Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spring Sci-Fi Surprise: Ex Machina

     Anyone who has seen the British show Black Mirror knows how deftly the show balances tension and worry about a near-future where technology has evolved slightly past our grasp: its 7 episodes are weird, funny, scary and exciting. The recent Ex Machina, with it's futuristic AI plot, falls into the same niche: a story about the general anticipation and fear of technology gaining a consciousness. Directed by Alex Garland (making his feature film directing debut)--writer of modern horror classic 28 Days Later and the sci-fi film Sunshine--Ex Machina is the best film so far this year, a slow-burn of Artificial Intelligence and Turing Tests that is centered around three great performances from a few great young actors.

     It's best not to know too much about Ex Machina other than the basics: Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac, turning awesome acting into a common occurrence) the owner/creator of the world's greatest Internet search engine, BlueBook. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan and building a fine film resume of his own) works at BlueBook and wins a contest to meet CEO Bateman for one week, who lives far far out in the mountains in a futuristic estate full of luxurious technological advances, living like a hermit.When Caleb finally reaches the automated door of this modernistic mansion, he realizes that the contest that he "won" may be less a victory and more the most interesting week of his young life.

     The two Male performances are precisely what propels Ex Machina into the real of recent sci-fi greatness. Oscar Issac has been noticeable in two recent films: 2013's Bob Dylan-esque Inside Llewyn Davis and last year's A Most Violent Year. Both showcased his ability but were subdued. Ex Machina allows Issac to unleash his darker side, as he slowly reveals to Caleb his plans for his stay. Gleeson is also noteworthy as the nerdy Caleb, showcasing a solid arc of emotions as the week progresses. But it's not just men who make you sit up and watch: newcomer Alicia Vikander portrays a character named Ava with deft skill. It's Ava's situation that brings out the more thought-provoking ideas of the film

     Ex Machina is exciting, but it never veers too far into horror or thriller territory. It's more a slow-burn type of excitement, as Caleb continues to learn more and more about Bateman and the way he lives his life on his remote estate. Secrets are slowly revealed as the tension builds, and Nathan--the mega-rich recluse--begins to grow into a mad scientist rather than a gracious host. Ex Machina eventually delves into notions of Artificial Intelligence, human morality, and the responsibility of creating "life". Nathan's thrill of discovery is was drives him, manipulation his most common character trait.

      Director Alex Garland shows that screenwriting is only one of his skills. Ex Machina is slick and shot without distractions. The music/score is also stellar. If Ex Machina has a fault, it's the fact that it raises plenty of interesting moral questions but doesn't dig too deep into them: but when we're left with such great performances and an ever-building tension, even if the story doesn't break any new ground it's still infinitely watchable. So far, 2015 hasn't seen many films of note, but Ex Machina rises to the top, a film the general public and pimpled sci-fi nerds can all enjoy.     (A-)

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