Ex Machina: Lessons in playing God

Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.

With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

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The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).

Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.

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Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.

And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.

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As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.

And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.

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All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.

So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.

The Theory of Everything: Redmayne and Jones dazzle and delight

And so there was a big bang and then… A brief history of Stephen Hawking came to pass. An as Englishman I sometimes forget that, as a global power, we punch massively above our weight. Particularly when it comes to producing bona fide geniuses.

In recent months The Imitation Game hit the cinemas, charting the life of the brilliant Alan Turing, the man who cracked the enigma device during WWII – expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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And now we have another Englishman stepping into the ring… Eddie Redmayne. Putting in a very fine performance as Stephen Hawking. Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by his wife Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), we cover a lot in this film. From his early beginnings as a student in Cambridge through to worldwide fame and recognition.

Right from the off we delve straight into the main factors that shaped who he was. His professor (David Thewlis) at Cambridge sets the class a task of ten impossible questions, everyone fails except Stephen who, in a bit of a rush, answers nine of them on the back of a train timetable.

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Within the first few minutes of the film we also meet Jane, the woman who becomes the loving constant behind the man. Felicity Jones is yet to put a foot wrong in her career and as Jane she is perfectly cast: elegant, womanly, beautiful and with a bit of an edge. Stephen, like the rest of us, become instantly captivated. And as a couple they suit each other well, as Redmayne and Jones have a very natural and believable chemistry.

As Stephen’s condition (motor neuron disease) worsens, Jane becomes the driving force of the narrative, caring for both Stephen and their growing brood of young children (apparently sexual organs are unaffected by the disease as they operate using a completely different system).

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Together, the writer Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh weave the story together well. It trots along at a good pace and we’re not overwhelmed by the science and maths of it all. Like Interstellar a few months ago, science serves the story. Indeed, the consultant on that film, Kip Thorne, gets a mention here, as someone with whom Stephen has a bet. The prize being a subscription to Penthouse magazine. This point is telling as we get an insight into Stephen’s character, as he has quite a devilish sense of humour. All the more heartwarming given his condition.

It might seem trite to say but Redmayne really transforms himself, going full Verbal Kint and then some. To give a performance where for half the movie you have to greatly limit the way you speak must have been tough. In some ways it’s like actors who have to wear a mask that covers all or part of their face; in that you have to find other ways to convey the emotions of your character to the audience. And Redmayne does just that, bookish, shy, inquisitive and intelligent and at times intense, yet disarmingly likeable. Characters are drawn to him. This is evident with his fans and admirers, but more specifically with those closer to him: his speech therapist, his professor and old Cambridge friends and, obviously, his wife Jane.

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This is where Marsh treads a masterful balancing act as director, blending together the relationship and affection Stephen and Jane have for each other, whilst at the same time keeping the audience drawn into Stephen’s rise as a world-renowned theoretical physicist.

As far as biopics – and indeed films in general – go it’s spirited, heartfelt, tragic and engaging; part love story part think piece. It’s one of those that will have the words ‘feel good’ and ‘life-affirming’ plastered all over the marketing material. But for once, without sounding cynical, that’s spot on.