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SCI-FI SHORT ENDS: ROBOTS, HEROES AND MOVIE DREAMS


With the leap from Siri to Samantha, the seductive and increasingly sentient computer program heard (but never seen) in Spike Jonze’s Her, seeming more surmountable with each new iteration of the iPhone, it seems only a matter of time before we find ourselves staring into the eyes of a replicant, looking for that tell-tale metallic glint, and being unable to scan the difference between man and robot. Ex Machina, the directorial debut of science fiction screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Dredd), faces up to this future conundrum with a surfeit of cool style, razor-laced comedy and an escalating, eerily apt paranoia regarding the seductive powers of the ghost in the machine.

Computer coding expert Caleb (the increasingly ubiquitous, thankfully appealing Domhnall Gleeson) is recruited by his boss, billionaire egomaniac Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, bald, with an eccentric, comically bottom-heavy beard), to join him for a week at Bateman’s ominously high-tech compound in the woods and participate in a very special experiment. Nathan wants Caleb to interview his newest project, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a curvy, curious, intelligent robot with a transparent torso and limbs which reveal her inner mechanics, to see if Ava’s artificially constructed mind can pass for that of a human. Nathan is confident that it can—after all, he’s used his Google-esque search engine empire to hack into every cell phone and computer search pattern on Earth to form a pervasive study of human (that is, chaotic, imperfect, random) behavior on which to base her brain. 

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Garland simulates the scientific remove of Caleb’s initial intent—we’re in there with him, trying to locate blips of logic, inconsistencies of intuition, keeping a transparent separation between us and the subject. But Caleb’s logical defenses begin to break down, and so do ours. He begins to betray empathy for Ava, and the two of them begin to form a bond of trust. Through a brilliant cocktail of physical grace and emotional tentativeness, Vikander suggests with wit and precision the “reality” of a machine who can and must be convincing as a human being. We want to believe, as badly as Caleb apparently does, that Ava can, has somehow transcended her origins.

So when the movie takes a turn from the coolly clinical, and the strangely humorous, toward the more familiar darkened hallways of melodrama, most definitely in the realm of tech noir, it feels natural and inevitable, not a devolution. Garland’s Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, gave up the ghost on its own compelling premise in favor of more routine monster movie antics. But Ex Machina stays true to the implications of its title as well as the questions it asks about what we accept as real and readable in human nature. And even better, Garland’s style, while serious, is never dour. He knows the fun that can be had posing potentially chilling questions of technologically enhanced humanity, and in Ex Machina that fun seems anything but artificial.

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Ex Machina is science fiction in the tradition of Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, even Crichton, that is, it is a story which means to examine the state of the human condition by positing a fantastic, plausibly scientific scenario and exploiting it for all it’s worth. On the other end of the spectrum, Lana and Andy Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending belongs squarely to the “tradition” of what the term “science fiction” has come to mean in the post-George Lucas world— gorgeously elaborate CGI worlds populated with all manner of eye-popping creatures, faux political structures, societies and mythologies, all with their own laborious and muddled back stories, onto which the flimsiest stories of coming-of-age and rebellion can be projected.

All the explaining in Jupiter Ascending about who is doing what, and why they’re doing it, and what world they come from, had me tuning out almost from the beginning. It’s another Matrix-esque fable in which the wool is pulled from the eyes of a potential savior. But instead of Keanu Reeves in a cool black overcoat dodging death in bullet time, here we get a strangely passive and bland Mila Kunis as a Russian housekeeper who finds out she’s the target of forces from another world that want to prevent her from fulfilling her identity as the reincarnated queen of one of those beautifully nonsensical interstellar kingdoms that seem so plentiful in movies like this. (Kunis’ performance definitely raises questions of whether or not she has been replaced by a robot, a prototype leeched of all the zesty appeal of its human model, but unfortunately no one’s asking the question in this movie.) 

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She gets the word of her imminent royalty from half man-half wolf Channing Tatum, who rescues her from certain doom in the movie’s one technically thrilling bit of business, a battle amongst the skyscrapers of Chicago. (These battles never take place over rural America, the destruction of barns and three-story industrial structures being less photogenic). It’s a terrific sequence, moment to moment, but it makes no sense even as you’re “oohing” and “aahing” over it, and it ends with Tatum’s explanation of how the city will be reconstructed after the fight is over and how the citizenry of the Windy City will be made to somehow forget it ever happened, a storytelling afterthought of the most insulting sort.

Things only get dicier off-planet. It seems Kunis is the target of a political power play between three spoiled siblings of the Abrasax clan who mean to use her as a means of consolidating their dominance over the movie’s known industrial universe. Two of them are garden-variety British-inflected decadents (Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton) who practically ooze evil through their placid, polite facades. But reigning Best Actor Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, well, he’s playing a whole different game. I’m only partially convinced I have any idea of what Redmayne thought he was up to in this movie– his Balem Abrasax is a petulant mama’s boy who is so entitled and deadened by (Life? Privilege? The actor’s whim?) that he can barely raise his voice above an uninflected whisper. But when he does raise his voice, see, IT’S REALLY SCARY!!!! 

Redmayne gets points for genuine oddity, I suppose, but after a while he just looks bored, the world at his fingertips, barely able to muster a wrist flick of dismissal, and after a while Balem’s/Redmayne’s indifference, however feigned, begins to stand in for that of the directors. I was and still am a huge fan of the Wachowski’s brilliant, game-changing Speed Racer. But despite the occasionally inventive visual effect, there’s little to none of that movie’s radical visual invention on display in Jupiter Ascending, only more of the routine CGI razzle-dazzle that has rendered the revelation of worlds beyond Earth in the blockbuster action movie aesthetic less and less genuinely impressive with each go-around. It’s a shame, because the Wachowskis are smart, out-of-the-box thinkers who make big, chewy pop epics, like the first Matrix, Speed Racer and even the unjustly maligned Cloud Atlas. However, Jupiter Ascending finds the Wachowskis slumming—it’s not as bad as you may have heard, but it is the first movie they’ve made that feels rote, disinterested. Maybe it’s time for them to remember the funkier pleasures of their breakout hit Bound and come back to Earth.

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Just a thought: Is it not interesting that, as the “Marvel Universe” reveals a certain sameness from movie to movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron being but the latest example, its television tributaries feel almost like antidotes to the typical Marvel block-blusteriness? Agent Carter, the Captain America spin-off which aired earlier this year on ABC, centered on Hayley Atwell’s indomitable Peggy Carter and her adventures battling sexism in the office of the Strategic Scientific Reserve and the emerging evil influence of the mysterious Leviathan organization. The show embraced the retro design of Captain America: The First Avenger and was a great showcase for Atwell’s comedic chops and credibility as an ass-kicker in her own right. And now Daredevil, which expands well beyond the ineptitude of the 2003 Ben Affleck movie, reveals itself to be much more grimly and deliberately noir-influenced than any other superhero story in the Marvel canon. I’m only three episodes in (the entire season is available now on Netflix Streaming), but I am mightily impressed with the series’ patient set-up, the presence of Charlie Cox (Stardust, The Theory of Everything) as blind lawyer-avenging angel Matt Murdock, and the feature-quality filmmaking on display so far. (Episode two ended with a single-take fight scene taking place in a claustrophobic hallway that was more arresting that just about any action sequence I’ve seen on TV or in a theater this year.) My advice: seek it out and binge it.      

One last piece of advice: take a look at this gorgeous piece of work from writer Greg Ferrara, a free-associative video essay called Frames of Reference. Ferrara ties in a multitude of cinematic moments and allusions with this work in a way that makes the history of film feel like a breathless illusion, something intuitively interconnected and designed, ethereal, collectively understood. Traces of movies here flow together like a trance you never want to wake up from, maybe the dream an AI like Ava might have with the whole of cinema shuffled and at the disposal of her artificially constructed mind. Frames of Reference is a seven-minute reminder of how the movies can so effortlessly seduce us. Go ahead– press play and dream

(Thanks to Greg, of course, and to Richard Harland Smith for reminding me about Frames of Reference this a.m. with my morning coffee.)