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Screen Themes: Soul vs Ex Machina

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As continued existential threats make us question whether anyone in power has a sliver of empathy, entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of movies that examine the concepts of soul and humanity.

Soul (2020)

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

NOMINATED FOR best-animated picture at this year’s Oscars, Soul is either a lamentation on the meaning of life or a standard Pixar Animation Studios (Pixar) road movie with questionable racial politics. I choose to take the former view, although I can understand the perspective of the latter.

Telling the tale of high school band teacher and jazz musician Joe, Soul starts out with a tragedy, as so many Pixar movies do. After getting his dream gig playing with a jazz quartet, Joe (Jamie Foxx) falls down a manhole and dies. Finding himself on a travelator to heaven, Joe freaks out and ends up in The Great Before, a place where souls find their spark before heading to Earth. There he meets 22 (Tina Fey) – a soul who has become cynical in her millennia-long search to find her spark – and the two go on an adventure to get Joe back to his body.

Before you know it, 22 is in Joe’s body and Joe is in a therapy cat, and road movie shenanigans ensue. They meet a bunch of astral travellers led by a hippy called Moonwind (Graham Norton) and get chased by a bunch of soul counsellors all called Jerry, who reconcile Joe’s relationship with his estranged mother and learn the meaning of inspiration — all within a 100 minute runtime. It’s all relatively charming and fairly generic, saved from mediocrity by stunning animation and flashes of the heart that made Pixar classics like Toy Story and Up so memorable.

In terms of racial overtones, it is lazy character design that the innocent souls are white and the tortured lost souls are black, but I don’t really have the cultural perspective to comment on some of the more subtle examples — if you’re interested, perhaps check out this article by Namwali Serpell, which was published in the New Yorker.

Ex Machina (2014)

Directed by Alex Garland

Writer/director Alex Garland kicked off his career with only the first half of that title, penning the novel The Beach (made into an awful movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and screenplays for movies including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. Ex Machina was his first directorial gig, followed four years later by sci-fi oddity Annihilation.

Ex Machina tells the tale of software programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a work contest to spend a week at the high-tech home of reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After some pleasantries, the mysterious Nathan introduces him to humanoid artificial intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander), challenging Caleb to undertake a version of the Turing test on his creation. As Caleb gets to know Ava, he begins to question Nathan’s motives and the balance of power starts to shift…

From a performance perspective, Ex Machina is near flawless. Oscar Isaac shows the potential to be one of the best actors of his generation, while Alicia Vikander gives a nuanced performance that suggests far more talent than movies like Tomb Raider and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. reveal. I’ve always found Domhnall Gleeson to be slightly limp as a performer – like a less funny version of actor Stephen Merchant – but he portrays protagonist Caleb with aplomb.

Smartly written, well directed and unafraid to play with ambiguity, Ex Machina is one of those movies that will come to mind weeks after you’ve seen it.

The Verdict

While it seems likely that Soul will walk away with an Oscar this year (at the expense of the excellent Wolfwalkers) it feels like a lightweight addition to the Pixar canon, destined to be mentioned along with Cars and The Good Dinosaur rather than genuinely moving classics like Finding Nemo and Inside Out. Still, if you’re looking for a flick to keep the kids amused over the upcoming school holidays, you could do worse.

Ex Machina, on the other hand, is not for kids. It’s psychologically dense, morally complex and features a surprising amount of nudity for a movie about artificial intelligence. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen about the impact of human isolation and the sacrifices that the unseen 99 per cent have to make for the one per cent to have their time in the spotlight.

Soul – 7/10

Ex Machina – 9/10

John Turnbull is Independent Australia's entertainment editor, a writer, balloon pilot and tattoo aficionado.

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