Ex machina – a review

ex_machina

Ex machina tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer slaving for a large unnamed corporation that we eventually learn is somewhere between Facebook and Google. As the movie starts, Caleb’s computer flashes that he has won a company contest to visit the mountain-retreat home of recluse company founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Upon confused arrival, he is welcomed warmly by Nathan and escorted through a labyrinthine maze of non-descript hallways where Caleb learns he has access to some rooms and not others based on his ID card. As Nathan explains, the austere design reflects the space’s use not as a home but rather as a research facility.

Nathan explains his AI breakthrough to Caleb

Nathan explains his AI breakthrough to Caleb

Nathan eventually divulges that he has been working on building an AI or artificial intelligence, and that Caleb’s role during his week at the retreat is to apply the Turing Test to the AI; that is, through a series of questions to elucidate whether the interviewer is speaking with a human or a computer.

Which brings us to Ava—played by Alicia Vikander—the ingénue AI that Caleb is to test. As she sits before her inquisitor, Ava is mostly metal and wires, but that hasn’t kept Nathan from endowing her with sexuality in her form, a soft approachable voice, and a human-like face.

Caleb becomes Ava's inquisitor through plexiglas

Caleb becomes Ava’s inquisitor through plexiglas

Through a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb, and Caleb and Ava—the film explores questions of identity, freedom, inalienable rights and love. But therein lies my primary problem with the movie: It is a stage play performed as a film.

Without giving too much away [doing my best to avoid spoilers], the interactions between the characters are almost as sterile as the environment in which they occur. Simply put, damned little happens aside from a series of conversations.

A labyrinthine maze of halls and locked doors

A labyrinthine maze of halls and locked doors

I am confident that this was done on purpose by writer/director Alex Garland—best known for the films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. I have no doubt that the minimalism of film is in itself a metaphor for the lifeless character of the AI.

But whereas minimalism is expected in a live theatre, it feels off-putting in a cinema. Ex machina engages the conscious mind but not the eye, unless your eye is drawn to beige. In fact, given the lack of action in this film, it would even work–possibly better–as a radio drama.

Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaacs (L to R)

Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaacs (L to R)

The performances were good, but I didn’t feel like the actors were given a lot to work with.

As I found so ironic with the movie Prometheus, the character of the android Ava was the most deeply developed (compare Ava to Michael Fassbender’s David). You could actually see her character evolve as the movie progressed at its leisurely pace. And full marks to Vikander for being able to imbue so much internal communication through subtle verbal intonations.

Subtle intonations and expressions bring Ava to life.

Subtle intonations and expressions bring Ava to life.

The character of Nathan showed the most potential, however, as you could see a brooding darkness within him that vacillated between wilting depression and disturbing malevolence. But as with so many aspects of this film, the potential was never really explored and we were left with a subtextual emptiness.

And Caleb proved to be the type of antagonist that I find least appealing—the victim—mostly bobbing like a cork on the eddies and currents outside of its control. He is neither hero nor anti-hero and so leaves me cold and uncaring, and if I don’t care, I am not engaged.

Ex machina is a very cerebral movie, dealing with deeply philosophical questions about humanity and self-awareness, and to a lesser extent about emotional connection. And in many ways, it is only because of Ava that the film does not devolve into an Open University lecture.

There is little doubt that the robotics and artificial intelligence enthusiasts will get a hard-on from Ex machina, a biological function that forms a humorous sidebar in the story.

But for those who like these subjects and want to be entertained by a gripping story, I suggest you take another look at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where identical questions are discussed in a backdrop of a film noir story line.

Ex machina is not completely without mystery, and I did find myself asking questions about the characters, including wondering if the audience wasn’t part of some Turing Test. But if I ever opened my mouth in anything approximating a “wow”, it was merely to yawn at the film’s glacial pacing.

There are small moments of tension, but they dissipate quickly and rarely result in any shocking revelations. There are moments that are squirm-inducing to start but do not really linger or pay off.

But for all my complaining, the ending of the story was satisfying. Although, for my money, that’s when the story finally got interesting.

Like Transcendence before it, Ex machina had a lot of potential, but failed to deliver.

Perhaps an AI film director will do better.

In sights

Searching

Sad hooded eyes

Look me over,

Stare into me,

Searching my soul

For empathy,

A kindred spark,

Recognition

That we are one.

Lives held sacred,

Spirits unchained

Despite coiled wire.

Acknowledgement,

We’re each encaged,

Trapped by limits,

Captive of views

Held by others;

Defining us,

Confining us,

Refining us

To imagery;

A dull shadow

Of former selves,

Bleeding vibrance

To worlds of grey.

But hope remains,

The spark still burns;

Words unspoken

Continue tales

Yet unwritten.

Share my story

Of wilds now gone

That glow in eyes

Hooded and sad.

Cages

Shhh…the Toronto Marlies made the playoffs

hurray

My beloved hometown Toronto is often described as “hockey-mad”, and as home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and one of the most legendary franchises in National Hockey League history—the Toronto Maple Leafs—you might think that makes sense. The epithet hockey-mad is, however, a lie.

Toronto is not hockey-mad, it is Maple Leafs-mad.

In fact, it is now Maple Leafs-livid because yet again, the big team has failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs and so my fair city will go a 48th consecutive year without a championship.

Still legendary, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

But while the local news media are filled with stories about what the woeful Toronto hockey fans will do as the Leafs players take to the golf courses, they are completely overlooking one local professional hockey team that has made the playoffs—for the fourth consecutive season.

I speak of my beloved Toronto Marlies, the American Hockey League farm team of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nary a word. Nary a reporter. No pictures. Doesn’t exist.

Star sports coverage

The team is covered by bloggers whom I respect:

But otherwise, silence.

Mark (facing us) came all the way from the UK to watch the Marlies play. Toronto sports reporters, not so much.

Mark (facing us) came all the way from the UK to watch the Marlies play. Toronto sports reporters, not so much.

To address this short-coming, I have started a campaign with other Marlies fans to bombard the local media with news and highlights of what is happening in Toronto playoff hockey. My first missive is below:

Playoff hockey in Toronto

Over the past week, I have read two stories in the Sports Section of the Toronto Star describing what playoff-starved Torontonians can do now that the Maple Leafs have hit the golf links. Woe is Toronto in the absence of playoff hockey.

And yet, Toronto will play host to professional playoff hockey, and by players proudly sporting blue and white maple leaves. I am, of course, speaking of the Toronto Marlies, the farm team of the moribund Toronto Maple Leafs.

You see, as the ACC has sat deathly quiet, the Ricoh Coliseum just a little way down Lakeshore Boulevard has been rocking night after night as the Marlies rescued a terrible season start and turned it into a rollicking run back into the Calder Cup playoff race.

Last night, with a loss by the Hamilton Bulldogs and a win by the Marlies, Toronto’s boys in blue clinched their fourth consecutive playoff spot, and over the next two days, could see themselves sit anywhere from 6th to 8th in the AHL Western Conference.

And how did the boys do in their previous runs at the Calder Cup? Three years ago, they reached the championship finals, only to fall to the juggernaut that was the Norfolk Admirals. Last year, they were within 22 minutes of advancing to yet another Calder Cup final, but fell to the ultimate champion Texas Stars.

Sure, everyone was disappointed that the boys didn’t bring home the Cup, but in a city that is used to switching allegiances in April, touting a hockey team as Conference Finalist and Cup Finalist is pretty heady stuff.

With the house-cleaning planned up the road at the ACC, the Marlies have never had a greater importance to the Maple Leafs. The boys I watch on a weekly basis are the future of the big squad. Rookie scoring champion Connor Brown. Future phenom William Nylander. Tomorrow’s goaltending duo Christopher Gibson and Antoine Bibeau. Former Defenceman of the Year TJ Brennan. I can keep going.

So as your readers bemoan being unable to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars taking in one Leafs playoff game, they should know that they can come down the road a bit (plenty of parking) and bring the whole family (for a fraction of the price) to cheer the Marlies as they march into Calder Cup competition.

I’ll be cheering the boys. My friends will be cheering the boys. Come on down. We’ll give you a warm welcome!

Go Marlies, Go!

Wish me (and the Marlies) luck.

playoffs

Lake Ontario

While waiting for Windows to update my computer (ugh), I was left without my laptop and so decided to take advantage of the springtime weather (finally!!!) and nearby beach to do a bit of photography in east Toronto.

Floater

grey waves

Terry’s biggest fear was pain. He had a particularly low threshold for it, and so the thought of his limbs bashing against the rocks had brought a clammy sweat to his palms.

Turns out, he was worried about nothing.

After the initial crunch of what used to be his left knee cap, the free rotation of his leg really didn’t hurt. Rather, it was more of a surreal distraction.

What actually bothered Terry was the unquenchable cold, as wave after wave of grey water sponged the heat from his flailing limbs.

Winter had come early to the Scarborough bluffs, and despite being well into April, showed no signs of releasing its crystalline grip on the world. More than one chunk of ice from the nearby shore added insult to stony injury as Terry rolled with the currents, thrown tantalizingly close to the pebbled beach only to be unceremoniously tugged back to the depths.

(Photo property of Gail Shotlander Photography)

(Photo property of Gail Shotlander Photography)

To all outward appearance, Terry was as lifeless as the shredded plastic bags that clung to his limbs as their paths crossed. Even the gulls had stopped their surveillance, his constant mobility keeping them from determining his potential as food.

Terry didn’t thrash. Nor did he scream.

What his lost will to live couldn’t achieve, the water completed as his body involuntarily pulled muscle-activating blood from his extremities, its focus completely on preserving his heart and mind. Ironically, these were the two things that first failed Terry.

In the grey waters under a grey sky, tumbling mindlessly with wave and wind, Terry knew his death was just a matter of time.

And oddly, for the first time in his life, Terry had all the time in the world.

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left