I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.
The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.
This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.
This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.