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.”

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