Of the two sci-fi films from acclaimed directors that come out this weekend, our first film comes to us from director Alex Garland. After writing The Beach which was turned into a crappy Danny Boyle movie, Garland moved into screenwriting. He penned the movie that kicked off the modern wave of zombie titles in 28 Days Later and then the wonderful for two acts Sunshine for Boyle. He moved onto the underwhelming adaptation Never Let Me Go and the instant cult classic Dredd. In 2015, he finally got his chance to direct with the film Ex Machina. I didn’t love it as much as everyone else, but thanks to a trio of great performances and some thoughtful commentary, the final product was still wonderful work and made Garland an instant director to watch.
Throw in the fact that Geoff Barrow (of one of my favorite bands Portishead) and Ben Salisbury of Ex Machina return to score and the cast being loaded with some of my favorite actors in Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Tessa Thompson (who just got to watch her Creed director make all of the money last weekend), and Oscar Isaac (who gave perhaps his best theatrical performance in Ex Machina) and this instantly became one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. Despite talk of the behind the scenes issues, the promise of awesome women getting to portray badass roles (once again perfectly following up Black Panther) and the reputation of the novel for which this is based being introspective overwhelmed any concerns. Plus, worst case scenario is the film winds up as the possibly misleading trailer suggests and turns out to be a fun creature feature which is very much my thing.
If you’re looking for answers as to which it is, look elsewhere because it is so many things. Sometimes it’s Aliens complete with a gender swapped Hicks and some imagery that H. R. Giger would salute at full mast. Other times, it feels like someone gave a Sam Katzman production or anyone involved in those weird ’50s sci-fi films a ridiculous budget and told them to go wild. It evokes sci-fi classics in 2001: A Space Odyssey (in a way I will spoiler tag in the comments). It can be introspective and indulge in standard creature feature tropes, sometimes in the same seem. More than anything though, I was left only able to think “this is a weird fucking movie”, probably the weirdest since Mother!.
That last bit is crucial because as I have said countless times before that Mother! was the best film of last year and anything that evokes that sense of wonder is something special. It’s beautiful, it’s grotesque, it’s like nothing else you are going to see. It’s all just so wonderfully blended together with a score placed over it that makes it one of what feels like a growing genre, the experience film. Films like Gravity or Mother that are at their best when they just wash over you. It’s the peak of immersion that films should strive for and so rarely get. It’s the kind of film I recommend for everyone to go experience even though there’s quite a substantial audience who I can see this as very much not their thing.
That’s why it breaks my little heart to say that there is one thing holding it back from being a classic. Alex Garland can’t write dialogue for shit. He’s been the poster boy for “third act problems” in the past with 28 Days Later and Sunshine going to shit in the end as it changed genres late, Never Let Me Go sputtering out and Ex Machina dividing people with how it changed genres at the end, but that’s not really his issue here. It’s the fact that he’s really excited to tell you what they think this all means. Aside from Natalie Portman, there are no characters. Just people telling you what kind of person they are or having someone else do it for you.
It feels a bit hypocritical of me since I love Isaac Asimov for doing something very similar in his writing. Having people openly talk out the plot and all the competing views instead of letting it happen. In his works its fascinating and I eat it up, but on screen it makes everything feel so unnatural. When characters keep their damn mouths shut, the film works wonderfully and lets it spill over you. Heck, it’s not even the overdone and so rarely effective (it certainly isn’t necessary here) film style where it is all told in retrospect by a surviving Portman where the film is most guilty. It is when Garland has his characters interact that I cringe. Ex Machina was just as guilty of this and that’s primarily what kept that film from classic status. It’s the stoner who seems so quiet and cool and aloof, but when you actually talk to him, it’s full of stupid surface level navel gazing.
Leigh does her best to salvage what she can, and it is admirable. She is so great here at showing so much with so little and I got angry at the film whenever the script would just go and undercut her work. The rest of the talented cast each gets their scene which should be a chance to shine but the dialogue is insurmountable. I just don’t care about any of them, a trait which both myself and the film seem to have in common.
Like I said before, go see this movie. It’s like nothing else you will see this year and it gets almost everything right. This isn’t A Cure for Wellness 2 which only has its unique and interesting visuals to recommend checking it out, just do so knowing that you are watching a film which is way less smart than it thinks it is. Thoughtful sci-fi is at a premium and the best parts of it will leave you thinking as you reflect on all you saw.