A month or so ago my nieces came to visit and we had a movie sci-fi marathon with lots of big fuck-off space ships, laser guns, aliens and exploding planets—just good, wholesome family fun. At the end of it all, Marlee said, “You should watch Ex Machina , you’ll enjoy it”.
Who am I to argue? She can speak Japanese and along with her sister Paige they can recite, word-for-word, the entire script of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Impressive shit.
So the next time my Better Half was out of the house (she doesn’t watch anything that hasn’t got John Cusack in it—although the Hemsworth brothers are making inroads) I rented Ex Machina, got a six-pack of ales, a block of chocolate, a packet of chips, put on my Star Trek onesy and settled in for some serious one-on-one sci-fi.
With, I should add, absolutely no idea what the movie is about.
Here’s a rough idea (yes, this may spoil any future viewing for you).
A nerdy, IT-savvy gaming dude called Caleb wins a contest with a first prize of spending a weekend at the secret, secluded retreat of Nathan Bateman, who’s a genius, computer-programming guru. Under any other circumstances all sorts of predatory, paedophile warning bells would go off, but this is sci-fi, so don’t panic. Caleb arrives by private helicopter in the middle of the countryside somewhere and enters this ultra-secure, hidden luxury villa.
At this point I’d begun to notice—so far— a distinct lack of big fuck-off spaceships and laser canons, but Marlee promised, so I cracked another beer and kept watching…
It turns out that Caleb’s been sucked into being a guinea pig for a Turing test. Put simply (very simply) a Turing Test is supposed to determine whether a computer can think and behave like a human being. In a kind of reverse, double-whammy, Nathan is also testing Caleb to see if he can withstand the wiles and seductive attractions of the computer.
The computer, no surprise, is nothing like an airport check-in terminal or anything you might be reading this blog on. Instead, it’s a feminine android called Ava that looks like a cross between Oscar Pistorius and Angelina Jolie—with a light bulb on the back of her head. Myself, being firmly in the Jennifer Anniston camp, I couldn’t find Ava remotely attractive, but don’t forget Caleb is a nerd whose idea of online porn is the Christmas edition of PC Magazine, so he falls for Ava in all kinds of twisted, this is wrong on so many levels ways. It doesn’t help when Nathan explains that Ava has “pleasure circuits” in all the appropriate places and Caleb is quite welcome to give these a try… close to a Eewww moment really. The next time I see C3PO say, “I need lubricating, Master Luke” it’s going to push all the wrong buttons now. Let’s be real—all the technology in the world doesn’t alter the fact that Ava is just a few lithium batteries away from being one of Nathan’s blow-up dolls. Even if this is some sort of nerdy, blokey, weekend away, you have to draw boundaries about exactly what you share.
Definitely not the sort of “warped” I was hoping for. I wanted big, fuck-off spaceships warping into light speed – with laser canons.
Anyway, before long, the film has lots of underlying, mind-bending themes about the ethics and practicalities of artificial intelligence, just what is human anyway, and the growing question of exactly who is testing who? Ava is plainly smarter than your average food blender.
Interesting, fascinating, thought-provoking… but without a single, big fuck-off spaceship or laser canon in sight. Not even a proper droid on three wheels that bleeps shit all the time. I’ve been robbed of my sci-fi DVD rental money. Would it have hurt the film’s producers to chuck in a wookie or two? Maybe a cameo by Doctor Spock?
The film builds to a creepy kind of climax—when I say “climax” I’ll let you find out for yourself, if those weird-arse “pleasure circuits” are involved—and here’s the really interesting thing about Ex Machina.
The end of the movie has spawned a whole bunch of furious debates about how the film should really… well, end. There are blogs about whether Ex Machina is “three minutes too long” or not. If there are hidden agendas or meanings. Even if the film itself has become a victim of a manipulative, artificial intelligence to sow the seed of the coming android revolution and we’re all going to be killed by our washing machines. Eventually, Ava will be added to the list of people suspected of shooting JFK and abducting Elvis. It’s become that kind of conspiracy.
None of which was ever intended by the movie’s writers. They just thought, Hey, let’s do this for the ending, because we’ve already paid a fucking fortune for the helicopter and we want to get our money’s worth. Or something.
As a writer, it’s intriguing to see people read all kinds of strange, non-existent messages behind your stories. In a way, it’s what you want—a bonus of frenzied, online paranoia and free promotion (ah… like this blog, I suppose). So I have to hand it to the writers and producers of Ex Machina and say, “Well done. You’ve inadvertently created a cult classic”. Bastards. When’s that going to happen to one of my books?
All right, I’ll admit that Ex Machina is worth watching. But if you find Ava even slightly attractive I strongly suggest you take out a restraining order against your refrigerator and microwave oven. You have problems.
My free horror book, Bedtime Story, actually does have a backwards satanic message in it. Okay—it’s not exactly backwards, but it is sort of satanic. In a ghostly, demonic, possessed kind of way. However, I should point out it definitely hasn’t got any big fuck-off spaceships, laser canons or exploding planets—but I never said it did, right? (yes, I’m looking at you, Marlee and Paige). Did you notice the FREE thing? Click the link below and scroll down for a download.
And if you’d like an email announcing my next blog or news of my writing and music (nothing else, I promise) just fill in the newsletter sign-up on the right.
Get Bedtime Story for free by going to THIS PAGE and clicking on the links.
400 DAYS: FILM REVIEW
Okay, I’ll do the right thing and warn you that some of this review might be regarded as spoilers. Which has nothing to do with how the script, the cast, the plot and production values do a great job of spoiling the entire film anyway, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
400 Days steals its concept from the very real HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation) experiment where pseudo astronauts are simulating space travel and imitating living on Mars to determine if any adverse psychological effects might happen during the real thing. Like, if you might suffer any urges to axe-murder your fellow crew, because they didn’t replace the used toilet roll. Bastards.
In 400 Days it’s a private organisation, not NASA, and four wannabe astronauts are entombed in an underground, mock-spaceship facility in the middle of the desert to pretend they’ve embarked on a long mission to another planet (no prizes for guessing how long). They’re warned that all kinds of bad, simulated space shit will happen and they have to cope. If successful, at the end of the four hundred days maybe NASA will give them a job… or something.
The first fly in the film’s ointment appears when we meet our intrepid crew. Even in a privatised venture you’d expect that any participants would have met some extremely stringent entry qualifications. Obviously, NASA will never send just any fucking idiot into space. However, the company behind the 400 Days project apparently believes that NASA will send not only one, but four fucking idiots to Mars and beyond — the crew in this movie.
The captain of the “ship” rolls up on Day One with a crippling hangover, because his girlfriend dumped him. This makes perfect sense. Neil Armstrong was probably on the piss for weeks before landing on the moon. Our second crewman can’t take anything seriously — great criterion for taking part in any in-depth simulation. Crewman Three is a weedy, psychotic wreck before he even goes down the ladder. The fourth member of the team is, of course, a cute attractive girl who doubles as the crew’s doctor and psychologist.
Awesome idea, let’s lock three fucked-up, horny fools underground with a stunning girl who’s going to be giving them regular prostate examinations. What could possibly go wrong? In fact, what she does give them is scheduled injections of stuff they didn’t agree to — and, lo and behold, all kinds of hallucinogenic, scary shit starts to happen (I use the term scary under advisement) including unseen monsters banging on the hull and knocking on the door. The team also loses all contact with so-called Mission Control, but nobody’s willing to pop the hatch and check if Occupation Health and Safety has closed the whole thing down, because that would rate a fail if they’re wrong, get it? No job at NASA for you, arsehole.
So the big question is — are the hallucinations, the terrifying noises, the lack of contact and truly appalling fucking plot all part of the simulation… or has something real gone wrong?
There is one spectacular crash — but sorry, we’re not talking special effects here. It’s in the credibility of the script. Otherwise 400 Days is just a lazy, low-budget piece of sci-fi fodder with most of the film shot, I suspect, in the director’s own kitchen. The self-serve checkouts at Woolworths look more futuristic than 400 Days’ set design. Even when they finally pop the hatch and emerge, it’s night-time and pitch black. The obligatory tumbleweed rolls past. And although they know it’s still Earth and they’ve only been underground, the crew still put on their pretend space suits and helmets — for fuck’s sake (sigh).
Honestly, the most impressive bit of sci-fi, space imagery used for the film is the picture on the front of the DVD cover (yes, that’s it above). It probably took the entire CGI budget. I could say, “What a crock of shit” — but it tricked me into watching this rubbish, so you gotta hand it to them.
Maybe I’m being too harsh and the film was unfortunately released at roughly the same time as the latest Star Wars, where the budget for Harrison Ford’s food blender was larger than 400 Days’ complete production — comparisons aren’t going to help. So, by all means have a look for yourselves, but I recommend you wait until it slips onto the “Weekly” DVD shelves.
I should mention the ending. You’ll blink twice and say loudly, “What the fuck?”
Does that give you a hint?