Ex Machina (2015)


Ex Machina PosterDirector: Alex Garland

Release Date: January 21st, 2015 (UK); April 24th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; Mystery; Science fiction

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

One moment programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sitting at his desk, face illuminated by the glaring light of his work computer. The next he is strapped inside a helicopter, flying over an ice age and landing in Jurassic Park. The technological feat awaiting him would likely put dino DNA revitalisers to shame. If not, his target locale is certainly about to outmatch Isla Nublar on the ominous atmosphere front. See, Caleb has won the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to spend a week working alongside his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the latter’s remote outpost.

Nathan is a sharp-minded billionaire, which is plain to see upon reaching his scientific base: polished surfaces, gleaming windows, furniture positioned perfectly. Mirrors are plentiful, perhaps incorporated to feed the CEO’s macho demeanour (physical exertion is a favourite), and conjure up artificial reflections of those looking into them — more on that shortly. As Nathan, Isaac evokes detachment yet somehow also total involvement; he is knowledgeable, not only scientifically, but anthropologically too. He pokes fun at Caleb while asking all of the right (leading) questions to support his manifesto — for one, he convinces the out-of-sync employee to sign an autocratic non-disclosure form.

At once a beer-guzzling waster who speaks in Ghostbusters gags when drunk and a piercing intellect who is hard to pin down, the character benefits from Isaacs’ mysterious approach. Caleb has been invited over to test Nathan’s newest creation: an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). A near instant iciness develops between both guys, purposefully invoked by Nathan and anxiously accepted by Caleb, and it only gets worse as the experiment progresses. Test sessions between Caleb and Ava are signified by creepy, black title cards bred from the hard-edged Alien school of font. These interactions begin innocently enough, though the tables subtly turn when Ava asks her examiner about his love life (“Is your status single?”). Caleb giggles accordingly.

Vikander is brilliant — she moves with an odd mechanical smoothness, and glides with inhuman grace. Her tone is at once impersonal and enrapturing. Metaphorically speaking, her existence embodies humankind’s attraction towards technological achievement and how said attraction has been, and will continue to be, massively detrimental (atomic bombs are mentioned). Writer-director Alexander Garland uses Nathan as a centrepiece for humankind’s petulance: at one point Nathan informs us he made Ava simply because he could. It is also worth pointing out the excellent work of Gleeson, who juggles both the need to discover and the fear of causing a fuss with pristine awkwardness.

Caleb doesn’t know how to process his attraction, dismissing it as a false consequence of the preconditions set by Nathan. “This is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect,” replies the CEO with a dose of glee. Whereas earlier test sessions between Caleb and Ava would show the former on the left and the latter on the right, cinematographer Rob Hardy flips the two in later sessions. All of a sudden, he is part-AI and she is part-human. The artificial textures are so genuine looking they incur an uncanny valley vibe — the skin, the limbs, and the eyes all seem real, but we know they aren’t. We see all of this through Caleb’s gaze and Caleb, unsurprisingly, is bewildered and amazed, his sanity in depletion.

Garland delivers an indie outing that looks more mature than the norm and one that seems to carry more purpose too. It shares the same tense underbelly as Kelly Reichardt’s Eco-thriller Night Moves, only Garland’s film doesn’t lose steam halfway through, tension superbly maintained at the expense of clear-cut characterisation. We never truly understand anybody’s motive — how much does Nathan actually know about Ava? How much does Ava actually know about the programme? The entire film is like a sinister, sublime chess match formulated entirely by Nathan, and Caleb is the piece being played.

Dewy, misty surroundings denote total seclusion. A haunting score heightens bouts of inevitable eeriness (inevitable, but terrifically construed), particularly during a spying session. Even sweeter musical inflections, like an Explosions in the Sky sounding addition, are laden with menace. Every so often blood red warning lights repaint the scientific centre as a doomed spaceship — Event Horizon springs to mind, or perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another Garland-penned film. It looks and feels like proper science fiction: you don’t know what is around the corner, but you do know whatever it is will hold secrets primed to test your mind and probably freak you out.

Considering all I’ve written, you might see Ex Machina as an old school genre movie: dotted with expositional speeches that explore futuristic themes; plans smartly laid out and then executed; tension constantly simmering; characters attempting to outsmart each other. Even though it falters slightly at the very, very last hurdle — though one wonders where else the story could have conceivably gone — smart sci-fi is a treat, and this will test your brain in the most engaging manner.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: A24Universal Studios

The Last Days on Mars (2013)


The Last Days on Mars PosterDirector: Ruairí Robinson

Release Date: September 19th, 2013 (UK); December 6th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Horror; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams

The Last Days on Mars begins with a fairly promising sequence that sees two characters attempt to navigate an approaching dust storm. They bat around bouts of small talk, clean-sounding due to the atmospheric vacuum, quickly establishing their roles in the process. The air is quite eerie, uncanny almost. For five minutes, Ruairí Robinson’s outing works. Unfortunately, for ninety minutes it doesn’t. This subtle, edgy poise rapidly loses out to a flimsy skeleton; plot, characters and decision-making all broken and seemingly unmendable. On the Sunshine scale, The Last Days on Mars drifts miles yonder of Event Horizon before landing worryingly close to Apollo 18. Eek.

Thirty years or so from now, a team of scientists stationed on Mars are less than a day away from extraction. The incoming Aurora spacecraft is set to shuttle the crew back to Earth, but not before Marko (Goran Kostić) can covertly investigate some odd bacteria that he has come across. His findings are extraordinary, indicating the primitive existence of some new life form. However the nature of said discovery proves to be horrifying, and subsequently puts the remainder of the team in immediate danger.

In translating to the big screen, sci-fi historically carries a fairly patchy record. One element that has consistently shone though, is how the genre permeates atmospherically. Vastness is vast, and filmmakers are essentially unlimited given the nature of space potential. The Last Days on Mars makes fine work of the opportunities on offer, parading a visual spectrum that is encapsulating for the most part, and an aura that meanders tactfully between normal and creepy. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan delivers more than any other, affording the piece its one true success story. It’s only fair to point out Max Richter’s occasionally disconcerting score too, his musical interludes apparently effective enough to land him recent gigs as part of The Leftovers and As Above, So Below.

Annoyingly, this eerie-cum-wondrous soundscape signals the end of all things positive. The film tries too hard to be a slasher when the setting is far better suited to a probing approach. For some reason director Robinson cannot wait to show off his monster, and as a result the reveal comes sooner than expected. Scare factor crumbling, we turn to chaotic, jerking camera movements surrounded by pitch black darkness, all fruitful cinematography gone. Slotted indiscreetly amongst the outpouring of brash-yet-monotonous horror are snippets of philosophical musings.

It is as if the filmmakers, having mismanaged or simply forgotten the science-fiction element of their piece, feel the best solution lies with invariably adding earthy monologues. (“Do you think any part of us survives after death?” says one character, the notion shot down in a flicker as the next creature attacks). At one point we float over into unintentionally hilarious territory as the group argue about existing and dying over a deceased corpse that is showing signs of life. Sci-fi should engage its audience by channelling smart reflections and themes with gravitas, but the faint attempts displayed here reek of laziness.

The cast, quite well known despite the small budget, haven’t a hope in the world. Or in any world. Liev Schreiber leads as the claustrophobic Vincent and is granted the most material to work with. Once we’ve given up hope in terms of trying to figure out why a person afraid of small spaces would select space travel as his profession — he refers to their shuttle as a “coffin” — we’re left with hardly any inkling as to who Vincent and the other crew members are. The human characters are so poorly mapped out that it’s a wonder all of the actors found the set. It becomes an eternal struggle to care about any of them, or their fates, simply because we don’t know anything about the group. Mission psychologist Robert is the first one to lose his mind. Tedious.

Clive Dawson’s screenplay isn’t much better. Aside from the lack of scares and occasional deep thoughts, the narrative trundles along without vigour and fuelled by coincidence. The entire set-up hinges on a chain reaction of monumental contrivances: having spent a whole six months on Mars the team just so happen to discover this evil bacteria hours before they jet off home and the only reason said bacteria makes it on board is because a petulant crew member decides to look up the location of an errant mate and subsequently finds him at the site of the bacterial breeding ground. It is ridiculous and unashamedly so.

Perhaps the most grating factor of the lot is the fact that The Last Days on Mars could have been fun hour and a half. It never shows any signs of restraint or wisdom, thus the film was never going to be a serious sci-fi jaunt. But there is room for some B movie silliness. Though the whole thing is ravaged by a disappointing and ineffective requisite to walk the line tonally, a few looser ends here and there would undoubtedly have induced waves of low end but high value madness. It would’ve been a welcome turn of events for most of the cast — including well-travelled names such as Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas — who are instead left to suffer through cringeworthy speeches and poorly written characters.

The Last Days on Mars has been done immensely better before. It’s not necessarily that this is a horrible film, because it isn’t. Robinson’s piece is certainly bereft of many working parts but I’ve seen much worse. The movie is unavoidably boring though, and lazy. It wallows. With the ingredients laid before us — brimming with promise — it should, at the very least, be shooting for the stars and missing. Yet, The Last Days on Mars relents from even aiming skywards.

The Last Days on Mars - Liev

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Magnet Releasing

Sunshine (2007)


Sunshine PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: April 5th, 2007 (UK); July 20th, 2007 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Bryne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh

Quite appropriately, Sunshine spends a significant amount of time focusing on the eyes of its pawns. Sometimes a pair will fill the entire screen, strained with sentiment either good or bad, though often the latter. On occasion, they will fight menacingly through an iffy transmission from another spacecraft and act as a warning. The Sun allures them with its fiery aesthetic and unwavering appeal. Without hesitation, characters ask, “What do you see?” in moments of impending demise as if nothing else matters in the universe. Look, even, at the poster. Yielding a blazing visual palette and dreamt up by the mind’s eye of screenwriter Alex Garland, the film is a sci-fi celebration, though you won’t see much celebrating. Riddled with mystery and psychological incoherence, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine floats very close to the sublime.

It is 2057 and an ominous solar winter has a stranglehold on Earth. Aboard Icarus II, a team of eight personnel are voyaging to the dying Sun with one aim: to reignite it. Carrying a nuclear payload, the crew only have one chance to hit their target and, given the operation’s purely theoretical prerogative, those odds aren’t as robust as the situation warrants. Upon discovering the location of Icarus I — a prior failed mission — physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) recommends taking a detour in order to attain another bomb, and another attempt.

Though his portfolio doesn’t suggest much science-fiction enthusiasm, Danny Boyle’s admiration for the genre fireballs from the screen here. There are elements of seminal space cinema splashed all over Sunshine. From the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the fraught psychology depicted in Solaris, to Event Horizon’s incessantly doomed outlook, Boyle’s take on sci-fi pays homage to a plethora of greats. But it does more than that. This isn’t simply a historical Pick ‘n’ Mix of stars and planets, rather it incorporates the genre’s best components with subtlety and proceeds to tell a new story. We do not witness Capa and company enter a separate desolate spacecraft and subsequently become overwhelmed by thoughts of Event Horizon because Boyle does not allow it. The Brit always has control and his film always has us transfixed, not by inter-genre nods, but by an ever-enveloping tension and disconcerting mystique — in truth, the film refrains from sparing us any time to consider references until long after the credits have rolled (I’m recounting citations right now).

The director employs traits familiar to him, such as gritty realism and terminal dejection, and combines them with far more expansive notions that pit science against religion. In between philosophical conversations (“A new star born out of a dying one, I think it will be beautiful — no, I’m not scared”) crew members discuss the practicalities of their predicament: oxygen supply levels, or the Sun’s angle. Astronauts aside, we cannot relate to the quandary in which those aboard Icarus II find themselves, but we can ascribe to the pragmatic mindset that they often reverberate. The characters are normal people. Yes, they are each excessively intelligent and well-versed in specialist areas. But despite floating many miles above in space, they remain grounded — we have to take each individual at face value as none of their past lives are explained. You can forget surnames too: Cassie, Harvey and Mace will do just fine. These are ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance, decision-making dictated by scenario and each individual just as vulnerable as any of us would be.

The characters’ incomplete personal logs contribute to another of the film’s successful narrative strands: a growing sense of tension. This is not a horror film yet it bears a variety of horrifying aspects, one of which is personnel ambiguity. Since we only know that which is in front of our eyes and nothing more, it is plausible to us that any member of the team could snap at any given moment. Boyle explores isolation and the subsequent psychological trauma faced by those disconnected from civilisation, a concept captured magnanimously by one character’s reaction to the decimation of a homely, naturalistic oxygen garden. As Icarus II advances closer to its destination (“Entering the dead zone”) a haunting strain is emitted, one that is eerie and difficult to pinpoint. Searle, the vessel’s doctor, becomes increasingly transfixed by the Sun which appears to be hauling the spacecraft ever-nearer to imminent death.

A slight tonal shift occurs in tandem alongside the crew’s interactions with the ill-fated Icarus I. From a tantalising slow-burner, proceedings deviate towards disorientating terror. The final act is probably the film’s weakest, but it is by no means a weak offering. If anything, the conclusion ushers in greater mythological tendencies spearheaded by religious impetus (in Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the Sun). Perhaps it is only fitting that a narrative adjacent to the heavens should juggle Godly morals. Nevertheless Boyle, a man with religious associations himself, ensures that Sunshine does not become overburdened by spirituality and instead strikes a wholesome balance between the film’s various thematic veins.

A scorching visual gloss is as all-encompassing as it is magnificent. The dark and inherently inanimate interior of Icarus II seems to not only seep from the crew’s mellow demeanour, but also abets an air of warped uncertainty. Battling to infect the spacecraft’s overcast insides is the Sun; rays burning with unlimited effervescence, so much so that you will be rolling up those sleeves in a desperate plea for cool air. Accompanying the wonderful cinematography is John Murphy’s tender-yet-lofty score that shines brightest towards the Sunshine’s concluding chapter.

Cillian Murphy leads the way as Capa, whose contemplative nature suggests that only he is truly aware of the task’s magnitude. The skill here is in generating a sense of normality and the best plaudit that can be awarded to Murphy — a generally charming presence — is that he emphatically portrays a professional physicist. Capa may partake in a few scuffles with Chris Evans’ Mace, but other than that he is plainly a physicist driven by nuclear properties and measurements. The aforementioned Chris Evans does well in a slightly different role as the morally strict engineer whose sole focus is the success of the mission. The other noteworthy performance comes from Rose Byrne as vessel pilot Cassie. Bryne develops a solid equilibrium between strong-willed and sensitive, and also strikes up a believable dynamic with Murphy, one that would undoubtedly be romantic in another environment.

Capa’s opening monologue outlines one purpose: “To create a star within a star.” Boasting admirable scope, a tense and engaging atmosphere, and a variety of well-oiled thematic roots relevant to the genre, Sunshine is undoubtedly a star turn from Danny Boyle.

Sunshine - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Rotten Tomatoes

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures