Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina (and short comments on The Age of Adaline)

                         “Such a lovely place … Such a lovely face”
                             “Hotel California” The Eagles (from their 1977 album of the same name;
                                                                                have a listen in a link waaay down below)
                                                               Review by Ken Burke
                                              Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
A young coder wins a week’s visit with his brilliant, reclusive CEO only to find that he’s there to test his boss’ attempt to create an android with realized artificial intelligence, a “female” who seems attracted to the employee and wants his help in escaping from the true intentions of the inventor; this is taut, cerebral sci-fi, well worth your time and attention.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
What Happens: Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson)—implying an ordinary “everyman” quality with the surname yet something unique with the given name—a young coder (orphaned at 15) working for Blue Book, the Internet world’s by-far-most-successful-search-engine (so whadda think about that, Google overlords?), wins an in-company-contest with the prize being a week shared with his renowned, reclusive boss at a remote estate in Alaska (although those exteriors were shot in Norway; whadda think about that, Sarah Palin?).  After the premise is set up in marvelously-efficient-fashion, we soon find that the isolated home is a high-security-compound that would make an Army base jealous with its ultra-high-tech-features (but no windows; again, security, except for the attractive vistas from the living room area), managed by a very-oddball-occupant, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac)—alternately welcoming and borderline-psychotic (not to mention alcoholic, probably for reasons that will come clear near the end of this summary)—along with his latest invention, Ava (voiced, motion-captured, and facially-identified by Alicia Vikander in a mesmerizing combination of machine and human structure), a robot who’s possibly attained true artificial intelligence.  As things turn out, Caleb’s contest “win” was carefully chosen, given his knowledge of A.I., so that he could apply a sophisticated version of the Turing test (named for contemporary-computer-forefather Alan Turing, the brilliant-yet-tragic-subject of The Imitation Game [Morton Tyldum; review in our December 23, 2014 posting]—Rick Deckard was essentially doing the same thing in Blade Runner [Ridley Scott; 1982, 1992, 2007 in its various editions] to weed out rebellious Replicants, but with much more violent results from those he identified) to Ava in order to determine if she’s truly a sentient form of technology.  Even though Caleb interacts with her only through glass walls that confine her from the rest of the spacious home, it’s clear that he’s fascinated with her, possibly infatuated, even as she seems to be flirting with him especially as she dons a wig (she has many to choose from, just as her face was an option for Nathan) and clothing so that her appearance is now indistinguishable from a human, making her all the more appealing to Caleb.

 However, Ava also has the capacity to cause power outages in the compound (unknown at first to Nathan, or so he implies but as Ava warns Caleb you can’t trust much of what Nathan says), which shuts down the audiovisual-surveillance of every inch of the place, allowing Ava to have secret chats with Caleb, ultimately leading to his plan to engineer an escape for them, especially after Nathan passes out drunk one night, allowing Caleb to swipe Nathan’s keycard and enter the restricted areas of the house, discovering the remnants of previous robots along with clarifying that no matter how well Ava does in her test her memory will be wiped as her organic-rather-than-electronic- “brain” is destined for use in the next (supposedly final) version of Nathan’s humanoid A.I. device and that Nathan’s frequently-abused Japanese servant/dance partner (in the most subtly-unnerving-scene in the film), Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is also a robot (giving Caleb a fearful concern that he might be as well—which brings us back to Blade Runner in the sense that director Scott admitted that Deckard is a Replicant also, despite the difficult questions that raises for the actions within that narrative—so Caleb has to test his humanity in a chilling blood-letting-scene to verify that he’s not running on some form of anti-freeze).  However, both Caleb and Nathan are one step ahead of each other, as the inventor has placed a hidden battery-powered-camera in Ava’s area so he’s aware of their plan just as Caleb anticipated such a move so he’s already reprogrammed the internal security system, allowing Ava to escape confinement and the other doors to unlock.  Nathan tries to force Ava back into her rooms, slashing off her left hand in the struggle, but between knife stabs from Kyoko (back) and Ava (front), Nathan’s left dying even after smashing Kyoto’s head mechanism, terminating her operations.  Ava then acts swiftly to trap Caleb in a section of the house behind shatterproof-glass, cut the power again so that he has no connection to the outside world, then coldly leaves him there to die as she get a new left arm and complete-body-covering-skin from her discarded predecessors, then exits the compound to leave via the helicopter pickup intended for Caleb, with our last view of her in a crowded urban intersection where she’s free to advance her new form of consciousness into the human world, likely with deadly consequences for us inferior-carbon-based-life-forms.  (Unless she gets destroyed along with the other A.I.-villains-determined-to-eradicate-problem-causing-humans in the upcoming release of Avengers: Age of Ultron [Joss Whedon; review to be posted here next week after the box-office-chaos dies down]; while we’re in parenthetical-land I’ll also note that I still get statements that my comments run on too long, but if you want to see how svelte I look by by comparison check out this Ex Machina summary where there are editor’s concerns that it “may contain an excessive amount of intricate detail that may only interest a specific audience”—yet they say that like it’s a bad thing!)

So What? Not only is Ex Machina (the title, from deus ex machina in Latin, referring to the ancient Greek theatrical ploy of setting distressing plot conditions aright by having a god lowered or raised onto the stage by some device to overcome the terrible-if-not-fully-insurmountable-protagonist-problems—thus “god from the machine”) yet another disturbing entry into the catalogue of warnings about the dangers to the human race if objects truly become sentient (from such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968] or franchises such as The Terminator [James Cameron, 1984, 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003; McG, 2009; Alan Taylor, 2015) and The Matrix (Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003] to warnings against such from prominent scientist Stephen Hawking [see the 3rd link about this film in the suggestions far below]) but also it shows how part of what we understand as human consciousness is rooted in mistrust and manipulation, as both Nathan and Ava use Caleb for their personal purposes without him ever knowing how or when to trust either of them until it’s too late.  Despite earlier denials that he didn’t program Ava to act attracted to Caleb so as to further encourage him to declare her as passing the Turing test (as well as using easily-available-search-engine-data to choose a face for her that corresponds to Caleb’s previous Web-porn-preferences), Nathan finally reveals (when he thinks he has the upper hand) that he was using Caleb as an unwitting guinea-pig to be duped by Ava in her attempts to construct an escape plan (as she learned what her fate would be), a self-directed-deviousness which would show her human attributes (so it was Nathan conducting the real Turing test all along).  However, Ava not only responded well to Nathan’s hidden scheme, she manages to up the ante on him by encouraging Caleb to constantly question what was actually going on in this contemporary-Frankenstein-laboratory, enough so that he actually caught Nathan unaware of the actual escape scenario until it was already in place, allowing both men to be surprisingly-overcome by the androids in a betrayal of all that the humans had to offer in terms of giving life (Nathan—although it would be impossible for Ava to procreate [despite the heterosexual urges that were programmed into her, as with the previous robots, all comely females, which speaks to the internal traumas of humanity-aloof-Nathan] but she might know enough about her own creation-methods to be able to build more like herself or seduce other men to do such work for her) or sharing life (Caleb—quite smart in his own right, although presumably a techno-loner without Nathan’s enormous material resources, yet emotionally-naïve-enough to not recognize that his biologically-driven-reproductive-urges [even with a non-viable-“mate”] were being trumped by Ava’s foundational-programming, a human characteristic compelling reproduction but still subordinate to the essential-fight-or-flight-self-preservation-dictate; Ava proved to be all too-human, at our most basic, often terrifying, level).

 Caleb tells Nathan that if he’s truly succeeded at creating A.I. then he’s now in the realm of the gods, which seems to satisfy the disturbed CEO’s ego, but it’s left to us to add either the religiously-based-warnings against such realm-of-the-divine-intrusive-arrogance (as shown long ago in The Bride of Frankenstein [James Whale, 1935]) or the scientific (often agnostic at best) version of such a troubled prophesy by concerned geniuses such as Hawking.  Some say that A.I. is inevitable because of our innate curiosity coupled with the current technological capacity to achieve such a monumental phenomenon, even though the result could be the end of our species; others are either more optimistic that we might be able to coexist with such sentient machines for our greater benefit or that what makes humans unique is so indefinable (as noted in the next paragraph) that it can never be truly duplicated.  The answer to whether such a singularity development can/will occur supposedly awaits us in just a few more decades; until then, usefully-contemplative-sci-fi such as Ex Machina may help guide the process/impact of this critical step in our own self-determined-evolution.  However, just as the “god” aspect of the original allusion is missing from the title of this film, so is Nathan not the god that Caleb implies but at best seems to be a mad scientist with a dangerously-inquisitive-mind, determined to follow his achievement-driven-desires to challenge the limits of human knowledge no matter the impact of formulating, then unleashing, a force that’s clearly beyond his control.

Convergence, 1952
(not the Pollock painting used in the film; 

haven't located that one yet)
Bottom Line Final Comments: Another intriguing idea tossed at us by Nathan is that what we know as true consciousness produces something like a Jackson Pollock painting—it’s not done randomly as would be the case with a lower-life-form that just blindly stumbles around in its environment always looking for food and an opportunity to procreate, nor is it completely focused on a fixed result as with a supercomputer designed to be superior at one activity, such as chess, but really has no awareness that it’s even playing chess, rather it’s simply responding in a highly-sophisticated manner to the task set before it—where aspects of random action and calculated control are modified by an open-ended-awareness that may not yet know the outcome of its investigations but can continue to respond to the progress being made to bring about a resolution that’s not just the most-optimal-accumulation of finite choices.  As we see, though, sometimes those resolutions aren’t mutually-beneficial for all concerned (they probably aren’t most of the time, given what we know of human history or daily headlines), giving us pause to consider whether we really want to create machines that think like us, either because they’ll act too much like us as well (but with superior mental resources that could ultimately out-maneuver our efforts at control) or, like in so many futuristic-sci-fi-movies, they’ll decide that we’re the expendable virus that’s harming the planetary-eco-system, leading to their decision to use their superior forces to exterminate us (in addition to these deep-thought-considerations there are also some interesting trivia tidbits about this film that might also interest you)Ex Machina is extremely successful in maintaining a sense of tension and dread in terms of what’s really going on here, what (whom?) should we believe, and what consequences are there in Ava’s escape, implied but not addressed within this narrative; the soundtrack adds to that tension at times with the whirr of helicopter blades that have no immediate connection to Caleb’s transportation in but not out of Nathan’s fortress, conjuring up (in my mind at least) the use of such sounds of these flying machines in Pink Floyd’s 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album (with their Vietnam War connotations from back when this epic recording was created), which explores many aspects of human failure, ending in madness.

 In regard to a Musical Metaphor to wrap up what we encounter in the fascinating world of Ex Machina, I’ll turn to my old friends, The Beatles, for “I’m Looking Through You” (from their landmark 1965 Rubber Soul album) at com/watch?v=_6Geqj Kif8g (with added footage of the Fab Four, unrelated to the performance of this song but more interesting to look at than the album cover or some other arbitrary still for 2½ minutes), as I might imagine it being sung by Ava to her forgotten men, especially as she might focus on Nathan with “Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?” but she could be equally just as curt toward Caleb singing “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.”  When we first meet her (no point in putting this word in quotes as she’s seemingly made the transition into an acknowledged level of human consciousness), we’re literally looking through parts of Ava’s structure as some of her outer frame is transparent, allowing us to see the mechanisms within; by the end of the film, though, as she’s now covered up and loose in society—with actions that will lead who knows where but possibly with catastrophic results for the unwitting humans that she’s now in concert with—she can easily say to us, “You don’t sound different, I’ve learned the game, I’m looking through you, you’re not the same” (which may lead someday to the last huddled people hiding in caves watching this relevant list of 101 films about “solitude, loneliness, and isolation," at least until the batteries on their non-sentient-devices finally give out).

 Box-office-records may not be the same either by the time I next visit with you to report on  Avengers: Age of Ultron (It’s already opened to a massive $201.2 million in 44 overseas markets last weekend, April 24-26 [which somewhat offsets the $250,000,000 budget] and may eventually join Furious 7 [James Wan; review in our April 15, 2015 posting] in topping the $1 billion mark in international sales [only the 3rd release ever to do that] as well as joining the upper realm of all-time-worldwide-grossers [Furious 7 is #4 at present, behind Avatar and Titanic (James Cameron; 2009, 1997), then comes the earlier Avengers movie (Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting), with those first 2 being the others to top $1 billion in international-release-income].)
Short Takes
           The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger)
A woman in a car wreck back in 1937 is hit by lightning which not only revives her but also stops her aging process so that she can’t form close relationships because it’s too difficult to outlive everyone around her as well as not allowing herself to be studied as a freak; she finally allows a lover into her life but he brings unanticipated complications from her past.
 But before I depart this time, let me offer you some brief(ish) remarks on another current release (one that’s also doing reasonably well in its debut, taking in a bit over $13.2 million in its first-domestic-weekend), The Age of Adaline, essentially a fairy-tale-type-romance (although with a pseudo-scientific explanation—but you could say that about Superman as well, as far as being “science fantasy,” or even, to some degree, about Ex Machina although the science part there is fast moving away from any sort of fictional fantasy while the “romance” turned out to be nothing more than a clever-machine-consciousness-rebellion-ploy).  Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), born January 1, 1908, grows up into young womanhood, marries, and has a daughter, Flemming.  Tragically, though, in 1937 her engineer husband is killed in an accident during construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, followed by Adaline’s car running off another bridge during a freak Marin County (just north of SF) snowstorm, leaving her drowned—until a bolt of lightning hits her car, not only reviving her but preventing her body from aging (with a narrator [another device that helps convey a fantasy/fairy-tale-like-mode here] offering some explanation supposedly grounded in science).  From there, Adaline lives through an unplanned Picture (or Portrait, as it's alternatively listed) of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1891)-type-existence up to the movie’s opening scene on December 31, 2014, although she frequently changes her identity in order to avoid inquiries about how her 29-year-old-appearance doesn’t match the chronology of her birth certificate.  She still lives in SF to be close to her naturally-elderly-daughter (Ellen Burstyn) but avoids any other meaningful relationships because she can’t grow old with anyone but a succession of pet dogs from the same lineage.

 She finally succumbs to the charms of yet another Internet billionaire (a bit younger than Nathan Bateman, which is even more frustrating to us mere mortals), Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), only to be shocked on a family visit to find that he’s the son of her former brief lover from 1966, William Jones (Harrison Ford, as subdued as you’ll ever see him).  Complications naturally arise, Adaline tries to flee but flips her car in yet another miraculous Marin snowstorm, then is rescued by Ellis with the EMT’s applying heart-starting-paddles which not only bring her back again but give her the courage to tell all to Ellis as she re-embraces a life with him (as my insightful wife, Nina, points out, though, that should make for some interesting holiday dinners with Dad trying to control his feelings around his 40-year-spouse, Kathy [Kathy Baker]), and a normal one at that, as the narrator explains that the 2nd electric shock restarted her biological aging process.  The Age of Adaline is very touching in its sad situation for the protagonist (belying the age-old-fantasy of desiring both eternal life and youth), heartwarming in Adaline’s decision to finally fully give herself over to love, obviously melodramatic with the father-son-twist, and a bit vacuous in how Adaline’s memory is strong about the events of her years (despite her 107-old-brain, which I guess didn’t age either) but she seems to have little life wisdom to share, except learning how to locate identity-forgers.  If you’re interesting in following up further, you can visit the official site, the trailer, along with the critics' scoring sites at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for details of their respective 54% and 51% semi-positive-tallies.

 OK, now I’m really out of here but will see you soon with a report on the first of this year’s spectacular superhero extravaganzas, with the new Star Wars entry to follow in December.
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Here’s some more information about Ex Machina: (8:40 featurette on “Examining Our Fear of Artificial Intelligence” with commentary from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland, actors Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander giving more context to the film’s scenes in the above trailer; there’s a link at the top of the screen at the end of this clip that will take you to more info on Ex Machina but please note that the link at the bottom of that screen will take into a completely different topic)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Thought the narrator of The Age of Adeline was a direct channeling of Rod Serling and the whole premise was an extended Twilight Zone episode from the fifties except the aging paradox was done better in the more recent Harrison Ford saves the movie which would not have worked at all without Blake Lively.

    1. Hi rj, I'll agree on all counts here. This is a very intriguing premise but just not one that works out as well in this movie as it might have, although Ms. Lively was just that while Ford really came across well. If Han Solo truly is going to be laid to rest next December I just hope that Harrison continues doing more subdued but impactful roles such as this one. Ken

  2. Your review of Ex Machina was crisp and to the point, requiring little input from me other than agreeing this is one to see. No name actors but they all do a good job. I thought Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb was perfect for the part and was able to portray a changing character very well.

    Interestingly I had not heard of this film before this week which is always a great surprise when it turns out to be much better than average.

  3. Hi rj, Thanks for the compliments (always appreciated); complete agreement on Gleeson. I didn't know much about the film either before it was released but the consistently positive reviews got me intrigued. Ken