Movie review: Ex Machina dangles a divine equation

Writer Alex Garland makes an impressive directing debut retooling Greek tragedy with silicon parts, writes Katherine Monk

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Ex Machina

Four stars out of five

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

Directed by: Alex Garland

Running time: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Restricted


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By Katherine Monk

In 1738, a French engineer by the name of Jacques de Vaucanson presented a mechanical duck to the Academie Royale des Sciences de Paris. The careful arrangement of cogs and gears gave the creature lifelike properties: It could flap its wings, quack, eat and even – thanks to a long tube deployed from its base – poop.

There’s no record of what de Vaucanson’s peers thought of his creation. The pages of Academie history are sadly blank. But we can well imagine at least one delicate “Pourquoi?” falling from the lips of the learned.

There’s no good reason under the sun to make a fake duck capable of defecating, yet someone spent countless hours and used every single technological tool at their disposal in order to make one.

So if you’re looking for the big why in Alex Garland’s mesmerizing Ex Machina, remember the duck, and accept the human urge to animate the inanimate as a basic assumption.

We have a deeply seeded need to create. It gives us meaning, but creative genius can also raise ego to dangerous altitudes, and cause some creators to believe they’re on par with The Creator.

Such is the case in Ex Machina, Garland’s impressive directorial debut that follows a series of successful novels and adapted screenplays, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and The Beach.

In this stark yarn, Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a tech billionaire and programming guru who lives far away from the madding crowd in an isolated bunker in the mountains. Nathan has created something that needs to be tested, and in the opening scenes of the film, we watch him recruit his tester.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a code writer for Nathan’s company, and though the mechanics of it are only explained a few scenes later, he scored the proverbial golden ticket that won him admission to Nathan’s magical secret factory.

Garland creates tension from the minute the two men meet face to face: He holds back on Nathan’s reveal, then stalks Caleb with the camera. The power dynamic is completely off-balance. More importantly, by the time we actually see Nathan’s face, we already find him menacing – and we don’t even know what he’s created yet.

Garland keeps the tease going on that one, too: He uses our curiosity as the hook then yanks us through a sea of cleverly scripted metaphysical banter about the nature of consciousness. For a time, it almost feels like eavesdropping on a TED Talk as Nathan and Caleb enjoy meaningful exchanges designed to showcase their towering intelligence.

But even in the rare shots featuring natural light, something always feels a little creepy, and it’s a credit to Garland’s direction, as well as the two performers, that the tension feels emotionally genuine: These two guys don’t like each other. It’s an ego thing, which makes the next act all the more dramatic as we’re introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander).

A robot equipped with artificial intelligence and a pretty human face, Ava would make the perfect wedding cake companion to Peter Weller’s Robocop. A cyborg whose cinematic pedigree can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s memorable false Maria in Metropolis, as well as every Fembot ever created for the S ix Million Dollar Man, Maria presents a double threat as a robot archetype because she’s not just artificial, she’s been given feminine gender.

At this point, we should make a note of our human hero’s name: Caleb is referred to as “the spy” in the Bible, but he’s also one of the spies who urged the Hebrews to put their trust in God and Moses.

Caleb evolved into a believer, and so does his screen counterpart. Seduced by Ava’s attentiveness and glistening circuits, the young programmer entertains fantasies that only Joaquin Phoenix could relate to.

And yet, we go down the rabbit hole with him on his quest to bridge the gap between ourselves, and the glorified and gussied-up reflection of ourselves that advanced technology affords.

It’s an insane equation, and perhaps that’s what makes Ex Machina a little more haunting than your average Transformers exercise: Garland pushes the crazy button on both sides of the hero-villain balance sheet.

We expect Nathan to be a mad scientist with Dr. Frankenstein tendencies, but in watching our Everyman fall prey to the same narcissistic impulse in his desire to be the conquering hero, Garland shows us how our desire for perfection only brings out our worst.

It’s classic Greek tragedy with silicon parts and an Alex Garden edge, which already guarantees great style and an exhaustive understanding of science-fiction genre. Coupled with one of the sharpest sword fights in recent screen history, and Ex Machina feels like the best bit of fakery that ever fell from heaven.

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Chappie reboots good bits from Robocop, Blade Runner



Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

MPAA Rating: Restricted

Running time: 120 minutes

Three and a half stars out of five


By Katherine Monk

Infused with ambient paranoia, apocalyptic imagery and an overall sense of social collapse, Neil Blomkamp’s movies operate in a familiar science-fiction setting, but they feel significantly different from Hollywood spectacle.

Where the likes of Lucas and Spielberg find ways of affirming all-American value systems through hero-centric stories, Blomkamp doesn’t seem at all interested in themes of god and country.

If anything, the South African filmmaker (who makes his home in Vancouver) focuses on the opposite: He ignores the grand rhetoric of the visible and the valued in an effort to hear the slang of the common folk.

In his brilliantly bleak feature debut, District 9, Blomkamp re-invented the alien invasion theme by weaving it into Apartheid metaphor, and in the somewhat less successful Elysium, he gave us Matt Damon as a human slave struggling to stay alive in a world ruled by an off-world elite.

Blomkamp’s heroes stand in opposition to the established order to make us question accepted ideas, and Chappie may present his biggest challenge to date.

A hacked version of Robocop, Chappie takes place in the not-too-distant future, when violent crime has gone viral and police resources are too stretched to contain the chaos. The only difference is we’re not in Detroit, we’re in Jo-burg, one of the most violent cities on the planet, with a current murder rate of about 50 a day.

In this dystopian take, the rate is 300 murders a day, which explains why the Johannesburg police department placed a big order for ‘scouts’ – nimble robots that can shield their human counterparts and intimidate thugs.

Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the computing genius behind the Scouts, and at the moment, he’s the apple of boss Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) eye. But Deon has a hater lurking in the back cubicle: A buff jerk with a chip on his shoulder and a failed design named Vincent (Hugh Jackman).

His mullet alone is enough to make him suspect, but Vincent’s “Moose” – a hulking killing machine on two legs – is a testament to his villainy.

It’s no accident the Moose droid looks a lot like the ED-209 from Robocop. Blomkamp has created a conscious nod to Paul Verhoeven’s visionary masterpiece as well as Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner in both mood and story, but he doesn’t really add much to the discussion.

The twist in Chappie is Scout 22: a police droid destined for the scrap heap, but salvaged by Deon to test a consciousness logarithm. Scout 22 is given a new set of operating protocols that essentially make him ‘human,’ but humanity is the one concept that has absolutely no monetary value in the near future. Kill percentage and overhead are more important, which places Deon in moral opposition to the dominant power.

Interestingly, he finds unlikely allies in a small clutch of criminals desperate to pay off a bad debt. Lead by Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yo-landi Visser), these ‘bad guys’ abduct Deon, steal his newly programmed police robot, and turn Scout 22 into Chappie.

They just wanted a new weapon to use in a heist, but as they teach Chappie the ways of the modern warrior, they’re exposed to high doses of human emotion because Chappie assumes the role of foundling son.

Played by Sharlto Copley, the fierce talent behind District 9’s central ‘prawn,’ Chappie worms his way into our hearts for a few reasons: he’s vulnerable, he’s a black sheep outsider, he moves like a human child and he’s got antennae ears that give him the erect profile of a mechanical Bugs Bunny.

Given he’s the product of coding and performance-capture technologies, Chappie proves a compelling central character because he represents the basic human experience stripped down to the chassis.

The surrounding human characters are a little tougher to embrace because they’re all contaminated by the malware of greed and ego, but that’s what makes the movie fun.

Jackman provides the most entertainment as the modern version of Robocop’s Dick Jones. Dressed like a mercenary Boy Scout and basting in professional jealousy, Jackman’s character embodies the very worst of human traits while Deon and his love of art and creativity symbolize the very best.

It’s a great dialectic, but Blomkamp fails to shape the core story into something truly original. The drama always feels a little too derivative, and the tone a little too self-conscious to pull us out of our collective sub-routine. It’s programmed to elicit human emotion, but it’s the programming we feel – not the feelings.


Playing Wide.