Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Ex Machina" brings Frankenstein to the Modern Day

Years ago, I reviewed Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, and said that while I could not honestly say anything about the quality of the movie other than how excellently-made it was, I could not recommend it. Despite how wonderful a storyteller Spielberg is, I believed he was asking his audience to do something that I found to not only be impossible, but also immoral - to presume that Man can artificially replicate human emotion. In my review of that film, I explained how I firmly believe that, despite the scientific wonders of which Mankind is capable, there are some things that are beyond science, things such love and pain. I always find myself hindered when watching any story about “robots” interacting with humans, as it seems to me that almost without fail, the story is asking me to feel some sort of sympathy for the robot/artificial construct in question, and I can’t feel sympathy for such a construct any more than I could feel sympathy for a toaster, or a hedge trimmer, or my cell phone. No matter what task or action it performs, or how it seems to display some human reaction, nothing will change the fact that IT IS NOT REAL.

Thus, the dilemma I faced when watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina recently ("Ex Machina" being derived from the old literary device "Deux ex Machina," literally "God from the Machine," meaning some unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation). We, the audience, are represented by young Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lower- to mid-level programmer at a mammoth search engine company (called “BlueBook,” but who are we kidding? It’s Google) who is selected, seemingly at random, to visit the mountain retreat/estate/laboratory of the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs) for a week. While there, he is to administer a Turing Test to an artificial intelligence construct Nathan has created, a female-shaped robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

What’s a “Turing Test,” you ask? It’s a scenario in which a computer or some other construct interacts with a human to a degree that the human is unable to determine that the computer is not human. Nathan is so firm in the belief that he has created what amounts to a new life form that he even tells Caleb straight up that Ava is artificial, confident that even with that knowledge, Caleb will come to accept her as indistinguishable from human. 

Nathan is portrayed as an almost total megalomaniac, freely admitting using his Google-like search engine database illegally as raw data for constructing his artificial intelligence. As if his desire to “become God” (his words) wasn’t evidence enough, his regaling Caleb with the young man’s fantasy of a bachelor pad stocked with alcohol, unlimited WiFi, a weight room and a silent, leggy Asian servant girl should seal the deal for you. He lectures Caleb on how his creation is not only wonderful, but is the next logical step in evolution, explaining how attraction and sexuality can be reduced to mere ones and zeros and programmed into a construct, resulting in reactions indistinguishable from “natural.” 

Garland’s clever screenplay is essentially a three-character stage play, with the majority of the film taking place in one location with the three speaking characters (and a non-speaking one). Over the course of the week Caleb is present, Nathan passive-aggressively steers Caleb into developing an emotional connection to Ava (well, perhaps not even all that passively). He watches the interview sessions between Caleb and Ava via video monitors, sessions during which, strangely, Caleb is the one sealed in a locked enclosure, not Ava. We already know Nathan is playing Caleb and Ava off one another, attempting to engender sympathy in each for the other, but during almost regular power outages, Ava begins trying to get Caleb to aid her in escaping her creator. Garland keeps us wondering whether it is Nathan playing Caleb off Ava, or if it’s Ava playing him off Nathan, or if both possibilities are true. 

I say that Caleb is the only sympathetic character in this movie, but perhaps I should be more specific and say that he is the only HUMAN character for whom to feel sympathy. The vibe of the scenes between Caleb and Ava are obviously to evoke feeling for the robotic construct, such that Caleb will deceive Nathan and help the machine “escape,” but I again remind the reader that I can’t fall for that trap. If anything, I found myself amazed at how someone as supposedly intelligent as Caleb, someone specifically trained in computer science and the application/manipulation of data, could so quickly fall in “love” with something showing its wires. While I imagine his fate at the end of the film was supposed to engender a different reaction from me, I couldn’t help but feel that the dum-dum sorta asked for it.

Alex Garland has written some very good science fiction movies, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, just to name a couple, and I reiterate that this screenplay makes for a fascinating, engrossing story. This movie being his directing debut, he shows some skill in guiding the three actors playing the lead roles, as they are all wonderful in conveying innocence, insanity and awareness, respectively.  

Oh, there are discussions galore to be had about the subtexts and undertones in this film - Nathan’s God-complex, the sexism in his conscious decision to make all of his constructs in the female form and have them serve him, Ava’s ultimate fate and the coming of the Technological Singularity, etc. I won’t delve into those, however, in an effort to keep this essay a reasonable length. I will say that I honestly don’t know if my inability to enjoy this movie will make me the exception or the rule. I can see how some may find it thoroughly enjoyable. I imagine lots of people, Sci-Fi fans and not-so-much fans, will find Ex Machina something to generate lots of deep thought afterwards. 

However, my intellect and my Faith prevent me from following stories such as this one to the emotional places I believe their tellers wish me to go. This may very well just be some personality flaw that only affects me and prevents me from enjoying such entertainment, and perhaps might not affect any other viewer at all. As Popeye so famously said, however, “I yam what I yam,” so I cannot in good conscience proclaim Ex Machina to be an enjoyable film. A well-made one, without question, and one that can I can admire, but not enjoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The (Gorgeous, but Empty-headed) Man From U.N.C.L.E.

There are times when I go to a movie knowing it will be something akin to dating a supermodel - it’ll look fantastic, but there really won’t be all that much beneath the surface.  Sure, we all want things in which we invest time and money to have deeper qualities than mere beauty, but who in his (or her) right mind would turn down the chance to look at Kate Upton for a couple of hours? It’s not like you’re committing your life to her, and Hell, there might even be a few laughs involved.
That allegory can more often than not be used to try to describe Guy Ritchie’s movies.  None of his films will ever take a place alongside other landmark pieces of cinema, but they’re pretty much all lovely to look at, and (with the exception of Swept Away, of course) can be pretty darn entertaining.  His Sherlock Holmes reboots from a few years back may have been rather soulless, but they sure looked good, and thankfully had two leading actors with great chemistry to provide witty banter that provided enough entertainment to gloss over the story’s flaws.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. follows this trend to the letter.
The movie (it really should be “MEN From U.N.C.L.E., shouldn’t it?) is, of course, a retread of the television series from the 1960s, and regrettably one that I have never-not-once had the opportunity to see.  It capitalized on the James Bond/Cold War-spy genre that was duplicated and ripped off by so many movie and television productions of the day, and made stars of Robert Vaughan and David McCallum.  Thankfully, this reincarnation avoids the trope of "updating" the source material and leaves the story set in the Cold War-60s and follows the joint CIA/KGB team of Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer) as they meet, team up, and attempt to prevent a criminal organization from producing an atomic bomb. They romp around East Berlin.  They romp around Rome.  They romp around the evil super-villain’s island lair.  They save the world.  Simple.  How complicated a plot do you really need? 
What makes Man From U.N.C.L.E. enjoyable is Ritchie’s obvious love for the style and look of early-60s cinema, which is glaringly obvious throughout the movie.  First and foremost, the muted colors and rainbow lens-flares, evoking the beginnings of the time when the majority of movies, not just the occasional spectacle picture, would be made in color.  The clipped dialogue spoken by the characters, the location shooting, and those oversized, yellow subtitles all harken back to the heyday of Fellini and Antonioni.  The music he uses throughout, the European pop of the day and Daniel Pemberton’s score, are great undertones to both the action and the scenes bridging the action. Ritchie’s editing pace is something of a trademark of his, as well, and he keeps this movie moving along at almost breakneck speed, never allowing the audience to linger on anything long enough to realize it may be missing something. Ritchie’s technical skills make this movie pleasant to watch, despite its shortcomings, which sadly are primarily found in the two things for which people primarily watch movies - the story and the actors.
Ritchie and his producer Lionel Wigram wrote the screenplay, and it oh-so-very much could’ve used another pass or two from a more competent screenwriter. Sure, the plot doesn’t NEED to be overly complicated, but I kept waiting for something that wasn’t stereotypical Our Man Flint-type stuff to happen, and it never did.  Even the villain’s ultimate fate was so underwhelming that I found myself expecting her to pop back up before the credits rolled, but no, that was actually her end…
Cavill plays Napoleon Solo as Chris Parnell played James Bond in Saturday Night Live skits, with all the lower jaw-jutting, smug smile-wearing, lady-killer strutting arrogance you would expect from someone making light of Sean Connery in his glory days.  Hammer doesn’t do all that much better, spitting out his something-akin-to-Russian accent with a bit more “Moose and Squirrel” than one can forgive, and the supposed sparks he shares with Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the East German defector they have along for the ride, cannot be taken seriously.  Vikander is the trio’s saving grace, being the only one seemingly having a real experience, and not one right out of a “Bullwinkle” cartoon.  Hugh Grant, as the British Intelligence operative who will become the team’s supervisor, is also great in his limited screen time, but when is Hugh Grant NOT fun to watch?
The overall effect of all this is to leave one with the impression Guy Ritchie merely staged a spy-themed GQ photo shoot, which is not in and of itself a bad thing.  As stated earlier, looking at pretty things can be entertaining.  Seeing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may even leave you with the same feeling you might have if you were ever so fortunate as to have that chance to date a supermodel - you may very well come to the end of it knowing you enjoyed it, and that it was beautiful, but you sure can’t remember a thing it had to say.