Ex Machina

A weird, extended cyber version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Ex Machina features a “romance” between a sentient and a non-sentient that’s more compelling than 1,000 rom-coms.

In this, the vision of Alex Garland, writer of the exemplary neo-zombie effort, 28 Days Later, programmer Caleb — a kind of James Damore type — also toils away for a global search engine juggernaut. (And speaking of Damore, the #GoogleMemo author recently Tweeted, “Just as foods are labelled “non-GMO”, I wonder if future products will be labelled “non-AI”?)

Caleb wins a one-week stint at the home of his boss, tech jag-off, Nathan, in a secluded modernist Xanadu that’s more of a Xana-don’t when it comes to poking around its various rooms.

It’s there Caleb learns of his assignment: he has to put a pretty robot (Ava) to the Turing Test to see if her thinking behaviour can be differentiated from that of a human. She’s confined to one room of the sprawling home, let out periodically from her confines.

The duo exchange stilted banter at first, the stuff of any real world first date. Soon, sparks fly, metaphorically speaking (they would’ve literally too, if Ava’s engineering wasn’t so darn advanced). Soon, Caleb and Ava are having tête-à-têtes away from Nathan’s prying eyes and Panopticon surveillance.

Are they star-crossed lovers, bridging the human / cyborg divide? Who’s the real automaton?

That’s when the fireworks really begin, as Ex Machina leaps between love story and a cat and mouse between hard-drinking big boss and subservient employee, the latter as riveting as the surreal back and forth between the autocratic director and The Stuntman in that dynamite Peter O’Toole/Steve Railsback-starrer.

Alicia Vikander as Ava is dazzling in the lead, the one time a performance can be described as mechanical and that be a good thing. Her cast-mates more than equal her.

Ex Machina dangles the odd telegraphs here and there, then pulls the rug right out from under the viewer. Stark, unrelenting, thought-provoking, this is top-notch stuff.

****1/2 (out of 5)

Crawl

Parisian Alexandre Aja is one of the more dependable horror directors out there, bursting out of with the exemplary Haute Tension and the surprisingly adroit remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

When it comes to creating tension, he definitely didn’t have to “Crawl” before he could walk.

This one’s a surprisingly character-driven effort however, absent the doctrinal “don’t mess with nature” environmental messaging so common among animal attack flicks, the furtive laboratory, the nuclear waste disposal site, the unheeded warnings from scientists, etc.

A swimmer from the University of Florida (yes, they’re nicknamed “the Gators”), Haley (Kaya Scodelario), gets a call that there’s a category 5 ‘cane coming to lay waste to Florida. She goes to check on the status of her pops, who was also her swim teacher, skirting law enforcement checkpoints to do so.

At the Coral Lake adode, dad is stuck in the um…”crawlspace” and under water and under siege: voracious gators have gotten in via the storm drain, a neat nod to the gators in the sewer urban legend, although very realistic as The Sunshine State is really gator country.

From there, the flooding pummels the homestead and wicked winds whip up, all created on a Serbian sound stage of all places, it should be said, very convincingly.

There’s some pretty good tension and the familial dynamic is nicely played up, as the dad was a bit heavy-handed pushing the fruit of his loins into sports and she’s more than a bit resentful, especially after a relay loss in the opening frame. But of course her swimming abilities will eventually serve her well.

And with Crawl, it’s pretty innovative to have animal scares confined primarily to a home versus being out in the wilderness, where this kind of thing would typically be set, the likes of Rogue, for example, or even a scaly creature wreaking havoc in a city (Alligator).

*** (out of 5)