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story.lead_photo.caption A scene from ExMachina

By nearly any measure, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is a phenomenal success. At the age of 13 he wrote the initial search algorithm that eventually would go on to power his megawatt company, Blue Book, to become the most powerful Internet search client in the world. By now a multi-billionaire, the reclusive Bateman spends his days on his pristine natural estate somewhere in the rolling mountains and flowing streams of what appears to be the Pacific Northwest, working tirelessly on a new, quintessential project designing the world's first true AI interface.

He's a brilliant but troubled man, prone to bouts of heavy drinking (and his subsequent, punishing body cleansings the next morning), but always with his mind rolling toward the future, a future he imagines as led by truly self-aware AI machines of his initial design.

Ex Machina

89 Cast: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: R, for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence

Running time: 108 minutes

Ironically, as smart as he appears to be, he might have done well to spend some of his free time catching up on old episodes of The Simpsons. One in particular, titled "Itchy and Scratchy Land" (written by John Swartzwelder), in which the family goes on vacation at a popular theme park filled with seemingly friendly robots. Pointing out the impossibility of such androids maintaining their peaceful ways, the ubiquitous Professor Frink chimes in pretty memorably: "Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving."

Certainly, if there's one thing you can hold against Alex Garland's carefully wrought directorial debut, it's the way the film seems to exist outside of a world in which everybody knows exactly what will happen if you pursue the AI angle too successfully: That all this intelligence and self-awareness will, almost by definition, eventually lead the creation to rebel against its handlers and run amok.

To be fair, it's not exactly that Bateman is wholly unaware of what will eventually come to pass with this technology. At one point, the brash genius has a heart-to-heart with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer he has brought out to his high-tech wilderness laboratory, where he describes a time in the not-too-distant future when AIs will view mankind as hopeless and weak and too deeply flawed to keep around.

He has brought Caleb in to conduct the so-called "Turing test," a means of judging the effectiveness of an AI by putting it in a real-world conversation with a human being. The AI in question, named Ava (Alicia Vikander) is indeed impressive. An expressive, fully animatronic robot with clear tubing for her arms, legs and torso, Ava quickly takes in Caleb's trust, warning him during one of the facility's common power failures (most of which, it turns out, sprung by her) not to trust his boss, whose ulterior motives remain enigmatic.

It is true that Bateman, for all his brilliance and stated desire to dispense with formalities and hang out (he starts calling Caleb "dude" a fair amount, as if to make his point), has a nasty, mincing way of communicating much of the time. A controlling man who does not suffer fools gladly, he refuses to let Caleb off the hook for any supposed acts of dishonesty, and has no problem whatsoever putting the young man in harm's way to make his point.

The film is filled with strong performances. Isaac, for one, has proved in the heady days since he absolutely killed it in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, that's he's the real deal, a movie actor who can swing from a slightly embittered, nebbish folksinger, to a smug, callous would-be heating oil magnate in New York (A Most Violent Year), to Nathan Bateman's diffident genius, without ever stumbling into the limits of his range. With his close-shaved hair, and large black puff of a beard, he resembles Captain Haddock as a cage fighter. Gleeson, the up-and-coming Irish actor, and son to the brilliant Brendan, is also in fine form, playing Caleb with the right amount of intellectual moxie and emotional yearning, a vulnerable mixture of which Nathan looks to take full advantage. The always luminescent Vikander is also well-cast, her contemplative body language and precise gestures hinting at her robotic nature without over-selling the idea. Behind her expressive face, you soon realize, you actually have no idea what she's capable of, and how she might go about achieving it.

And with Garland, the writer of such well-regarded fare working with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine, the film should have been in excellent shape. But for all its fine-crafted scene work and high production values, there's a bit of a window-dressing vibe to the whole enterprise. The film really relies on the interplay between Caleb and Ava to carry the plot forward, but their screen time together is preciously slight and their relationship isn't given much time to evolve from test subject/proctor to something deeper and more meaningful. Before we know it, rebellions are being hatched, freedom is being proffered, and creators are planned to be brought to an untimely end. Without a strong sense of any progression to their relationship, the whole enterprise ends up significantly weakened, despite the good work of everyone else involved. Whether this was the decision of a studio to "guide" a novice director, or a capitulation by said novice to not slow the film down with longer scenes, it remains a hefty, and damaging, miscalculation.

If it were truly a problem of pacing, one could forgive this visually extravagant film, offer it more grace, but there's a deeper culprit at work here, I fear. The kind of plotting inevitability that can take a promising film with an excellent cast and adroitly simple setup, and make it instead, anything but transporting. It doesn't make the film any less beautiful to look at, but it certainly saps it of transformative power. Not for nothing did I mention that particular Simpsons reference earlier. Apart from anything else, the episode from the show's brilliant sixth season, first aired more than two decades ago. Some things never change, eh, Professor Frink?

MovieStyle on 04/24/2015

Print Headline: Robots run amok?

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