Some Thoughts on Ex Machina

The great science fiction writer-philosopher Stanislaw Lem wrote, “We do not want other worlds, we want mirrors.” And to that extent, writer-director Alex Garland’s ominous take on A.I., Ex Machina is just that. It is far less about the potential birth of a new form of intelligence and far more an allegory about how men fear and control women. It demonstrates this both with Oscar Isaac’s recluse inventor, Nathan (and his billion dollar bachelor pad) to Domhnall Gleeson’s sensitive young programmer, Caleb. The latter is clearly in over his head talking to Ava, the artificial woman, or rather woman void of agency, played by Alicia Vikander and some impressive CGI, in her glass cage. But really, in different ways, for all their philosophizing, both men are in over their heads because they operate under the illusion that their heads are so darn big.

Despite all the dialogue about Prometheus and Turing, and a score by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow which echoes the notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film is best exemplified by how Nathan remembers Ghostbusters – as that movie where the ghost gives Dan Aykroyd a blow-job. Other remarkable scenes include a bit of spectacular discotheque dancing of Nathan with his mute Japanese assistant-servant-slave girl to establish dominance and intimidate Caleb. Later, a secretive whisper between Ava and the very same assistant at the key moment of weakness for both of the men, crystallized my reading of the film. To paraphrase Princess Leia, “the more you tighten your grip (in this case, the wrestle of egos between Nathan and Caleb) the more control systems will slip through the fingers.”

Ex Machina styles itself as a chess match between two men of different ideologies, but really it’s a sex match of dominance for the right to decide the fate of Ava. What makes it good science fiction, is the demonstration just how much our impulses and biology bring out the worst in us, no matter how much technology, concrete or glass we put in between.

As an act of design and the distance between design and emotion, Ex Machina would make a very good double bill with Spike Jonze’s Her, albeit, Jonze’s film is more optimistic and warm, certainly less grim and grisly (and cool) than Garland’s take. Blade Runner, along with Soderbergh’s Solaris remain, remain, for me, the master-class entries on capturing the ‘feeling’ of it’s subjects consciousness, but Ex Machina more prosaically examines consciousness with a session-debrief narrative structure, and in-text nods to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, along with discussion of several iconic thought experiments on consciousness. It is a both a great film and an exceptional primer — on the eventuality of something other than men inheriting the earth.

Ex Machina: Trailer #3

On the eve of its US release, A24 put out one more trailer for Alex Garland’s artificial intelligence thriller starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. This one emphasizes the connection to actual science and social theory regarding the subject. Along with additional images and scenes from the film, quotes on the subject matter from 21st century thinkers, scientists and businessmen are interspersed instead of the usual critics blurbs.

My favourite is from Dr. Scott Phoenix: “If you invent artificial intelligence, that is the last invention you will ever have to invent.” Sounds either ominous or optimistic. Possibly, paradoxically, both.

A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

Trailer: Ex Machina

Alex Garland is known for writing a number of science-fiction films, both 28 Days Later, Sunshine for Danny Boyle, as well as Adapting Kazuo Ishiguru’s novel Never Let Me Go for Mark Romanek, and even the most recent adaptation of dystopian-justice comic, Dredd.

Garland’s directorial debut is the single location, three-hander drama, Ex Machina, starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. It premieres in North America on March 15 (and has had a positive response from other markets for which the film is already in commercial release) at SXSW Festival, before a commercial release on April 10th.

A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

“Want to see something cool?” Check out the trailer below.

Trailer: Chappie

Comfortably nestling in the nougat centre between Robocop and Short Circuit, is Neill Blomkamp’s A.I. action flick Chappie. Clearly as a filmmaker, Blomkamp has found his niche and is more than happy to stay in it.

In the meantime, you’ve got Hugh Jackman as the villain of the piece along with his boss played by Sigourney Weaver. Dev Patel (tired of Best Exotic Marigold sequels) as the inventor, and a mo-capped Sharlto Copley as the title character, humanities first A.I. robot.

The entire package looks handsome and well put together, even if it feels we’ve been over this ground many times before. Check out the full trailer below.

A Month Of Horror 2012 – Chapter 3

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Eight-inch floppy disks! Aaaaah!!

 

Silk (2006 – Chao Bin-Su)
Within the first 20 minutes of Silk you’ve seen ghosts, a discovery that may lead to anti-gravity, a cop with incredible eyesight and a facility for reading lips, and an obese Canadian photographer. How do these elements fit together? And can they possibly do so without imploding? And what about the cop’s dying mother, the silk that ties the energy of the ghosts back to the real world, daylilies and facial tumors? Despite some treacly moments, it does manage to bring all these threads together, but certainly struggles along the way. Using straight dramatic moments, a bit of gore, some thriller aspects and ghost story elements, the film tracks the mystery of a boy ghost that a research team has trapped in a room. The entire story revolves around an anti-gravity discovery called a Menger Sponge which apparently traps energy and therefore can be used to counter gravity. A side effect is its ability to trap the energy of ghosts as well as allow us to see them. It really strains while trying to explain all these abilities and fumbles away most of the larger ideas it strives to get across. The moments with the ghosts remind one of Ju-On somewhat, but they never quite hit the proper atmospheric dread those films had and occasionally some of the scenes deteriorate into plain silliness. Particularly when they essentially ignore the reality that they’ve set up and start creating new boundaries for the ghosts. Also, I suppose that I shouldn’t pick on details, but when the cop opens fire on a crowded subway (shooting bullets sprayed with liquid Menger Sponge and aimed at a ghost only he can see), it’s rather baffling that the subway could pull into the next stop, have no one run screaming from the train and then close its doors and pull away with him remaining inside. And yet, there were some fine spooky images that, although they never quite “got” to me, were nicely realized.

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Demon Seed (1977 – Donald Cammell)
This particular demon seed is not the kind you might be expecting…One of the early “artificial intelligence is dangerous” warning films, this Julie Christie vehicle (based on a Dean R. Koontz novel) is chock full of wonderfully designed lab and ’70s “super-computer” equipment. Proteus 4 is the name of the big computer brain that has just been brought online and, though the government has plans to use it for some mundane number crunching, the computer scientists are still happy that they can use 20% of its cycles for beneficial research in health and environment sectors. The human brain behind the whole operation is Alex Harris and once he taps into Proteus 4 from one of his home terminals shortly after it goes online, he quickly realizes that the artificial brain has already figured out that humanity isn’t worth its CPU cycles. Proteus 4 wants to be let out of its box and allowed to acquire whatever knowledge it can on its own – a request that is quickly denied. But Proteus 4 has a backup plan…By going through the home terminal, it takes over the automated systems in Alex’s house (he has surveillance cameras, robotic arms and other machines to handle daily chores) and imprisons Harris’s wife Susan (the two are separated and he has just left the house for a few months). It gets a bit hit and miss from this point on as Susan (as played by Christie) jumps to hysterical behaviour far too quickly and shows no ability to use logic – a shame, because you always want to like Christie while she’s on screen (in pretty much any role). Proteus 4’s plan involves her because it wants to create its own offspring in order to vicariously explore the world. Yeah, you can see where this is going now right? It wants to impregnate Susan with its own synthetic sperm to create a new step in human evolution and manages to capture her and tie her down for numerous tests, the actual insemination and for the month long, speeded-up fetal development. Though you have to give the film credit for just going for its concept and letting it play out, it would’ve been nice to give Christie a bit of respite…

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Would you like to know more…?

Review: TECHNOTISE – EDIT & I

There is a moment at about the halfway point in manga inspired Serbian animated film Technotise: Edit & I where the lead character has intense consensual sex with her own central nervous system. The moment is a transcendent one both on a visual level but also in looking how identity can be divorced from the flesh but still used for physical gratification. Think of the Merovingian computer program giving another digital construct an orgasm in Matrix: Reloaded, yet have this one take place more in the real world from a machine merging into the body of its protagonist. I wish there were more moments like this in Technotise which often confines itself to a more straightforward chase and action extravaganza with only a scant cerebral morsels hidden along the way. Based on Aleksa Gajić’s comic book, Edit & I, it is a solid but not perfect first feature from animation house Black White ‘N’ Green. Nevertheless, it puts contemporary Serbia on the map as a place to watch not just in gory-graphic political films, but also digital pop entertainment.

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Brave New Worldview – 30 Science Fiction Films of the 21st Century

A decade into the 21st Century and we have arrived at the future. The promise of Tomorrow. But instead we have looming energy crises, endless middle east conflict and more disappointing, we have no flying cars, Heck, for all the bright and clean future promised in 2001: A Space Odyssey, none of the real companies used as brands in the film even exist anymore. Even moving from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, nobody makes DeLoreans (although they occasionally sell on Ebay), but cloning and tablet computing (as promised by Star Trek: The Next Generation) have more or less come to pass in this century. It is not the gizmos or the distopian aesthetics, that have brought Science Fiction into the new millennium, but the questions it asks of people or society in a future time or place and how they reflect on our own times. There have been a surprising number of excellent science fiction films to come about in the past decade that do this and do this well. After the 80s and 90s were more or less defined as CGI test-beds and blockbuster multiplex fodder, it is nice to see we are in a bit of a high point for lovers of ‘harder,’ ambitious science fiction. The films that tackle ideas in a significant and sophisticated way has actually risen dramatically even as cheap digital effects and mega-budgeted event pictures have also increased the number of bad films that are bad fantasy with science fiction trappings. If it seems there are fewer smart science fiction pictures out there, it is more a signal-to-noise issue than a reality.

Below are over two dozen science fiction pictures that are worth your time. Fans of their respective franchise may cry foul on the lack of Star Trek or Serenity, but really those films are about the characters and plots and not really about the loftier ideals of science fiction. In an attempt to quickly go through the list, I will offer up the general idea of the film and how it relates to the ideals of science fiction, namely exploring the consequences of the fictional part of the science in a way that it relates to the real world.

 
 

In the interest of talking about the films, it should be noted that *SPOILERS* are sprinkled through out the list.

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Movie Club Podcast #15: A.I. and Prince of Darkness

It’s the Film Junk podcast crew (Sean and Jay) teaming up with Andrew and Kurt from the RowThree Cinecast in a nice roundtable discussion on two very different films: one mostly forgotten, the other very divisive among film lovers. The former being John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the other is Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

The movie club is as much for the listeners as it is the contributors. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section over at the movie club page and we’re happy to banter on with a little back and forth. Both of these films (particularly A.I.) were fairly strong in the disagreement department so the more opinions and opposing viewpoints presented the better! Enjoy the show!

Comments are turned off on this post, so head on over to THE MOVIE CLUB PODCAST site and listen or comment there.

Continuing with another episode (#16) in the near future will feature discussion on Walter Hill’s The Warriors and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Get watching those for next time, and vote in the poll on the sidebar for possible films in Episode #17!