Saturday, 31 January 2015

Ex Machina – (God) from the Machine

‘Ex Machina’ reminded me a great deal of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker’s genius sci-fi-inflected anthology series. In that show, Brooker builds worlds just like ours, but a couple of technological advancements further down the line. In the process, playing on feelings of intense techno-phobia and the dangers of dehumanising our humanity. It’s a great show, so a comparison is praise in itself.

In ‘Ex Machina’, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, an employee of Blue Book – the world’s largest, and most powerful tech company (think Apple, Facebook and Google all meshed into one) – who wins a week with the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once he makes it to Nathan’s secluded research facility/house, Caleb is given two options; a week of getting drunk and shooting some pool, or a chance to go down in scientific history. Tough choice, I know, but the foreboding non-disclosure agreement is a sign that all may not quite be as it seems.

But this once in a lifetime opportunity turns out to be difficult to turn down and Caleb accepts. His role, it is revealed, is to carry out the Turing test (to see whether a computer has developed true artificial intelligence) on an AI Nathan has developed.

Enter Alicia Vikander’s Ava, the beautiful machine at the heart of this decidedly human drama. The rest of the runtime is focused on Caleb’s daily interviews with Ava and he starts to suspect Nathan may be up to something . . . as if his shaved head/parties for one/crazed dancing (in what may well turn out to be one of the scenes of the year) weren’t warning enough.

What ensues is an intricate drama about sexuality, godliness and what it means to be human. Caleb’s sessions with Ava become the set pieces and superstar writer-director, Alex Garland (the scribe behind ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Dredd’, to name but a few), does a great job drawing action from the details. This is aided brilliantly by Vikander’s immense performance. Her work as Ava is quite simply out-of-this-world and she utilises a vast palette of understated facial tics to devastating effect. You will feel she knows your deepest secrets the minute she makes eye contact, and that’s a difficult thing to recover from . . . as Caleb will attest.

It’s refreshing to see a piece of modern sci-fi opting to remain so low-key. Even right at the death, the action remains deeply focused and character-driven, resulting in some incredibly memorable moments in those final minutes.

But, in the end, there’s not a great deal to elevate Garland’s directorial debut above the best of Brooker’s show. The production values are far higher (top marks for Double Negative’s excellent CGI work on Ava) and the cast are exceptional, especially the mercurial Vikander, but, if anything, the feature-length running time neuters some of the tension.

That being said, ‘Ex Machina’ is a very well written and performed piece of smart, grown-up, dark modern sci-fi. And if that isn’t enough to get people out to the cinemas, then I don’t know what is . . .


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Ninja Assassin – Knifey Knifey

James McTiegue’s second movie as director (following my one-time favourite film, ‘V for Vendetta’, and preceding ‘The Raven’) sees him tackle Japanese culture in a blood-soaked homage to all things ninja.

And it’s nice to see an American movie (albeit a German co-production) taking on anything other than the mighty US of A. But, in an effort to make it accessible to Western markets, they skimped on the subtitles and just went all out with American/British/Japanese/German-accented English. Now, this isn’t a major issue, but it does take away from the authenticity somewhat.

As does McTiegue’s over-reliance on CGI. Although it allows him to have endless shurikens zipping around the room, it ultimately results in overly cartoonish violence that diminishes the dramatic heft of the fights.

But I don’t exactly think dramatic heft was what they were going for with this one. The focus is set squarely on the ninjas and that’s where the movie really comes to life. The fights are often exhilarating, in a gory kind of way. Also a big shout-out to whoever suggested the ‘Aliens’ homage. There’s one particular dimly lit splatter-fest against silent enemies that’s straight out of James Cameron’s seminal action movie (and my current favourite film). These scenes work well, as does much of the supernatural portrayal of the ninjas. This is where CGI is used most effectively to send these warriors flitting off into the darkness.

Unfortunately some of this good work is undone by a tendency to fast-cut through the action scenes. It’s something that becomes increasingly noticeable later on in the film, which is a shame because those final fights deserved a steady camera. It would have also been nice to have a few more daytime fights. I know ninjas live in the shadows, but is that really worth straining my eyes for?

There’s little worth mentioning beyond the ninjas, and all of the Interpol mumbo-jumbo with Naomi Harris and Ben Miles is dull (as are their performances). But they're only a minor hindrance to what is an otherwise enjoyable, if gruesome, big-budget ninja movie.