Ex-Machina


Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

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

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The Internship


No, not the Tour de France.

No, not the Tour de France.

(2013) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Max Minghella, Rose Byrne, Aasif Mandvi, Josh Brener, Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael, Josh Gad, Jessica Szohr, Rob Riggle, Eric Andre, Harvey Guillen, Gary Anthony Williams, John Goodman, Will Ferrell, Bruno Amato, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Anna Enger, B.J. Novak, Karen Ceesay, Jill Jane Clements. Directed by Shawn Levy

 

One of the truths about modern life is that things are changing faster than we can keep up with them. Those of us who are middle aged don’t always notice it but when we take a moment to breathe it can be staggering how far we’ve come and how our lives have changed. For my part, I never thought of myself as particularly “tech-savvy” growing up but here I am blogging daily on the Internet.

Nick Campbell (Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vaughn) are feeling the currents of change swirling around them. Old school salesmen, they discover at a meeting with a client that their company has shut its doors without telling them. Nobody uses watches anymore apparently – people find out what time it is these days by checking their smart phones.

Without a college education and with limited skill sets in an increasingly high tech job market, the two flounder. Nick takes a job with his sister’s boyfriend (Ferrell) at a mattress store which is as demeaning as it gets but Billy, searching on Google for job possibilities, lands an interview for a possible internship at Google itself.

The two, neither one owning a computer of their own, use one in a public library (having to fend off snarky kids) and display an appalling lack of savvy when it comes to tech matters but the interviewers (Novak, Ceesay) discover that they bring other skills to the table – outside-of-the-box thinking and personal skills that most kids today haven’t had to develop.

Against all odds, they get a shot at an internship which could lead after a full summer to a high-paying job on the Google campus in Mountain View, California which kind of resembles a cubicle cowboy’s version of Fantasyland – but keep in mind that the production filmed there. The perks of employment (free food, nap pods, a volleyball court and loaner bikes) are actually part of the company’s employment package and the offhand remark early in the film that Google was rated the best place to work in the country is also true. Not in the movie are also a roller hockey rink, basketball courts, three wellness centers and onsite daycare.

Most of the other interns vying for a handful of jobs are kids half their age, all of them fresh out of college. Billy and Nick quickly realize that they are outgunned for this “mental Hunger Games” as Billy put it and realize that their only chance at landing the jobs they desperately need is by aligning themselves with the best team possible and coat-tailing it into employment. One of their competitors, the pretentious and arrogant Graham (Minghella) turns out to be something of a shark, snapping up all the whiz kids on his team.

This leaves them with the :”outcasts” who include Yo-Yo (Raphael), a home-schooled genius who was so bullied by his Korean mom that he picks at his eyebrows whenever he gets stressed – which leaves him without an eyebrow by the end of the internship, Neha (Sircar) a beautiful Southeast Asian chick who talks a good sexual game, Stuart (O’Brien) a cat so cool he rarely looks up from his smart phone to see what’s going on around him and Lyle (Brener) the nebbish manager who is mentoring them.

The internship is made up of a series of challenges overseen by Chetty (Mandvi), a Google executive who’s as frosty as the cold one he won’t be having with his employees. The commitment-phobic Nick strikes up a romantic friendship with Dana (Byrne), a hard-working manager whose life off endless meetings and brutally long workdays have left her without much of a life. As the games begin, Nick and Billy’s team seem hopelessly outcast. Can these old dogs teach their young teammates new tricks?

The plot is fairly formulaic so the answer to that question should be pretty self-evident. This is a movie that is meant to make the audience feel good and to a pretty good extent, it succeeds. Wilson and Vaughn first teamed up eight years ago in The Wedding Crashers and for whatever reason haven’t gotten together again since. However, their chemistry – central to the charm and success of that movie – is intact here thank goodness.

The two make a highly effective comedy team, the easygoing Wilson making a perfect foil to the manic fast-talking Vaughn. Some are going to measure The Internship to their previous movie and while I’ll admit it isn’t quite as funny as their first film, it’s unquestionably still entertaining. Mandvi, a veteran character actor, is particularly appealing as is the woefully underemployed Byrne. I liked all of the young actors who played their team and while Minghella’s Graham is less despicable in some ways than villains in similar movies, he still turns out to be the one you love to root against.

This does play like a puff piece for Google and that might grit a few teeth here and there. I’m not sure that they employ a lot of middle aged tech-challenged sorts but my guess is that the Billys and Nicks are few and far between on their Mountain View campus. Diversity only goes so far so in other words don’t get your hopes up.

I liked the movie enough to give it a solid recommendation. This isn’t a groundbreaker by any stretch but if you’re looking for a movie to give you a bit of a lift certainly this will fit the bill. A movie doesn’t necessarily have to give you deep insights to be a good movie; sometimes watching the underdog come through is enough to keep us going in a world where the haves seem to win an awful lot more than the have-nots. Given the presence of the team of Vaughn and Wilson is an added bonus. I only hope their next film comes sooner than eight years from now.

REASONS TO GO: Chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson is still solid. Feel-good movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as funny as one would hope. A nearly two hour commercial for Google.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie has its share of foul language, sexual references and crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The annoyed Google employee trying to take a nap during the nap pod sequence when Nick is trying to talk to Dana is played by director Shawn Levy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; yet another movie this summer the critics are lukewarm on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Real Genius

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: This is the End