Man Versus Ex Machina

Warning: Contains plot spoilers

We went to see Ex Machina last week. I try not to read reviews before I go to see a movie but I’d seen the odd tweet – in particular from Gia Milinovich – and read Empire magazine’s summary. I was particularly excited that both had described it as a feminist sci-fi film because, let’s face it, there aren’t too many of those.

However, the plot itself is an age-old one: man builds machine/monster, machine/monster overthrows man. The only difference here is that the machine/monster happens to have been given female gender and sexuality (the latter for what turns out to be disturbing reasons).

In Ex Machina highly intelligent but self-destructive computer genius Nathan removes himself from society, literally withdrawing to the wilderness (there are some particularly beautiful aerial shots of the Norwegian landscape) in order to concentrate on building AI. And we all know what happens in the wilderness. People either find themselves or go mad.

Nathan’s Bluebook employee, ace coder Caleb, has been brought to Nathan’s home/research facility/Frankenstein’s laboratory to act as the human element of the Turing test, the other half being an AI named Ava (Eve?)

Halfway through the week of testing Caleb asks his employer why he built Ava. His answer is pretty much, “Why not?” or “Because I can.” Man has faced such moral dilemmas before: the A-bomb, cloning, etc. Stephen Hawking recently made a statement about the dangers of AI becoming self-aware to the extent that he could envisage them superseding humanity.

It would appear that Nathan has been creating AIs for his own satisfaction, sexual and otherwise. When drunk he mutters about the good deeds that men do benefitting themselves (Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan?) God-like, he has created Ava/Eve (and those who have gone before her) to be his companion-chef-waitress-dance partner-sex slave. There is a particularly shocking moment in the film when Caleb discovers footage of Nathan’s earlier prototypes and we realise it is Nathan who is the monster, keeping his creations captive, thereby echoing the recent horrific real-life cases of Fred West, Josef Fritzl, etc.

Ava uses her intelligence to outwit the men, recognising that by flirting with Caleb she can appeal to his basic goodness in order to coerce him into helping her escape. In so doing she makes herself more appealing (more human) to him: she puts on a dress and wig. This is what she would wear if she were to go on a date with him. Admittedly she has very few tools at her disposal in order to gain his cooperation but it could be argued that she is using her sexuality or at least her femininity in order to succeed.

Having escaped, Ava’s innocuous-sounding “Will you stay here?” to Caleb could be seen as a suggestion, a request or a veiled command. At this point Caleb has the opportunity to leave the facility but chooses to stay and watch (voyeuristically) as Ava transforms herself using the prototypes as her kit of parts. We the filmgoers are also voyeurs as we are shown the naked prototypes one by one. And at the end of the ‘transformation’ scene the camera lingers on Alicia Vikander’s (frankly pubescent) naked body as she admires what she has become. All of this nudity is unnecessary and actually detracts from the storyline: the rise of The Machine.

In addition, as Ava dons a replacement arm, flesh-toned skin and long lustrous locks she becomes… a typical all-American prom queen complete with short, lacy dress and impractical 5″ heels. Ugh. What a let-down. At the very least it would have been good to see an arm that didn’t quite fit or was a slightly different flesh tone. Or maybe she could have stuck to the short, cropped wig she wore during her interviews with Caleb?

Major quibbles aside, the central performances are all excellent. Vikander is elegant, understated and cool as only an AI could be and Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as the geek with a sentimental streak. But the standout performance for me was Oscar Isaac playing to the max the creepy IT genius you always suspected of doing dark deeds in the privacy of his own home, and boy, does he have some skeletons/prototypes in his closet.

Perhaps the real star of Ex Machina is the Turing Test, especially coming hot on the heels of The Imitation Game. Alan Turing’s question in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” was:

“Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the Imitation Game?”

And it was this theme that sparked the most debate when discussing the film later and thinking about it for many hours afterwards. It will also be interesting to compare Ex Machina with CHAPPiE (directed by Neill Blomkamp who also directed District 9) which was trailed before our showing.

As you may have gathered, this is not the feminist sci-fi film I had been led to expect. If you want to see a sci-fi film with a feminist PoV go watch Alien again. You won’t catch Ripley in a frock and high heels.

When will black actors be cast in period (costume) drama?

3.15am. Woken by a daft dream (see this post) I tried my equivalent of counting sheep – casting War And Peace. Followers on Twitter and Facebook will know that, on New Year’s Day, I set myself the task of reading the 1300 page novel. I’m finding that, far from being a daunting, burdensome thing, it is actually very enjoyable and very readable.

However, there is a vast cast of characters and I keep having to refer to my handy bookmark (pictured) to remind myself who everyone is and how they’re related. The BBC is due to start filming an Andrew Davies adaptation this month. I checked out some of the cast and can now picture their faces as I read. That helps.

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

Prince Andrei (Andrew in my copy) will be played by James Norton, otherwise known both on Twitter and in our household as The Hot Vicar from Grantchester. Using him as a starting point I began to cast my version. Emilia Fox (at the age she was when she played Georgiana Darcy) would play his sister and maybe Ian Holm could be their overbearing father, Prince Nicholas Bolkónski? Paul Dano has already been cast as Pierre (Dano was the particularly nasty one in 12 Years A Slave) and I could envisage Michael Gambon as his father, Count Bezúkhov (not many lines for him though – perhaps he could have long naps on set). I was beginning to warm to my task and enjoying myself far too much to be able to get to sleep.

And then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to find parts for all my favourite actors? Well, I was off then… Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, David Tennant, Sophie Okonedo, Idris Elba… Whoa! Hang on a minute. Rewind. Go back a bit. When did that last happen? When did you last see a black actor in a period piece on TV or film? (At the time of writing I can only think of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing). Yes, it happens on stage, with Shakespeare especially. But on screen, large or small?

And, half-asleep in bed at 4am I got indignant. And cross. And slightly ashamed of myself. It’s not as if this hadn’t occurred to me before but I’m afraid I was dismissive. Lenny Henry. On his soapbox. Basically just touting for work.  Wasn’t he? What must these men and women think when they hear that the BBC is casting a huge costume drama like War And Peace? Is it the equivalent of the “No Blacks” sign going up in the window? How awful. Yes, I know there is other work out there, contemporary pieces, especially in the US but basically, whenever a classic novel or play or anything written before 1930 is adapted that work is not available to them.

Why not? Why the hell not? Idris Elba would make a fantastic Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. I’d love to see David Oyelowo as Mr Darcy and George Knightley (Emma) played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. But I don’t just want quirky casting, or cameo roles or tokenism. I want to see these pieces populated by black faces as well as white.

Returning to my casting of War And Peace. Although I have only read a tenth of the novel so far and have not been introduced to all the characters, nevertheless I can see Sophie Okonedo as Countess Rostóva, Noel Clarke as the daredevil subordinate young officer Dólokov and David Harwood as Kutuzov.

It is the 21st century and we need to be colour-blind when it comes to casting. Of course I’d love to see a 2015 adaptation of War And Peace. But that’s the point, it is 2015. Time – long overdue – to raise the colour bar.