Lara Croft was best known for her exaggerated physical assets (rendered as Madonna-worthy pointed polygons) and short shorts than as any sort of character. She was realized on the big screen in 2001’s Tomb Raider as an elite physical specimen portrayed by Angelina Jolie, where the filmmakers went the added step of padding Jolie’s bosom to better reflect the source material’s image. The filmmakers literally thought this aspect would be make-or-break with fans, as if Jolie herself was not naturally vivacious enough. As you can imagine, Lara Croft was primarily seen as a sexy avatar, whether on the small screen or the big screen. This new Tomb Raider aims to better ground its story, tone, and central heroine, and it mostly succeeds. This is a solid, pleasantly enjoyable mid-tier action movie that might also qualify as the best video-game-to-film adaptation so far (sorry Uwe Boll).
Lara (Alicia Vikander) is struggling in the wake of her father’s (Dominic West) disappearance. It’s been years but she holds onto hope that dear old dad is still out there. One day, she discovers her father’s secret study and a video message he recorded confessing why he left. He’s seeking a fabled tomb on a hidden island off the coast of Japan, a tomb devoted to a powerful goddess of myth who sacrificed her admirers. Also looking for the tomb is Vogel (Walton Goggins) and a team of armed mercenaries. Lara must stay ahead of the mercenaries, find her father and the long-lost hidden tomb.
This is a Lara Croft stripped down and absent the male gaze, which has defined her travails just as much as the treasure hunting adventures. There’s not a single shot in the movie that seeks to ogle Vikander’s lean body. Even her outfit, as mentioned a staple of Croft’s early appeal, is a modest take top and khakis. The emphasis this time is on what she endures and overcomes rather than the curvature of her body. This is an attempt at an origin tale, rebooting Lara for a new generation of fans. She’s less the cool buxom sexpot with the twin pistols than a struggling young woman facing her fears. This is the first time Lara Croft has been envisioned as a character. There’s a level of broader realism that the movie holds onto, positioning this Croft as less the gun blazing super cool badass and more as a stealthy, plucky, and scrappy figure of moderate action. There are moments where she hides and moments where she runs, as they are the best recourse. She’s not imposing in her build and poise like a Gina Carano (Haywire) but Vikander’s got some serious moves. With all that in mind, let’s not get too carried away here. Lara Croft may have some extra dimensions but she’s not exactly a fully formed, three-dimensional character or boasting the kind of magnetic personality that drew us to Indiana Jones or even a Nathan Drake. She’s capable but also limited in interest and charisma.
The action is invigorating enough and given a clear scope of play. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) orchestrates the action in clean long shots and precise edits, allowing the audience a clear sense of what is happening. A frantic bicycle chase and foot chase in the first act are given extra vitality by a roaming camera that takes in the full view. There’s enough variety in the action and natural consequences to keep things interesting. This is a movie that doesn’t feel overpowered with CGI, even though I know it’s present. Uthaug makes a point of emphasizing practical effects and sets, which adds a further level of realism to the excitement. I’d call it a more pared down, realistic version of an action adventure but it still has outlandish set pieces like Lara finding refuge atop a crumbling WWII era bomber that just so happens to be wedged atop a rock face overlooking a steep waterfall. Even during these moments, and the last act takes place almost entirely within the ancient tomb and its traps, the movie keeps things relatively credible. It’s fun without being too flippant and serious enough without losing its sense of amusement. Tomb Raider reminded me a lot of a big-screen version of an Uncharted game, a rollicking adventure that also feels rooted in our own world, but with a hint of the supernatural creeping along the edges. The conclusion has a few nice surprises following this pattern even with the possibility of actual zombies emerging.
Vianker (The Danish Girl) acquits herself nicely in the realm of action-adventure. She gained twelve pounds of muscle and has a pretty impressive six-pack. Vikander is a smaller actress by nature but the filmmakers do a fine job of placing her in believable action scenarios that rely upon her athleticism. Her Lara is a stubbornly independent protagonist who refuses to give up, which makes her a winning force even when her personality fails to sufficiently light up the screen. Vikander hurls herself into the role, performing an impressive array of stunts, and yelping along to the genre demands.
There are some plot holes that are hard to ignore, mostly pertaining to motivations. In the first act, we learn tat Lara is heir to a vast fortune of money and a big company that owns many other subsidiaries. However, she refuses to essentially inherit the company because it means having to sign papers declaring her missing father as deceased. I understand the character’s rejection of wanting to accept her father’s death, but when taken to this extent it becomes almost comical. Lara is seen scraping by for enough money to survive on her own. She’s forced to pawn her heirlooms and work as a bicycle messenger. She’s struggling to get by and yet her pride is standing between her and a massive fortune. This is just stupid. What’s to stop Lara from signing the paperwork, inheriting the fortune, and using said fortune to continue the search for her father? There’s also the motivation of her absentee father, who left to thwart the bad guys from finding the special tomb. However, he inadvertently leads them there because he was tracked. Had he not even left, the bad guys would not have found the island’s location and he could have been in Lara’s life. This is transparent potting to simply move the pieces across a board. Another example is Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) a ship captain ally she picks up that serves no real purpose other than ferrying her to the island. One character that benefits from motivation is the villain, Vogel. He’s not some mustache-twirling rogue but rather a guy hired for a job that wants to go home and see his kids again. It’s a nice, empathetic touch that makes Vogel grounded and a better fit.
Tomb Raider is a smaller, leaner, and enjoyable little action movie of modest ambitions. That sounds very conditional, I’ll admit, but it’s a scaled-down version of an exaggerated character doing splashy, sexy, exaggerated action heroics. It’s a stripped down reboot that grounds the action while still finding enough ways to have fun. It does get a little caught up in the edicts of an origin tale, overpowering moments with “First” significance (First Adventure, First Kill, First Fight, etc.). There are also some head-scratching plot holes that get glossed over to keep things moving along. Vikander is one tough cookie, and the film celebrates her brains as well as her brawn and absent any ogling camerawork. Tomb Raider is a suitably exciting action film that gives some hope for future Croft adventures.
Nate’s Grade: B
Tulip Fever was originally filmed back in 2014 and has endured two years of delayed release dates. In the time it took the studio to make and release Tulip Fever, Alicia Vikander filmed The Danish Girl, it was released, and she won an Oscar, and now she’s going to portray Lara Croft in a new Tomb Raider franchise. The question arises why something seemingly so innocuous would take so long to release. The studio seems quite hesitant about the finished product. The Weinstein Company even packaged a rare red band trailer for their movie, something more associated with ribald comedies and bloody action films. A movie about tulips and love affairs seems like an odd choice, but hey, people got to see some extra Vikander nudity for free. It’s being dumped into theaters over a tepid Labor Day release and the advertising is billing it as an “erotic thriller,” which is a mistake on two fronts. It’s not truly erotic, lacking a primal carnal power, and it’s not really a thriller. It all smells less than rosy and more of desperation.
Set in the early 1600s in Amsterdam, and the nation has gone wild for tulips. The flowers are being traded and sold in the backs of taverns, and the tulip market seems limitless. Meanwhile, Sophia (Vikander) is a young woman who is married off to Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), the self-described “king of peppercorn.” The relationship lacks passion as their nightly sessions fail to deliver a child. Cornelis, thinking about his legacy, hires a painter, Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), for a portrait of he and Sophia. The painter falls in love with his subject and he and Sophia begin having an affair. The servant woman, Maria (Holliday Grainger), is witness to her mistress’ secrets, and as their affair continues, both parties devise an elaborate means that they can be together.
Tulip Fever is awash in strange and ineffective plotting. Firstly, the film never presents a suitable rationale for why Sophia would fall into bed with Jan. It presents her frustrations and malaise with her husband, so being in a position for finding a passionate alternative and outlet is established. After a few painting sessions with Jan, apparently they’re smitten with one another, though the movie never does the slightest work to establish a spark between them. It’s not like much would have been required. Make Jan a charmer who makes Sophia feel valued and desired. A handful of careful exchanges hinting at an inappropriate fascination are all that was needed. Instead their coupling feels largely arbitrary and from thin air. Movies directly hinging upon romantic affairs succeed on the virtue of making you feel the desire of the characters, whether that’s a romantic yearning or even just simple hardcore lust. Sexual tension is a paramount necessity. I felt no chemistry, desire, or even sexual tension between DeHaan and Vikander. There was no heat or sensuality here. Then there’s the matter of Sophia’s relationship with Maria, our curiously chosen narrator. We’re told that Maria sees Sophia like a sister, but once again the movie doesn’t show anything to indicate a particularly close relationship between the two. Then when Maria announces her pregnancy she threatens her “sister” if she gets thrown out of employment. She’ll tell Sophia’s husband what she’s been up to with her painter pal. Maybe it’s the hormones but that doesn’t exactly sound like a close, sisterly relationship. Although just when it seems like Maria might be a thorn in her mistress’ side and upset the power balance, the story abandons this idea altogether and Maria recedes back into a harmless cherubic aid.
It’s during Maria’s pregnancy where Tulip Fever’s plotting becomes its most tonally egregious, becoming a 17th century episode of Three’s Company. Sophia’s mission ever since her wedding has been to get pregnant and produce a son for her husband to carry on his family line, but due to a combination of erectile dysfunction and impotence, this seems like an unlikely task. So when Maria is pregnant, the two ladies scheme to do a switcheroo; they’ll pretend that Sophia is really pregnant, downplay Maria’s changes, and then pretend the newborn is Sophia’s child. This plan leads to several almost comical sequences to maintain the ruse, like when Sophia pushes Maria aside to take claim over her recent spate of morning sickness. The entire time I kept thinking that wouldn’t it be so much easier for Sophia just to get impregnated from her younger lover? Instead we’re given this storyline that approaches farce, and that’s not the end of it. Tulip Fever also features faking one’s death, sending the drunkest person out to retrieve the most valuable item in the country, a character conscripted into the Navy immediately, and contrived mistaken identity developments that also require characters to never do any follow-up questions to confirm the worst of what they think they just witnessed. These kinds of farcical plot elements indicate that the filmmakers were not confidant that their central relationships could sustain a narrative unto themselves. And yet I’ll admit that these unexpected plot turns provided a level of entertainment that was lacking beforehand.
The actors do what they can with their characters and marshal forward with straight faces. Vikander (The Light Between Oceans) is a luminescent actress who can communicate paragraphs through her tremulous eyes. She very capably conveys Sophia’s mixed emotions over her marriage, her gnawing sense of loyalty, and when in the throes of passion, an unburdening that serves as a personal awakening. Sadly, those romantic throes are paired with DeHaan, an actor I’m becoming more and more skeptical with every new performance. In the recent sci-fi bomb Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he chose to speak in a bizarre voice that mimicked 90s Keanu Reeves. With Tulip Fever, I understood the origin of that voice, because in this movie he sounds like 90s Keanu Reeves gamely attempting his woeful British accent in Dracula. Does Dane DeHaan have range or is he incapable of playing anything without ironic detachment? He makes for a pretty pitiful romantic affair option, and I never cared what transpired to him. Waltz (Spectre) becomes the most sympathetic character by the film’s end and has a genuine character arc that might elicit some real emotion. He’s pompous and a bit oblivious, but he never really becomes the film’s villain. He doesn’t mistreat Sophia. He doesn’t threaten anyone. He just wants a child, and a wish he made to God haunts him. He truly cares about his wife, and it’s only later that Sophia realizes what her plot machinations have done to this man. Waltz’s performance is well within his nattering wheelhouse. The supporting cast includes Judi Dench, Cara Delevigne, a hilariously pervy Tom Hollander, Kevin McKidd, and an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. It’s enough to make you wonder what in this story got them all here.
The story seems to exist only in parallel with the tulip market that gives the film its title. It feels like two different movies on different tracks that rarely come together. I hope you enjoy textbook economics lessons on market bubbles, because you’ll get plenty information imported on the buying and selling power of tulips. These little flowers just kept going up and up in value and investors believed that they would never go down (oh how familiar this sounds). At times the movie hints at being a Big Short in 17th century tulips futures. This could be an interesting topic because of how foreign it is today, the thought of flowers being so valuable that a person’s life savings might get squandered. However, the story that takes shape in Tulip Fever feels generally unrelated. It’s a love affair with comical complications but the only time the bullish tulip market factors in is when supporting characters get rich quick from some lucky bulb prospects. They just as likely could have gotten their fortunes through any form of gambling. It didn’t have to be tulips. The setting doesn’t feel integral to the story the movie wants to tell, which is a waste of such a supremely unique moment in world economics history. Although there is a moment where Maria narrates that a madness took over people, and I so dearly wanted her to follow up that statement with, “A tulip madness.” Unfortunately, she did not.
Tulip Fever is a costume drama that may have appeal for those usually left cold by the stuffy genre of half-glances and unrequited passions. It does have some screwy plotting linked to its screwy couple, so while it doesn’t quite work as a developed story with engaging characters, it does make for a fitfully entertaining experience. The messy plotting and arbitrary coupling limit the power and empathy. I ultimately felt more for Waltz’s character by the end than anyone else, and I don’t know if that was intended. It’s a handsomely made film with strong production design, costuming, and cinematography. If only the characters and their exploits were worthy of such efforts.
Nate’s Grade: C
A melodrama through and through, The Light Between Oceans is at its core a pretty-looking movie about pretty-looking people being sad. The premise almost seems like a parody of prestige indie filmmaking in the 1990s. Tom (Michael Fassbender) is a shell-shocked WWI vet-turned-lighthouse keeper in Australia who falls in love with mainland lady, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). They marry and have difficulty conceiving, with Isabel enduring two grueling miscarriages. Then one day a dingy washes ashore with a crying baby inside and a dead man. Rather than alert the proper authorities, they decided to bury the man and raise the child as their own. Years later, the couple discovers the girl’s real mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who has been racked with unanswered grief ever since. The couple is then thrown into an emotional crucible testing their ethics and moral compromises and the question of ultimately what’s in the best interest of this little girl. It’s a movie that’s geared to put you through an emotional wringer, and the actors do their part. Vikander (Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) is downright luminescent and dives deep into all of her character’s varied and heightened emotions. The scenes of her dawning realization of the miscarriages and her helplessness are heartbreaking without being maudlin. Weisz is shaken to the core when her identity is robbed from her; she’s so fragile and holding on to hope so hard you might think she’ll collapse any moment. Fassbender internalizes the most and fully communicates the inner struggle of his character’s guilt. Director and chief adapter Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) has made an intimate relationship drama in a beautiful, sea-swept location, and the kind of Big Feeling classy melodrama you came to expect from Anthony Minghella. The problem is that Cianfrance’s characters are held too much at arm’s length for resonance. We empathize but not nearly as deeply as we could, and by the end the movie washes away like the surf.
Nate’s Grade: B-
After the indifferent reception of its 2012 spin-off, original super spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) are back and it feels like everyone is falling into familiar paces. The titular fourth film in the franchise (excluding Bourne Legacy) is easily the weakest (excluding Bourne Legacy) and the seams of the formula are starting to show. Once again an ally has intel to expose some sort of secret and illegal government conspiracy that ties into a revelation about Bourne’s past, and once again this ally is killed as the Act One break to spurn Bourne onward, and once again there’s a secondary assassin working for the morally murky government agency head, and once again there’s a signature car chase sequence, and once again there’s a final choice Bourne needs to make about what kind of person he wants to be given his new perspective on his old killin’ ways. The frantic Greengrass staple camerawork and editing can make just about anything bristle with some energy and suspense, but rarely was I fully feeling what was happening onscreen (except for the caveat of admiring how attractive Alicia Vikander’s face looks on the big screen). Short of the final car chase through Vegas with a SWAT truck barreling through traffic, the action sequences are pretty routine and unmemorable. The foot chases and fisticuffs, a hallmark of the franchise, feel slightly blasé in their development. The action isn’t bad but it feels more than a bit staid. The stakes aren’t as high and maybe that’s because it feels like there is little more to reveal about our hero’s hidden past. Is the next movie going to divulge the long lost secret that he never paid a parking ticket? Tommy Lee Jones makes an enjoyably crusty adversary. Vikander has just enough of an angle to provide more substance as a character than the typical agency analyst reciting exposition. The film ends with some promise of looking forward rather than back, and I hope that further adventures with Jason Bourne (excluding Bourne Legacy) stray a little more from the well-worn formula and provide better reasons for this spy to come out of his hiding.
Nate’s Grade: B-
While you watch The Danish Girl, you can feel the full weight of everybody’s good intentions. The filmmakers and cast all seem to realize that they are telling a story that will humanize and help others better understand trans issues. It’s the first sexual reassignment surgery and a community that is still fighting for wider acceptance. Nobody wants to screw up this story and do a disservice to representing the stories of the trans community. You feel the earnest good intentions with every frame, and yet I would argue those same good intentions end up paralyzing the movie and its impact.
Lili Erbe (Eddie Redmayne) is living her life as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown in the 1920s. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is a portrait artist trying to be more than the wife of a famous painter. One day, Gerda’s model is absent and she asks Einar to step in. He puts on stockings, holds a gown to his body, and it’s a revelation. Soon after Einar is wearing women’s garments under his clothes and Gerda dresses him up with makeup and a wig. It’s a fun diversion and something of a turn-on for Gerda, and then her husband informs her that Lili isn’t the costume, Einar is. Lili tries to find a sense of explanation with disdainful psychiatrists and doctors but is deemed aberrant. Lili is struggling with this crisis of identity and self-acceptance, and then a new beginning emerges with a helpful doctor who can physically transform Lili from a man into a woman. The surgery is not without risk but Lili is willing to do whatever it takes to feel whole (note: since Lili is the chosen gender identity for the film’s subject, I shall be referring to her as Lili and using feminine pronouns).
Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) gives a suitably affecting performance that is full of empathy and a halting sense of fragility. He seems like he’s about to crumble at any moment, his nervous smile and pleading and confused eyes communicating Lili’s trepidation and flights of exciting discovery. Redmayne’s delicate androgynous features and long-limbed dancer’s body play to his strengths, as he adjusts his physicality to reflect his mind’s experimentation of what it would be like to be a woman. There’s a rather lovely visual where Lili visits a peep show in Paris. After a few minutes of bashful eye contact, she begins to mimic the peep show model’s physical poses, and the camera’s focus melts between the two. It feels like a dance between the two and in this simple visual much is communicated. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie lacks the impact of this poignant visual. Redmayne too often retreats into his stable of nervous gesticulations and halted speech. It’s a performance that feels too detached and too opaque to make you feel the full turmoil of Lili. There’s an interesting moment when, dressed as Lili, a smitten man kisses her without permission. Lili is upset at the lack of consideration, to which the man replies, “I couldn’t chance you saying no.” That little moment highlights the challenges of women in a society that doesn’t respect their agency. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t present more scenes that explore this new dynamic that Lili will have to adjust to. Instead the move repeatedly falls back on her as Brave and Strong. As presented, Lili is more catalyst than a fleshed-out character, which is remarkable considering the movie is reportedly about her struggles. Rather, the real focus of the story seems to be Gerda, who, incidentally, is the only person on screen referred to as “the Danish girl.”
Gerda is given equal attention in the screen adaptation by Lucinda Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White), which is generous and will likely leave several viewers confused. First, Gerda is given the most complete character arc and a surprising amount of consideration for her perspective. I suppose she could be the audience’s entry point into this story, the relatable position for many audience members trying to better understand a loved one saying they were born in the wrong body. The movie presents greater empathy for Gerda’s plight than it does Lili, which is definitely unexpected and perhaps misplaced. Surely finding the courage to embrace a controversial identity that precious few will even acknowledge, let alone the bastions of contemporary medical science declaring such thinking to be signs of a degenerative brain, is a bit more of a risk than being a supportive spouse. I don’t want to mitigate Gerda’s own personal struggles dealing with the outward transformation of Einar into Lili. It’s a position that deserves deep empathy and the movie has it in spades, as we watch Gerda try to be supportive while the person she fell in love with erases himself. Vikander (Ex Machina) also kills it. Her performance is full of the breadth of emotions that I found wanting in her screen partner. Vikander’s face registers all the complicated emotions; she’s in a sense saying goodbye to her husband and a specific life they shared, and while for her it can feel like mourning, for Lili it is a rebirth. Viankder’s compassionate and nuanced performance as Gerda is the exclamation on one hell of a year for the Swedish actress.
Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) gives everything the proper stately appearance with his signature visual indulgences (the man loves his asymmetrical one-shots and generous head room in the camera frame). There are several landscapes or venues that look gorgeous or given a dream-like sense just from Hooper’s framing. His handling of his actors is first-rate, and there’s a comfortable sensuality to scenes between Einar and Gerda, further communicating just how enraptured each is with the other. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a bit over excited to explain all the many emotions you should be feeling, but other than that the technical aspects of The Danish Girl are pleasing to the senses and enhance the story. I just wish the screenplay gave us so much more to think about when it comes to Lili.
As a strange aside, I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.
Tasteful to a fault, The Danish Girl is a reserved biopic that goes about its story with a sincere and earnest sense of responsibility. It wants to tell its story correctly instead of telling its story in the best-developed and executed fashion, and there is a difference. The performances are strong, though Viankder is the standout as the film’s surprising focus. Redmayne feels too timid and fragile to make Lili’s story resonate beyond common human compassion. The screenplay doesn’t place us insider her mind. Instead, we’re treated more to how Lili’s choices are impacting her supportive but anguished wife. In 1930, a mere four months after the fourth and final surgery, Lili died from complications related to the operation, lending a greater sense of tragedy (this fact is left out of the concluding text). It’s a movie that feels too distant even from itself. Everything is so reserved, so tasteful, so artfully opaque, so afraid of making the wrong step that The Danish Girl ends up being an Oscar-bait biopic that feels too hesitant and bloodless.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Guy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.
Nate’s Grade: B
Alex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He’s a science fiction specialist, adapting everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s wrenching Never Let Me Go to the Halo movie. He’s worked with Danny Boyle, adapting his novel The Beach, and then on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If you’ve noticed a theme with the titles, Garland tends to subscribe to a pessimistic view of human nature. And yet each film is grounded by the humanity of its characters no matter the extreme circumstances. Garland’s gift is making the fantastic grounded on a recognizable human level. Ex Machina is his latest and his directorial debut but you’d never have guessed it with how controlled and polished the film comes across. It’s a cerebral sci-fi film that haunts, enchants, and consistently engaged the imagination.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a corporate contest to spend a week’s vacation in the home of a reclusive Google-esque tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is here to test out Nathan’s newest invention – artificial intelligence. He’s built an android woman named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interview her.
Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. At the start, knowing the Turing test, we’re just as interested in Ava as Caleb is, trying to figure her out and how lifelike she may be. But then the conversations start to linger and, during a brief power outage that cuts the feed to the omnipresent cameras, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not whom he thinks. As soon as the power is back and running, it’s as if the comment never happened. The pristine underground quarters have an eerie tranquility to them, almost as if Apple is designing high-end prisons. Garland’s movie becomes consumed in paranoia. Is Ava being honest? Is Nathan being honest or underhanded? What’s in some of those “off limits” rooms? What is the true test at hand? Who is the silent Asian assistant? At one point, Caleb slices open his own arm to search for circuitry, and you completely understand his reasoning. This mounting sense of paranoia and dread, tagged with Garland’s mysterious and well-developed storyline, are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and rapidly second-guessing and triple-guessing your shifting loyalties.
Garland also smartly doesn’t dance around the obvious plot device of having a beautiful robotic woman, namely the inevitability of romance to bloom. What is it about android women that science fiction seems to love so much? From Blade Runner to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the genre loves the concept of robotic women. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of a genre written by a majority of men, or perhaps it taps into something more unconscious about the desire to control women, or a fear of women, but that’s a conversation for another day. Ava is certainly a stunning creature, thanks to Vikander, but also from the sleek production design that makes her feel like the world’s most gorgeous Mr. Potato Head with her lycra-like skin for easy detachment. Her exposed stomach of bolts and bulbs is also a constant reminder of her “other-ness.” There’s an obviously sexual dynamic to the character, and while she’s technically nude for most of the film, watching her slip out of stockings and a dress has a strange erotic quality. Thankfully, the percolating would-be romance between man and machine actually plays a vital part throughout the script and especially with the end. There’s even a darkly comic yet disconcerting reveal about why Ava looks as she does. Is Ava capable of feelings? Is she falling for Caleb, or does she merely view him as a means to an end?
It’s essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland’s effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. The concept of A.I. has been explored in many sci-fi stories before but Garland finds fresh resonance by paring down his story to a manageable trio. Nathan’s reclusive home is like a twenty-first century version of the haunted house and full of fun detours begging to be explored. Garland’s cinematography and production design are reminiscent of the cool artifice of David Fincher’s films. The world feels like a small step into the future but constantly unsettling. Garland’s story always has another mystery to unlock, always driving the story further as Caleb’s weeklong stay is coming to a close. Garland has a natural eye for images and composes several startling sequences that can equally evoke beauty as well as disquiet. There’s a moment where Ava passes a wall of faces as if they were simply a row of hats. Simple moments like Ava “dressing up” are given a gentle poignancy that isn’t overplayed for effect. Garland’s film is what I wanted 2014’s Under the Skin to be. Both of them are unsettling, moody, and atmospheric with striking Kubrickian imagery, but Garland’s film is less purposely oblique.
The trio of actors provides strong work, especially Swedish actress Vikander (Seventh Son, A Royal Affair). As the film is told from Caleb’s perspective, she has to find a very exact balance with her performance with elements of innocence, uncertainty, and ethereal curiosity. She’s rather placid but you always feel like there’s more just under the surface, whether it’s the ache of sentient realization or something more sinister. She’s a test subject, a captive, and a possible romantic interest. Vikander hits every right note to remain mystifying and beguiling. Gleeson (Unbroken) is becoming a go-to young actor for Hollywood. His awkwardness and enthusiasm to be part of history is an easy channel for the audience, but as Garland’s script spins along, Gleeson’s enthusiasm ebbs to concern, for Ava and then himself. The source of Ex Machina’s surprising font of humor is Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a too cavalier tech genius. He’s so nonchalant and chummy, usually soused, that you start distrusting his amiable nature.
It’s a shame then that the film couldn’t quite hold onto these ambiguities to the end. Garland has had third act missteps in many of his films, some tone-altering and simply losing momentum like 28 Days Later, and some as disastrous as Sunshine’s blurry slasher killer, which ruins a perfectly good-to-great sci-fi thriller. Ex Machina too exhibits its own share of third act issues, namely a confluence of contrivances with the characters. There are certain revelations you should already be suspecting giving the nature of the film, and if you’ve watched other movies before. Those reveals work in relation to Garland’s plot; however, the climax feels a bit too forced and obvious for a movie that has been, up to that point, expertly keeping the audience on its toes. Nathan spilling the beans on all the different levels of the experiment comes across not as an outlet of his character’s blasé narcissism and more a need for the script to force a confrontation. The different levels of intrigue fade away to what is a rather conventional climax that feels poorly developed and woefully inadequate for the story being told. I will credit Garland with the courage of his resolution, though, which provides deliberate decisions that cast the rest of the film in another dimension. It also feels completely right, while still allowing for Garland to work his Kubrick fetish fully to its eerie erotic ends.
Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It’s a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland’s scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that is a testament to Garland’s artistic vision. It’s a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn’t forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters. Ex Machina is a stellar debut for Garland as a director and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts shifting more of his attention to getting back into the director’s chair. It’s not a perfect film, as it too suffers from Garland’s streak of third act troubles, but it’s a remarkably assured, sleek, and absorbing movie that gets under your skin.
Nate’s Grade: B+