Ex Machina ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac
Written and directed by: Alex Garland
Apart from the occasionally palatable scientist (Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes to mind), the field of technology and science finds communicating their astounding results with the public a difficult task. Most of us can’t be bothered to leaf through the latest MIT Review or Popular Science to discover what brilliant people are creating or are on the verge of creating. As a result, it seems as though the public consumes the possible future through mediums such as film and television. Luckily for us, we’re occasionally fed these messages through the skilled lenses of Steven Spielberg (A.I.) and Spike Jonze (Her), or through the enchanting voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her). Ex Machina is one of those films, that doesn’t give up halfway through on its’ sci-fi senses just to blow things up. It’s the best type of work in this genre- a cinematic work that takes a thought and has a conversation with the audience before, during, and after the film.
Director Alex Garland, the writer of such science fiction fables as 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, handles his first directorial charge with the hand of an old pro. As the title implies, the film deals in gods and monsters, and is never swift to identify which is which. The subtlety Garland and the cast play between beauty and menace results in a truly mesmerizing, smart fable for our time- well, for all time. The film is science fiction embodied, chock full of questions, precisely in the manner I prefer to digest it. As it wades in both the shallow waters of our societal and moral atmospheres, whilst simultaneously toeing the line between tension and horror, it stands as 2015’s best thus far.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a company called ‘Bluebook’. We come to him as he’s just won an exclusive trip to meet the company’s founder and stay with him for a week. I imagine that would be like a Microsoft programmer spending a week with Bill Gates, whether that individual would want to or not. The fictional ‘Bluebook’, the world’s preeminent search engine, was created by a mysterious, reclusive genius (is there any other) named Nathan (Isaac). By now, we know the type; disconnected, awkward, wealthy beyond our imaginations, and lonely. Nathan is indeed that, it appears, and wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a “female” android named Ava (Vikander).
We know that Ava is a robot because we can see her metal innards, exposed gears, coverings and all. If we were unable to see her interact with Caleb, however, would we be able to tell whether or not she was human? That’s his dilemma, and a striking one at that. As the audience, we’re given their dalliances like acts of a play, each separate in nature, each building upon the previous one in terms of depth, understanding, and tension level. Caleb is increasingly affected by her pleasantness, curiosity, and insight, leading to emotions he can’t quite understand, including affection for her as a female. He begins to wonder what has transpired in this compound. Has Nathan, the creator, abused her? Does he keep her prisoner for any particular reason other than his own insecurities and misgivings? Does Nathan understand the responsibility of creating an intelligence, only to then repress its’ growth?
Caleb’s task, per Nathan, is simply to gauge whether or not Ava can pass for human, but it becomes clear early on that it will not, and cannot, be that simple. From their first chat until the film’s final moment, everything Ava says and does is unpredictable, just like the film itself. Will she be child-like? Will she be motivated to evolve? Will she see humans as a threat? If she does, will she use brute force, or maybe even manipulation, to achieve that goal? Does Nathan have a “kill” switch in the event of an emergency? Why does Ava not appear to be programmed with a template of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? Is there a reason the film doesn’t touch on them? Is everything that Ava says and does simply a result of programming, or has she actually transcended what she was intended to be? I hope you can tell that just by watching, the film inspires a number of interesting and difficult questions and thoughts. Garland writes this in a way that plays on our wonder of scientific possibility as well as our inherent fears of robots and the future. We can’t help but question what happens and what doesn’t happen during the film, creating a specific feeling of tension akin to horror. The film’s location, in an isolated, constricting compound in the mountains that can only be reached via helicopter, only adds to the feeling of impending doom. The film’s color palate adds to the feeling as well- the foggy, almost smoky wash when the camera is on a human, then clean and clear when focusing on an artificial being. Whether or not it was intentional, it certainly adds a dimension and a contrast to the film.
Another subtly horrific thought is the care, or lack thereof, in which each character handles the balance of life or death. We see Nathan throwing it around, not entirely concerned for the well-being of the things he hath wrought. We see Caleb doubt himself, to the point of questioning his role in the world, and his actual existence. In one breath, Ava seems to innocently understand the delicate balance of life, and in the next, it appears that she may not care in spite of her understanding. In essence, this is what humans may not be prepared for- giving life and an abundance of knowledge to a being, without taking the responsibility for what emotions they may encounter, the real fear they develop, and the results of such things. Thus, should we never attempt create it, as we do lack the comprehension to guide it? It is quite the sensation to watch and know that Ava is a machine, while simultaneously knowing that she may be more than a human.
I should take a moment to praise the performances here as well. All three leads are just simply outstanding. Gleeson is the perfect choice for Caleb, for we already buy him as a sweet, naive programmer, and then he expands on the role to include a darker side. Isaac, is, well, Oscar Isaac. His piercing intellect and gaze make him truly believable as a genius, and his awkward attempts to be a ‘regular guy’ with Caleb are perfect. He just isn’t a regular guy- he’s a reclusive genius, no matter how hard he tries not to be. Well, he’s also one of the top two or three actors working today, which may explain how wonderful the character is. Vikander, previously unbeknownst to me, is the real revelation here. One might assume that as a robot/android, there might be a limited range to display, but she is able to convey such optimism, such intrigue, and such menace with what amounts to just a facial performance. Her longing to see and do more is not a far cry from any Pinocchio story we’ve seen before, but it may be the most honest portrayal.
There exists the slightest hint that Garland made this material accessible as opposed to trusting the audience to digest an advanced plot about artificial intelligence, but I accept that. I’m also fascinated with Garland’s continued interest in the constructs of society, and how theoretical situations affect human beings in his work. In Sunshine, he sees an interesting dynamic within the pressures of saving humanity and our human natures. In 28 Days Later, he again puts human nature to the test in the wake of an apocalypse. Ex Machina is yet another test of our theoretical resolve, and I for one don’t believe his result is far from the theoretical truth. As he put it himself, this film is designed to emulate a future not too far from now, maybe ‘ten minutes out’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reclusive “Nathan” currently holed up somewhere with his own “Ava”. For all we know, there may be robots walking among us. Maybe Garland knows this to be true. It is clear to me that he should continue telling stories, and continue to generate what all excellent science fiction does- questions. This is a film that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker.
Jupiter Ascending ** (out of 5)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy
Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski
History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t. Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film. It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.
Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past. This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’. His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen. Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts. Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role. Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.
It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however. The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her. Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way. If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’. Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense. What is his problem, really? If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth? Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?
Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth). Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife. Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right? Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth. This ‘harvest’ I speak of? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity. Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful. The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.
Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will. Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here. They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however. When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself. I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus. Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film? Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film? Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema? Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired? Maybe he had little to inspire him? Likely.
Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great. The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing. The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received. At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity. I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities. I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction. After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.
“Edge of Tomorrow” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, & John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay), based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Directed by: Doug Liman
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Gamers around the world, rejoice. The gaming culture has so permeated pop culture that a summer tent pole is calling itself a ‘science fiction’ film to mask what it actually is- a video game masquerading as a movie. Never before have I seen anything that so closely parallels the video game experience like “Edge of Tomorrow”. Even the poster, with the appropriate tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat” perfectly encapsulates the maddeningly disposable experience and challenge of completing a video game. Does that mean the film is maddeningly disposable and challenging ? Not necessarily- this is a very self-aware, fun film, with major action set pieces that have been wonderfully constructed. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this film is in any way a science fiction milestone, or a bastion of ‘new’ material. It is what it is, and by that measure, accomplishes everything it sets out to be.
Tom Cruise stars as Major Tom Cruise (not a typo), a man with a pretend title for the United Defense Force (or something futuristic), as he has no interest in being a part of the ‘battle’ he is promoting. His character is the familiar used car salesman behind the scenes of war, convincing the wealthy to write checks or buy war bonds, but never holding a rifle. In a twist of fate, the general of the United Defense Force, Hamish from “Braveheart” (Brendan Gleeson), wants him to actually be a part of the battle against a race of nasty fluorescent alien octopi. After all, he needs every able-bodied person he can find. His strategy is like many military leaders before him- with great quantity comes great victory. We know better as a trained film audience- the front lines are the sacrificial lambs, for which Tom Cruise is designated.
We also know as an audience that you can’t send Tom Cruise to the front lines, but General Hamish has not seen his movies. Therefore, he sends Tom Cruise into battle, under the charge of Master Sergeant Bill Paxton and a rag-tag bunch of misfits. He’s cursed at, made fun of, all of the things you wouldn’t expect to happen to Tom Cruise. He is completely unfit for battle, but they throw him out there anyway, and he’s promptly annihilated by the enemy (more on them later). The twist? Despite his apparent death, he wakes up in the same spot, handcuffed and brought to attention by Master Sergeant Bill Paxton.
Have we seen this film before? Certainly- it’s basically the same trick used by “Groundhog Day”, and it’s wonderful. “Edge of Tomorrow” replaces Puxatawney, PA with the sandy beaches of France, and the sounds of Sonny & Cher with the barking of a drill sergeant. Understand that this is not on purpose- this isn’t literally a re-envisioning of the Bill Murray classic, it just plays similarly. I understood the idea of making Bill Murray’s character replay the same day over and over, but here, I’m confused. The alien enemy (straight out of a ‘Metroid’ game), has ‘fused’ with Tom Cruise’s mind as a result of their “goo” mixing with his “goo”, causing him to repeat back to the same moment in front of the drill sergeant.
Why that particular moment? We’re supposed to accept this without explanation or reason, but I’m neither sold on the logic, nor do I appreciate the lack of science behind the logic. If they’re able to repeat a certain period of time, how much? What are their limits? Why do they have limits? Why not just repeat the entire war? These are questions a science fiction film would explore to create a further understanding, but this is not a science fiction film.
Again, that’s ok- for as I stated earlier, “Edge of Tomorrow” is simply a great deal of fun. Tom Cruise even allows his Tom Cruise character to be out-Tom Cruise’d by Emily Blunt, who stars opposite him as ‘war hero’ Rita Vrataski. Yes, Emily Blunt is an action figure here, conveniently sharing the same name as Andie MacDowell’s character in “Groundhog Day”. She’s also in the same boat as Tom Cruise, having experienced something similar to his ‘repeat’ ability once before, and thus was able to turn the tide of a different battle. Now she’s the symbol for victory, and Tom Cruise must convince her of what he’s experiencing every day so they might together find a loophole and defeat the alien octopus queen lotus (that’s the best way I can describe the ‘boss level’ creature).
Blunt, while hard to buy as a ‘leader’ in the traditional sense, certainly adds a level of sophistication to the role, which is basically written as a live action Lara Croft-type (I don’t know my video games as well as some of you, so fill in the blank, please). As you can imagine, Tom Cruise begins to fancy Rita Vrataski as time passes, and makes decisions based on keeping her from harm. It’s a sweet, if unnecessary sidebar to the film’s kinetic sensibility.
The hook for me in overcoming the story’s laissez-faire science is watching Tom Cruise deconstructed to the point where he becomes….US. In a literal sense, he needs to die, over and over again, to memorize a battle, specific movements, and improve to perfection as a soldier the exact way we as gamers would play as his character. Remember the lost days learning the ins and outs of up/up/down/down/left/right/left/right/b/a/start- and envision a film where Tom Cruise does this in a literal sense. Tom Cruise becomes a walking, talking strategy guide. Someone smarter than I (not difficult to do) should reference something philosophical and ‘meta’ in regards to this film. It’s brilliant in that sense perhaps without intending to be.
Tom Cruise continues to make interesting, if not bold film choices. From 2011’s vibrant franchise reinvention with “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” to the immensely enjoyable “Jack Reacher” and now with “Edge of Tomorrow”, he deserves credit for not allowing a specific perception of him to define his career. Tom Cruise played Tom Cruise in video game. Fantastic. What’s next, a period romance? I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I anticipate failure.
“RoboCop” (2014) ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earl Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by: Joshua Zetumer, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Jose Padilha
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
The original “RoboCop”, while revered by many, was a dreadful chore to watch. It’s an overindulging film that thinks it’s saying something about the world we’re in, but is too dumb to know better. The message, if there was any, was lost soon after the first limb was shredded. Director Paul Verhoeven has often believed with his films that he’s ahead of the curve- I can’t deny that his films have been innovative, and even groundbreaking at times, but always for silly reasons. The first “RoboCop” had unprecedented and copious amounts of violence, “Total Recall” left us with a new ‘mammary arrangement’ as the most memorable scene, and “Basic Instinct” wore out multiple VCRs as a result of one leg-crossing moment. Verhoeven’s “cynicism as satire” angle never quite hit, and his “RoboCop” fails as a result. This isn’t a review of the 1987 version, however- Jose Padilha’s remake is a sleeker, smarter, and overall better film than the predecessor, hitting the marks that the original missed.
Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) is well-cast as Alex Murphy, an undercover detective for the Detroit PD who’s hot on the trail of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a known drug lord. Conveniently, Murphy “gets too close” and becomes a target. Vallon and two corrupt officers then plot to eliminate Alex by planting a ‘device’ in his car- right in front of his home. It’s a devious action- for it clearly could have taken out his wife and child (although it does neither, nor does it seen to damage the house).
Alex is not so lucky- with burns all over his body and amputated limbs, he has no quality of life. Luckily for him, OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellers (Keaton- remember him?) wants to ‘help’. They’ve been looking to win over public opinion to put their robots in harm’s way and not people. Of course, public opinion contends that because robots don’t have emotion, they can’t operate with the difficult discernment required of soldiers and/or cops. This means they need Alex. With his wife’s (Cornish) reluctant permission, Sellers and Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, in another film-grounding performance) advance the company’s cybernetics technology to merge Alex’s conscience with a robot suit, thus making him the world’s first ‘cyborg’.
What could have turned out silly (like the original) is actually given some resonance with this new film. Although we aren’t given much screen time with Alex and his family pre-explosion, I loved that the filmmakers decided to flesh out the scenes introducing him as RoboCop. We get glimpses of blood-cleansing and cranial-computer chip fusion that are both difficult to watch but also plausible. Padilha wisely allows these first scenes upon Alex’s re-awakening to ‘walk’ a bit, and it gives the entire process a depth we don’t expect from this ‘type’ of film. It encourages us to explore this whole concept and ask interesting questions, which is what good science-fiction should do.
What questions are these, you ask? For beginners, Clara’s decision is a would-be first; millions upon millions have had to make end-of-life decisions for their spouses, but she’s the first one that has to consider allowing her spouse to become something else- a cyborg. Could we accept our loved ones in a state like RoboCop Alex? Is it really enough just to have someone exist, or do you need all of them, including their personality, to love them? Also, where would the society in “RoboCop” draw the line? Like all technologies, it would likely become more accessible to people, including in the home. Could a dying Fido last longer in a ‘RoboDog’ apparatus? Should Fido last longer?
Intentionally or not, “RoboCop” explored the willingness of our brains to accept outside, or ‘robotic’ influences. Alex is ‘controlled’ by OmniCorp, but his brain spends plenty of time trying to override the programming. Is it possible that the electrical and chemical activity in our wildly complex brains would be able to accept another system, or would it continue to stay its’ staunchly autonomic self?
On top of that, Samuel L. Jackson’s fanatic talk-show host of a character throws out words like ‘pacify’ and ‘safe’. These catchy, focus-group tested words, used to encourage viewers, support Sellers and OmniCorp’s push to remove government restrictions. Jackson’s portrayal may remind you of the various talking head blowhards on TV now. These personalities are not interested in journalism; instead they push a veiled, business-oriented agenda, which shines through in the character’s final screen moments.
Do you see what I mean? “RoboCop” is supposed to be a dumb remake of a dumb movie, right? We should never expect to take ideas from this, or think about it at all more than five minutes after the credits roll, right? I suspect the difference this time around involved bright, creative people like Padilha and the writer (writers?) seeing something deeper within the framework of the original film, then deciding to extrapolate. The result is a surprisingly thoughtful, smart, and almost prescient science-fiction movie- not at all a dumb action film. It’s the type of film that should be remade- the original is bad, and they made it better. If only all remakes cared to be so thoughtful.