Ex Machina (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex 3/Nudity  5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…

 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Genesis 11:4a & 6

What are human beings that you are mindful of them,     mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8:4


Caleb, Ava, and Nathan in a strange, changing relationship–who is manipulating whom?         (c) 2015 A24

What a different approach director/screenwriter Alex Garland takes to the Frankenstein/hubris theme in his film. He is no stranger to the science fiction genre, having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine. Like the Avengers film, this one deals with AI, but in a much more creepy way, with its inventor more like Steve Jobs than Tony Stark—although fortunately the real Jobs met a different fate than does the genius in what turns out to be a bloody take on the Frankenstein theme.

The film begins with computer whiz Caleb (Donhnall Gleeson) winning a work competition to spend a week at the mountain retreat of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an internet search engine billionaire. Because the CEO’s modernistic home/laboratory is located at the center of  his Alaskan estate (the size of a small European country), Caleb has to be flown in by helicopter. He is dumped a couple of miles from the structure because of the obsessive owner’s no fly zone policy. Fortunately our hero has arrived with just a carry-on suitcase, so all he has to do is “follow the river” to find the place. Reaching and gaining entry by a computer controlled system, he finds his employer engaged in hitting a punching bag.

After being issued an electronic key that will admit him to some rooms but not others, Caleb learns that he has not “won” a vacation, but has been selected (and not by a random process) to test Nathan’s current project he has named Ava—It/she is an A.I. housed in a meshed, see-into body That displays her metal innards. However, she has a beautiful face (that of Alicia Vikander’s) and a winning personality that takes Caleb’s mind off the fact that she is a machine. Nathan tells Caleb that she has the equipment for mutual sexual gratification, During the week Caleb is to give her “The Turing Test,” created back in the Forties by computer scientist Alan Turing. (For more on the tragic life of this genius see the film The Imitation Game.) This is a test by which a human can tell whether or not an A.I. computer is human or a machine.

At first Calab is overawed by his boss, referring to him enthusiastically as a “god,” which, as the story progress, we see Nathan changing the little “g” to a big one. However, as the days go by and the naïve Caleb interacts with Nathan and Ava, the story becomes a bit creepy. Nathan is frequently off-setting because of his acerbic words and over indulgence in alcohol during the nights. Although dwelling alone, he has created another android named Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), who is mute and designed to serve him in every way—and I mean every way, including sexually, as well as submitting to his physical abuse. Caleb can often see this because every room in the house is equipped with multiple cameras—which means too that Caleb and Ava are under constant surveillance. A bit of humor is injected when, failing to talk Caleb into dancing with his sex slave, Nathan moves around the room with “her” in a goofy dance.

Soon Ava, growing in awareness, becomes the tester and Caleb the testee. During one of the frequent power outages when the cameras can not transmit her voice to Nathan she warns Caleb, “You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” That she is causing the outages proves to Caleb that she does have autonomy. Also her asking what will happen when Nathan is finished with “her” and moves on to new models of AI—the answer being that she will be terminated. She also seems aware of Nathan’s misogyny when she says, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Thus her enlisting Caleb to help her escape raises the issue of freedom from patriarchy.

What follows moves the film into the horror genre, to which, of course, the Frankenstein story that it immulates belongs. We are left to reflect upon Nathan’s earlier claim, “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Whether as a warning or a prediction, these words might lead us to those of the Psalmist, who, after observing the beauty and majesty of the world God has made, asks his Creator, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” In the new Avengers film the members urge Tony Stark to go slow on his plan to develop AI and encase it in one of his armors. Alex Garland might be following the same path in this film. Is AI a good or a potentially devastating thing in the course of human development?

You can read about the Turing Test at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4


Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called BeautifulWrittenLetters.com where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.