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)

The Perfection

Call it the worst thing to happen to the cello since Yo-Yo Ma copped to playing over a recorded track at the Obama inauguration…

The Perfection yo-yos from one genre to another, psychological thriller, body horror, rape-and-revenge. Yet it succeeds in committing to none convincingly enough to merit more than a passing commendation due to its dialogue howlers and exposition vomited out two-thirds in (OK, maybe the emptying of stomach contents, metaphorically at least, means The Perfection actually sits squarely in the body horror camp, “camp” being the operative term).

Two music conservatory grads — cello virtuoso products of fictional Bachoff Music College, Massachusetts — meet in Shanghai at a star-studded student school audition…one of ’em’s career has been sidetracked (Charlotte, played by Allison Williams) thanks to being a PSW for her ailing mom, the other is a global touring superstar, Lizzie (Logan Browning). The two play a cello duet for the assembled, then fan-girl each other into a night on the town then into the sack.

The next day, Lizzie starts to develop stomach upset and headaches. Instead of convalescing in the hotel like a normal human, she urges Allison to go on a long-haul bus trip into rural China as “she only has two weeks off” before going back on tour. At the best of times, nobody would go on a long-haul bus trip, let alone when the Chinese equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge is coming to clear out the pipes…

Lizzie soon vomits maggots all over the bus window, then when allowed to disembark, shits all over the side of the road in full view of the commuters, this as Allison yells indiscriminately at everyone in English, instead of the one Chinese guy actually conversant in the language, “my friend needs a doctor!”

As the plot unspools, the director hits the reset button, and there’s a goofy video rewind showing what actually happened to Lizzie, which in the hands of a competent filmmaker, would’ve been realized in the form of subtle foreshadowing…but which here takes the form of an exposition dump, speaking of dumps.

The Perfection, despite some game performances, awesome set pieces, and fun globe-trotting, can’t come together. The disciplinarians of the fancy-pants school screams Suspiria, and given that Allison Williams plays essentially a variation on her Get Out role, you don’t have to be the Long Island Medium to see where this thing is going. Plus, what kind of music school would, at its own expense, host an elaborate and very costly global talent search that might as well have had Simon Cowell and Howard Stern judging it?

When an antagonist wails, “You cut off her hand for nothing,” it’s a master class in melodrama, which precedes a revenge denouement too cartoonish and laughable to match the serious allegations against the school.

The “famous” “Cello duet #3” was composed especially for the movie, and it’s a tonal misfire as well.

** (out of 5)