“Ex Machina” and “Transcendence”

I keep waiting for Mary Doria Russell’s novel “The Sparrow”,my favorite sci-if book, to be filmed. A Jesuit in another dimension is a convention of the genre,as are meditations of what it means to be human. I adored Spike Jonze’s “Her” ( reviewed February 10th),so I had to see Johnny Depp in “Transcendence”,another foray into hybrids. “Transcendence” held my interest,though a few slow scenes could have been deleted.

Rebecca Hall was grand as the possible new Eve,Evelyn. Paul Bethany and Depp were convincing and evolving.Depp is Dr. Will Castor whose wife Evelyn and best friend Max support his Artificial Intelligence research. Dr. Will Castor is killed by an anti-tech terrorist and Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness. Here his consciousness madly develops and tries to be the All-powerful. The World Wide Web was to make the world smaller,but paradoxically without it the world becomes smaller and still, the product of one man’s ego.Power and control themes end in a ridiculous fake sunflower cameoing. Still among the blinding white images there are topics to discuss. This is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. “Transcendence” was written by Jack Paglen.

Much more artistic is the new film “Ex Machina”. Here Alex Garland, talented British author of “The Beach”, makes his film directing debut. “The Beach” dealt with an utopian society in Southeast Asia. Here, he mines the creating of synthetic beings with gel-like fluid brains and crystal,fiber optic, spider-like ganglion so that these wire and mesh forms create their own synaptic consciousness.

Named after Wittgenstein’s “Blue Book”,our genius’s company has provided him with the means to purchase the most beautiful and isolated setting known to cinema. Filmed in  Valldalen, Norway, the interspersing of nature’s forests,waterfalls, graphite-like mountains and the modern glass bunker-like lodge and research center (Juvet Landscape Hotel,actually) is one of the keys to this film’s success. The fog over mountain symbolism mirrors the trust issues in the storyline. The birdsong and babbling brook ground us. Technology’s power is somehow balanced in this natural setting which few have seen in this primordial form. What sentient being would wish to leave? Two hours of helicopter flying does not cover our scientist’s estate. Without any story at all, this scenery is worth your movie ticket! But there is a story and big questions about Artificial Intelligence and the furthering of evolution.

And there is the amazing Oscar Isaac! He commands the screen. Here, as bearded and head-shaven Nathan Bateman,he explains how he gave sexuality to his synthetic women. ” She can have sex and she will enjoy it.” He later admits to the “prize winning” 26 year old programmer,Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) that he fashioned his AI’s features from an amalgam of porn star sites Caleb visited. Controlling,intense,art-and-music-loving,Nathan can drink,dance and use “fuck” like most millennials as a groovy adjective ad infinidum. “I want to share it with you. I want to share it so much it is eating me up inside.” This sounds honest in Isaac’s mouth. The potential for danger is set.

The film is also divided into numbered sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander),who is both vulnerable and wire-shiningly sophisticated and evolving. As AI,she has us asking “Who is the smartest?””Who is the most moral?” ,while Nathan asks Caleb if he can tell he is interacting with a machine. After session # 7 “fucking unreal” becomes an ironic understatement.

The score composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is atmospheric, and the the violence heart-stopping in its slow motion. Ava triggers power outages, and Nathan detoxes on brown rice and mineral water. Caleb steals Nathan’s key card as he is passed out on the couch, and Caleb thinks he has taken charge. Directives like “Please approach”,”Face the screen” , and “You may now enter” no longer apply. Caleb,the human component, is now trapped and his facile words are useless. The AI is head-turningly free to “break the ice” on any city intersection in the world. Ava has used empathy and emotional intelligence to con the good kid. Has the analytical won out? Is what makes us human to be our downfall? This film is unnerving and destined to become a classic,both in content and design.