April 24, 2015


If you saw the trailer for "Ex Machina," you were probably looking forward to this film. You will not be disappointed. Alex Garland's masterpiece is a 5-star film and a new science fiction classic, with all the bells and whistles of today's filmmaking, while managing to be a pared-down, personal human drama.


In brief, this is a story about Artificial Intelligence. A megalomaniac computer scientist (Nathan) has created a top-secret female robot (Ava) and invited a computer coder (Caleb) to apply the Turing Test to her (essentially how "human" she is) in his remote hideaway and research lab. This film consists of basically three actors: the incomparable Oscar Isaac as the scientist, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son) as the computer guy, and Alicia Vikander as the life-like robot. That's it. Are there Academy Awards for casting directors? The international flavor of those behind the film (England, Guatemala/Cuba, Ireland and Sweden) make for a not-quite-Hollywood film (and in this case, that's a good thing).

"Ex Machina," like 2014's "Calvary" (incidentally starring Brendan Gleeson), has an exceedingly short first Act and then boom. We're in the riveting and intriguing new world of Act Two. In "Ex Machina," the new world is not complex--it's actually rather simple--but full of tension, danger, suspicion, foreboding and unanswered questions from the get-go. Minimal electronic music sets the tone for face-to-face encounters between cast members (hardly ever more than two at a time). Who is honest? Who is not? Which motivations are real? The camera cuts back and forth frequently from the contrast of majestic mountains, greenery and waterfalls of Norway (where the film is shot) to the indoor ultra-modern, sleek lab/living quarters.


Right away we see that Nathan is arrogant and rocking a god complex. Caleb (a bright-eyed innocent) is living on Nathan's turf, on Nathan's terms in his high-security lockdown world with rigidly casual rules, and that's scary enough. Ava (another bright-eyed innocent) can be said to have passed the Turing Test on Caleb's romantic feelings for her alone. It feels like something is subtly being said about men almost preferring the perfection, the fascination of a computer, a thing, to a real woman. Stepford Wives, anyone? The feminists will have a field day with this film, which seems to be partially on the side of oppressed women--human or not--and partially reinforcing inevitable male chauvinism and domination (even if just by depicting it and by the copious full frontal female nudity). The nudity doesn't appear to be terribly salacious (but I'm a woman)--and seems more "plastic." However, Nathan and Caleb are men. They're not blind and we know that they're not strictly platonic types. And why did Nathan make a female robot, anyway? (Man creates woman.)


Nathan's handiwork is impressive and he knows it. He and Caleb hash out things like the true nature of A.I., ethics, human feelings vs. human calculations, and what the future of man vs. machine might hold. This is a sci-fi film of the moment, employing the latest technologies of the day (with which we're all familiar) as a jumping off point. Sex and gender are philosophically discussed in a somewhat Theology of the Body way. Some might call this an "intellectual film," even though the rigorous exchanges are brief. I would call it a "not dumb" film, also because it's totally entertaining. It's not mind-bending like "Inception." It's everyday stuff that we could apply to all our interactions with "digita" in some respects. (I just made up that word for all things digital.)


"Ex Machina" is dark and disturbing. It will wrap its whirring, purring, cable-y arms around you as you leave the cinema (must be seen in a cinema--this film cries for the cinematic experience!) and accompany you for a while. It's a film that begs for serious conversation and commentary.
Definitely not for kids/teens. The slow gore and skin peeling (you'll see) is altogether called for, but nevertheless, it's pretty creepy. (And the nudity is frequent.)


The film raises great questions. Among them:
Is it A.I. that is really "human" or is it we who "humanize" our own creations?
Do we really want to transfer the "battle of the sexes" into android-land?
Can A.I. be programmed with a "moral compass"? Will that moral compass be necessarily relativistic? Can A.I. be capable of or "responsible" for good or evil? (Evidently "Ultron" is that evil A.I.)
(I believe we already have the answers to these questions. A great tool is John Paul II's "adequate anthropology," of course.)

When God "programs" humans, it is for the Infinite.
When (often God-denying) non-eternal humans program their own likenesses,
they program for the finite.


--Was all the one-sided (female) nudity really necessary? The film might be making a statement about the utter vulnerability of nakedness when a thing is treated like a woman, or a woman is treated like a thing. Or not. It might also just be gratuitous pawn in a godlike director's chess game. And, in our pornified culture, we do not see the naked human body rightly. There is even a fleeting--but important--reference to porn in "Ex Machina."

--If we are at all asking the question if androids are human or if humans can become cyborgs, the only question that needs to be answered is: What is a human being? (We already know what a machine/thing is.)

--Without the God-dimension and God's dimensions to our lives, human beings can be "framed" any way we want to frame humans or certain humans. The Nazis did their own framing. Pol Pot did his. Stalin did his. John Paul II did his. Who's right?

--"Ex Machina" is one of those films like a hockey game that starts off so good that you keep whispering to yourself: "Stay good! Stay good! Don't blow the end!" (It stays good.)

--When computers can write "The Onion," I'll believe they've passed the Turing Test.

--There are no purely clinical experiments. There are no experiments on anything without the deep insertion of human beings into the experiment, willing and unwilling, at every step and every level of the endeavor.

--There's a nod to "A Space Odyssey: 2001."

--Although making full use of the art and science of film (including eye-boggling FX), "Ex Machina" could conceivably be a play. It could totally work.

--As in the movie "A.I.," will we be able to keep straight who's human, who's not?

--The actor who plays Nathan, Oscar Isaacs, was that marvelous St. Joseph in "The Nativity Story." You've seen him in several films, but you won't recognize him because he is such a consummate changeling actor.

--That code you saw on the screen? It means something:
http://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/365f9b/secret_code_in_ex_machina/ It's the ISBN of the book Embodiment and the inner life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds

April 23, 2015


"Little Boy" is a new film by Alejandro Monteverde (who brought us "Bella"). I'm a big fan of "Bella," and was looking forward to Monteverde's second major film. Most unfortunately, I must report that this is a misconceived film. If it were not, I would not be doing a big spoiler here, but because the turning point of the film is what is ill-conceived--and simply unacceptable--I must.


"Little Boy" is set in California during World War II. "Little Boy" is the moniker for, well, a little boy whose growth seems to be stunted. His doctor (an uncharacteristically slimy Kevin James) doesn't know what's wrong with him. Little Boy is constantly teased and bullied because of his height, or, rather, lack of it. Little Boy lives with his Mom (a lackluster Emily Watson, unless she was supposed to be completely aloof towards all her family members), his teen brother and his Dad, who is his "only friend," and "partner." Little Boy's relationship with his father is precious. The two of them have daring, imaginative, make-believe adventures together, and their motto is: "Do you believe you can do it?!"

Imaginative adventures are a charming feature of this film. Whenever someone is describing something or relating a story, Little Boy puts himself in the story, and suddenly, we, too, are there. The set designs are consistently elaborate and vivid, with an air of hyperreality. It brought to mind "Big Fish." This alone sets the movie apart from a Hallmark film, even though the tone of "Little Boy" is of that heart-warming genre.


The "believe!" theme is akin to Disney's favorite cri de coeur. But the question always is: "What the heck are we believing in here?" (In Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda," the answer is "nothingness," since the film is Buddhist in philosophy.) God is definitely a character in "Little Boy," but the "believe" isn't clearly a God thing at first. When Little Boy's father goes off to war, Little Boy's whole focus becomes finding a way to bring his father home.

Enter two wisdom figures: an elderly Japanese man, Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and the town priest, Fr. Oliver (Tom Wilkinson--who also played an excellent priest in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). The former (persecuted by the townspeople for being "the enemy") is a non-believer and the latter a believer, of course. These two are also friends who like to talk theology and play chess together. Of all the religious elements in the film, this odd couple's conversations ring truest. Hashimoto tells Fr. Oliver that God is his "imaginary friend in the sky" and challenges what getting Little Boy's hopes up (that his father will return) will do to his mind and self-confidence (let alone his faith in God).

"Little Boy" would have been a great film for kids (if not for what I am about to reveal which is simply the ruination of a movie that needed to be thought out differently) because of its Gospel-applying, character-building, youth-affirming exploits. The child actor who plays Little Boy (Jakob Salvati) represents a new generation of child actors (who--along with the generation ahead of his--have been unbelievably talented). Never a false note, never out of character in close-up after close-up.


Fr. Oliver challenges Little Boy to become a "powerful" person (capable of bringing his father home) by accomplishing a magical list (the corporal works of mercy). Fr. Oliver serves as a mentor to Little Boy in tackling the list. The tasks are not simple nor simplistic. They involve befriending the prickly Mr. Hashimoto (easier said than done)! There is also an element of the truly "magical" (a magician comes to town and convinces Little Boy that he has magical powers). It's a rich story here and it works well. But there are problems with raising a little boy's hopes and spelling out too rigidly how faith and the will of God play out. Dealing with these subtle, highly personal spiritual matters is always difficult in film, but Fr. Oliver and Mr. Hashimoto do it well, and perhaps the point is that there are levels to belief. Little Boy desperately needs to just believe in himself.


Now here's where all goes awry. SECOND SPOILER ALERT! Do you remember the nickname of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan? The townspeople show Little Boy the headlines. They believe he is responsible (because of a certain "miracle" Little Boy performed in their midst--a coincidence, no doubt). "Little Boy": the boy and the bomb save the day! Yay, bombs! It's total jubilation, and Little Boy is also convinced that he was responsible for the bomb. So, let's give the benefit of the doubt here. The war had been dragging on with tremendous loss of life (including soldiers from Little Boy's town). This bomb seemed to be drawing the war to a close. Little Boy believed that the dropping of the bomb would bring his father home. Did anyone really immediately understand what the atom bomb was and the havoc it wreaked? So far, so passable. But then Little Boy sees the news reel in the cinema and hears of a whole city wiped out. Then his mother tells him that the bomb may have been the worst thing for his father (now a P.O.W. in Japan). This is where the film falls apart entirely.

Can you imagine the guilt this little boy would feel? Why did the filmmakers put this unbearable burden on Little Boy? This is completely out of keeping with the lighter tone of the film. The story's fabric is ripped to shreds. The horror of the A-bomb is trivialized. How does the film deal with it? What reaction do we see from Little Boy? The film deals with it by not dealing with it. There is no reaction from Little Boy. The film just traipses on its merry way.

There is a dream sequence where Little Boy imagines that the bomb killed his father being held in Japan. (More guilt! But even that seems to slide off Little Boy.) Little Boy (who could be excused since he's just a kid) only wants his father home. That's all he cares about. But in the process, massive civilian casualties are a cause for celebration.


It seems to me that someone built up this whole film around a major "plot device": the play on words of "Little Boy" and "Little Boy." But this was an exceedingly poor choice. Something else could have served in its stead to deliver a very similar film.

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed when I heard that Monteverde was doing a period piece. I was hoping he would be doing more gritty, contemporary films like "Bella," which are so needed today. I'm praying that his next film will be just that.