The Best Sci-Fi Film of 2015 | Ex Machina vs. Predestination
When it comes to sci-fi in 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the clear winner in the eyes of the public (as of this writing, it has made $890 quintillion dollars). While its popularity is not in question, many critics (including this one) have classically argued that Star Wars isn’t – technically speaking – science fiction. It takes place in space, and involves futuristic technology, but the way the stories unfold, and the actual tone of the tales, belies high fantasy more than hard science; who cares how an X-Wing works? It just needs to get the heroes from here to there.
True science fiction lilts cerebral. Indeed, when it comes to hard sci-fi – i.e. actual explorations of complex scientific principals explored in a fictional context – you’ll find stories, and especially movies, few and far between. They are welcome when they come, but most mainstream sci-fi movies focus more on the classical tropes of drama – character and story and action – than they do on anything academic.
The greatest of all sci-fi movie, however, can pull off both. They can be dramatically satisfying, while commenting on the biological, technological, and perhaps ethical place of humanity in the universe. Two candidates for such a lofty title were released in 2015. One, Ex Machina, was about robots. The other, Predestination, was about time travel. Let the debate begin.
The Case for Ex Machina:
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is about a billionaire tech tycoon-slash-genius inventor (played awesomely by Oscar Isaac) who claims to have invented an artificial intelligence. In order to see if said intelligence is actually self aware, or is just somehow cleverly faking it, he enlists a young man from his workforce (Domhnall Gleeson) to run a “reverse Turing test.” The film is constructed of conversations between Isaac and Gleeson about the nature of intelligence, and conversations between Gleeson and the comely female android that Isaac has constructed.
There’s already a lot going on in Ex Machina. The discussions are intelligent, and tap frankly and legitimately into common scientific discussions of A.I., the ethical implications of making an artificial life form, and the increasing role technology plays in our lives. Are we attempting to make ourselves into gods? Is this just the natural extension of human endeavor, to make new life? And how does one make consciousness from scratch? Is it really achievable through algorithms? If so, what does that say about the human mind? Is it just a machine of adequate complexity?
But there’s something more going on with Ex Machina, and it’s far more insidious. You may have noticed from the above description that this is a story of two men yammering about the intelligence of a woman. There is a discussion about how conscious beings have a gender identity, but it’s easy to see this as two men talking about a really technologically advanced sex doll, invented for their own prurient amusement. Ultimately, the men are dictating what makes a woman, not what makes a human consciousness. As such, the men’s insidiously inherent misogyny becomes the center of the film. We may never be able to recreate a human mind, because, well, our unknowing prejudices will always stand in our way. That’s pretty brilliant.
The Case for Predestination:
As far as we know, time travel is still impossible, even theoretically. Sure, there are some quantum theories (that I could not explain to you) about how certain particles seem to travel back in time, but the notion of actually sending a human being back and forth through time remains the stuff of fantasy. That doesn’t mean contemplating the notions of destiny, causality, and changing history won’t be appealing. The Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, released in January, is a massively twisted and pleasingly oblique time travel tale about a time-traveling super-cop from the future (Ethan Hawke) who must track down a young woman from the past (Sarah Snook) who has lived a weird, weird life. I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot, as every reveal is a big one. Needless to say, there are causality loops left and right.
These sorts of temporal theories get the scientific side of the mind bubbling, and Predestination, while naturally fudging the science of time travel, is smart – not to mention playfully wicked – about the way causality works. In the world of Predestination, true to its title, everything is fated. There are no beginnings and no ends. Indeed, if time travel were real, the notions of “beginning” and “end” would immediately become meaningless. Time would no longer be a straight line. It would be a jumble of whatever we constructed.
Predestination, like Ex Machina, also has a definite gender politic. I can’t reveal too much more about that (to do so would be to ruin a few vital surprises), only to say that male and female, like all of time, also become smeared and conjoined when time loses meaning.
The Winner: Ex Machina
Predestination is fun, and the sneaky writing is an immense pleasure, but ultimately, it remains in the realm of the fantastical. It brings up a lot of questions and lets them linger. Plus, the shocks are most certainly “gotcha” moments, rather than big catharses about the human mind. It’s well-written, to be sure, but it’s beaten by Ex Machina.
Ex Machina is just a more complex, and better-made movie. In the modern age, we, as a species, tend to think of ourselves as “arrived.” We modern humans have new access to a scientific philosophy devoted to logic, observation, and reason. With our scientific mind, surely we can achieve whatever we can think of, right? We know our own minds well enough, and our marvelous technologies are grand enough, that we can build a human from scratch, right? Ex Machina argues that we may be further along in the tech department than we have ever been, but there is something emotional and hateful and dangerous in the human (read: male) mind that will ultimately be the flaw in our own design. It’s a smart movie about gender, about A.I., and a cautionary tale about playing willy-nilly with our own, perhaps not yet fully examined, minds.
Top Image: A24 and Pinnacle Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.