Deus-ed Up, Or: All the Deus-Bros.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

Here be spoilers, although not really until paragraph eight onwards (nine if this is one). I’ve tried not to give the ending away. 

There’s a reading of Harrison Ford’s rather plank-like performance in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982 etc) as Rick Deckard that suggests it is in fact a rather nuanced representation of a replicant. It doesn’t make sense as a reading, but there you go (he can’t be one of the six escapees because…).

I got the same feeling about Domhnall Gleeson about ten minutes into Ex Machina. It doesn’t make sense as a reading, but then again, what does? I was also reaching for Bluebeard and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), neither of which end well.

Bluebeard is the one when a duke invites his bride to stay in his castle whilst he goes off on a jolly, leaving her with the keys to all the rooms but instructions not to unlock the seventh door. Obviously she does, just as Eve ate the fruit and Pandora opened the box. It’s Story.

So Caleb (Caleb Williams, son of Jephunneh or son of Hezron, a villain in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a computer game character who is a gunslinger) is a computer jockey who wins the golden ticket and gets to go to the chocolate factory the CEO of Bluebeard Bluebook’s secret lair. Before you it, know he’s flying across a landscape straight out of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) to the secret lair. If Gleeson has a look of both Nathan/Justin from Queer as Folk, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is more bearish, pummeling a punchbag, swigging a beer from a bottle and being furry under a vest. Apparently he is a genius. (Nathan — son of David, Nathan Fillion played Caleb…)

Caleb, before he goes any further in his bonding over beer, vodka and sushi with Nathan, has to sign all kind of non-disclosure agreements to make sure we feel uneasy.

He is allowed entry to any room that the key will open — but he Must Not Enter any that remain locked. Because he couldn’t steal any other keys. And they’ve forgotten about facial recognition. Then he learns his mission — Nathan has developed an AI-powered gynoid and he wants a complete stranger to see if she passes the Turing Test. You know, the thing with Benedict Cumberbatch? If she can convince a slightly emotionally cold but supposedly smart man that she is conscious, then she passes. It’s like the Voight Kampff Test with fewer tortoises. Or fewer turtles.

The gynoid is Ava, a step above Eve as names go, but only just. And she’s fabulously attractive even in what appears to be as string vest or (later) Laura Ashley. Her ribs are showing, mind. Actually, this is an impressive performance by Alicia Vikander, with a faint visual echo of Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger from Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973) along with Maria from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926) or C3PO. There is a sense of the uncanny valley, she doesn’t quite move right. She clearly gets the better of Caleb rather speedily, and he surely doesn’t need her to warn him about Nathan.

Nathan debriefs Caleb in a series of romantic tête-à-tête meals served by an (oh god, of course) silent Japanese woman who will later get inappropriate with Caleb. Nathan, it is clear, is a genius, in all probability an evil genius, an evil genius with a god complex, who has seen Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984) but not Pygmalion. And who single handedly has secretly developed this gynoid without any staff help from his huge corporation. Because world-beating science is done solo. You’ve read Frankenstein (1818). Presumably he has minions to run Bluebook, but his out of office reply is permanently on.

So there are seven interviews as I recall, as Caleb performs his unlikely duties, uncertain of whether to trust Nathan, maybe falling in love with Ava, mainly failing to realise he’s the schmuck being set up by someone and there is not chocolate factory to inherit.

And when the seventh door is opened, you might ponder for a moment that there is not enough popular culture showing chopped up women for our visual pleasure. Eventually, of course, you realise the sleight of hand of intergenrification which has made you confuse film noir for sf, and the femmes are a little more fatale then you gave them credit for. Feminist? Mebbe. Has she passed the test? Mebbe.

Alex Garland wrote and directed this film, having written a few novels such as The Beach (1996) and screenplays for 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007), Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) and Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012). I think some of Boyle’s other screenwriter, John Hodge, has rubbed off him in the claustrophobia of a chamber piece leading to violence and the sense of a genre being lived in without really being inhabited. The use of music also felt like shades of 28 Days Later. It could have been tauter and I could lived without the screen slides counting the interviews. There’s also a point of view switcheroo that is, if not quite a deus ex machina plot device, headed for being a Get Out of Jail Free card.

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