Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 27, 2015

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Scene for scene, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as heedlessly entertaining as anything that’s emerged from the franchise. As a whole, though, its relentless pace resolves in memory as a blur. A great many things happen, and the movie scarcely takes a breath to register the import of the events. It’s enjoyable in the moment but leaves us little to chew on, to dream on. Even the much-ballyhooed final shot is needlessly goosed by the camera chasing itself around a cliff, as if director J.J. Abrams had handed the keys over to the 360-addicted Peter Jackson. “Stay calm,” says defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). “I am calm,” says Finn’s new buddy, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). “I was talking to myself,” Finn says, and the movie likewise seems to be checking its insecurity.

Calmness is in short supply here, which is a shame, because I got a welcome sunshiny vibe from much of the film. Here, after the tone of George Lucas’ prequels, which darkened and sickened into a saga of the degradation of a hero, is once again a Star Wars film full of goodness and optimism. Finn, kidnapped and trained from childhood to be a foot soldier in the bloodletting of the First Order (the new update of the evil Empire), finds himself unable to kill, and leaves his post. Which brings me to wonder how many other stormtroopers have second thoughts about their line of work but don’t get a chance to nope out of the corporation. They remain targets, as always, brainwashed or not. But never mind.

Some of the film meditates, albeit in rushed abbreviated form, on what it takes to become a reformed blackhat versus a fallen angel. The latter is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked baddie with a fixation on Darth Vader that will go unexplained here (we are in spoiler-free territory). Unmasked, Ren looks as much “just a kid” as the unmasked Michael Myers did in the original Halloween. He is torn, and chooses the dark side, as Finn opts for the light. The inherited royalty of the Force takes something of a back seat here; I didn’t hear the word “midichlorian” once, thank the Force. Whether or not one has the Force, what matters is the choice one makes in the crunch: will you use your power, whatever it may be, for good or for its opposite?

J.J. Abrams mostly uses his for good. Mostly. The movie has a nice, warming devotion to filling the screen with non-white-males, not only among its leads but in bit roles everywhere you look. At times, though, The Force Awakens is like an omnibus of favorite bits of business from the original trilogy, and Abrams drags the old hands on whenever possible, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The gravitas in the reunion of Leia and Han is due to these actors as these characters, not due to anything in the script, really. Ford seems awake and engaged, and can still get his voice up to a lion’s roar in the din of battle. Where’s Luke Skywalker? Well, he “has vanished,” as the opening crawl tells us, and most of the film is a chase after the map that may lead to his doorstep. This quest doesn’t seem as urgent as simply avoiding the clutches and blasters of Kylo Ren and his cadre of fascists, and when Finn just wants to run, we can understand why.

The movie’s restless motion can sometimes produce not heat but a kind of coldness that doesn’t take the full measure of death (although there’s a strong moment when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the film’s emergent heroine, plugs a stormtrooper and then pauses a second — this is, after all, the first life Rey has taken). The new kids are fine: Boyega afraid but bravely pressing forward, Ridley vital and amusingly impatient at times, Isaac as uncomplicatedly moral here as he was complexly amoral in Inside Llewyn Davis and other films. Abrams more or less leaves his actors to their own considerable devices; as Richard Brody has pointed out, Abrams is a nostalgist and pastiche maker, not a visionary. But for the first time in at least a decade, this old Star Wars skeptic felt not resentment at more star wars but a sense of gratitude for the return of a corporate concern that at least gestures towards the possibility of altruism and redemption.

Island of Lost Souls

October 17, 2015

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H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.

Repo Man

September 20, 2015

detail.23448415Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.

Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).

Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.

This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.

Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

September 13, 2015

the-man-who-fell-to-earth-4For some reason, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a Pink Floyd album to me, even though Floyd had nothing to do with the film. It’s oblique, morose, spacey, a little po-faced about dramatic themes and subtexts that strike high-school students as particularly profound. It’s essentially Dark Side of the Moon 2: The American Dream. David Bowie, by his own admission nuked out of his skull on ten grams of cocaine a day, is a fragile alien who takes the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton. He, or his ship (it’s not really clear which), lands in New Mexico, and he promptly sets about getting filthy rich with electronic patents. (Perhaps meaningfully, he doesn’t develop anything major to help Earthlings — just better quality cameras and recorded music: leisure gadgets.) His mission is to amass enough wealth to build a spacecraft and return home to his dying, drought-ridden planet with enough water to save his people.

Things don’t work out that way, and a great deal of Man Who Fell is devoted to why they don’t work out. After the first scenes, which feel absurdly telescoped in time (Newton goes from pawn shop to pawn shop selling gold rings, and then he’s shopping his patents around), the movie slows way down. It becomes mesmeric in a way, not to mention repetitive, with not one but two sequences in which chemistry professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets it on with a student. One tryst might have been enough, but then we realize that director Nicolas Roeg and scripter Paul Mayersberg (adapting a Walter Tevis novel) are contrasting Bryce’s sexual behavior with that of Newton, who meets and becomes enamored with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). We might also throw in Newton’s lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whose homosexuality is handled so matter-of-factly we may have to remind ourselves the film was released in 1976.

But then Roeg and Mayersberg are both British. For a while, based on this movie and Don’t Look Now, Roeg had a glowing international reputation for a truly adult erotic sensibility. The frequent sex in this film is explicit, joyous, desolate, satirical, but never American, never inflected with that peculiar Puritan sense of guilt and sin. People have sex in the movie because they’re of age and they want to. It happens often enough (though never between Farnsworth and his lover, significantly) that one might begin to read Man Who Fell as an allegory about American sexual mores and how the government seeks to punish sex. It’s about roughly fifty other things too, of course. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the film is hazy and amorphous enough to be about whatever you want it to. Christ allegory? Sure. An “alien” (British) view of “Earth” (America)? Why not.

The movie is bleakly gorgeous, with a growing sense of ennui, but not a lot of urgency to Newton’s mission. We have no idea how much time is passing, and besides, Newton gets sidetracked with twin addictions to alcohol and television. He sits around drinking and watching the tube (in some scenes multiple TVs) while his chance to make a difference passes him by. That’s the American dream whose native hue of resolution, to paraphrase Hamlet, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of CBS and Beefeater. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who has fallen from the pinnacle of this and Don’t Look Now to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) lights the New Mexico desert and cottage lakes for mysterious beauty, and makes Newton’s interior lodgings appropriately antiseptic. Past a certain point, Newton might as well be a zoo creature in a cage even before the plot essentially makes him one.

The Man Who Fell to Earth gains, of course, from its on-the-nose casting of Bowie in the lead. He isn’t acting, quite; again by his own admission, he was stoned and behaving in character. His scenes with Candy Clark, who overacts and whose voice sounds too clangorously dubbed, feel emotionally lopsided: he’s Brit cool, she’s hot-blooded American Woman. (I should point out that the American men don’t come off much better.) But as a sort of found object of alienated angst, Bowie is suitably iconic. The movie is so effective at building a mood of dislocation that it’s almost a bummer when it has to punch its time card as a sci-fi film, with scenes of Dr. Bryce surreptitiously getting a photo of Newton to prove he’s an alien and then asking him if he’s the first visitor to Earth. Newton gives a rather too explicit answer to that question; it would have been better if he’d just flashed an enigmatic smirk. Like many another classic science-fiction film, Man Who Fell seems larger than its sci-fi trappings, seems to have more on its mind and under the hood.

Ex Machina

July 9, 2015

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It’s never a bad time to ring the old more-human-than-human bell, and the serenely troubling Ex Machina, which hits DVD next week, rings it loud and clear. A search-engine employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a trip to the remote Alaska compound of the company’s big boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). This is not a social call: Nathan’s life project, having made billions from his popular search engine, is to create artificial intelligence that passes the famous Turing test. Essentially, a machine must convince a human that it is human, that indeed it does not know it is a machine.

To that end, Nathan has worked his way up to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sleek, delicate-looking unit who’s half Bride of Frankenstein, half the Invisible Woman model — some of her body and skull are transparent, revealing elegant inner workings. Ava often has slightly delayed responses, accompanied by gentle whirring. Those responses seem almost human, but to what extent is her behavior simply learned, a shrewd way to manipulate her way to freedom? Hell, to what extent is anyone’s? Like any good robot movie, Ex Machina considers the mechanistic human moreso than the personlike machine.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has made a clean, effective directorial debut here, staging a quiet three-character chamber piece. I don’t suppose the movie breaks much new ground, but it’s pleasantly antiseptic and pensive, with a bearish central performance by one of our most magnetic young actors Oscar Isaac. Nathan sports a shaved head and a bushy beard, a plausible look for a genius who doesn’t want to spend time fussing with his hair or shaving his face. The beard, along with the name of his corporation (Bluebook), carries associations with Bluebeard, who like Nathan has certain rooms you may enter, certain rooms you must not.

Caleb is a bit of a cipher, an audience avatar with occasional scientific patter. He’s an obvious opposite number to Nathan, a moralist whose sympathy for the machine may also keep him from becoming a great scientist. The movie unoriginally suggests that genius requires a degree of inhumanity, but Isaac keeps Nathan connected to a childlike need for sensation, input. Nathan drinks, dances, passes out, enjoys intimate relations with his creations. The story begins to seem pared down to its essentials, almost elemental. If it never quite reaches us emotionally, maybe that’s because grabbing us by the guts isn’t the game Garland is playing.

The stark interiors (which become bathed in red light on a regular basis whenever the power is cut) contrast with the chaotic outdoors in a way that tips Garland’s hand a little: Nathan, of course, tries to control his environment and can’t. In the end, Ex Machina shakes out as a high-functioning mood piece, a sharp slice of atmosphere, a riff on familiar themes. In Nathan it gives us hot-blooded mind, and in Ana it offers a body that exists at the pleasure of a man, no matter his high-flown rhetoric. Ana ends up being a feminist heroine, yearning for escape from the man who keeps her. Yet she’s also humanity seeking to slip the bonds forged by the gods. Ex Machina takes its deserved place next to the other children of Fritz Lang and Karel Capek.