Review Roundup - I, Robot

EX MACHINA (2015)

I'm always glad to see at least one low budget science fiction success each year, and 2015 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 fair 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 camp blockbuster characters and the nuanced performances required here. Don't expect any fast paced action, this is slow and unsettling all the way.



Caleb (Gleeson) is a programmer who wins a weekend away at the retreat of the corporation owner Nathan (Isaac), a reclusive genius hiding out in what seems to be the wilds of Norway. It's a cold and distant location which sets the tone immediately, as does the sterile glass and concrete design of Nathan's billionaire hideaway. The eerie electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow builds on this mood throughout. The scenery is awe inspiring and the house is stylish but as things go on it becomes clear this is intended as a fa├žade like many other elements in this story. Fenced off from the world there is something slightly off about the situation including Nathan himself.

There are awkward conversations and uncomfortable silences right from the start. After inviting Caleb to take part in a test on his latest piece of work, it's also apparent that the programmer himself might have some issues of his own 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 the core of the cast for most of the film's duration, although Nathan's mysterious servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) gets a few memorable moments. We spend a lot of time figuring out the little complexes of the main duo as the story really gets under their skins. In more way more ways than one.

The other main character here is of course the robotic Ava (Alicia Vikander). Her involvement is the focus of the story, as it's revealed that Caleb is here to do a kind of Turing test. It's an intriguing idea, although the methods are less than scientific at times. Despite Ava's naked metal components and transparent torso showing her as a machine, she's obviously designed with looks and personality traits to evoke sympathy. As things progress Ava's own actions begin to take advantage of this in ways taht may or may not be as Nathan intended. Like the scenery the robotic body is an impressive piece of design work within a limited budget and the effects are all pretty flawless. However as things go on the wide eyed wonder and the magic of this breakthrough technology is slowly eaten away by paranoid discomfort and all too human emotional conflicts.

There are long scenes of one on one interviews inside 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 herself may know more than she is letting on. This drama of who can be trusted and who is truly being tested is an engaging one which only gets stranger as things unfold. Power cuts caused by the remote building's location 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 overpowering. This isn't one to watch for a fun Crichton like tale of science gone amok and even the finale where things get out of hand moves at a glacial pace. But it fits with the story, and for those looking for some heavier science fiction ideas it's definitely worth seeing.

4/5

BONUS REVIEW
THE MAN FROM UNCLE (2015)


Alicia Vikander also features in something quite different this year, unfortunately it's a release that is anything but a nuanced or well told story. But it's also far from a well made action adventure. It lacks almost everything I praised Rogue Nation for despite having a similar TV show reboot origin. Somehow this is a Cold War espionage plot about infiltrating a sinister organisation to rescue a nuclear scientist without anything that really comes off as engaging. There are lots of attempts to give it a sense of period chic, but even the 1960s art style transitions don't do much beyond providing a visual distraction.

The one big action set piece during the third act is completely fumbled because of this, and what might have been a pastiche of the old You Only Live Twice secret lair assault lacks any excitement at all. The screen is split into moving rectangles and the sound effects are muted, draining the effects of the spectacle. The tone is similarly messy instead of offering a good mix of humour and tension, in one instance jumping from harrowing torture and dialogue about Nazi war criminals to visual gags and 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 often just tedious and frustrating.

2/5