As much as I’m a fan of Natalie Portman, I confess to not really seeking out her stuff since the acclaimed Black Swan … strange when I consider that one of the best movies of the last ten years. So I jumped at the chance to check out this latest Netflix Original movie. Portman plays a biological scientist who following the mysterious disappearance of her military officer husband (Oscar Isaac) gets recruited by a government organisation headed by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). You see, a strange alien encounter has occurred affecting a now closed off area where a strange vapour has cut communications and anyone who has ventured inside, has not come back.
This gritty and scarily-convincing sci-fi drama is helmed by Alex Garland, the man who made Ex Machina, another great thought-provoking piece of sci-fi. This guy clearly understands his subject and has delivered another very effective experience. The entire movie has a tone to it that’s rather dream-like and sometimes messes with one’s head; trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. Add to this flashbacks exploring Portman’s and Isaac’s relationship, with several revelations along the way and this proves a meatier story than it first appears. The alien ‘presence’ and how it effects the female scientists who go looking for answers is also handled imaginatively and gives an interesting spin on the whole alien-encounter subject, with truly unnerving possibilities.
It takes a while to get going, and is marred by some questionable CGI, and the logic behind the expedition left me a tad puzzled. However, with strong performances across the board, especially an excellent Portman – this is well worth checking out … especially if you’re after something that will leaving you really thinking afterwards.
Simply, a single image made me want to see this. A girl’s pretty face but with a transparent neck where a mechanical bone structure and wires were visible within. I love science fiction, but there’s been too many movies that have just been throwaway pop corn fluff with sci-fi wrapping that haven’t really got me thinking about the possibilities of technology and what it could mean for our future. Thankfully this is one such film that really massaged my imagination.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a coder at a renowned internet company (think: Google) who wins the chance to spend a week at the home of the company’s reclusive CEO and discover just what he’s been working on behind closed doors. Once there he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who soon tells him he will be involved in a series of tests with an artificial intelligence called ‘Ava’.
I loved this premise, a single albeit beautifully high-tech (homes of the future) setting and three characters all very different and complex. Ava, played by the exquisite Alicia Vikander is a revelation – human but subtly artificial, brought to life by not only Alicia’s vulnerably sexy and nuanced performance but also a ground-breaking special effect – she really does look like half girl / half machine with a stunning design with transparent arms, legs and stomach etc. It harks back to I-Robot with a hint of ‘Hal’ out of 2001 A Space Odyssey and even Hayley Joel Osmet’s performance in A.I. I loved every moment she was on screen. Domnhall’s Caleb is equally complex and fascinating, the kid in the candy store but unaware of just what he’s getting himself into … should he find Ava attractive? Should he really befriend her? What will the tests all mean for her eventually? Isaac’s Nathan is less appealing however – a drunken, somewhat clichéd ‘damaged’ genius who clearly is a bit of a bastard, but his presence still fills the movie with an uncertainty, beings as he’s the only one who really knows what’s going on.
I was puzzled by Caleb’s lack of amazement on first seeing Ava … his reaction to such a technological achievement more ‘ok, that’s cool’ – like he sees such like every day. I’d have also liked to learn more about him too, apart from his parents being in a car crash – what made him really tick? Nathan is also a pretty blank canvas. So that leaves Ava, who thankfully doesn’t need a back story – she’s a robot after all, but probably the strongest light in this very different and at time freaky movie. As a directing debut this is a bold and gripping story from Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) and shows he’s a voice (and visionary) to really take note of … who has probably delivered one of the best true science fiction tales we’ve seen in a long time.
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