This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Phil’s review published on Letterboxd :
This review may contain spoilers.
You could very well call this the UK equivalent of the grandiose Spielberg movie 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence'. The difference being this is a highly realistic and grounded science fiction story that isn't really a million miles from where we are today. What was surprising for me was the fact that its a British film, the cast were all unknown to me (often a winning move) and its Alex Garland's directorial debut! One thing is for sure, you'd never guess this was the directors first film, this looks like a Stanley Kubrick feature!
Its a simple premise, a company employee (Caleb) wins the chance to go and stay with his mega rich CEO at his private secret home/research lab facility, in the mountains. This CEO (Nathan) is a genius who has been working on creating A.I. and he wants Caleb to help him test his creation. The outcome Nathan is after? to see if Caleb will determine whether his robotic creation is actually more human than machine, if the robot (Ava) is actually developing its own A.I. and learning. Of course as with robots and A.I. things don't go completely to plan, tensions rise and very human emotions like suspicion, mistrust and betrayal begin to surface.
I have read that the budget was kept deliberately small for creative purposes, well you wouldn't believe that at all because this movie looks slick as f*ck! If you want a clean, sterilised, highly stylised, glossy, shiny, highly futuristic looking sci-fi movie, but for all the right reasons, then look no further. The film was shot in and around Valldalen in Norway which is basically a vast snowcapped mountainous valley not unlike what we saw in the Jackson/Tolkien movies. This location alone is stunning even without the science fiction story, but what was even more impressive was the Juvet Landscape Hotel in the valley where some scenes were shot. This real hotel is in the middle of nowhere and consists of small oddly shaped wooden huts with windows on one side that basically replace a wall, ceiling to floor windows. This hotel was used for Nathan's home/research facility and you'd never guess it was a real place, it comes across as so fanciful, so out of this world you'd swear it was a specially built set for the film.
All the interior sets (or what I think were sets) were so minimalistic, so bare with bold stark lines and in various tones of stony grey, but at the same time very eerie, especially with those power cuts. The cavernous research facility with its long lonely corridors only highlighted by the odd neon blue door sensor, really give a strong ominous presence to the whole film, you never really know what might occur at any minute. It all looks so expensive too, so precise, so perfectly created by expert designers, each room or lab looks like no expense was sparred in its construction. It makes it very hard to believe the budget was apparently small, you can see the similarities with '2001' in set the bold design, I think.
Not only that but the visual effects for Ava are superb also, clearly they have CGI'd parts of Vikander's body away and replaced them with those excellent transparent sections. But you'd never guess it, the whole design and execution of this robot is so deliciously flawless to look at, admittedly its nothing outrageously original because its very hard to achieve that these days (what could you do that hasn't been done before?). In the end Ava looks like a blend of Robocop and a retro piece of 80's kit (remember back in the day things used to be transparent like some videogame joysticks), it does actually make it hard to believe this one guy (Nathan) could do all this himself, his home, the labs, the robots etc...Sure he's a genius and rich but blimey! he must have some serious money and brain power to do all this on his own (is it easy getting supplies to this hidden fortress of solitude?).
So we've established the visuals are top banana, what about the characters and the plot? Well that's where the film is let down I think because the characters are pretty unlikable if you ask me. Sure Nathan is suppose to be this creepy isolated rich loner but he is fundamentally unlikable from the start, the guy just didn't sit well with me, you know something is off. I also really didn't think we needed to have his character doing all the weights though, that felt like a modern trend or obsession crowbarred in, possibly because the actor like doing weights? I understand the character is living in the wilderness and he wants to keep fit but how about going for a run, Jesus does every male in movies have to be buffed up these days.
As for Caleb (hate that name), he is also a creepy 'Children of the Corn' type looking dude too. Despite the fact he's suppose to be the character we relate too he's annoyingly wet and...annoying. What was unusual though is this guy is suppose to be an A.I. expert and pretty clever in the old IQ department, yet he ends up falling for Ava'a tricks. She manipulates him very easily merely using sexuality basically because she has a female shape, its like this guy completely forgets she's a machine despite her appearance. This also leads me to one part of the plot evolution I didn't like, the fact Nathan makes his creations pleasurebots, sexbots, robots with sexual bits (robotic sex dolls). Why the hell would anyone do this?! seriously! surely its plainly obvious no good will come of it, it will bring up moral/ethical issues which really never need be brought up in the first place. Also Caleb accuses Nathan of emotionally abusing his creations yet...they are his robots, and they are evidently still in development so I think 'abuse' is way off the mark . The Caleb character in my opinion doesn't make sense, he's this intelligent guy and really up on A.I. yet he completely folds and fails his own test in not getting suckered by a machine.
As with anything there were a few nitpicks that hit me, some glaring, some small. When Ava takes another robots fake skin towards the end its amazingly convenient that it fits over her body perfectly, no overlapping or sticky-out bits anywhere. I must also ask how that fake skin stays on, it doesn't look like velcro. Then at the very end Ava leaves Caleb as she does, but why? surely she would need him to fully assimilate into human society, they are friends, they know each other, it would benefit her immensely. That leads me to my final question, why on earth did the chopper pick Ava up at the end?? Yeah sure she looks like a real human at that point but I would of thought the pilot would know to pick up Caleb, seeing as he went out there a week prior. Surely it would say on his paperwork, pick up one male, the same male who went out to this location earlier this week. Nowhere would it say to pick up some random female stranger instead of that male who went out there a week earlier (Caleb). You'd think questions would be raised straight away by the pilot, calling his control to ask who the hell this female is.
This isn't 'I Robot', there are no big set pieces, no car chases, no battles with invincible robots, the movie is a slow burner divided into mini chapters of sorts. Most of run time is simply dialog between characters in various glossy locations, a psychological battle of wits between Caleb and Nathan with Ava playing them off each other to a degree. What's more the movie doesn't hide away from complex scientific theories, processes and jargon, at times the characters babble away about stuff that may well fly over your head...but it sounds good. The fact that everything you see in the movie looks completely realistic and functional only enhances its effect tenfold. If it wasn't for the unlikable characters (personal opinion) and a few quibbles, this is a nigh on perfect sci-fi thriller, well not really a thriller, more of a lesson in quality filmmaking on a small budget with first rate science fiction. Isaac Asimov would be proud.