Modern technology has a tendency to induce excitement and anxiety in equal measures. In an era dominated by devices we call “smart” and social media feeds more informative than real life interactions, the virtual world has come to define a collective global consciousness. But it’s challenging to witness these shifts taking place in the chaotic moment to moment cycle of daily life. Only cultural experiences offer the chance to zoom out — with the movies being a prominent resource in that regard. Cinema is nothing if not a window into our ever-changing times.
The paradox of life’s increasingly digital shadow comes through with particular clarity in two new releases this week. Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” explores this contemporary feeling in its most natural state, as science fiction, with an introverted techie (Domhall Gleeson) who grows enamored with a sultry female robot (Alicia Vikander). Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” may take place in the present, but it invokes a similar form of psychological uneasiness over society’s evolving state, with its tale of a self-involved actress (Juliette Binoche) haunted by perceptions of her work online. Binoche’s character may not be a robot, but the nature of her reality and her relationship to it are constantly at odds to the point where it’s unclear when we’re watching her versus her character in the movie’s closing act.
Both movies address questions surrounding technological development with renewed intensity. In “Ex Machina,” young coder Cabel (Gleeson) is plucked from obscurity by the reclusive CEO of his company, a mad scientist named Nathan (Oscar Isaac, bearded and buff) to participate in a mysterious experiment at Nathan’s remote lair over the course of a week. Flown to his hideout via helicopter, Caleb finds himself immersed in an eerie world of Nathan’s invention, in which the alcoholic brainiac alternately drinks himself into a stupor and pontificates about his high-minded experiment. Caleb’s role, to interact with the mechanical Ava (Vikander) behind a glass panel and attempt to elicit human behavior from her, naturally leads him down trepidatious pathways.
But Garland directs the icy proceedings with the air of an enthralling neo-noir; the murky storytelling makes it increasingly difficult to discern the full scope of agendas in play among the three main characters. Set in the bland interiors of Nathan’s laboratory — with its lengthy hallways and expansive rooms — the plot unfolds with a labyrinthic quality of a daunting mathematical equation, the solution to which only becomes clear with the stunningly creepy, wordless finale.
That ubiquitous sense of unknown quantities is a distinctly contemporary sentiment, as language is increasingly mediated by dense technological ingredients. The same fear resonates just as strongly in “Sils Maria.” Assayas also restricts his events to closed environments riddled with cryptic intentions. In this case, the labyrinth is the cloudy mountaintop of Sils Maria, where the aptly-named Maria Enders (Binoche) vanishes with her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse for her role in a play that originally made her famous at the start of her career.
Once cast in the younger part, she’s now been slotted to play the older character, and rehearses her lines with Val while the serene landscape surrounds them with a sense of existential mystery. As the duo run through a scene that finds them bickering, the narrative gradually shifts to a place of uncertainty — are they playing their roles or inhabiting them? It’s a question that the modern age of fragmented communication, when irony and sincerity often run side by side, begs on a regular basis.
Setting the stage for these questions, “Clouds of Sils Maria” establishes a world dominated by virtual ephemera: Val tracks the emerging celebrity path of the young actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who threatens Maria’s status through the starlet’s digital media feeds; Maria, however, blocks out these updates and isolates herself by resisting change. Similarly, both Caleb and Nathan in “Ex Machina” grow so fixated on figuring out the way that Ava thinks that they mistakenly assume themselves superior to her intellect. In each movie, the digital world is a lot more sophisticated than the main characters anticipate — until it’s too late to figure it out.
The ultimate “wake up” moment arrives in a pair of closing acts that leave the protagonists at the tail-end of destructive paths only truly visible once they’ve completed them. That’s true not only to the characters but to the viewers drawn into these absorbing dramas and surprised by their layered meanings. “Ex Machina” includes multiple instances of misdirection, one of which involves a hidden visual clue buried in the frame. “Sils Maria” gradually shifts into an expressionistic climax that draws out previously invisible resentments. These final twists epitomize a zeitgeist defined by the unknown variables of our twisty, enigmatic times. No matter the specificity of the stories, they both hit dangerously close to home.