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Movie Review: “Ex Machina”

Artificial intelligence is clearly the menace of the cinematic hour. The old menace posed by the Skynet of the “Terminator” franchise has taken on additional credibility in the era of “big data,” which offers the possibility of algorithmic analysis on a heretofore undreamt-of scale. Alex Garland’s recent thriller “Ex Machina,” however, trades guns for words and explosions for psychological turbulence, raising fundamental questions within a deeply intimate context.

“Ex Machina” opens as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, ironically inverting his “Black Mirror” role), a young search-engine coder, wins a mysterious contest. The prize? A week with company exec Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his off-the grid Icelandic research facility. It soon becomes clear that Caleb hasn’t been summoned for fun and games: Nathan needs him to participate in an upgraded version of the “Turing test,” an exercise designed to differentiate between man and machine. His specific task? Interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s ultimate AI creation, and ascertain whether she truly is the next step in the evolution of technology.

This is a slow-burning movie, and not one for the action-junkie set. This works to the film’s great credit: a Hitchcockian aura of mystery, conspiracy, and dread builds over time, and ultimately culminates in a genuinely fantastic climax that works on every level. From start to finish, the movie boldly heads into the more cerebral questions surrounding artificial intelligence, though it doesn’t always follow up on them to (this particular viewer’s) satisfaction.

“Ex Machina” deserves immense credit for raising timeless philosophical problems in a creative and compelling way; that said, its intellectual underpinnings are a bit off-kilter. Throughout “Ex Machina” there’s a tendency to treat the subjective experience of consciousness as a phenomenon which can be assembled piecemeal (at one point, Nathan speaks of “downloading more routines” into subsequent AI iterations) rather than something which can only be understood holistically (cf. Thomas Nagel). Moreover, it’s not entirely clear why a self-aware AI would elect to manifest itself via the limitations of human communication and interactions. The anthropomorphization makes for a compelling story, but a truly perpetually-learning, self-aware AI would probably be entirely alien in its affect. (Nathan mentions that Ava is connected to the vast search resources of the Internet, from which she can draw inferential patterns by looking at data aggregates; if this is the case, it’s not clear why Ava isn’t constantly evolving faster and faster). Nathan speaks of the “singularity” (this giant leap forward in technological self-awareness) as something to come in post-Ava iterations of his AI; this would suggest that Ava’s own intellectual functions are cabined within strictly defined parameters, a factor that would seem to cut against the idea of Ava’s emergent self-consciousness.

Perhaps most intriguingly, nowhere does “Ex Machina” probe the question of whether or not Ava is capable of moral reasoning. It is implied that Ava’s default ethic is a crude form of utilitarianism, though this is not specifically articulated. But is this a realistic assumption of the ethic Ava would espouse by default? For instance, would a Kantian/deontological ethic need to be hard-coded into Ava’s programming in order to trump a utilitarian default, or could a categorical imperative be logically deduced (as Kant himself sought to do) from the massive expanse of human experience? (Ava, after all, supposedly has access to the totality of the Internet simultaneously). This also raises the question of whether or not a self-aware AI which comes into existence almost instantaneously (plug it in, turn it on) could be capable of acting within a framework of virtue ethics, which require cultivation over time in order to develop within a given consciousness/soul. Director Alex Garland doesn’t explore the issue, but it’s fascinating food for thought.

(It bears note that none of this will have any impact on most viewers’ enjoyment of the film. As someone fascinated by philosophy-of-mind issues, these are the questions that popped into my head.)

The acting is strong all around (especially from Vikander, who turns in a remarkable “almost-human” performance), and the script is top-notch. A special note of praise is also warranted for the pulsing electronic soundtrack, which instantly evokes Cliff Martinez’s “Drive” score. The cinematography is workmanlike at best, with the exception of a few scenes towards the end, but this is a minor quibble. (It warrants brief mention that “Ex Machina” probably isn’t family-movie-night fare: there’s strong language throughout, as well as a fair amount of desexualized nudity in the context of “synthetic skin.”)

If eerie, philosophically charged sci-fi is your thing (as it is mine), “Ex Machina” is a revelation. It’s truly rare that wide-release movies are willing to probe the depths of the issues they raise (for a good example of this failure to engage with high-level concepts, see last week’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), and even if its intellectual gambits occasionally go awry, this remains an ever-fascinating and unpredictable tale. Highly recommended.

VERDICT: 9.5/10
Dark, brilliant, and challenging. Hollywood – and the American public – need more films like this.

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Posted by on May 9, 2015 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

After living through a decade or so of superhero epics, I’m starting to feel a bit fatigued by the whole thing: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is done, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series was unceremoniously truncated, and the prospect of additional Wolverine-centric X-Men films is looking a bit dim. That said, last summer marked the release of my favorite Marvel film to date – “Guardians of the Galaxy” – so clearly there’s still some gas in the tank. But all in all, it’s fair to say I approached “Avengers: Age of Ultron” with a certain sense of obligation (certainly I haven’t been as jazzed about it as I am about next month’s “Jurassic World”).

I got something I did not expect.

“Age of Ultron” represents both a zenith and a nadir of the Marvel film enterprise. On one hand, the basic plot is atrocious – incoherent, divorced from the franchise’s meta-framework, and riddled with holes. In short, it’s cringe-inducingly bad (bad for a summer action blockbuster, which is saying a lot). On the other hand, it contains the most emotionally evocative scenes in any Marvel movie to date, a slew of richly textured characters whose interplay is a joy to watch, and breathtaking action setpieces.

The plot is extraordinarily simple, despite constant attempts by the writing staff (who clearly had Marvel studio execs over their shoulder the entire time) to muddy the waters. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) decides on a whim to design an artificial intelligence (the eponymous “Ultron” – voiced by a smirking James Spader) that will establish global peace. It goes haywire and becomes omnicidal. The Avengers try to kill it.

First off, there’s no coherent explanation for how Stark transformed from libertarian hero into totalitarian central planner. This is handwaved away with some statement to the effect of “well, the extraterrestrial invaders we faced last time were really scary.” Second, artificial intelligence makes for a fascinating plot device, but here, Ultron is basically just a human personality. He has human emotions and human vulnerabilities, but just happens to be plugged into a robot body. Creating a villain and slapping an “AI” label on it is conceptually bankrupt: even the aging “Terminator” franchise grasped long ago the titanic implications of a worldwide AI “singularity” emerging. Reference are made to Ultron “fleeing” and “hiding”…but this makes no sense at all. An AI of Ultron’s power would be ubiquitous – present in every Internet-connected device simultaneously, bending the entire global infrastructure to its will. That would be a legitimately compelling opponent for the Avengers – more accustomed to brute force than technological warfare – to face…but this Ultron just rants about evolution and extinction and judgment without any cogent rationale. Also, the metal comprising Captain America’s (Chris Evans) shield can bond with human organic tissue. Just because. Oh, and romance is apparently flowering between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Don’t ask why, because it’s never explained. Finally, this is a movie in which the entire Internet – all of it – is run from a data clearinghouse in Sweden called the “Nexus.”

It goes on and on and on.

If that was where things ended, I would have been one seriously unhappy customer. But unexpectedly, “Age of Ultron” hits highs that match its lows.

Somehow, impossibly, director Joss Whedon manages to juggle an ever-expanding cast of characters with remarkable finesse. There are a couple new additions this time around – speedy Quicksilver and mind-altering Scarlet Witch (who have the charisma of potatoes, yet get inexplicably large amounts of screen time). The core sextet – Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – is still dynamite, though, and each character gets plenty of individual attention.

By far the movie’s best moments are its quietest, when its protagonists can simply interact and reflect on life, love, and existence. At this point, audiences are emotionally invested in seeing what happens to this team: Whedon takes the time to explore deeply personal vulnerabilities, relationships, and dreams, venturing into previously uncharted territory for this superhero series. It seems banal to describe a summer movie like this as “emotionally affecting,” but there’s a deep warmth to many of these moments that transcends anything found in previous Marvel flicks.

And as to the action…I keep thinking I’m going to be underwhelmed by a tentpole-film climax one of these days, but Whedon somehow manages to amp up both the stakes and the mayhem this time around (if you thought there was some spectacular destruction in “Man of Steel,” you ain’t seen nothing yet). The “Hulk Buster” scene, featured in many of the promotional materials, is also a highlight. For all its plot problems, at its core “Age of Ultron” is a heaping helping of delirious geeky joy, and remains compulsively watchable throughout its considerable length.

As an additional aside, it’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack here is much better than its predecessor’s forgettable score. I attribute this primarily to the involvement of Danny Elfman – composer of the genuinely definitive Batman theme (sorry, Hans Zimmer).

When all’s said and done, “Age of Ultron” is worth your time and money (I saw it in 3D, which I highly recommend). The dork inside me acknowledges that where storyline convergence is concerned, this saga might be past the point of no return…but man oh man, if at some point I get to watch these guys slugging it out alongside Spider-Man and Wolverine and Daredevil, who cares?

I’ll continue to decry the fact that superhero movies are continuing to proliferate seemingly without end…but I’ll keep watching, and you probably will too.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is showing its cracks, but simultaneously breaking new thematic ground. Worth seeing.

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Posted by on May 1, 2015 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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