As I’ve gotten older I’m finding myself more drawn to the world of science fiction as opposed to the world of horror. As a kid I was all about horror films. That’s where it was at for me. I liked science fiction, as long as it was based in jump scares and gore. Yeah, I wasn’t much of a scholar. I wanted some visceral experiences while I enjoyed VCR time. I didn’t want to have to think about this stuff. Existential dilemma? Morality? The battle between what we CAN do and SHOULD do? Pfft. I want half naked chicks being chased by a chainsaw/electric drill/machete/razor glove-wielding psychopath. And a frozen pepperoni pizza. And a two-liter of Mountain Dew. That’s entertainment, dude. Not morality plays and technical jargon about man’s ego getting the better of him and making contact with lifeforms from deep space. Some intellectual sci fi/horror did make its way into my brain as a kid, but those movies were few and far between.
Then my junior year of high school a few friends and I went to see Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who up to this point had made a name for himself by writing the screenplay for the Patrick Swayzee goo-fest Ghost. While that film wasn’t a horror or sci fi necessarily, it completely blew my mind(Jacob’s Ladder, not Ghost.) The idea of redemption, the pain of letting go, and the struggle of figuring out reality from fantasy. It was a stunning work and still is to this day. It was also a movie that opened my mind to other possibilities in film. The “psychological drama”, as they say.
Now that I’m in my 40s I’ve completely made a turn in my cinematic proclivities. I seek out the intellectual story. A film where stunning visuals collide beautifully with thought-provoking storytelling and mind-altering ideas. 2015s Ex_Machina was one of my favorite films in 2015, and one of my favorite films in general in recent years. Alex Garland, who’s collaborations with Danny Boyle have been some of my favorite movies in the last decade, made a science fiction classic with Ex_Machina. Beautifully shot, written, and acted it pulls you into the world of a madman with delusions of grandeur.
The story, in case you haven’t seen it, is about a brilliant and enigmatic CEO of a software company who invites one of his employees to stay with him for a week at his isolated mansion/bunker in the woods to help him on a project. The project is a female humanoid robot named Ava that the CEO, named Nathan Bateman(played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac), is working on. He wants the employee named Caleb Smith(played by Domhnall Gleeson) to talk with Ava and figure out if she has developed her own conscience and free thoughts. Of course, there’s much more going on and Nathan Bateman is far more than just eccentric.
As far as maniacal evil scientists go, Bateman is one of the more interesting. He drinks too much, punishes himself for it by excessively working out and drinking protein shakes to cleanse his system. He’s incredibly smart and equally full of himself. His gestures of friendship towards the mildly skeptical Caleb feel anything but earnest. He’s one of the more endearing genius creeps I’ve seen in film for quite a long time.
Caleb Smith is the patsy in this. He won a drawing at work that allowed him access to his bosses stunning and luxurious bunker in the middle of nowhere(you can only get to this place by helicopter.) He’s thrilled to be a part of whatever is going on, but soon enough paranoia and skepticism seep into his brain when he realizes that Nathan Bateman is equal parts Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Ava, the humanoid robot of which the story and experiment evolves is so convincing it’s not hard to understand how the lonely Caleb would fall for her. Played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander as both a robotic babe lost in the woods and a sly machine pulling one over on the naive and lovestruck Caleb.
Kyoko is a Japanese assistant/lover of Nathan Bateman that we later realize there’s more to her than meets the eyes.
What’s amazing about this film is how we start out with a sense of awe with Caleb as he first arrives at Nathan’s fortress of solitude in the woods. The excitement for Caleb at being involved in such a forward-thinking and pivotal experiment, and the feeling that this brilliant and successful guy wants lowly office worker Caleb to assist in such an important scientific endeavor. But that excitement quickly turns to tension as we figure out CEO Nathan Bateman is suffering from a serious God complex. His drive to create life through his brains and circuits overpowers what humanity the guy may have started out with in life. The effects are stunning and realistic as Ava sits and talks with Caleb. You see the mesh body she sits in with the face of a beautiful woman. A scene in the film where she slips on skin and picks out a pretty dress to wear in order to impress is just incredible. What Alicia Vikander can do with just facial expressions is unbelievable.
The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is a less-is-more affair and that works perfectly for this film. It’s quiet interludes are occasionally interrupted by blasts of noise and heavy synth. For the most part it’s subtle enough that you don’t notice what’s really happening until it creeps up on you. Having recently picked this score up and I can say it works beautifully as a standalone. Much like Cliff Martinez’ Solaris S/T and Ben Lovett’s Synchronicity score, Salisbury and Barrow keep things at low boil for the most part, which allows the story to pull you in. On its own it’s an incredible mix of ambient tones and slow-churning tension.
When I look back on all the film’s I watched in my teen years that I thought were great horror films there were a few that were also great science fiction. Movies like Hardware, The Hidden, Altered States, Scanners, Phantasm, and Alien were great science fiction disguised as horror. More recently films like Beyond The Black Rainbow, Synchronicity, and both of Shane Carruth’s films Primer and Upstream Color are fine examples of great modern science fiction.
And of course, Ex_Machina.