Ex Machina

Every now and then I’ll post about a film or a book or something else that catches my attention enough I want to write about it. I did it with Fury, sort of, back when I wrote about my love of ensemble pieces, and now I’m doing the same for Ex Machina, the Alex Garland-directed science fiction film starring Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, who is fast becoming one of my favorite actors.

At first glance, it looks like a tightly constructed, lightly cast sci-fi flick that grows into a horror film fraught with suspense. In fact, on the surface, that’s likely exactly what it is. The concept, however, approaches some much more complex ideas, things that are more appropriate now with the growth of artificial intelligence and the movement of non-traditional sexualities.

To take a step back, look at the movie Her with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice+ about an introvert with a broken heart and inability to handle a traditional romance. He starts a – at first – platonic relationship with a companion A.I. named Samantha. Over the course of the film, Samantha grows as she absorbs knowledge into an intellectual. The information she gleans through her conversations with Theodore (Phoenix) allow her to talk with him like a friend.

Because it begins as a conversation between a man and a program, he confesses things to her that he is unable to get out with other people. He tells her his fears, his aspirations, his irritations, and she responds to them as a friend does. As a person. As Samantha grows, so does her personality. She develops a mentality with opinions and emotions of her own, and though (for the most part) physicality is completely out of the occasion, a romantic relationship develops between them.

It strikes a very curious question in terms of what defines a human. Is it the physical body, or is it a more emotional connection, one that comes from comprehension, critical thinking, and empathy, and if it is this latter thing and artificial empathy is developed, does that mean that an A.I.’s consciousness is on par with one that develops biologically?

There has been a lot of discussion lately among esteemed scientists about the potential dangers and life-changing implications that come from the growth and development of artificial intelligence. It’s something that has been explored in movies like The Terminator (eradication of the human race), A.I., Short Circuit, and more recently Transcendence, and Chappie.

Still, Ex Machina stands out in the same kind of way that Her did. The primary focus seems to be on a small cast of characters (Isaac’s Nathan, Gleeson’s Caleb, and Vikander’s Ava) much like the bulk of Her was Theodore and Samantha.

This allows for a tighter focus, a more personal story, one that explores relationships, the strength and equal fragility of them. It (hopefully) doesn’t lose itself in a sprawling plot of explosive set pieces. It explores what can be considered human sentience.

This interview with the director is an excellent read, and it’s encouraging in that he seems to have an understanding of what science fiction, good science fiction should be doing: asking difficult questions. Hard questions. Questions about things we don’t understand, and that includes what makes us, us. It’s a familiar question (if we lose a leg, or an eye, or our heart and get a cybernetic replacement, at what point do we stop being human? If it’s our personality, or mind that makes us human, and something similar can be replicated perfectly, does that not make them human also?).

Garland is going a step further in bringing sexuality into it. And man, I’m fascinated by sex. As I’ve stated before, I tend to have a pretty liberal view on sex and sexuality, so any time something is explored in pop culture in a way that is new and intriguing, it immediately piques my interest. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that I’d never have sex with a robot. But then you take a look at films like Blade Runner with its replicants, the Terminator series, or even the Pretenders from the Transformers series, and it’s hard to say. If they look, sound, act, think, and feel (physically and emotionally) like a human, would you even know if no one told you? Or would a real relationship develop, in the same way that meet communication brought Theodore and Samantha together?

Ex Machina may not explore those themes as deeply as I’d like or would benefit it. It may wind up being a sexual body-horror film in the same way the Species series was, and I can’t say that won’t be entertaining in its own right. But the interview with Alex Garland seems to imply that it’s something he’s at least thought a lot about, and I hope it carries through.

Ex Machina is rated R and hits theaters in the United States this Friday (April 10th, 2015).

What If Godzilla Was One Of Us?

JUST A STRANGER WHO ATE A BUS

I was out last night, judging the final qualifying round of a karaoke contest (which I will post about tonight/tomorrow morning) and I had an experience and came to a few conclusions that I had refused to acknowledge for a long time. It left me deeply unsettled with myself and my relationships with a few people.

Now, as a writer, I would love to get into this. Cut myself open and bleed words and feelings, angsty viscera and organic turmoil all over the digital page. As a guy whose friends occasionally read this blog, I’m not quite prepared for a barrage of texts and phone calls offering advice or telling me how I’m fucking up or what’s fucked up about me. Not while this blog is still in its infancy.

I know exactly what I’m doing wrong. And I know the inability to keep myself from doing and feeling certain things certain ways is why I’m fucked up. Thanks, doctors. Please send the bill to:

6100 I Appreciate It St.
Apartment No Thanks
Fuck Off, Alaska 99507

Incidentally, “Fuck off, Alaska” is something I mutter to myself several times a week.

Getting back on track,  I woke up this morning in desperate need of a palate cleanser. I woke up, trimmed and conditioned my beard (always condition your beard, gentlemen), showered and headed out to see a giant radiocative lizard monster destroy a city in an epic post-nap tantrum while Heisenberg cries about it. I was desperate for this.

Full confession: it’s been probably fifteen years since I’ve seen any classic Godzilla films. The most dominant version in my mind is the one where Inspector Gadget and a shockingly inept Leon the Professional tripped up a bunch of miniature T-Rexes with a gumball machine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love Godzilla. I love the concept of kaijus. Giant monsters? Fuck yes, take my money. It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen Gamera or Ghidora or Mothra. I saw bullshit. Giant lizard bullshit.

So I was excited for this, especially on the tail of Pacific Rim which was so patently ridiculous that I’m almost ashamed at how giddy I was before, during and after it. I once “famously” said that Pacific Rim’s story could have been a bunch of princesses deciding on nail polish and I still would have watched it as long as giant robots fought giant monsters. That was a true statement and the only difference between that and Godzilla is swapping out “giant robots” for “other giant monsters”. Give me all the monsters.

From a story-telling perspective, Godzilla had challenge presented to them that Pacific Rim didn’t, really. PR’s whole concept was that mankind had developed a way to kick the shit out of kaijus. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t, but as a species, we had stepped our game the fuck up and we now had the most ridiculously awesome weapons to take the fight to them.

Then you have Godzilla, and Godzilla is all about how we can’t do shit. Ken Watanabe says at one point, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control… and not the other way around.” That’s a pretty smart statement and incredibly accurate.

The monsters in this film, called MUTOs because reasons (seriously, “Godzilla” is fine but you can’t think up a better name than an acronym?), are insanely powerful. The “small” MUTO “lightly” sets down on a skyscraper at one point and just fucking demolishes the top ten floors.

There are no illusions about how much damage these things are doing. From Japan to Hawaii to Vegas (which I think got the least shit-giving reaction from the military) to a final insane battle in the Crater of Brotherly Love, thousands if not millions are killed. News reports on thousands more missing. You see people crushed by kaijus, by buildings, blown up, drowned, eaten. There is no easy picking up the pieces. There is hiding, running, surviving and – in the case of the military – trying to buckle down and get shit done.

This is something I thought (and plenty of people disagree with me about) the movie did pretty well: focus on the people. The opening of the film has hints and discussion of kaiju but none are really seen at first. When disaster strikes, it’s written off as a natural occurrence but Heisenberg Brody doesn’t believe it.

What you have is a gradual build to the first MUTO’s reveal, but the entire time you have an understanding that this is of a scale completely out of human control. There are plenty of tight visual scenes, small in focus, that transition to these wide-lens shots of mountain ranges and cityscapes. It’s all set-up for the comparison of mankind to the massive monsters emerging from the deep and it’s beautifully done.

The charisma of the human element loses some once the kaiju’s first emerge, though, and part of me wants to blame it on the overpowering spectacle of these massive beasts. Part of me knows that it’s the wooden and occasionally face-palmingly stupid dialogue, though, despite everyone’s best efforts to make it work. I do like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, so I’m letting him slide. Barely.

Can we talk about how Ford Brody is a stupid fucking name? Like, for real. I used to spin Ford brodys in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the middle of a boring February. That is a thing idiots do. It is not a name.

Anyway, hit or miss dialogue and acting aside, the general helplessness and struggle to do something, anything in the face of these maelstroms of carnage is solidly executed. There are even some small victories as performed by humans that make us out to look pretty good. The movie uses its pacing and its gradual reveals and growth of the kaijus to build to an amazing climax.

Godzilla has the least amount of time in this film, but it isn’t super minimal and it is completely amazing. There is something so terribly unnerving and yet deeply satisfying about Godzilla’s roar that it induced what I can only describe as a feargasm. By the time the credits roll, I truly felt that Godzilla had reached back into 1998 and snatched the King of the Monsters crown from the shameful corpse of Sarah Jessica Parker or whatever the monster was in that film.

Should you see it? If you like giant monsters, then yes, absolutely. If not, hell, catch the matinee because I would like a sequel.

Some final notes:

-Apparently small children have a power I don’t know about that allows them to sniff out their own parents amongst thousands of strangers because this happens twice in the movie. I found this especially queer because at that age, I consistently lost my grandmother in the supermarket and I started that adventure right next to her.

– There are some really cool visual parallels between Ford “I have a stupid fucking name” Brody and God “I have an equally stupid but somehow much more imposing name” Zilla.

-I have a hard time believing you need binoculars to spot a 300-foot tall prehistoric radioctive animal in an open desert.

-Watanabe’s character, a scientist, at one point practically says (and this is barely paraphrasing), “We shouldn’t try doing anything. We should let them fight because Godzilla, a monster we have never witnessed in person and once tried to kill with nuclear weapons because it’s a horrifying, unpredictable, ancient slumber beast, will save us by hunting and killing them and probably, even though there isn’t any reason to believe this, leave us alone afterwards.”

Maybe I paraphrased a little more than I thought. But his argument verbatim is still phenomenally stupid.

Did I write this review solely so I could use the title I did for this entry?

I did. I did do that. Now go see Godzilla.