of the three sisters, also including a precocious young 13-year old Margaret (Emilie François), while the more indulgent and self-centered Marianne is allowed free expression of her feelings, completely at odds with her elder sister, both showing a strong intelligence, but Marianne accentuates her sensuous inclinations, singing songs at the piano, reading poetry, while openly expressing her opinions and exhibiting her love interests for all the world to see.  While they are decidedly different personalities, they couldn’t be closer, often confessing their secrets to one another or seen sleeping in the same bed.  It’s an open question whether one represents sense and the other sensibilities, or whether one triumphs over the other by the end, as the narrative pits the interest of both women’s lives happening simultaneously, each with their own romantic affairs, interweaving the interior drama through a series of unfolding events, much of which is expressed through letters.  While the book was published in 1811, the period in question is the last decade of the 18th century, where the girls had a sizeable means of support until the sudden death of the wealthy Henry Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) near the beginning of the story, where he makes his oldest son John (James Fleet), from his first marriage, promise to look after the financial interests of his second wife, Lady Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her three daughters.  While he most assuredly makes a deathbed promise, his odious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) ultimately persuades him otherwise, offering them an annual stipend, undermining their position socially and financially, as they are forced to live below the means they have been accustomed to living.  Suddenly unwelcome in her own home at Norland Park, uprooted even from their bedrooms, Lady Dashwood is soon looking elsewhere for a new place of residence.  The Austen novel highlights the precarious position women found themselves in the 19th century, where a sudden shift in financial circumstances could lead to dire straits, completely altering one’s destiny.  Accordingly, women had no status except through marriage, where pressure was placed upon single women to marry into society.  Quickly moving into the household is Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a quietly sensitive, overly shy and unassuming man (with almost no lines, so always appears ill at ease) who has received the best education, but in keeping with the times has no designs of immediate employment.  This idea that wealth is not earned but inherited through the firstborn male heir is discussed at some length, even in conversation between Elinor and Edward, where the options and restrictions are even more suffocating for women.

Elinor Dashwood:  You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever.
Edward Ferrars:  Our circumstances are therefore precisely the same.
Elinor Dashwood:  Except that you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.

Lady Dashwood delays her plans, as Elinor quickly develops an attachment to Edward, where the two seem happy and well-suited, which Fanny soon notices and voices her disapproval, interrupting any time they spend together, eventually sending him away to London to prevent anything further from developing, an act that literally crushes Elinor’s spirit, but she refuses to show any emotion, especially to the spiteful Fanny, who naturally assumes the interest is motivated only by money rather than love.  This is a perfect example of Fanny’s narrow-minded crudeness, which stands in stark contrast to the more free-spirited lives of the Dashwood sisters, who were largely moved by Edward’s affection shown to young Margaret, winning her heart in the process as well, where she has a hard time dealing with his absence.  This generates a pattern of mysteriously absent men and the more accessible women, where the men are viewed almost as fantasy figures, gallant, elegant, and dashing, like the handsome prince in the fairy tales, where they remain somewhat sketchy and out of the action, often figuring into the humor of the occasion, while the women are more fully realized characters.  Unlike men, social standing is attained only through marriage, where there’s an unwritten, underlying desire to marry these women off to the best possible suitor, where prospective men are often judged like livestock at a county fair.  In this manner, the bloom of their youth is easily the most impressive aspect of the film, where they are expected to lose themselves to the wonders of nature, where their intelligence and charm couldn’t be more appealing.  However, the film doesn’t really get going until Marianne comes of age.  Her introduction, however, is on the amusing side, as we see her playing a depressing song on the piano soon after the death of her father, where Elinor asks her to kindly play something a little less depressing, so she breaks into an even more depressing dirge, a wonderful way to establish character without uttering a single word.  At the urging of a distant cousin, Lady Dashwood moves her family to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, where the quaint home lacks many of the conveniences, much fewer servants, but they are welcomed by Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), almost always seen accompanied by a brood of hounds, and introduced into society by his loquacious mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs), a women abounding in rumor and local gossip, whose social currency is hearsay, having the privilege of spreading it often and with great pleasure, as if this is her greatest joy, constantly making public innuendos about the available Dashwood women, which is seen as much as an act of friendship as a constant irritant throughout.  Into their lives walks Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a friend and comrade of Sir John during the British military escapade into India, arriving by horseback as Marianne can be heard singing at the piano, where he’s immediately smitten by her.  Marianne, however, is not at all pleased, despite the matchmaking intervention by Mrs. Jennings, as he’s more than twice her age, an honorable man of wealth and reputation where the formality of his noble conduct appears overly rigid.  It doesn’t stop him from bringing flowers, however, where his perfect diction and pronunciation is legendary, initially used as comic relief, appearing and disappearing from the frame, often at full gallop, always excusing himself from her presence, as it’s clear he hasn’t her full attention.  When Marianne and Margaret go running through the hillside in one of the more wondrous outdoor scenes, they get caught in a downpour of rain where Marianne slips and turns her ankle.  Who should arrive, cutting a dashing figure on his white horse, like some kind of apparition, but the debonair John Willoughby (Greg Wise, who was having an affair with Thompson during the shooting and eventually married), a neighbor who sees the accident and carries her in his arms back to the safety of her home.  Marianne’s rush of elation can’t be contained, where despite Colonel Brandon’s best efforts, they are all for naught, as she only has eyes for Willoughby.

The ensuing romance takes place in public view, where neither hides their enthusiasm at seeing one another, where they laugh and giggle with delight in each other’s company, distraught during temporary absences, literally pining away the lost moments until the exuberance returns when they can be together again, sharing common interests in poetry, music, art, and love.  Austen highlights the erotic aspect of Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship, which contrasts strongly with Elinor and Edward’s reserved relationship, where Elinor warns her sister about flaunting their affair so openly.  Marianne, however, insists that’s the beauty of love, surrendering to it in all its glory, continually feeling overwhelmed by the indescribable joy and passion it brings.  Her euphoria reaches a peak at the moment she believes a proposal is coming, but instead Willoughby’s family is sending him off to London on business, expected to be gone indefinitely.  Unprepared for the about face, Marianne is completely distraught, retreating to her room in tears where she remains inconsolable and the entire household may as well be in a state of mourning.  Even Edward pays a visit, but appears nervously standoffish, uncomfortably ill at ease, exiting almost as soon as he arrives, leaving Elinor to surmise the visit was one of pity and sense of duty rather than any genuine interest, where she’s forced to submerge her feelings once again.  Making matters worse, two of the Middleton relatives arrive on the scene, Charlotte Palmer (Imelda Staunton), an uneducated blabbermouth whose enthusiasm for gossip rivals that of her mother Mrs. Jennings, while her ever dour husband (Hugh Laurie) detests every lame thought coming out of her head, where their picture of marriage is one of utter disaster, and also a cousin Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), who inadvertently reveals to Elinor in strict confidence that she’s been having a secret four-year engagement to Edward Ferrars, dishing out the lurid details every moment they’re together, talking her ear off revealing personal secrets, where Elinor begins to understand Edward’s reticence during the last visit, but is overwhelmed by the disastrous consequences of a possible future literally pulled out from under her.  With both Dashwood sisters down on their luck, leave it to Mrs. Jennings to revive some of the lost magic, inviting Elinor and Marianne to London where she’ll stir the pot of fate once again.  As Marianne unleashes her hopes at seeing Willoughby once again, Elinor couldn’t be more guarded and reserved, lost in a resigned acceptance of what has transpired.  Despite a flurry of letters from Marianne that go unanswered, the parties meet at an extravagant social ball where Marianne’s unbridled enthusiasm is met with a cold dismissal, leaving her devastated to find Willoughby with another woman.  While the sisters console one another about their lost loves, Elinor finally has someone to share her sense of outright exasperation, though Marianne is shocked to learn that her seemingly levelheaded sister has been as emotionally blindsided and traumatized as she has, but never showed even a hint of despair, impressing her immensely.  Colonel Brandon fills in the salacious details about Willoughby’s fall from grace, forced to marry for money instead of love, while Edward is disinherited after his refusal to break off his engagement with Lucy, believing it is the only honorable thing to do.  Out of gentlemanly respect, Brandon offers Edward a living under the protection of a church parsonage.  Still wallowing in her emotional despair, Marianne is once again caught wandering out in the rain, where it is the older Colonel Brandon who must harrowingly carry her for miles back to safety, falling gravely ill with pneumonia, where she’s literally at death’s door, nursed back to health by a patient and obliging Colonel Brandon, finally gaining his due.  Edward visits as well, revealing Lucy left him for his brother Robert (Richard Lumsden) and his ample inheritance, leaving his heart free to pursue Elinor, who is so taken aback she falls into a state of complete shock, unleashing her long pent-up emotions in a gusher of tears.  Once again, the two sisters are cared for, united in love and marriage, with Willoughby on his white steed looking on enviously from the nearby hillside wondering what could have been.   

Friday, May 29, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD                B+               
Great Britain  USA  (119 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Thomas Vinterberg             Official site

Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", by Thomas Gray, 1751 (excerpt)

An epic and sweeping romantic story of long-repressed love, based on the 19th century Thomas Hardy novel set in the Victorian period of the 1870’s, his fourth and first successful novel, listed at #10 in a 2007 Guardian poll (Emily Brontë hits the heights in poll to find greatest love story) of the greatest love stories of all time, which follows the exploits of a feisty, determined, and extremely independent woman, Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, initially seen confidently riding a horse galloping through the English countryside of rural Dorset, supposedly 200 miles from London, where the idyllic pastoral beauty of south and southwest England is described in the book as Wessex, based on the real locations of the author’s birthplace but given a somewhat fictionalized and dreamlike embellishment.  Hard to believe this is the same director whose “vow of chastity” forsook the indulgences of special effects, musical scores, props or sets, special lighting, post-production modifications and other technical wizardry as one of the original founders of the short-lived Dogme 95 movement, the maker of THE CELEBRATION (FESTEN) (1998), one of a small cadre of artists insisting upon naturalism, accentuating the artistry of the performers instead of the influence of the studio.  While authenticity was the goal then, this film has all the Hollywood grandeur and style of big budget spectacles made during the height of the studio era, though made for a fraction of the cost.  Nonetheless, the look of the film is spellbinding, all shot on actual 35 mm film (and it shows!), beautifully captured by the luminous and vividly textured cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who also shot Vinterberg’s previous film The Hunt (Jagten) (2012).  As Hardy’s most pastoral novel, a good portion of the book consists of detailed descriptions of the landscape and farming techniques, expressed in the movie through the visuals of green rolling hills and an attachment to the land that is everpresent throughout, paying homage to Dovzhenko’s EARTH (1930) with utterly spectacular shots of peasants working in the fields, yet captured here in glorious color, where the painterly images of harvest scenes are perhaps only exceeded by Terrence Malick’s gloriously filmed masterpiece DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).  While adapting Jane Austen novels may be the preferred pre-Victorian author to grace the cinema screens, usually given a more modernist, feminist perspective, Thomas Hardy has hardly been shortchanged, as Michael Winterbottom’s JUDE (1996), an ultra bleak adaptation of Hardy’s final 1896 novel Jude the Obscure, starring a hauntingly beautiful 20-year old Kate Winslet, remains one of the extraordinary romantic tragedies on record.  Hardy novels don’t typically result in upbeat, feelgood movies, as it’s clear Victorian women had fewer choices, so those that actually made the best of their limited options were seen as stronger and more aggressive, making excellent role models for the women of today, and while this may not have the awesome visual power of Roman Polanski’s TESS (1979), whose majestic agricultural scenes are also compared to Malick ("Girl, interrupted; Roman Polanski's Tess (1979)"), Mulligan’s fiercely winning performance is far more likely to produce smiles rather than tears. 

Without providing any backdrop for the story, Bathsheba is educated, self-aware, and essentially a modern young woman living on her own with her aunt, having a chance meeting with a neighboring sheep farmer, the introverted, muscular, and hardworking Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is taken by her somewhat out-of-character, bold and proudly defiant manner.  They develop a quick friendship, where he makes a surprisingly blunt proposal of marriage, claiming the farm he leases could easily become their home.  While flattered, she’s afraid to give up her independence, something she values more than a husband.  The winds of change offer each of them a unique twist of fate, where Bathsheba inherits a mammoth estate in Weatherbury from her uncle, one of the largest farms in the region, making her instantly wealthy, while in a dreamlike sequence a crazed and inexperienced sheep dog drives Gabriel’s sheep over a high cliff, a scene made especially dramatic over the rugged coastline of the Golden Cap, killing them all while leaving him penniless.  Traveling the roads, looking for a job, he comes upon a blazing fire in the night, where he immediately pitches in and actually saves the barn almost singlehandedly by daringly putting out the fire on the roof.  In the aftermath, when asking the owner for a job, he’s surprised to learn it’s Bathsheba, their positions now reversed.  She hires him as the foreman in charge, while she is almost never seen again without her own trusted maidservant Liddy (Jessica Barden), from whom she learns all the latest gossip and news.  Together they form a female alliance against a bartering monopoly of men, who customarily do all the buying and selling of crops along with the various necessities, including her neighboring landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous farmer who is proud and aloof and likely more than twice her age.  Despite this difference, he is smitten by her playful and zestful charm, stirring emotions he felt were altogether lost.  Offering to combine their estates through marriage, she views it more as a business decision than a matter of the heart, stringing him along while she seeks better offers, which arrives on her doorstep in the form of a gallant soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), who fits the bill as a dashing Prince Charming.  While Gabriel sees through the young man’s veneer and warns Bathsheba not to get too interested, she’s aroused by his charm and masculinity, and perhaps his scarlet red uniform, which he displays in an erotic display of swordsmanship.  Knowing little to nothing about him, she loses all self control and finds herself lost in her sudden euphoria, marrying him on the spot, an impulsive act she lives to regret, discovering the pain and humiliation of realizing she can’t control the repulsive actions of others, as Troy quickly leaves her in debt with excessive drinking and gambling problems.  When a woman from his past suddenly reappears, but just as quickly dies in childbirth while carrying Troy’s child, he shuns his new wife, brazenly telling her “This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be.”

When her husband puts an end to his misery, leaving his uniform onshore and swimming out as far as the fates would have him, his death is considered no loss to anyone.  Boldwood renews his interest in pursuing Bathsheba, willing to pay off all her husband’s debts, even agreeing to allow Gabriel to run both farms, as his closeness to Bathsheba is evident, loyal, overprotective, always looking out for her interests, usually expressed in furtive glances, where they are likely the subject of scandalous rumor that Boldwood is too remote from hearing.  After a particularly successful harvest, the entire staff has a dinner party, celebrating with drink and song, where Boldwood unexpectedly drops in, hoping for an answer, while Bathsheba is persuaded to perform a song, singing Let No Man steal Your Thyme - Carey Mulligan (From "Far ... YouTube (2:57), a traditional British and Irish folksong that lyrically warns young people of the risks and dangers of taking false lovers.  While promising him nothing, Boldwood is emboldened, feeling the time is right, that she will finally accept his offer.  Making all the necessary arrangements, he holds a lavish Christmas Eve party sure that he will win her heart, but Bathsheba feels even more suffocated, prematurely walking out of the party when she suddenly encounters her husband, not dead after all, but drunk, broke, and in a ragged state, rudely ordering her about, grabbing her arm, claiming her as his property, causing her to scream in fright.  Boldwood shoots him dead on the spot, just as Gabriel had earlier shot his deranged sheep dog.  Spared the death penalty, calling it a crime of passion, he’s nonetheless imprisoned and out of her life forever.  Despite her best intentions, she realizes she has an impact on the lives of others, even unintentionally.  While she’s initially seen as carefree and irresponsible, seduced by her own ideas of freedom, but later becomes more ruthlessly aloof, deluded by her own power, caught up in a battle of wills, completely unaware of the suffering she brings others, who are themselves consumed by thoughts of her that amount to little more than male fantasy, often languishing for years in a state of emotional paralysis, waiting for the right opportunity that never comes.  Using Craig Armstrong’s musical score to capture emotions that the characters themselves are unable to express, Bathsheba utters one of the most eloquent lines late in the film, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”  Much of this picture reveals the gulf that lies between the words that are never spoken, the hopes, the desires, the repressed dreams, and the unintended consequences that often haunt people to their graves, all shown in a choreography of body language and facial expressions.  The Victorian era did not allow straightforward honesty, as people were defined by their class status and social standing, where thoughts were expressed through the power of suggestion.  While the lower classes could speak freely amongst themselves, it was considered impudent to speak frankly and openly to one’s employer, unable to cross the class barrier, where it was required to hold one’s tongue.  Is it really any different today?  The social divide between Bathsheba and Gabriel effects every conversation they ever have, becoming an insurmountable obstacle throughout most of the film, a long-suffering open wound that can only bleed and fester, but concealed and out of sight from everyone else.  It was a private world one lived in, lost in their own reveries and rhapsodic thoughts, where any thoughts of reaching a connecting understanding is more of a mirage that rarely intrudes into their actual lives.  The liberating, feminist sentiment is provided by our own, modern day vantage point, knowing full well that even under today’s more open circumstances, true communication is a lost art, where people continue to drown in their own repressed and often agonizing sorrows and regrets, unable to change those few haunting and fateful moments that seem to forever define our lives.   

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ex Machina

EX MACHINA                      B+                  
Great Britain  (108 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Alex Garland     Official Facebook                              

As the author of The Beach, a 1996 cult novel that became a motion picture, also the writer of Danny Boyle’s highly inventive zombie thriller 28 DAYS LATER…(2002), the futuristic space adventure SUNSHINE (2007), but also the sci-fi box office disaster DREDD (2012), all depictions of humans on the brink of survival, often expressed through a bleak, post-apocalyptic vision where scientific progress imprisons and dehumanizes people as much as it liberates them and expands their potential, Alex Garland’s first venture into writing and directing has led him surprisingly to an A-list of actors to work with.  Exploring the idea of an early era of artificial intelligence, the film raises ethical questions about the rights of sentient androids created under a corporate banner that for all practical purposes “owns” them, capable of making modifications and updates, perhaps against the expressed wishes of the creatures themselves who have no say in the matter, but are completely owned and controlled by their creators, despite having feelings and a will of their own, in the process questioning our own idea of humanity, where the real monster is man and not the machine.  In a sense, this is a bit like the John Hughes teen comedy WEIRD SCIENCE (1985) where a couple of nerdy social misfits astoundingly create an ideal dream woman from their computers, one that supposedly meets their idea of perfection, where in each case, it’s hard for these men not to fall uncontrollably in love with their invention, modeling them, after all, to serve their every need.  Scarlett Johansson played a sexy computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) using just her voice, programmed to sound warm and compassionate, but that didn’t stop Joaquin Phoenix from falling in love with his computer.  This is a variation on that male fantasy, where what happens, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that these artificial creatures have a mind of their own, separate and distinct from their creators, as expressed by the dying and about to expire replicants in Blade Runner (1982), but also the ever expanding mental capacities of Johansson’s artificial intelligence, who never sleeps, by the way, demonstrating she’s capable of maintaining multiple relationships at once, each one more complex than the next in search of higher forms of consciousness, literally leaving humans behind on their evolutionary trajectory.  While the androids have a desperate desire to save themselves, even to get in touch with their own soul, if that’s possible, humans are still bogged down in relatively minor details, at the dawn of a new age of scientific invention, with little comprehension about playing God or crossing any real moral boundaries.  To the film’s credit, it doesn’t minimize any of these issues, a throwback to Fritz Lang’s science-fiction classic METROPOLIS (1927), which featured an erotic female robot that drove men wild with passion, eventually instilling chaos in contemporary society, a cautionary tale about the crushing power of modern industrial life where the presence of a robot created in a heavily stylized human form was a jarring experience.  This film is modeled in that image, but on a much smaller scale in a more intimate setting, concentrating on a secret introductory project of unleashing artificial intelligence into the world while still in the early experimental stages.  While the title refers to a plot device known as “deus ex machina,” which literally means “god from the machine,” where an object magically solves an impossible problem in the narrative, the origin comes from Greek tragedy where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage, often with mythological implications, a perfect example being Icarus flying too close to the sun, with this invention in the film being described as Promethean, literally bringing something from the gods down to earth, for which they will pay an eternal price.      

Something of a reinvention of Mary Shelley’s early 19th century Frankenstein story, perhaps the essence of the film is how complex thought is wrapped in such simplicity and sleek elegance, where the reliance upon such technical detail never feels over the viewer’s head, but is presented in a highly appealing manner set in one of the most extraordinary locations on earth.  From the outset we are introduced to a relatively low-ranking computer programmer in a large corporation, Caleb Smith, played by Domhnall Gleeson from Calvary (2014) and 2014 Top Ten List #10 Frank , also Shadow Dancer (2012), and before that an earlier Garland script NEVER LET ME GO (2010), which was actually written before the Kazuo Ishiguro novel upon which it was based was even published.  Caleb works for Bluebook, the world’s largest Internet search engine, where he’s been selected as the lottery prize-winner among company staff to win a week in an undisclosed remote location in Alaska with the company’s founder and CEO, Nathan Bateman, Oscar Isaac from A Most Violent Year (2014) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2012), the reclusive billionaire genius who wrote the code that launched his career success when he was only 13, retreating to the wilds of Alaska and has barely been seen or heard from since.  Flying by helicopter over mountainous terrain (actually shot in Norway), Caleb is surprised to discover it’s all Nathan’s land they’ve been traversing for the past two hours, dropping him off in the middle of an open field where he’ll be retrieved exactly one week later.  Following a river to an opulent, ultra-modern architectural dream home that is fully automated, installed with the latest hi-tech security systems, with Schubert and Bach playing on his sound system and Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt paintings hanging on his walls, blending uniquely into its natural surroundings with wall-sized glass windows, while also serving as his own private research facility, Nathan lives a solitary life attended to only by the enigmatic presence of silent house maid named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who supposedly doesn’t speak English.  The reason for Caleb’s visit, where he was actually chosen for being the most talented coder in the company, is to evaluate a female robot Nathan designed with artificial intelligence, giving her the Turing test, designed by British genius Alan Turing from The Imitation Game (2014), where his job will be to determine if the android is indistinguishable from a human being, calling the experiment, somewhat modestly, “the greatest scientific event in the history of man.”   Named Ava, Alicia Vikander from Pure (Till det som är vackert)  (2009) and A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) (2012), she utilizes her ballerina training by the gracefully fluid and agile manner in which she moves, while also being coy, impassive, and shyly demure, bringing a tender humanity to the character, where it’s often easy to forget she is playing a machine.  Whether in METROPOLIS or a recent film like Under the Skin (2013), for a hundred years the futuristic, science fiction element has allowed women to be viewed as an unknowable, alien presence.  Both emboldened by the opportunity, each daily visit holds a certain amount of suspense, because they are infrequent and limited in scope, each one entitled “Ava: Session 1,” etc.  She is, of course, surprised to see him, as she’s never seen anyone but Nathan before.  Thrown into the mix are blackout periods at the compound when the power inexplicably turns off, whereupon all doors are immediately locked until power can be resumed a short period afterwards, where Garland bathes the screen in a red light, creating a chilling atmospheric mood of dread and suspense.  During these blackouts, Nathan has no access to the sessions that he otherwise observes and records, where Ava uses one of these moments to warn Caleb not to trust Nathan, describing him as dangerous.  Isaac plays him as a larger-than-life character with secret motives, a mad genius hiding his real intentions as he controls everything within the confines of his home, overseeing all, playing God, so to speak, where despite his friendly hospitality and outwardly gregarious nature, both Caleb and Ava see themselves as little more than lab rats within his locked compound.    

In keeping with the futuristic aspects of the story, one of the keys to the film is the ultra-modernistic setting combined with such a cold, abstract interior design, adding a formal precision that just happens to be the Juvet Landscape Hotel, The Hotel - Juvet, an utterly spectacular Norwegian hotel that is one of the architectural wonders of the world, with a minimalistic, state-of-the-art design that continually exposes the majestic splendor of the unspoiled naturalistic world outdoors.  This extraordinary partition of a separate indoor and outdoor existence couldn’t be more pronounced, a mirror image of their own existence, where Caleb is shocked to discover Kyoko is an earlier test product, where she curiously seems programmed to provide Nathan with whatever he wants, something of a sex toy, an expression of male arrogance and ego, leading to creepy thoughts that become even more disgusting when he’s willing to share her with Caleb, but the unseen parallel story is a rat in a maze that can never escape captivity, as neither Ava nor Kyoko have ever been outside or allowed to leave their perpetual confinement of living behind glass walls.  Caleb naturally begins to feel empathy for their plight, believing they’re being mistreated, as underneath their robotic perfection, doing and saying all the things they have been programmed to do, they are deathly afraid of Nathan.  During another blackout that she has actually learned to create, Ava reveals her underlying fears of what might happen to her if she fails to pass the test, as she might be switched off for an upgrade.  Caleb begins questioning his own existence, wondering if he’s being programmed by Nathan as well, where Isaac and Vikander are both truly remarkable in the scope of their performances, conveying secret worlds of untapped motives and possibilities that remain hidden beneath the surface, challenging the audience to identify with a computer-programmed robot.  Who’s to say one is better than or inferior from another?  They are simply placed in different circumstances, where the story revolves around the lives of the three main characters, and to a smaller degree the fourth, where the brilliance of the film is that it reveals the Turing test for what it is, a test of the humans and not the machine.  Even Nathan envisions a future where the humans will be at the mercy of the machines, who will be so much faster and smarter, able to self-repair and live without sleep, illness, or aging, where they can literally live forever.  This understanding, however, leads to his security fears and overcontrolling nature, where he continues to tinker with what he’s created, where he feels introducing A.I. robots is an inevitable part of the human condition, that if he didn’t create them then someone else would.  It’s a fascinating balance of power between the main participants, constantly fluctuating in each scene, becoming a story of deceit, obsession, and manipulation, where the director himself never gives away his true intentions, which keeps the viewer off guard, where the less one knows, the better the experience.  The familiar aspect of these stories is attributing human traits to computers, where they are not simply content to serve humans any more than Scarlett Johansson is in Her, or your pet dog would be, as there’s simply more to a happy and fulfilling life.  Exploring human consciousness through a science fiction narrative has always held a certain mysterious intrigue both in literature and film, where Vikander’s beguiling beauty as Ava has an undeniable femme fatale appeal, complete with all the noirish trappings, where you might get sucked down the proverbial rabbit hole if you’re not careful.  The darkening mood throughout is unsettling and eventually disturbing, veering into horror territory, where the expanse of Nathan’s secret hideaway and the suffocating confinement within is an extension of his own flawed character, beautifully filmed by Rob Hardy, while the throbbing musical score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow underscores the enveloping claustrophobia, where the subject being explored is the mystery of the human condition, equally baffling whether seen through a computer or a human vantage point, where by the end they are seamlessly blended into one.     

To his credit, Garland enlisted Murray Shanahan (Home - Professor Murray Shanahan), Professor of Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College London, and writer and geneticist Adam Rutherford as science advisers.  Paul Smith interviews Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak from The Australian Financial Review Weekend, March 24, 2015, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on the Apple Watch ...:
“Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Mr Wozniak said.

He said he had long dismissed the ideas of writers like Raymond Kurzweil, who have warned that rapid increases in technology will mean machine intelligence will outstrip human understanding or capability within the next 30 years.  However Mr Wozniak said he had come to recognise that the predictions were coming true, and that computing that perfectly mimicked or attained human consciousness would become a dangerous reality.

“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people.  If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,” Mr Wozniak said.

“Will we be the gods?  Will we be the family pets?  Or will we be ants that get stepped on?  I don’t know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I’m going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I’m going to treat my own pet dog really nice.”