Arts & Culture

SXSW Day 2: Steve Jobs doc and ‘Ex Machina’ profile troubled genius

Alicia Vikander in ‘Ex Machina’
Alicia Vikander in ‘Ex Machina’ A24

Last year’s South by Southwest showcased the premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, AMC TV’s fictional accounting of the early days of the Internet revolution on North Texas’ Silicon Prairie. This year’s featured the Saturday premiere of Alex Gibney’s engrossing documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, about the very real revolution that took place in California’s Silicon Valley, in part due to the brilliant man who put Apple on the technological and cultural map.

It’s doubtful that many thought the film from director Gibney — the man behind such docs as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the upcoming Going Clear, about Scientology — would go gentle on such a controversial figure. But it’s not a total hatchet job either, painting a complex portrait of a complex man who few seem to be able to say they knew really well.

While it doesn’t shy away from what it says were his negatives — his coldness, lack of philanthropy, questions about labor practices at Chinese factories — it also implicates Apple-worshipping consumers in aiding and abetting his worst tendencies. While perhaps too long at two hours, it’s nevertheless an intelligent and fascinating sketch of today’s world, as seen through the cracked lens of one of its major architects. It’s set to open theatrically later shortly.

A brilliant mind is also at the heart of Ex Machina, one of the most anticipated films at SXSW this year, which had its premiere Saturday in Austin as well. The directorial debut of British writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd), it’s a simple but exceedingly well-wrought tale about artificial intelligence that goes against the grain of current big-screen, big-budget sci-fi wisdom, which is generally to blow up as much stuff as possible — and make sure there’s a possibility of a sequel.

Garland throws all of that out the window in the story of a reclusive, Jobs-like tech pioneer, played by Oscar Isaac, who brings in one of the young workers (Domhnall Gleeson) from his company to help him with is latest development, a fully functional, ambulatory android (Alicia Vikander). With a cast of only four people, lots of dialogue, and no explosions, it’s a current cinematic anomaly.

The result bears echoes of such long-gone TV series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, where the emphasis isn’t on gadgetry — though the film does have a cool look — but on ideas and how those ideas affect people, much like the world of Jobs.

It’s another strong role for Isaac, who has shown over the course of the last couple of years — through Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and even the insipid Sucker Punch — that he’s one of the most intriguing actors working today. Let’s hope Ex Machina, a film that can’t be neatly categorized, finds an audience. We’ll find out when it opens April 10.

Cary Darling, 817 390-7571

Twitter: @carydar

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