When science fiction stories were a going concern, all the writer tried to do was tell a story. The wows and ahs came from the reader who got it, not from the writer who wrote it. The same went for science fiction movies. The objective was to get the story told, not to try to get wows and ahs from the audience. The cheapest trick in getting today’s wows is to show a character reacting in awe to some character, event, or idea. Then the audience members start parakeeting the character’s reaction, and soon the cinema is bursting with wows and ahs.
Last year’s “Interstellar” was wild with devices to impress a naive audience. Is it surprising that a five-minute sequence in a movie can convince millions that is possible for a human being to be slammed through a wormhole into another time dimension with no protection other than a spacesuit? No, it is not nearly as surprising as the fact that the moviegoer will emerge from the movie with more knowledge than the leading physicists of the day, even if this moviegoer has but a poor grasp of basic mathematics. When Stanley Kubrick directed “2001,” he made no claims to scientific soundness. He just tried to tell the story. And when Dave flew through the psychedelic wormhole, it was because the plot demanded a visual means of transition to the final scenes. and even these improbable scenes were not buffeted by pseudo-science, nor endorsed by a PHD just like an ad in the back of a comic book.
Alex Garland has written ten juvenile screenplays. “Ex Machina” is his first attempt as a director, yet he goes about his business as if he were as accomplished as Stanley Kubrick. Or, more accurately, as if he were Kubrick. His directorial choices usually come down to whether he should rip off “2001” or “The Shining.” And when neither of these will do, there is always Tarkovsky. Never mind that Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s sensibilities are at opposite and opposing ends. Garland doesn’t know that, and he assumes that neither does the audience.
His funniest and phoniest wow and ah moment is when Caleb tells Jay that having a conversation with Ava is fascinating. Having heard that conversation myself, as an audience member, I can assure you that the said conversation was as banal as you can get. But because the conversation is described as fascinating, a portion of the audience will mis-remember the conversation as having been so. The problem is that Garland is not a good enough writer to write a fascinating conversation between a robot girl and a human man, so he writes the scene as best as he can, then refers to it later in the script as having been fascinating.
Did anybody have to be told that the dialogues between Hal and Dave in “2001” were fascinating? No. Kubrick was directing from a screenplay he wrote with a real author, Arthur C. Clarke, so he didn’t need to pull anything over on the audience. The story itself would elicit its share of wows and ahs without any trickery. Garland can barely hold his pen, let alone write with it. His story is set up so that it can only move in one of three directions, all of which are obvious. There are no great disappointments is his denouement, but neither are there any great revelations. The movie is actually one of the better science fiction entertainments of recent years. The acting by all three leads is exceptional. The cinematography, although laughable in its debt to Kubrick, is impeccable in its own right, and quite lovely to look at, especially in contrast to how badly most of these futuristic pictures are shot. But there is nothing to it, and it has pretenses to profundity.
The best science fiction picture of recent years was the modest two-character story, “Predestination,” which was very faithfully adapted from a Robert Heinlein short story. Writers and directors the Spierig Brothers never broadcast their wows and ahs, but trust the story to unfold itself in the minds of the audience, where the wows and ahs slowly build as the pieces of the story coalesce into the mind-and-time bending revelation of its denouement. Garland doesn’t trust his story, and he is right not to trust it, because it is a sham.