EX MACHINA (Three Stars)
U.S.: Alex Garland, 2015
We’re in something of a golden age for movie science fiction — or a gold-plated one at least — and Ex Machina is a good example how that genre can be worked and reworked by a bright filmmaker who knows the form and how to play with it. The movie marks the feature directorial debut of the brainy, taboo-shattering novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (he wrote the scripts for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the novel from which Danny Boyle made The Beach) and here, he gives us a chamber horror story, a cyber-punk robot story and a classy-looking sexual nightmare that will amuse and even mesmerize some audiences and irritate others. I was amused and irritated myself, by turns. But, all in all, I’m happy to see someone trying to make something deeper and more challenging: a science fiction plot that doesn’t depend on explosions and car wrecks and gun battles, but on a few interesting characters and ideas. It’s also nice that audiences can respond so strongly to those characters and ideas.
Indeed, the characters are what engage us first. Almost all of Garland’s movie takes place in a high tech hideaway housing four “people“: the secret estate and household of a wealthy, inventive and apparently reclusive company CEO — Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, a sort of Steve Jobs-ian philosopher-tycoon-visionary. Bateman has invited one of his young employees, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s the winner of a trumped-up contest, to spend a week with him in his isolated home, allegedly to learn how the upper echelon of his company lives and works.
That’s a crock. Actually, Bateman is a manipulative inventor-bossman, and Caleb is there to take part in an experimental project Bateman has dreamed up, involving a humanoid robot that Bateman has fashioned in the shape and highly disturbing bod of a sexy, very human-looking young charmer named Ava (Alicia Vikander). In a variation of the Turing Test that Benedict Cumberbatch’s luckless Alan Turing invented in The Imitation Game, Caleb has to determine whether his robot/android/whatever can actually think, or whether she‘s just mimicking the humans around her. This is the big question that artificial life and science fiction robots and androids often pose in science fiction, from Karel Capek‘s “R.U.R.” to Lester del Rey’s sentimental, romantic “Helen O’Loy,” to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, to HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s 2001, to the replicants in Blade Runner, to the lost little boy in Spielberg and Kubrick‘s underrated A. I.
Ex Machina is a familiar movie nightmare, but it‘s also a kind of sex comedy, in a kind of Carnal Knowledge mode. Two bright young men — Caleb, the sensitive nerdy techno-guy employee and Bateman the entertainingly arrogant and self-confident stud — form part of a triangle (in this case an inter-species triangle) with Ava — or possibly part of a quartet with Nathan’s eye-catching, quiet housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Like Art Garfunkel’s Sandy and Jack Nicholson’s Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge, Caleb and Bateman are the mismatched buddies, one of whom is good with women — or at least good at seducing them or inventing them (Bateman), while the other is a naïve romantic who falls in love too easily (Caleb). We can guess very early, I think, that Caleb will fall for Ava, and become disaffected in some way from Nathan. What’s going on in the head of Ava, and also of Kyoko, are part of Ex Machina’s mysterious subtext.
Ex Machina takes the sort of plot premise that might be used to trigger a flood of sex scenes in a soft-core porno movie, and tries to use them instead to trigger shivers and speculation in this science fiction horror film, in which humans are seduced by sexy robots and thinly repressed violence is always poking through the sheets. Like Spike Jonze‘s Her, it‘s partly a sex fantasy where Ava seems (at least at first), a kind of ultimate love toy, and the men are high tech playboys. There’s even a pseudo-feminist twist, in which the erstwhile dolls may strike back.
The story is not bad, though it could have been better. It could, for example have been something closer to the shattering Blade Runner (which was adapted from Philip Dick’s marvelous “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) or to Alfred Bester’s great android shocker “Fondly Fahrenheit.” It’s a long step down from either, though one of the best things in the movie is the way it looks. Bateman’s playhouse, thanks to production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy, has the compelling layout and austere veneer of something by Kubrick (the space ship in 2001 maybe); fit dwelling place for two brainiacs and their robot girlfriend.
The other highlight of the film — which at least is smart entertainment — is the memorable performance of Oscar Isaac. As Bateman, Isaac charges up the movie the way the younger Nicholson and Al Pacino used to zing up their shows and electrify their audiences. Isaac, who was brilliant as the Dylanesque folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Lewyn Davies, is brilliant here too, in a different kind of role. His Davis, unlike tycoon Bateman, was an outsider and misfit and a Dave Van Ronkian exemplar of left wing urban folk balladry in the early ‘60s. (The movie, by the way, would have been better if the Coens hadn’t somewhat mysteriously downplayed the whole political angle.)
Isaac as Bateman, while just as self-centered as Davis was, is a rich success where Davis was a poor failure. He’s a cockily arrogant business guy where Davis was a somewhat nasty, egotist artist who liked to push around people, not just robots. It’s a magnetic performance in the way those early movie-stealing turns by Nicholson or Pacino or De Niro or Brando were. Bateman is both attractive and somewhat repellent and dangerous, and he dominates the movie even when he’s not around.
Domhnall Gleeson is his opposite. He’s the son of that great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, but where his father is a consummate movie roughneck, Domhnall is sensitive and a little dreamy. Nevertheless, his part isn’t written as well as Isaac’s, so he can’t make the same kind of vivid, vigorous impression. Even so, the younger Gleeson provides contrast, as Garfunkel did to Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, or as Jean-Louis Trintignant’s shy passenger did to Vittorio Gassmann’s brash driver in Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life). A contrast not only to Bateman, but to the lithe and subtly menacing Vikander as Ava the robot.
Ava and Kyoko are played very well by Vikander and Mizuno, and it’s probably not their fault that Garland never really solves the problem of making femme fatale Ava at the same time believably mechanical and believably human — and that he keeps us guessing about which side is in the ascendant. Is the movie sexist, as a few critics have suggested? That’s certainly not what Garland intended. He’s as fascinated by robots/androids here as he was by the zombies in 28 Days Later, and in a way, he’s on Ava’s side, or thinks he is. But, while the movie didn’t really move me, and Ava didn’t really win me over, they certainly got to lots of other watchers, probably both male and female. Ex Machina has generated mostly wonderful reviews, and it’s drawn a larger-than-average art house/indie audience. If it didn’t exactly please me — that’s probably because it wasn’t either A. I., Blade Runner or Fondly Fahrenheit. And because Ava wasn’t a femme fatale Hal.
FURIOUS SEVEN (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Wan, 2015
Furious Seven and movies like it are, in some ways, the face of cinema today. I don’t say that with a smile on my face.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, when we’ve finally used up all our planet’s available fossil fuels, and when muscle cars, or sports cars, or cars of any kind and class, and the combustion engines themselves, are things of the past — and when the movies about those autos and their fast and furious drivers (or at least the few muscle car flicks left) survive only in museums or whatever is around then to preserve old popular media and vintage entertainment in that far off, peculiar future — then we’ll maybe look on movies like Furious Seven, with the right blend of shock and awe and nostalgia. And maybe we won’t.
Now, it’s not museums but multiplexes that are the proper arenas for the insanely over-the-top bill of car chases and collisions and mano-a-mano fights that are the modus operandi of movies like Furious Seven and all its furiously preposterous predecessors — the latest of the fast and fiery car-crashing mega-hits filling up zillions of theaters in our own auto-erotic age: with their barmy visions of gas-powered vehicular monoliths soaring heavenward and earthward and diving off cliffs — visions that may, in the future, seem relics and mementoes of an odd, incredible, almost unimaginable past – in films that may seem relics of a vanished age too.
What will our descendants — who by then may be riding around in ox-carts, thanks to our own prodigal gas-guzzling centuries of waste — think of these spectacles? How will they mentally process these muscle car crash-a-thons? Will the movies seem not just ubiquitous multi-zillion-budgeted epics of speed and destruction – drawing vast world-wide audiences in the age of Pedal-to-the-Metal, but the crazy nightmares of some long-vanished culture — some weird shit that somebody dreamed up and made out of CGI, after too many intoxicants, while centuries hence their descendants are condemned in real life to a fried planet, or to the beast and buggy stables, or the super-skateboards, or the Human Internet, or the Telekinetic Express, or whatever they then use to get around in the future, when all the oil is finally gone.
In any case, when they get a load of “Furious Seven” — and its super-powered sports cars and racing cars driving off cliffs and bailing out of planes and crashing and taking flight through one Abu Dhabi skyscraper after another — and when they take a gander at all the other bizarre airborne car fantasies that their moviemaking ancestors dreamed up for those vehicular marvels (fantasy flying Aston Martins and Dodge Chargers and Chrysler minivans) to do in their stunt sessions, they may not believe their eyes or brains. And that’s the whole point, of course.
Maybe, in a barmy way, the future audience will secretly buy it. Maybe they’ll think that’s what cars and life were really like. Maybe that’s what they’ll think drivers really did. Maybe they’ll dream of bringing back the golden age of car-chase movies and mayhem. Nah. I’m kidding of course. But…
“Furious Seven” is the seventh of the series that began in 2001 with the Vin Diesel-Paul Walker rebel-racers crash-a-thon, “The Fast and the Furious” — and that has been getting faster and more furious, and more expensive, and more lucrative, and more ludicrous (or Ludacris) ever since. I don’t like the series all that much, and I had my problems with this one too — though it’s my favorite of all of these shows, partly because of the presence of the new villain (Jason Statham), and of Kurt Russell as an ultra-smart-ass government official called “Mr. Nobody,” and a bit more because of the sheer loco preposterousness of all the car-chase, car-race scenes — which are, of course, always preposterous, but not always, it seemed, so much as they are here — and even more because of this movie’s surprisingly and genuinely moving ending: a fond farewell and tribute to Walker, who died in a car-crash in November, 2013, and becomes the subject of a heartfelt mood-shift that succeeds, smashingly..
Walker, a smiling good-looking surfer-blonde type, has been playing the ex-undercover-cop Brian O’Conner — opposite Diesel as the dour, bald, and hard-driving outlaw racer Dominic Toretto — since the beginning, back in 2001. He died with only about half of his part here on film. And it was the unenviable assignment of new director James Wan, helmer of the hip gory horror movies Saw and The Conjuring (who took over direction from Justin Lin, who did the last four of them) to somehow disguise the fact that Walker was not physically present for many of his scenes. (He was CGIed, dubbed and replaced for some of them by other actors, including his two brothers, Caleb and Cody CGI). In any case, the fictional Brian was not intended at first to say the goodbyes that most of us will think must be coming.
How can you take a movie that was intended at the start to be an entertainingly ridiculous, an action-bromance with a few laughs and a sermon or two, and swerve it into seriousness and sadness at the end?
You take it seriously. And sadly. Furious Seven (a title Wan took from what I assume must be one of his favorite films, Akira Kurosawa’s The Magnificent Seven) has been retooled of course. It has that new heavy: Jason Statham as the scowling sadist Deckard Shaw, a mean ex-Special Ops guy out for revenge against Dom’s team, the boys (and girls) who put his brother Owen (Luke Evans) into the hospital, before Deckard puts Owen and all his fellow patients and doctors into the Fiery Beyond.
Not content with one massacre, Deckard starts killing off members of Dom‘s “family,” until Dom and his guys (and gals) take umbrage and are recruited by Russell’s Mr. Nobody (I’d forgotten how great Russell was as Nick Frescia, the wise acre L. A. cop with the Pat Reilly haircut in Bob Towne‘s Tequila Sunrise; here, I remembered). Their assignment: to go after Deckard and his psycho cohort, fiendish war lord Mose Jakanda (Dimon Hounsou), in order to rescue gorgeous ace hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who has invented a program called God‘s Eye, which can find anyone, anywhere.
Back for the ride, making up the family, in addition to Brian and Dom, are some more vets: Dom’s fierce amnesiac lady Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Brian’s staunch wife (and Dom’s sister) Mia (Jordana Brewster), and the comedy team of blowhard Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and tech whiz straight man Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). And, despite being confined to a hospital and an arm-cast for most of the movie, Fast Five latecomer Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
The automotive antics this time include a wacko scene where the crew bail out of a plane flying over Azerbaijani and the Caucasus Mountains, soaring down without parachutes (except for the jump-shy Roman) and landing, amazingly, on a twisting road in the middle of a thick forest, after which they try to rescue Ramsey on an insanely perilous mountain way, surviving one cliff-hanger after another (including a teeter-totter tribute to The Italian Job).
There‘s another of those ridiculous chases though city streets (L. A. this time), in which in heroes (and heroines) and villains pursue and shoot at each other in a town that seems unprotected by police and every traffic law was made to be broken. Here, Dom and Deckard even stage a head-on collision, walk away unhurt and intact, and nobody, especially the police, tries to interfere. And, as if somebody somehow remembered the absurdity of it all, screen-writer Chris Morgan (who’s been around since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third in the series) has the cops finally show up, late, and the “vehicular war” exploding all over is at least mentioned on the TV news.
So this seven part saga, which began on L. A.’s mean streets, back in 2001, in director Rob Cohen‘s and writer Gary Scott Thompson’s inflation of the chickie run in James Dean’s immortal Rebel Without a Cause (a much better movie, with a tenth of the action), and has since been around the world (including the show’s itinerary of L. A. and Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi), gives us the flying car business as usual: unbelievable car stunts, unbelievably done, interrupted by some folderol from Roman and Tej and some bromance schmaltz from Dom and Brian and some road pulchritude from Letty and Ashley.
But this movie tries to maintain enough gravitas to be believable when the cast and crew, and especially Diesel’s Dom salute their fallen friend. They do, believably, which says something about how you make good movies that we remember for their people as much as, or more than for the crashes and the cliffhangers.