Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
When we think science fiction films we tend to think big – space travel to distant worlds, scope and spectacle. But quite often the best science fiction films are small. Ex Machina, from the Latin phrase meaning “from the machine,” is such a film and marks the directorial debut of British screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for his screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and his novel The Beach.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low level programmer working for tech giant, Blue Book. Through an in-company lottery he wins the chance to spend a week with the company’s enigmatic CEO and programming legend, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote Alaskan mansion and research facility. Upon arrival Caleb discovers that he is not there for a week of hanging out with the boss but to assist Nathan in his latest research endeavour, artificial intelligence. Nathan has produced a humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to put her through a Turing test. The Turing test (named for the British computer scientist Alan Turing, subject of Oscar winner The Imitation Game) tests a machine’s ability to exhibit human behaviour. Continue reading
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Spike Jonze has demonstrated a knack for left-of-centre, surreal storytelling with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His latest and it should be said finest film, Her, is no exception. In the near future – and a surprisingly utopian one given the cinemas penchant for dystopian visions of the future – we meet Theodore Twombly who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he puts his skills as a writer to work penning letters for people to send to lovers, friends or grandchildren. A lonely and anti-social man still recovering from a marriage breakup, Theodore becomes intrigued by an advertisement for the newest computer operating system, or OS – the first to feature artificial intelligence. “It’s not an OS – it’s a consciousness.” He buys himself a copy and after asking him a couple of questions to calibrate itself to his needs the OS introduces itself, or rather herself, as Samantha. Her cheerful, friendly demeanour instantly brings some light to Theodore’s life and the two become friends. Samantha organises Theodore’s life and Theodore helps Samantha unpack and understand the world. Before long their relationship becomes romantic.
The central premise of Her – a man falling in love with his computer – sounds like that of an absurd comedy but Jonze chooses to treat it with great sincerity. As such, what we end up with is a surreal, existential exploration of the nature of love, what it is to be human and our relationship with technology. The beauty of this film is how not far-fetched it manages to make this premise feel. We are already hopelessly dependent on technology. Anyone who has ever been forced to go even a short period of time without their smart phone or an internet connection can attest to that. Jonze simply takes that dependence to the next step, asking whether as technology becomes more sophisticated it is possible that dependence could become an emotional one. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is treated with a surprising normalcy. Theodore’s friends hardly flinch at the idea that he is having a relationship with an OS. In fact, we are told that he is far from the only person out there in such a relationship. There is even talk of a woman who is having an affair with someone else’s OS.
Jonze’s screenplay is remarkable, but it falls on the film’s two leads, Phoenix and Johannson, to sell the authenticity of the relationship and make it all believable. Both actors rise to the challenge, delivering brilliant, unconventional performances. Phoenix is typically chameleon-like as Theodore, this insecure, isolated but deeply thoughtful man. So much of this film is dependent on his face as the nature of the story requires him to deliver the majority of his performance in isolation, relating to a character that isn’t physically present. Johansson’s performance is quite special. Completely disembodied, allowing her no physicality to employ, she nonetheless manages to create a full and empathetic character in Samantha. While it is the screenplay that makes Samantha think and feel, it is Johansson that give her the spark of humanity and enables us to understand how Theodore could fall in love with her. It isn’t objectophilia. It is a genuine two-way relationship.
As the film progresses the story becomes just as much Samantha’s story as it is Theodore’s. Artificial intelligence has usually been treated with suspicion in film. It is seen as dangerous and threatening – think of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Her, we empathise with Samantha. In a variation of the Pinocchio story, Samantha struggles to reconcile the fact that while she thinks, feels and experiences emotions like a human, she is not one. The latter half of the film poses some quite interesting psychological questions about the limitations, or lack thereof, of artificial intelligence.
Her is one of the most touching, thought provoking and unique films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean