Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.
(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani, Elina Alminas, Chelsea Li, Ramzan Miah, Caitlin Morton, Deborah Rosan, Johanna Thea, Evie Wray. Directed by Alex Garland
What differentiates man from machine? One creates the other, true, but as machines grow more intelligent, able to make decisions without intervention, the difference becomes more and more narrow. We are moving clumsily but ever steadily in the direction of artificial intelligence – machines that can actually think, rationalize and eventually, feel. What will the difference be then?
Caleb (Gleeson) is a code warrior in a cubicle at Blue Book, the world’s most popular search engine who has an extraordinarily mundane life but all that changes when he wins a contest at work to spend a week in the mountain retreat of the reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). The man is something of a personal hero to Caleb; Nathan had, after all, written the essential software that powers his profit-generating search engine when he was but 13 years old. Caleb in that sense is more of a late bloomer.
He’s also feeling a bit awkward when the helicopter taking him to the mansion lets him off a mile or so away; Nathan doesn’t like to be disturbed by the noises of civilization. But Nathan tries to dispel that awkwardness between boss and employee by explaining how hung over he was that morning. Looks like the two are well on the way to a bromance.
But Nathan has ulterior motives and Caleb didn’t just win a random drawing; he was chosen, selected even. You see, Nathan’s home is also something of a research facility with Nathan the sole researcher and what he’s doing is a bit of a doozy – he’s developed the world’s first artificial intelligence, giving it a female form and calling it Ava (Vikander).
And more to the point, Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to determine if she has a true A.I., one which would revolutionize science as we know it. And Ava seems to be passing with flying colors, able to draw expressively as well as discuss intelligently nearly any subject on earth, and the one subject she wants to study most of all is Caleb who is the only other human she’s seen besides Nathan.
For the most part, Caleb is amazed but he begins to get suspicious. Nathan seems to be drunk nearly all the time and the only other person in the house is the servant girl Kyoko (Mizuno) who speaks no English and is badly treated by Nathan. During one of the frequent power outages, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not being straight with him and that he is lying about virtually everything.
Caleb is in a quandary.. On the one hand, he is at ground zero of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, but he is not at all convinced that Nathan is completely stable – and there is the possibility that he’s being manipulated. But by whom and to what end?
Intelligent science fiction is a bit of an oxymoron in Hollywood; mostly, the studios keep their sci-fi to action packed space opera adventures, or dark dystopian nightmares that are usually – you guessed it – action packed. When one comes along like this film that gets the grey matter some exercise, it’s a pretty good day right there. That it is entertaining as all get out is an extra added bonus.
Isaac has in a very short time become an actor whose presence in a film is sufficient reason for me to go see it. He has enormous presence and here he plays a charismatic tech billionaire but one with an agenda that he keeps well-hidden, although there are plenty of red flags – the rooms that Caleb isn’t allowed to access, the non-disclosure agreement that Caleb is required to sign right off the bat, the flashes of temperament. Nathan is ostensibly the villain here but he’s no standard mad scientist – although he is the definition of one when all is said and done – but more a misunderstood genius who has become too used to getting whatever whim he has seen to immediately.
Gleeson is not yet to the level of Isaac but he is heading down that road. He was really, really good in About Time and he has that Joe Ordinary quality that makes him instantly identifiable. Sweet-natured and a bit naive, Caleb is puppy-eager to please early on but quickly establishes that he is his own man and he has a genuine moral qualm with keeping Ava locked up with the certain knowledge that his report will lead to Ava being “upgraded” which will essentially wipe clean her memory. The body will live but the soul will be gone.
The special effects are eye-popping. Considering the modest budget that the film had, it’s quite frankly amazing how they pulled off some of the effects shots that they did. Looking at Ava for example, whose mid-section, arms and legs are clear where the servo mechanisms are clearly seen as well as whatever is behind Ava at the time. I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out how they did it and I imagine it was some sort of motion capture, but that’s generally crazy expensive so I’m probably wrong on that score. The mountain forest backgrounds are pretty spectacular as well.
Garland has pulled off an impressive directing debut (he has been a novelist and a screenwriter for some time, with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later among his impressive credits) in slick fashion and seems poised to become a mover and shaker in the business. His next stint in the director’s chair is rumored to be Annihilation, also a science fiction film this time for Paramount and you can bet that there are a whole lot of studios headed his way with projects ear-marked for him – I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel and DC will be among them.
So he has a bright future, but the present is what we’re about here. This is one incredible, impressive movie, one you’ll be talking about for weeks and months to come. If you’re a film lover who shies away from sci-fi, trust me this is going to be remembered right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner when it comes to not just great science fiction films but great films in general.
REASONS TO GO: Intelligent throughout. Leads all do stellar work. Impressive special effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the ending a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty good amount of foul language, plenty of graphic nudity, a little bit of violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Gleeson are featured in the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.I.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Monsters: Dark Continent