Review – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

Review – Frank

Anyone who begrudgingly comes to accept their true talent lies not in what they’d hoped will find a connection to this unique and idiosyncratic story about those blessed with artistic creativity and those who hitch along for the ride.

With a free will and an outsider's spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind

With a free will and an outsider’s spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind

It’s a fair bet to say that a good number of critics have at least entertained the idea of doing the very thing they write about. In most cases these dreams remain unfulfilled, consigned to the ‘what if’ section of our brain.

In Jon Ronson’s case, he did it the other way around, having played a purposefully cheap sounding keyboard for three years in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band in the 1980s before going on to become a highly respected gonzo journalist and writer of such books as The Men Who Stare At Goats, which went on to receive mediocre treatment in a film of the same name starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.

The various members of Soronprfbs, including Fran├žois Civil's Baroque, keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and the erratic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Frank

The various members of Soronprfbs, including Fran├žois Civil’s Baroque, keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and the erratic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Frank

Ronson’s time with Frank and his real life alter-ego Chris Sievey inspired this bittersweet tale of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an office drone and wannabe songwriter whose monotonous existence spent living with his parents in a dead-end seaside town changes overnight when he stumbles across the members of Soronprfbs, an avant-garde band led by the larger-than-life Frank (Michael Fassbender), who constantly wears a giant papier-mache head that features an unblinking look of mild surprise.

Jon, like us, is fascinated by the man beneath the fake head and jumps at the chance to join Soronprfbs on a full-time basis as they take to a cottage in the middle of nowhere to record their new album, a year-long process that involves extreme levels of self-indulgence as anything and everything is toyed around with to create the perfect sound.

The band get busy working on their new album - toothbrushes included - in Frank

The band get busy working on their new album – toothbrushes included – in Frank

All the while, Jon chronicles Soronprfbs’ journey through Twitter and YouTube and creates a social media-fuelled monster that leads to a possible big break, but also threatens to destroy the soul of the band and damage the fragile Frank.

It’s not until a good way through the film that you realise just how many levels Frank is working on. In another picture, Jon’s voyage of self discovery would end in a very different – and predictable – way, but rather than helping to inspire the band to achieve deserved success, the actions he takes only end up serving his own deluded ambitions.

The ying and yang of Frank (Michael Fassbender) - Maggie Gyllenhaal's uncompromising Clara and Domhnall Gleeson's Jon, who just wants to be loved

The ying and yang of Frank (Michael Fassbender) – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s uncompromising Clara and Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, who just wants to be loved

In a painfully well observed opening, Jon tries in vain to fashion a song out of his mundane experiences, only to take to social media to justify his banal existence through pointless tweets. His striving for validation is sought not only from his growing number of Twitter and blog followers whom he panders to with a running commentary of ‘aren’t I crazy’ posts, but also from his fellow band mates, who mostly look at him with indifference, in particular Maggie Gyllenhaal’s erratic theremin player Clara (who comes across like a Wes Anderson version of Karen O from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs).

Like Amadeus‘ Salieri, Jon knows his talent cannot match that of Frank, so instead becomes a leech in the hope his genius can somehow rub off on him. What Jon doesn’t factor in is Frank’s evident mental illness, which manifests itself through the character’s increasingly unstable behaviour.

Hello audience!! The titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) gets all dolled up

Hello audience!! The titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) gets all dolled up

It’s an admirable turn from Gleeson in a role that’s unlikable only in so much as it’s so painfully believable. Jon almost always means well, but loses his way and drags the band down with him when the prospect of fame and fortune rear their heads.

Considering we cannot see the character’s facial expressions, Frank is a captivating presence, thanks in no small part to Fassbender’s physical performance that lends the character a tragicomic edge which grows more troubling as the film nears its climax. Frank is a blank slate is many ways, a character defined by the ying of Jon’s desire to be loved and break big and the yang of Gylenhaal’s Clara, who has an indefatigable refusal to compromise for fear of selling out. Torn between both sides, the cracks in his personality threaten to break apart.

Frank’s static expression takes on a different inclination depending on the angle of Fassbender’s body and the way he turns his giant fake head, while the film’s final reel is given an extra wallop by the actor’s coiled delivery of the film’s signature tune I Love You All.

Working from a script by Ronson and fellow scribe Peter Straughn (who also penned the screenplay for The Men Who Stare At Goats), director Lenny Abrahamson skirts passed twee farce and instead hits us with a film that’s as moving as it is funny and painful.

With a free will and an outsider’s spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind.