Film review of the sci-fi thriller directed by Alex Garland and starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac.
Director: Alex Garland.
Cast & credits
Producers: Andre Macdonald, Allon Reich.
Writer: Alex Garland.
Camera: Rob Hardy.
Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury.
Sets: Mark Digby.
Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Chelsea Li, Evie Wray, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Symara A. Templeman, Deborah Rosan.
A young programmer (Gleeson) is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I. (Vikander). But all is not as it seems as the A.I. developer (Isaac) has a hidden agenda.
A sci-fi thriller cum romance about a man falling in love with an android, overseen by a creepy, alcoholic and reclusive billionaire internet software developer with a neat exploration about what constitutes humanity and feeling, must have sounded unsinkable on paper. Mega-shocks then that this first-time directorial effort from the writer behind 28 Days Later (2002) and Never Let Me Go (2010) turns out be only moderately satisfying.
Robotically, functionally cerebral, Garland has divided his script into a series of daily interviews between the man and half-machine that allow him, his characters and the viewer to look into what elements make us alive. It is a tidy approach, spelled out in clear, Brechtian screen titles but also leads to a cold and clinical film.
Fine if one wants to adopt such a stripped of emotion approach to science fiction, focusing ones attention on the scientific and logical, but when the interactions are entirely without topic or conclusion, the end result is frustratingly dull.
This relates not only to Caleb and Ava’s conversations, but to Caleb and Nathan’s. Some of the dialogue is thuddingly turgid. Nathan asks Caleb “Do you know what a Turing test is?” and he responds “Yes I know what a Turing test is”.
Caleb is constructed as a mechanically responsive human to demonstrate the difficulty in distinguishing between himself and the warm, concerned Ava. He’s curious enough to explore this prospect with a razor blade cut deep into his arm to double-check he isn’t A.I. himself. A clever twist, but his dialogue is so sleep-inducing you’ll be checking your watch rather than being drawn into the story.
Gleeson is a good actor and still impresses with his portrayal of the naive and love-lorn IT guy, part interrogator, part romantic hero.
It’s not easy being a female robot in films as they are usually evil predators or impressionable girls waiting for a man to show them the world. The lovely Swedish actress Vikander (Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair, both 2012) plays an impressive arch-manipulator who needs no such introduction to real life, playing both men off against each other to sample it for herself.
She helps to leaven the uncomfortable tone toward women in this film. Is it misogynist to present women, even if they are androids, as frequently naked? Sometimes, only key body parts are shown to have synthetic flesh on them. In other scenes bits of the androids are missing or broken off, in others they are used and spoken about sexually by the male humans. One character (Mizuno) has been programmed to speak another language, Isaac informing us that she is thus effectively mute. This is a troubling addition to the story; the writer deliberately wants her to have no opinion of the scientific conversation, but she is excluded and isolated in general. Mizuno does get to be part of a vivid artistic reference, posing in Nathan’s mirrored bedroom, looking like a modern copy of the Rokeby Venus.
Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013. See review) is clearly cornering the acting market in socially retarded, rude arseholes. He is a charismatic and shifty protagonist, unsettling you from the start, but also a cool guy, the sort of guy you would have a beer with every now and then when he is pleasant and instantly regret it after the first round.