Thinking Out Loud About Alex Garland RE: “Ex Machina”

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 10.11.57 AM
Alex Garland

As a speculative fiction writer, I willfully live in a bubble. I read other sci-fi writers here and there, but other than movies, I avoid anything new or modern. For the past five years I’ve been working, on a sci-fi book. As my publishing debut, I have tried to write from inside this aforementioned bubble. I don’t want the outside coming in, making my work impure and self-conscious.

At an after-hours dinner party in St. Petersburg, Russia (that’s a normal situation to drop in here, right?), I began talking with another musician from London, who was seated next to me, about my book. My elevator pitch was ill-formed and clumsy, but from what I managed, she suggested some similarities to the film Ex Machina. The film was on my must-view list. But unlike many of my peers, I’d rather sleep than stay up all night catching up on the latest TV series. I’m very behind on pop culture. I have two kids and I like sleeping. That’s my excuse.

I’d bumped the film up on my mental list, and left it there. I’d get to it eventually. I had writing to do. Having recently completed a first draft–bringing the story to a point where I can present it to others–I’d have to step out of the bubble and contextualize my work. Let in friends, peers, my first set of readers, then make edits and changes to please a wider audience, and, hopefully, publishers.

This morning I researched a “science hotline” that Hollywood uses to fact check and review fake scientific ideas for feasibility. The Martian was successful partly due to this type of cerebral investment by its creators. Viewers who were actual engineers and biologists could appreciate and engage with the story, because the on-screen concepts were founded in real-life science. My story has science: AI future science. I’d have to call the hotline.

But something caught my eye: “What’s this on the sidebar: Ex Machina. They must have called the hotline!” I clicked. I read. And then, an explosion of synergy. I still had not seen Ex Machina, nor read anything about it beyond a one-line synopsis. While the movie’s science-y stuff and setting described, as in this article, was very different, there was an uncanny and WTF detail I couldn’t deny: the lead character’s names were identical to mine: Nathan and Ava.

Of all the names, of all the millions (billions?) of combinations of two separate names, not to mention the edits and development the Ex Machina script must have gone through…  And in my case, having changed my main character’s names a few times: how did we arrive at the same pair?

In an interview with a screenwriter’s magazine, director and writer Alex Garland mentions the genesis of one of his character’s names from Ex Machina:

“Well when I was first working on this, I called her ‘Eve’. But then I thought that this was too prosaic, because of Adam and Eve and that kind of thing, so by changing it to Ava, it felt like it had some of the qualities of them name ‘Eve’, but it wasn’t as on the nose. And also, ‘Ava’ looks like it’s an acronym–like it stands for ‘Advanced Vehicle Automation’, or something like that. It just felt right.”

More importantly, how am I, somehow, randomly, intuitively, spiritually, synergized to this writer/director, via the ether? Alex Garland: who is this guy? How could I find him, and when I did, what would I say to my new Internet boyfriend? Very quickly I realized the creeping and cyber-stalkery were going nowhere. Turns out famous people are really hard to get a hold of via the Internet. CRUSH: OVER.

Days later I sought out Ex Machina on Netflix and watched it. Conceptually, brilliant. Aesthetically and visually, lovely. Casting, great. But I was left perplexed: why so gendered? Maybe that was the point. At risk of spoiling the film, I was deeply offended by the impractical footwear and outfits available to the women in this film. That said, the compound where the film mostly takes place is, definitely, a fetishized laboratory. If that’s possible. Garland has created a fantasy world where shirtless and sexually frustrated men go to ogle robots whose main programming is set to “Self-Preservation via Cockteasing.”

I wonder if the tagline: “AI JUST GOT A WHOLE LOT SEXIER!” ever came up in any  Ex Machina marketing meetings? I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to feel an even deeper connection with my impossible boyfriend, Mr. Garland. I wanted to be swept away by this film. I wasn’t. I still like and admire Mr. Garland as a writer and director, but now we’re just friends.

Random Movie Review: Gattaca

gattaca_620x349

Gattaca is a dividing movie that people either love or have selectively forgotten. Director Andrew Niccol, who, if I may digress, also directed Nick Cage’s best film, Lord of War, paints an incredible portrait with Gattaca‘s stylised near-future First World. Where Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow failed to integrate a post-WWII fashion sense, Gattaca brings it with architecturally stunning shots populated by beautiful people in perfectly tailored, vintage-future clothing.

The main story line is carried by Vincent (Ethan Hawke) who was born as an in-valid, or person of lesser genes. Vincent dreams of flying in space, and so gains access to the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation by pretending to be the genetically perfect, but now paralysed, Jerome (Jude Law). There is much male hair-brushing, nude body-scrubbing and urine-collecting as Jerome and Vincent successfully swap identities by duping Gattaca’s genetic-scanning system.

Perhaps the most overdone moment in this film is a flashback to Vincent’s childhood as he competes against his younger brother in an impossible swimming challenge. Under grey skies, an orchestra of ever-swelling strings accompanies the boys as they struggle against choppy water. The sequence beats us over the head, illustrating the fragility of human life but serves a necessary purpose in revealing the protagonist’s overall dedication and perseverance.

Nothing says 90’s blockbuster like Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, and, introducing Jude Law. Gattaca was culturally topical, too. The eugenics-obsessed Western World was primed for this film, it being released a year after IRL scientists in Scotland introduced the world to Dolly the Sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal. Trust me, in 1996 that was a really, really big deal.

Gattaca‘s brand of speculative fiction schlock is right up my alley. Overwrought and extreme genetic tinkering, Big Brother scanning our DNA, with a duplicitous murder mystery plotline thrown in for good measure. Science fiction liberates storytelling by providing a brutal mirror to shine against our modern society. For similar reasons, Gattaca was nearly demoted to “Natalia’s Second Favourite Film” by the much grittier Children Of Men. But this was fuelled mostly by my short-termed celebrity crush on Clive Owen.

Gattaca succeeds because it is a well-conceived movie. It is complete, as Art should be, in its casting, costuming and set design. I also commend Gattaca‘s pacing. A continuous underlying tension carries this film, skillfully buried beneath the forced grace and poise the protagonists must maintain to pull off their scheme. Our dark personal secrets make life challenging enough. Imagine also having to obsess over the idea that losing an eyelash might condemn your freedom forever.

Check the super 90’s trailer here:

Were Our Lives More Science-y in the 80’s?

I was thinking today about science, and how curious I was about things when I was a kid. I always wanted to mix the baking soda and vinegar together when no one was watching (just little bits at a time). I would invent things, take things apart, and my sister and I would burn stuff in our “play hibachi,” just to see what would happen. My dad is in science, and we could rely on Nova, The Nature of Things or Dr. Who being on TV at some point during the evening.

Anyway, whilst on the internet today I saw an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. I then remembered the whole Bill Nye vs. Beakman’s World debacle, with Bill Nye firmly out-geeking Beakman’s screwball laboratory hijinks (Disney always wins such battles). Next was a flurry of memories of how important science was in the 80’s. Like back then we really thought the future was going to be the bomb. People were building robots and we had computers (Commodore 64, bitches) in our homes. But was I unusually into science or was science just more mainstream?

There were definitely more science shows for kids. What do we have now that makes learning fun? Zoboomafoo? Mythbusters? There’s all the programming on DiscoveryKids and Bill Nye is still slugging it out. But shows about trashy tweens seem to be more in the mainstream. Science just isn’t as cool as it used to be. All these memories of stuff I was really into in the 80’s came to mind:

TV
David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Nova (both still on the air), Owl/TV (theme song), Mr. Wizard’s World, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Edison Twins (couldn’t resist), 321 Contact (also, rad theme), Wonderstruck, Dr. Who…and my fave show that we watched as a family: Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course.

MOVIES
Weird Science, War Games, Short Circuit, The Fly, *Batteries Not Included, Cocoon, never mind crazy sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters.

These days we take science for granted: we are tethered to the internet via tiny computing devices, and the digital word has replaced most analogue forms of communication. As a kid in Toronto, the best school field trip of all time was to the Science Centre. I mean, I was into learning about binary code and tectonic plates when I got there. I would also try and get my parents to take me downtown just so I could hit up Science City, the nerdiest store at Bay/Bloor Village (and which, to my total surprise, STILL EXISTS). They always had experiments or fun gadgets that I inadvertently learned stuff from. Like that little plastic threaded tube that connects two 2L soda bottles and acts as a giant tornado maker! Or light-sensitive paper that you put shit on top of and leave out in the sun and create cool silhouettes!

Did I have friends? As I recall, I did have some serious BFFs, but my memories are continually making me out to be a serious nerd. Quality, not quantity, I guess.