Tagged: science fiction

Ex Machina (UK 2015)

Caleb (Dhomnall Gleason) arrives at the remote house of Nathan (Oscar Isaac)

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, left) arrives at the remote house of Nathan (Oscar Isaac)

Alex Garland is a British writer with a keen interest in SF which he has turned into interesting scripts for a number of films. Now he has become a writer-director and we can consider whether the earlier films owe more to directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. in 28 Days Later) or the original story (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro) rather than Garland’s own contributions. My initial thought about Ex Machina is that the direction fits the script but that the most immediately impressive features  are the performances, the location, set design and cinematography and the sound design and music score (all of which are, of course, part of the collective work which the director co-ordinates). On reflection, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which Garland creates a discourse about Artificial Intelligence, partly through dialogue and the interaction of characters and partly through narrative development. In doing so he draws on the whole history of SF in literature and film. I think there is relatively little ‘new’ in the presentation of AI here, apart from the idea that the ‘scientist as God’ character, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has drawn on his experience as the creator of an internet search engine as the means of acquiring the data which has informed his programming of androids. But genre films don’t have to be original to work well and in several ways this is an exemplar SF narrative. I can see, however, that it might be seen as more like a filmic version of a classic SF short story or an episode of The Outer Limits. It is relatively modest in its reach, partly perhaps because with only $13 million and a need for extensive effects there are serious restraints on production. Still, better a modest success than a $100 million Hollywood mess.

The narrative set-up is straightforward. Caleb, a young coder working for the ‘Blue Book’ (?) internet search company, is flown to the remote house/research laboratory owned by Nathan, the firm’s founder. Here he learns that he has seven days to apply the Turing Test to the product of Nathan’s research, an android robot named Ava. This is the first conundrum which seems to have tripped up some reviewers. In the original test the idea was that the tester would not be able to see the computer but would be able to discern from its behaviour in answering questions (or playing chess) that it was human or a machine. The AI would ‘pass’ the test if it was impossible to tell the difference. But Nathan presents Caleb with the android itself. His task is to engage with the android and try to devise his own test to see if he recognises human rather than ‘artificial’ behaviour. This in itself raises an interesting set of philosophical questions – the test becomes about Caleb’s behaviour as much as it is about Ava’s.

Alicia Vikander as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

Ava is clearly ‘artificial’ – we can see the elements of the machine. The next question is whether ‘she’ is ‘female’, or perhaps, is it possible for Caleb to conduct the test when the android has a woman’s shape and a face as beautiful as that of Alicia Vikander? In the blog by MaryAnn Johanson there is a sustained critique of the film, accusing it of being a male director’s version of a feminist film when in reality it is the opposite. There are many comments on Johanson’s blog in both support and opposition and it is an interesting debate. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll not discuss all the points but certainly we can imagine that the test Caleb devises is partly, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by Ava’s seductive charm. On the other hand, it is quite a leap to suggest that Ava is, or that she represents, a ‘woman’. The android has no sex even if ‘her’ actions are ‘gendered’ in social terms by Caleb and Nathan – as well as by us the audience. I think several viewings are going to be needed before I would be confident about embarking on a debate about the film’s representations of gender. Ava is an interesting name for the android. In one sense Ava ‘sounds like’ ‘Eva’, the first woman. It’s also the first name of the film star who in her time was argued to be the most beautiful, Ava Gardner and it is close to ‘Ada’ which might be a reference to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron and claimed by some as the first computer programmer.

A few days ago I was complaining about the script for Albatross and focusing on poor script development as a weakness in British cinema. I don’t think you could accuse Garland of producing a sloppy script. I read somewhere that he was attempting to achieve something like the closed drama of Sleuth, the 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer, first adapted as a film in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s possible to see elements of a theatre text in the lines of dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, enhanced by the tension between the two as Nathan sets out to ‘play’ the younger man like a fish lured to the fly. My only problem with this is that I’m not yet convinced by Nathan’s character – or rather his behaviour. I don’t think that this is the fault of Oscar Isaac as Nathan, but Nathan seems rather boorish and careless for a man who has designed an android and who lives in such a stylish house.

I think I’m convincing myself that this would be a good study text for students and I’m looking forward to mapping the references and influences. It seems fairly clear that the gender issues are central in some way and also all those Phil K. Dick obsessions with the interface between human and artificial intelligence. Ex Machina could be a Dickian short story. But the Hollywood Reporter gets it wrong in its review. At the beginning of Blade Runner, the ‘replicants’ (the film’s term for androids) are not being given a Turing Test – the society already knows that replicants can pass for human. Instead they are being given an ‘empathy test’ as the only way to identify them. Dick referred to androids and to simulacra. Ava is presented as an android but the technology used could create ‘sims’, indistinguishable visually from humans. I’m not going to spoil the narrative but the Dick story that came to mind when I watched Ex Machina was ‘Second Variety’ (1953) – well worth reading and thinking about in relation to Garland’s story. The other major work that occurred to me was Tarkovsky’s Solaris but I’m not sure what triggered this memory (possibly it was the memory of Natalya Bondarchuk as the woman on the space station).

Ex Machina is an interesting and engaging SF film and following Under the Skin, presents a strong case for the health of British SF cinema. (IMDB bafflingly calls this an American film but as far as I can see it is entirely British – unless Universal invested in the film. Certainly it was shot in UK studios (and on location in Norway).

This is quite a good trailer (and doesn’t give away too much):

Interstellar (USA 2014)


I saw Christopher Nolan’s new science fiction feature at the Hyde Park Picture House: where we enjoyed a fine 35 mm print of the film. Apparently Nolan used his clout to make sure that celluloid prints were available for the ‘few’ outlets that still provide this format. A couple of people from the Picture House has seen the film on the Imax screen at Bradford: they said it was really impressive. However, the screening alternated between the 70 mm format and the Imax format – I am not sure I would have enjoyed that, and I was uncertain if I could cope with what is essentially a narrative film on the Imax projection scale.

It is certainly a visually impressive film. Some of the sequences, like the far-away planets that the explorers visit, are awesome. The early part of the film has an intriguing dystopian plot which holds the attention. And the early part of the exploration is gripping. I found the later stages of the film lest involving. I found the plotting somewhat fanciful, and the film also intercuts between the ‘present’ and scenes in the ‘past’. I sort of understood why but I did not think it worked effectively.

The major problem with the film is the music score, not as reported some mumbled dialogue. The score is by Hans Zimmer, an experienced mainstream composer. But it struck me as fairly over the top, and increasingly so in the latter stages of the film. I found it the most obtrusive score for ages: and I do think contemporary films have a tendency to revert to the wall-to-wall scores of the 1930s: but then the form and music were rather different.

A friend afterwards reckoned that the theoretical model that the film bases its futurology on is good science, (based on the writings of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne). He also mentioned that the same ideas inform Contact (1997) and i could immediately see the connection. I found though that this film tended to melodrama, which dilutes the science. I did not pick up an explanation of the supposed science.

The other point is that Nolan appears intend on revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. We have the black obelisks, this time round computers of the Hal variety: recognisable vistas of the universe and galaxies: and the rather religious treatment of scientific theory: we were though spared the Apes.

The film’s basic premise definitely struck me as hard science fiction: however the treatment is sci-fi. Even so definitely worth watching, even at a 168 minutes. If you know the projectionist they might turn down the sound level for you.

Lucy (France/Taiwan/Canada 2014)

Scarlett Johansson as 'Lucy' in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

Scarlett Johansson as ‘Lucy’ in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

Luc Besson signalled his desire to make films in English for the international market as long ago as 1994 with Léon (known in the US as The Professional). In the mid 1990s he was loosely partnered with Matthieu Kassovitz, both striving to make big budget films as French productions with partners in Europe or Canada. Kassovitz couldn’t sustain the production role and mostly turned to his acting career but Besson has been prolific as writer, producer and director. His company EuropaCorp (set up in 1999) has become a major international integrated studio.

Lucy is bonkers – but it is entertaining and it is clever. It also indicates how alive Besson is to the potential market in East Asia. His co-production/funding partners here comprise Teléfilm Canada because of the visual effects work by Rodeo FX in Montreal and the Tapei Film Office for the location work in Taiwan. The story and casting scream ‘international’. There are two Hollywood stars, Scarlett Johansson as Lucy and Morgan Freeman (basically playing himself a ‘professor with gravitas’). The film begins with a cameo by Pilou Asbæk (star of Danish hit series Borgen) and there are secondary roles for the British actor Julian Rhind-Tutt and the Egyptian-French Amr Waked. The film’s villain is played by the South Korean star Choi Min-sik.

The narrative begins in Taipei where Lucy (Johansson), an American expat student in the city is persuaded (against her will) to make a ‘delivery’ for a friend. She is correct in suspecting that it might not be a good idea and she becomes an unwilling ‘drug mule’ for a Korean gangster. This is no ordinary drug and when a large quantity is inadvertently forced into her bloodstream she becomes possessed of superhero powers. Intercut with these events is a lecture being given in Paris by Freeman’s professor about brain capacity and the potential for expanding human brain power. Lucy then attempts to escape the gangsters and head for a meeting with the professor. The three other carriers of the remainder of the drug consignment are also bound for Europe (Paris, Rome and Berlin) hotly pursued by the gangsters. Car chases and gun battles await us as well as all kinds of CGI wizardry to represent the turmoil in Lucy’s head.

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

Hollywood seems to have been slightly surprised by the success of Lucy. Diehard science fiction fans have been very sniffy and reviewers have generally laughed at the film’s pretentiousness. But writer-director Besson is no mug. They laughed at The Fifth Element (1997) which made more than $250 million worldwide and Besson/EuropaCorp’s lucrative franchises Taxi, Transporter and and Taken may have many detractors but they make good profits in international markets. Lucy is one of the few films from the EuroCorp slate that Besson has written and directed himself. As well as the high quality cast, the film also features the cinematography of Thierry Arbogast and the music of Eric Serra, both long-time associates of Besson.

Putting aside, for the moment, Scarlett Johansson’s controversial decision to continue her work with the Israeli company SodaStream (with its factory in the West Bank) as its celebrity face in advertisements, there have been other controversies about Lucy. The film has been accused of racism in its representation of East Asian characters. I’m not sure this is valid. The Korean gangsters are not that dissimilar to those I have seen in Korean films. More problematic are the low level criminals in Taiwan who Lucy encounters when she first wakens after the drug takes hold. One of the main points is that she shoots a man seemingly because he can’t speak English. It’s worth remembering however that the plot suggests that at this point her ‘selfish gene’ has the upper hand and is propelling her towards ‘survival’ at any cost. She actually shoots the man in the leg to get him out of the way. As she gradually comes to realise what her new powers enable her to do, she becomes calmer and uses her powers more carefully. Having said that, the car chase she initiates causes quite a few accidents.

Lucy is entertaining, partly because Besson doesn’t take himself too seriously and there are several comic touches I enjoyed. Scarlett Johansson is very good as the student transformed into ‘action woman with a superbrain’ – a worthy successor to Anne Parillaud as Nikita and Nathalie Portman as Mathilda in Léon. And actually, Besson has been restrained in his presentation of Johansson who isn’t dressed in revealing outfits (or at least, I don’t remember any!). Given her other three action/SF roles of 2013/4 in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Her and Under the Skin, she is developing an interesting star profile. But she’s wrong about SodaStream and its factory in a settlement on the West Bank.

Here’s the EuropaCorp trailer:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.

I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.

As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)

The trio in the centre are the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The trio in the centre is the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.

Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013),  with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.

And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.

This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations: