Tag Archive: Ex Machina


Review by C.J. Bunce

Using a meticulously designed new robot from Weta Workshop, the Australian science fiction movie I Am Mother has all the components of a good story steeped in the classic sci-fi of the 1950s.  It takes place on Earth after an apocalypse that could easily be interwoven into the Cyberdyne/Genisys destruction from the Terminator series, and has that futurism straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story.  What’s left are robots running everything, some on the surface, but one in particular inhabits what looks like a space station buried beneath the planet’s surface.  This robot is called Mother, voiced seamlessly by X-Men series co-star and Australian actor Rose Byrne.  She has preserved several of the last bits of humanity–embryos–in order to repopulate the species via rapid-growth technology.  The production, the design, the light-up props, and the pacing all create the right framework for a significant sci-fi film.  Unfortunately the story is single-threaded, building opportunities for subplots that get left ignored, much like January’s direct-to-Netflix sci-fi release Io.

The build-up is nicely rendered by first-time movie director and script writer Grant Sputore.  The common theme of this genre, as much sci-fi horror as merely sci-fi, is “things aren’t what they seem.”  Or maybe they are.  The audience sees Mother raise a single child from the bank of embryos stowed on the facility, a girl known simply as Daughter, played first by young Tahlia Sturzaker, then for the bulk of the movie by Clara Rugaard, both giving fine performances.  We believe the humans are long gone outside, until a woman arrives, played by two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner Hilary Swank.  She’s been shot, and whether she was shot by humans or robots becomes a mystery for Daughter to solve.  Both Swank and Rugaard look so much alike, their likeness simply must be a plot point:  Are they related, and if so, how?  Sisters?  Clones?  Same hair color and length, eyes, bone structure.  Was Swank’s lost human a former captive in the underground bunker?  How many times has Mother created Daughters or Sons?  How many years from Armageddon is this story really happening?  It’s the answers–or lack thereof–to these questions, and the ultimate payoff Sputore delivers that doesn’t match the rest of the film.

Part of the legitimacy of the film as something more than mainstream popular sci-fi is the amazing body movement work of Luke Hawker acting inside the robot suit he helped design and build with the Weta team.  How rare is it that the designer of the tech is also the actor, who is featured in 90% of the scenes of the film?  The added surprise is this was not a CGI motion capture process, but a practical effect that had to be created with real-world materials.  There is some actual chemistry between Daughter and Mother, and Mother is a pretty great mother to see in action.  It’s like watching young Will Robinson interact with his Robot in Lost in Space.  Add to the believable robot the cold and lonely tenor of the film and you have something like New Zealand’s low budget 1985 sci-fi marvel The Quiet Earth.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

A behind the scenes book for a 2019 movie, which consists of a third or more of its images from 2005?  As fascinating as the special effects developed for the film, the history of the movie merits its own book, and it gets it in Abbie Bernstein‘s Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie, now out from Titan Books.  It turns out executive producer James Cameron and artists were working on the pre-production of Alita: Battle Angel during the development of his film Avatar.  According to interviews with Cameron and Alita director Robert Rodriguez, in the early 2000s the technology was not yet advanced to deliver what they wanted for their adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga novel.  But now that it’s arrived, fans of the film can trace its development over the past 15 years.

Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie is filled with concept art, split between 2005 digital ideas in advance of knowing what actors might be cast and final characters developed, and a renewed look at the project as it began to get fully underway only a few years ago.  Key interviews with Rodriguez, Cameron, producer Jon Landau, production designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner, art director Todd Holland, visual effects supervisors Richard Hollander and Eric Saindon, costume designer Nina Proctor, Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri, and others tell the story–a marriage of practical effects and CGI.  In fact the commenters almost seem to have a battle between those responsible between the practical effects and CGI–all with an eye toward realism.  The most interesting aspects of the discussion are the incorporation of Alita star Rosa Salazar’s motion capture (or per Rodriguez, “performance capture” since motion doesn’t include the “emotion” element required to make a story come together) with Proctor’s real-world costumes, and the CGI layering that ends up as the final image that made it to the screen.

No doubt a highlight of the film and of the book are detailed images of Alita’s cyborg body shell, as created by the character of Dr. Ido in the film.  In real life it looks incredibly porcelain, but the artists discuss how the body and all the components of the film were actually fabricated.  The commenters don’t reference their inspirations for the look of the Iron City in the film or its cyborg inhabitants, but fans of the genre will no doubt see the influences–from the borg designs to story elements–from films including Chappie, Elysium, District 9, Ex Machina, Ghost in the Shell, Mad Max: Fury Road, Cameron’s The Terminator, and even the light cycles of Tron.  Readers will learn more about the science behind the cyborgs in the film–how Cameron and others estimated weights of body parts, including Alita’s removable metal heart, as an example–all needed for 3D and CGI work and viewer believability.

Take a look inside Alita: Battle Angel–The Art and Making of the Movie courtesy of the publisher:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

She wanted the story of a lifetime.  He just wanted to fix things.

The pop sci-fi movie appeals to moviegoers who don’t typically dabble in science fiction, and it is frequently cast with the day’s biggest Hollywood stars.  A subgenre that includes Gravity and Interstellar, the pop sci-fi movie tends not to further science fiction as a whole for the avid science fiction fan.   It usually means thin story, heavy special effects, and sappy melodrama.  Some of that might apply to this year’s theatrical release, Passengers, now streaming in digital format, Blu-ray and DVD.

But wait–unlike the typical pop sci-fi flick, this one works just fine, thanks to a straightforward story and the believability and authenticity of a small main cast: Chris Pratt as Jim Preston, an engineer whose stasis pod malfunctions causing him to awaken early on a 90-year deep space transport ship; Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora Lane, a passenger who is a journalist giving up her life for a big story; Michael Sheen as Arthur, a robot bartender who offers sage advice along the way; and Laurence Fishburne as Gus Mancuso, a deck chief on the ship.

Passengers was unfairly panned by critics and moviegoers, but the reasons make little sense.  It all boils down to two elements for the typical non-genre filmgoer.  First, Passengers did not simply give away its plot, or even the true nature of its genre, via movie trailer spoilers, surprising moviegoers looking for a pleasant date movie, and second, for being unconventional.  Yet probably more than any other movie this year it prompts plenty of water cooler conversation:  What would you do if you were put in Jim’s or Aurora’s position?  Jim is a hero (so is Aurora), but he is a pretty flawed hero.  Isn’t that the stuff of a good drama?  Passengers in many ways is the modern-day Stagecoach or Lifeboat–a closed room mystery, but without the whodunnit.  And Lawrence and Pratt have chemistry.

What would you do?

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art-of-jock-book-cover

One of the standout artists of the past 20 years, British artist Jock’s work has appeared on comic book covers and movie posters, and his concept art has provided the vision behind the look of movies like Dredd, Ex Machina, Battleship, and in the works is next year’s Star Wars: Episode VIII.  A new high-quality hardcover from Insight Editions available this month is showcasing some of his best images.  The Art of Jock establishes a new standard for photographic reproductions, with some of the very best color and crisp detail found in any recent coffee table edition we’ve reviewed.  It features hundreds of illustrations from a creator really only at the early stages of his career.

Born in Scotland as Mark Simpson, Jock broke into comics with the British sci-fi comic book 2000 A.D., and today is an internationally-recognized artist and Eisner Award nominee.  We’ve seen his work in DC Comics series like Green Arrow and Batman, in Marvel series like Savage Wolverine and Daredevil, in the Image series Wytches, and in Vertigo series Scalped and Losers.  Highlights of early sketches and final versions of his work on these series can be found in this book in large, full color pages.  Fans of Jock will love the many original comic book covers and interior art included.

batman_vol_2_21_textless_variant

The Art of Jock was written by DC Comics editor Will Dennis, with commentary by Battleship director Peter Berg, and DC Comics’ Jim Lee and Scott Snyder.  But the most valuable insight is provided by the artist himself.  Jock recounts his process and critiques his own work, comparing his style between phases of his own development.

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Arnold Terminator Genisys

Well it’s been one long year, with plenty to do and see, plenty of good and not-so-good to read and watch, and as with last year we’re certain we reviewed more content this year than ever before.  This year was a big year for borgs in TV and film, so we had some difficult decisions to make.  All year long we sifted through all that Hollywood had to offer and honed in on the genre TV, films, comics, and other books we thought were worth examining.  We went back and looked at it all and pulled together our picks for our annual Best of the Best list.

Today we reveal the entire list–the best genre content of 2015–with our top categories Best Sci-Fi Fix, Best Fantasy Fix, Best Superhero FixBest Animated Fix,  and Best Borg selected regardless of medium.  A dozen properties garnered multiple mentions.

We hope you agree with many of these great creations of the entertainment industries, and wish everyone a great 2016!

Killjoys

Best Sci-Fi Fix – Killjoys (Syfy).  Surprised?  Killjoys pulled together great worldbuilding, characters and actors in a year of a dozen new sci-fi shows to provide us the closest thing to the next Firefly we’ve seen in a long time.

Galavant

Best Fantasy Fix – Galavant (ABC); Runner-up The Librarians (TNT).  It aired early in 2015 but nothing surpassed Galavant’s medieval high adventure and all-out Princess Bride-style fun.

the-cw-arrow-flash-crossover

Best Superhero Fix – The Flash (CW).  Of all the Marvel movies and TV series from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Agent Carter and from Arrow to Supergirl, nothing had us coming back for more each week like the superhero world in The Flash.

Rebels season 2

Best Animated Fix – Star Wars Rebels (DisneyXD).  Compare it to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and see if you think this animated Star Wars galaxy had an even better story and characterization, along with the return of its own group of original trilogy actors, compelling visuals and rousing music.

Terminator Genisys image

Best Borg – Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from Terminator Genisys (Paramount).  Schwarzenegger created yet another borg that could stand up against his prior successful characters from the series.  A cool, moving character in a big year for borgs on screen!

Ava from Ex Machina - borg

Best Borg Movie –  Ex Machina (DNA Films).  Incredible storytelling and a small cast of talented actors provided a classic science fiction story and Oscar-worthy film about our favorite subject.

Humans series

Best Borg TV SeriesHumans (AMC).  On television the most in-depth look at life as a borg and among borgs has never been portrayed more dramatically than on this year’s surprise sci-fi hit series from AMC.

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Rey-Finn-BB8-running

Best Kickass Genre Movie Heroine – Rey (Daisy Ridley), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney); Honorable Mentions: Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), Terminator Genisys (Paramount); Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Mad Max: Fury Road (Village Roadshow)

Liv Moore

Best Kickass Genre TV Heroine – Liv Moore (Rose McIver), iZombie (CW); Honorable Mentions: Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), Killjoys (Syfy); Helena (Tatiana Maslany), Orphan Black (BBC)

Want to know who we picked for best villain and best comic books of the year?  Take a look after the cut…

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borg-label hall-of-fame-label

After climbing over our 1.4 millionth site visit at borg.com this month, it’s time to update the borg.com Hall of Fame, with borg in genre fiction from past, present, and future, and from all media.  Click here for our “About” page if you need a refresher on what makes a borg a borg.

These new inductees are primarily new additions to the world of fiction this year, but many were borgs we overlooked in prior years.  A few may or may not be borg, depending on your point of view.  Robots or androids that look perfectly human, for example, that have organic looking material but may not have actual living tissue are not technically cyborgs.

So here is Round 3, the 2015 borg.com Hall of Fame honorees, in no particular order:

Ex Machina Kyoko and Ava

Alicia Vikander’s Ava and Sonoya Mizumo’s Kyoko from this year’s critically acclaimed movie Ex Machina were stunning additions to the world of borg.  Clearly robots with artificial intelligence but they make our list with what appeared to us to be some kind of replicated organic skin.

Humans

AMC’s new TV series Humans introduced the “synths,” robotic servants that permeated the modern world.  Five of these had something more than the others, the best of these being Gemma Chan’s synth Anita, and whether you count only these five or all of them as borg, we think they fit right into our Hall of Fame.

Furiosa

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the year’s biggest hits, with Furiosa on many critic’s lists of kick-ass heroines in 2015.  Her mechanical prosthetic arm provides her entry ticket into our list of 2015 borgs.

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Athena (Raffey Cassidy) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

In this year’s Disney adventure movie Tomorrowland, the girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy)reveals herself o be an “audio-animatronic robot,” but she looks entirely borg to us.  Plenty more borg are featured in the film, including the proprietors of the toy shop who are out to keep the secrets of Tomorrowland from humanity.

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Ex Machina trailer

Jurassic Park was not only Michael Crichton’s most popular novel, it finally allowed him to synthesize all the elements he had worked out over the course of his career into a perfect story.  Crichton could easily have been the writer behind the examination of man vs. machine that is this year’s big screen release Ex Machina, now in Digital HD and Blu-ray.  Writer-director Alex Garland (28 Days Later) could have taken us on another bland adventure about man’s fascination with technology and mortality, but instead he creates a morality play that is eerily simple yet surprisingly profound.  Behind Ex Machina is a modern Victor Frankenstein complete with a reclusive laboratory and spectacular creations.  Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is Nathan, the uber-wealthy CEO inventor atop a Google-inspired enterprise, who secretly is using his company’s collective search data to create artificial intelligence–and more.  Is he the classic mad scientist?

In the spirit of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, Nathan launches a contest for employees with the prize being a weeklong visit to his own Skywalker Ranch.  The winner is the smart and amiable Caleb, played by Domnhall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  All is not what it seems.  Someone here is being played and it’s for the audience to figure it all out.  Nathan has really brought Caleb to his lair to test out his new humanoid robot, Ava, played by Alicia Vikander (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son), and give her a battery of ad hoc tests to see if she passes the Turing test–to confirm whether Nathan has really created the ultimate intelligent machine.  Loosely inspired by more than one classic fairy tale, the seemingly simple story and strange circumstances quickly grow dark.  Who is manipulating who?

Isaac and Gleeson

Garland doesn’t need to rely on his fascinating, humanoid, robotic creations–arguably cybernetic or borg, and eminently believable–to carry the picture.  Its backbone is a well-paced story with a satisfying payoff.  Fans of Neill Blomkamp will love Garland’s study of class and society in the post-modern future: relations between employee and boss, scientist and subject, and master and servant.  In a world of secrets and locked doors, who can you trust?

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