Clash of the Superheroes

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Two films opened this week with similar topics and settings but with vastly different stories and film styles. Both deal with AI (artificial intelligence). Both employ the Internet to give their AIs omniscience. Both are set in Norway, of all places. Both create metaphors for the “peacekeeping” NSA. But one is yet another mindnumbing blockbuster installment in the neverending Avengers series, while the other, Ex Machina, is a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted suspense thriller.

I don’t know whether I’m the one getting old or the Avengers franchise is, but I’ve had enough of computer-generated hammers, shields, swords, tanks, and building parts barreling toward my face in an attempt to wow the 3D audiences in the theater next door. Give me a story — a story that I care about — please! In Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again an evil superpower is set on destroying and/or enslaving the human race, and once again our band of heroic mutants, endowed with special powers, must save the day. Between battles, the crew gives us some clever patter and barroom shenanigans, but even the charm of their personal squabbles is starting to wear thin.

So of course, Hollywood had to turn Tony Stark's entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

Others have been raving on Facebook and fan pages about the new Avengers, and I confess that I took a little nap part way through my viewing (okay, I was asleep for about an hour), so I went back two days later in order to see what I missed and write this review. Sadly, I hadn’t missed much — just another slew of building parts (and a whole city!) barreling toward my head. I think those who are raving about the movie on Facebook might be trying to convince themselves that their continued hero-worship is deserved. Or maybe they’re just Stark raving mad. (Stark. Tony. Iron Man? Oh, never mind.)

In this installment Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the unwitting bad guy who, through his greed and desire for personal advantage, unleashes Ultron, an AI of enormous size and strength who has managed to download all the information from the internet into his memory. (Ultron was originally designed as a peacekeeping program, so there it is — the NSA!) Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is my favorite Avenger because his superpower is not a mutation or a weapon; it’s his brain. He uses it to solve problems, such as building a prosthetic body suit when his heart fails. He’s a successful entrepreneur, too, and a lot of fans are starting to admire that about him. So of course, Hollywood had to turn his entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

You really don’t need to know anything else about the story. Heroes get beat up. Humans fall off bridges. Robots get shot. Robots get up again. Humans change sides. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. (Say what?) Tony’s sidekick Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is wisely away on business throughout this episode. I give this film a 2 for entertainment and an 8 for snoozability. But it’s going to make a mint in box office sales.

Ex Machina is another story entirely. First, it has a story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant-but-nerdy computer programmer (aren’t they all?) who works at the world’s largest internet company. As the film opens, the company’s reclusive founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), has sponsored a competition for one lucky team member to participate with him in a secret project. That lucky team member is Caleb. Soon he is whisked away to Nathan’s mountain retreat somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Norway; the Norwegians must be offering some attractive benefits to filmmakers right now).

Nathan is nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled computer geek. He is ruggedly handsome and hip, lifts weights, boogies down with the cook, and likes to throw back a few brews while hanging out with Caleb in his in-home bar. He’s friendly and cool, yet his eyes betray an air of sinister cynicism as he jokes about his projects. Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on a breakthrough robot imbued with humanlike intelligence and emotions. Named for computer inventor Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game, based on Turing’s work to break the Nazi code), a Turing test decides whether a computer is interacting in ways that are indistinguishable from a human. Can it recognize idiomatic expressions, body language, and other nuances, for example? Can it create jokes, express sincere compassion, know fear or love?

He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA.

Soon Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robotic creature with whom he has conversations each day. He grows more and more convinced that she passes the Turing test — she not only recognizes sophisticated nuances in language, but she demonstrates human emotions. A game of cat-and-mouse develops among those residing in the house — but who is the cat, and who are the mice?

The title is a reference to a dramatic technique employed by the Greek playwrights called deus ex machina:“the god descends in a machine.” Ancient audiences learned the moral of a story when a god swooped down from Mt. Olympus (literally inside a machine operated by stage hands) to rescue the poor mortal protagonist who was incapable of rescuing himself. (Remember that plays in ancient times were sponsored and paid for by church and state.) Nathan tells Caleb, “It used to be God watching us. Now it’s the Cloud.” He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet — all the conversations, photos, texts, emails, websites, documents, Wikipedia entries, everything. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA. And yet she acts and feels and reacts as a young woman would, because that’s all stored in her memory.

First-time director Alex Garland imbues his film with rich allusions to poetry, art, mythology, and film. For example, in the Bible, Eve (Ava) is the first woman, Nathan is the prophet who chastises David for seducing Bathsheba, and Caleb is an Israelite spy who scouts the Promised Land for Moses. References to Prometheus abound, as do references to Star Trek, a series that was also richly grounded in mythology. Nathan has several priceless works of art casually displayed in his secret hideaway, including a Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt’s painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work on thinking and consciousness is central to AI development and whose “Blue Book” is referenced in Nathan’s company name, Blue Book. Very subtle, and very cool when you get it. Describing Pollock’s creative process, Nathan tells Caleb, “It was ‘engaged’ art. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t random.” In a way he is describing God: not random, and not controlling, but engaged.

Recognizing these allusions is not necessary to enjoying the film. In fact, it would probably reduce one’s enjoyment of the film if you spent your time looking for them. But allusion is part of our shared consciousness, and when used subtly, as Garland does, it enriches our experience without our being fully aware of it. Joss Whedon and the other directors of superhero blockbusters would do well to get their heads out of the comic books and read something that has lasted for centuries.

rsquo;s the Cloud.

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