I'm always glad to see at least one low budget science fiction feature and this year doesn't disappoint. While Alex Garland is best know as a writer he takes the director's chair for the first time in this tale of robotics and artificial intelligence. I've enjoyed his films in the past and although Sunshine and 28 Days Later get some flack for the third act violence it's never something I found to be hugely problematic. This time around they with go in a direction which is a lot more subtle, so perhaps he got all that out of his system with the gloriously bloody Dredd. Which isn't to say this doesn't feature it's share of alarming sequences but they take a lot of time getting there, and it feels appropriate for the material. It's strange to see Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson jumping from this to mega franchise Star Wars but as usual they are great choices for a slower, small scale story and seem able to easily jump between popcorn blockbuster characters and the nuanced performances required here. Don't expect any fast paced action here, this is slow and unsettling all the way.
Caleb (Gleeson) is a programmer who wins a weekend away at the retreat of the company owner Nathan (Isaac), a reclusive genius hiding out in what seems to be the middle of nowhere in Norway. It's a cold and distant location which sets the tone immediately, as does the sterile glass and concrete design of Nathan's hideaway and the eerie electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The scenery is awe inspiring and the house is stylish but as things go on it becomes clear this is intended as a façade like many other elements in this story. Fenced off from the world there is something slightly off about all of this including Nathan himself. When asked if his hangover was caused by a party the result is an uncomfortable silence, which is just the beginning. After inviting Caleb to take part in a test of his latest piece of work, it's also apparent that the programmer himself might have some issues whether this is apprehension because of the trip and the nature of his week away or just his own personality. They make for an odd couple who make up half the cast for most of the film, and we spend a lot of time figuring out their complexes and getting under their skin. In more way more ways than one.
Besides Nathan's mysterious servant the other character here is of course the robotic Ava (Alicia Vikander). This is the focus of the story, they are here to do a kind of Turing test, even if the methods are less than unbiased. Despite the naked metal components and transparent torso the machine is obviously designed with looks and personality traits to evoke sympathy, with Ava's own actions taking advantage of this whether Nathan intended it or not. Like the sets this is an impressive use design with a limited budget. The wide eyed wonder of this breakthrough in technology is slowly eaten away by paranoid discomfort and all too human emotional conflicts. There are long scenes of one on one interviews from claustrophobic rooms with sealed doors and dividing windows. As things go on it's clear that Nathan's intent may be different to his outward disclosure and Ava may know more than she is letting on. This drama of who can be trusted, and who is being tested, is an engaging one which only gets stranger as things unfold. Power cuts caused by the remote structure seem to be frequent, locking everyone inside - but like everything here it can't be taken at face value. It's an incredibly slow moving film which won't be to everyone's tastes, and at times the clinical atmosphere can be pretty strong. This isn't one to watch for fun. Even the finale where things get out of hand moves at a glacial pace. But it fits with the story; for those looking for some heavier science fiction ideas it's definitely worth seeing.
THE MAN FROM UNCLE (2015)
Alicia Vikander also features in something quite different this year, unfortunately one that is anything but a nuanced well told story. But it's also far from a well made action adventure, lacking almost everything I praised Rogue Nation for previously with a similar TV show reboot premise. Despite a Cold War espionage plot about infiltrating a sinister organisation to rescue a nuclear scientist there's not really anything that comes off as engaging. There are lots of attempts to give it style but even 60s art style transitions don't do much besides providing a distraction. The one big action set piece during the third act is completely fumbled because of this. What might have been a pastiche of the old You Only Live Twice base assault lacks any excitement at all as the screen is split into moving rectangles and the sound effects are muted. Even the tone is all over the place instead of offering a good mix of humour and tension. In one instance it jumps from harrowing torture and dialogue about Nazi war criminals to visual gags and dumb mismatched buddy comedy. In the same scene. It's not wholly terrible but despite Henry Cavill doing and Armie Hammer doing what they can to keep it from sinking this is a tedious mess.