A scene from EX MACHINA.

Ex Machina

United Kingdom. Directed by Alex Garland, 2015. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. 108 minutes.

Ex Machina stars Domnhall Gleeson (Frank) as Caleb, a code monkey for Bluebook, a Google-in-all-but-name tech company whose flagship product is a search engine. Bluebook’s boy-wonder founder and guiding light Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Being Llewyn Davis), flies Caleb out to his isolated complex to work on what he describes as the most important scientific breakthrough of all time. Nathan has developed an artificial intelligence, which he calls Eva (Alicia Vikander). He wants Caleb to run a Turing test on Eva, to determine if she really is conscious or is merely faking it. But it soon becomes clear that Nathan is hiding his real agenda…

Defining and exploring concepts like “humanity,” “life,” and “consciousness” are business as usual for narratives about artificial intelligence. So it’s no surprise that Ex Machina, the directorial début of screenwriter Alex Garland (best known for his work with Danny Boyle, particularly 28 Days Later), deals with these themes. But they’ve also been part of the science fiction lexicon since at least Frankenstein, which provides a layer of the story and gives Garland the chance to examine some other themes as well.

At the forefront is the relationship between the creator and the thing he creates. At certain points, Nathan seems to deliberately mis-interpret remarks Caleb makes about his seemingly god-like achievement. What’s the difference, ultimately, between being a god and merely playing at it? Another key moment comes when Caleb asks Nathan why he built what is essentially a fembot to house Eva’s intelligence. The ensuing conversation allows Garland to explore gender relations and touch on feminist themes, as does the relationship between Caleb and Eva, which starts off in the form of mild flirting which gradually transforms into sexual tension over the course of the film.

Ex Machina features excellent characterization and performances to match. I was most impressed with Vikander, who has the tricky task of juggling an outward naïveté with a broad, strong intelligence. Nathan’s arrogance makes him the obvious villain of the film, but Isaac’s performance brings out a lot of implied depth. Gleeson presents Caleb as a relatably awkward figure with a lot of book smarts but lacking in what pop-psychologists call “emotional intelligence.”

Garland’s performance as director is very strong, featuring excellent camera work and a steady, measured pace. The consistency of the mood stumbles once or twice, notably in a dance (yes, dance) sequence that turns out more comic that it probably should have. One or two plot developments are very obvious, but are more “inevitable” than “predictable.” Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow turn in a score that perfectly accompanies the story and visuals, ominous and occasionally dissonant; Barrow’s pop-music experience, as musical mastermind behind the legendary Portishead, serves the final product very well.

All told, Ex Machina is a decisive victory for dialog-heavy, cerebral, non-explosion-based science fiction in the 21st century. I hesitate to declare it 2015’s equivalent of Under the Skin or Upstream Color, but consider it essential viewing for anyone who’s interested in SF as the cinema of ideas.

Ex Machina poster

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson star in FRANK.

Frank

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2014. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 minutes.

A long time ago, in the north of England, there was a guy named Chris Sievey. He was a musician, a comedian, and a songwriter. Frank Sidebottom was the name of his signature character. When performing as Frank, Sievey would wear a gigantic cartoonish fiberglass head. Sievey died in 2010 at the age of 54.

Frank, co-written by Sievey’s longtime keyboardist, isn’t about Sievey or Frank Sidebottom. It’s about a guy named Frank (played by Michael Fassbender), frontman and songwriter for a band called the Soronprfbs. They’re kind of like the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band married to the lyrics of Daniel Johnston. Like his namesake, Frank wears a gigantic fake head onstage. He also wears it offstage. As far as aspiring songwriter Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), the latest addition to the Soronprfbs, can tell, Frank never takes the head off. And yet it seems that Frank is the most normal of the posse, which includes a theremin player with an anger-management problem (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sound engineer with a sexual attraction to mannequins (Scoot McNairy), a French guitarist who speaks no English (François Civil), and a drummer who doesn’t speak at all (Carla Azar).

Frank doesn’t wear the mask to call attention to himself, the way KISS does, or to distract from his real identity, the way the Residents do. Instead, the mask and the identity are the same. The head is his confidence, his charm, and his charisma; with it, he leads his motley crew of adoring weirdos on their journey. When Frank débuts his “most likable song ever,” you can see exactly how Frank would see it as “extremely likable music.” Even if it’s a full minute of squelching synths and shouted random references to Coca-Cola, the Beatles and ancient Egyptian royalty.

By now you can probably tell Frank is more about mental illness than about the absurdities of the music industry, which I think is a rare tack for a film about popular music to take, although I could be wrong. Fassbender and Gyllenhaal, as the craziest members of the band, have the toughest jobs. The crazy rock star is an archetype unto itself and it would be too easy to take their performances over the top. Instead, they modulate appropriately. Fassbender turns in probably the best “actor in a mask for most of the movie” performance I’ve seen since Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Gyllenhaal’s extreme tendencies take a tender turn when we come to understand what motivates her. Gleeson brings the audience-identification character, a wide-eyed optimist who somehow becomes the yardstick for normal.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is top-notch and the production is solid all around. Of course, a movie about music needs good songs and Frank delivers several, mostly provided by Irish composer Stephen Rennicks, with impeccable drum work by Azar and vocals by the cast members. Fassbender’s delivery perfectly reflects Frank’s psyche, turning the haunting closing theme “I Love You All” into the highlight. Yes, the songs are weird, but do you expect any less from a band called the Soronprfbs?

Frank is a sensitive yet unflinching examination of the relationship between artistry and anxiety, a glowing tribute to outsider music and those who dare to blaze their own path…even if they have to wear a fake head to do so.

 

Frank poster