Determinism and the Maiden: Devs (2020)

2020 has been a year in which, more than ever, it’s been difficult to shake the feeling that we don’t have much agency over our lives. Things happen that are outside our control and we watch them happen, wondering if there ever was a moment when we were in charge of our everyday existence. Therefore it is probably no surprise that two recent high-profile sci-fi series tried to wrangle the theme of whether we live in a deterministic universe, even if they were both made before our sense of agency took its biggest knock in the shape of a nasty little virus: HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Devs, which was written and directed by Alex Garland.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Dystopia, revolution and bad, bad dubs

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest installment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Fun things to watch during an epidemic

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest installment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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Although I got the novel as a Christmas present, I only read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after seeing Alex Garland’s movie adaptation, finishing it last weekend. There are some adaptations that ruin the original for you, but that’s rarely been a major problem for me: if a story is enjoyable primarily because of what happens next, I usually don’t feel all that much of a need to read it in the first place. If there are interesting characters or ideas, if the prose is evocative and atmospheric – generally, if it’s the storytelling itself that makes the story thrilling or funny or generally engaging rather than what happens next – then I’m definitely up for experiencing a story more than once.


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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #8: Annihilation

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 8 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, which takes us to Area X and the Shimmer. Will we come back from our discussion of Alex Garland’s Annihilation unchanged? We also spend an all too short summer vacation in early ’80s Italy with Call Me By Your Name‘s Elio and Oliver and have a quick drink with Jessica Jones (watch out for season 2 spoilers from 11:40 to 13:10). Continue reading

No strings on her

Can a machine ever be truly intelligent? Can it have feelings? If a machine fakes these things convincingly enough, at what point does the appearance become the real thing? Whatever the answer, Hollywood tends to remind us that it’s a bad idea to fall for robots and AIs, however seductive they look and however much they sound like Scarlett Johansson. Ex Machina is not alone in dramatising the Turing Test, but Alex Garland’s first film as a director is definitely a striking addition to the genre.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina‘s Ava (Alicia Vikander) is one of the most intriguing movie AIs I’ve ever seen. It would have been easy just to make her a sexy, seductive woman that easily passes not just the Turing Test but whatever test would have to be devised to find out whether a computer can pass as human when flirting (the Samantha Test, perhaps?). Ava, while sexy, is clearly not human. It’s not her semi-transparent iMac design so much as the way she moves and talks so deliberately, the way she behaves. Is she only imitating human behaviour, is her learning process as yet incomplete – or is she something else altogether? Ava may be Ex Machina‘s greatest asset, but she is not the only character in this film whose behaviour falls into some uncanny valley. Her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a bullying genius for whom humanity has little to do with humaneness, and there is more than a little Bluebeard to him even before we see the remains of his previous ‘wives’ that he tellingly keeps in his bedroom. And then there’s Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who should be the excited kid that found the Golden Ticket, but who soon realises, if not soon enough, that he’s as much of a rat running around a maze as the beautiful subject whose intelligence he’s told to assess.

Ex Machina is a fascinating sci-fi three-hander, the kind of smart, philosophical science fiction that Alex Garland does well (even if he doesn’t always know how to end them), but it can be something of a cold fish, mostly due to Caleb being a somewhat frustrating character; he is awkward and aloof, but in ways that – together with his orphan background and lack of friends – made me wonder if his humanity was something we shouldn’t quite take for granted, and a hard-to-watch scene late in the film suggests that he harbours the same doubts. The film resists making him too much of an audience stand-in, which is an interesting choice – but it also creates a distance that kept me from fully engaging. Garland’s scripts, not least when directed by the likes of Danny Boyle or Mark Romanek, find intriguing ways of combining the cerebral and the emotional, the ethereal and the earthy, but I’m not sure I fully understand what, as a director, he does with Caleb. For lack of a better word, there’s an unfinished quality to him: as much as Ava is not human, she feels like more of a character than Caleb. I appreciate that Garland didn’t sentimentalise the character, but I haven’t yet found a way to integrate his oddness into either my feelings or my thoughts about Ex Machina.

Regardless of whether Caleb passes my own version of the Turing Test, Garland’s film succeeds at being intelligent sci-fi – and like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, there may be some quibbles about the ending (though to a much lesser extent than with Sunshine), but what Garland brings to genre cinema, whether as a writer or as a director, is a worthwhile addition. It would make for a fascinating, and uncomfortable, companion piece to Spike Jonze’s Her. It would be interesting to compare Samantha and Ava’s notes on humanity.

P.S.: Ex Machina isn’t Domhnall Gleeson’s first encounter of the robotic kind, although last time he was on the synthetic side of things. If the Gods of YouTube permit, you can check out the entirety of “Be Right Back” from the second series of Black Mirror. Well worth watching and at least as chilling as Ex Machina:

It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)