Cranston shines in moody ‘Wakefield’ – Killer AI returns in ‘Alien: Covenant’

This image released by IFC Films shows Bryan Cranston in a scene from ‘Wakefield’. (AP)

Have you ever fantasized about one day walking away from your well-ordered life? Just ditching work and the humdrum routine of life? You have? Then, before you go, you need to see the curiously brilliant film “Wakefield.”

Bryan Cranston stars as Howard Wakefield, a successful, upper class suburbanite with a wife and kids who, on an otherwise ordinary day, doesn’t come home from work. He effectively drops out of life.

No, “Wakefield “ isn’t a story about running away. Our hero actually chooses to stay very close to his family — he hides in his home’s unheated garage attic and scrounges for food in Dumpsters. He spends the next several months quietly spying on the life he has removed himself from.

“I ask you: What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day, however unrealized that life may be?” he asks. “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put that life on hold for a moment?”

“Wakefield” is directed by Robin Swicord from her adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s short story. Her film is a moody meditation on modern living and surveillance, true to the original 10,000-word tale but also beautifully cinematic.

It taps into a deep vein of American angst at social conformity, explored before by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to “American Beauty.” It arrives at a time when there’s a surge in interest in a more natural life far from the crowds — so-called “cabin porn.” But the suburban cabin Wakefield finds himself leads to a brutal, unromantic life.

Forever peering down into the main house’s windows, Wakefield must endure freezing New York winters and its blistering summer days. His hair and beard become unkempt. He grows self-reliant — embracing the anti-consumerism of “Fight Club” or “Into the Wild” — and becomes, basically, a hermit.

“I no longer seem to require those things that only days ago were so indispensable,” he says. “Unshackled, I’ll become the Howard Wakefield I was meant to be.”

Cranston is simply remarkable in the role, a tricky one since his character has precious little dialogue with anyone else. Yet the actor shows everything here — arrogance, sorrow, anger, love, fear. It may bring to mind another superb performance from a man who found himself in exile — Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”

Wakefield’s wife is played with delicate sadness by a terrific Jennifer Garner, who somehow is able to convey ranges of emotion mutely from behind a glass window. Aaron Zigman’s score has colors that are both playful and haunting.

Accidental

How Wakefield begins this new life is frighteningly accidental. After a fight with his wife, his train has mechanical trouble one night and he comes home very late to find a raccoon sniffing around. He chases the beast into the garage attic and decides to stay the night, unwilling to reawaken the spat with his wife. Soon enough, he has become a raccoon himself — sneaking around in the dark for food.

Cranston narrates what he assumes people are saying in his absence, imagines the way various encounters could go, flashes back to key domestic moments and even enjoys watching his loved ones struggle with tasks he used to complete. He befriends two other outcasts — two children with mental challenges. He comes to understand that he was not the nicest of men in his previous life.

 

Modern movie culture would have you believe artificial intelligence is out to kill us all.

In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Hal, the AI computer aboard a space flight to Jupiter, develops a mind of its own and turns against the crew. “The Terminator” makes his mission clear in the movie’s title. Ava, the pretty-faced android in “Ex Machina,” has a killer instinct. David, the pretty-faced android in “Prometheus,” also doesn’t have the best intentions for human survival.

“Prometheus” director Ridley Scott, who further explores the cunning side of artificial intelligence in his new “Alien: Covenant,” says, “If you’re going to use something that’s smarter than you are, that’s when it starts to get dangerous.”

It’s been a running theme through Scott’s three films set in the “Alien” universe, dating back to the 1979 original in which Sigourney Weaver battles not only an alien killing machine but also Ash, an android who views his human crewmates as expendable. “Prometheus” in 2012 introduced David, an earlier android version with a similar lack of scruples about protecting humanity.

Filmmakers have long projected that artificial intelligence could spell the end of humanity, and some top scientists and tech leaders — including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk — share their concern. (AP)

Musk, an early investor in the development of AI, told Vanity Fair earlier this year that he worries the technology could ultimately “produce something evil by accident,” such as “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”

But astrophysicist, author and film fan Neil deGrasse Tyson said he believes there’s nothing to worry about. Killer androids may make for fun film fodder, but he doesn’t think they’re an imminent, or eventual, reality.

“I’m completely fearless of AI,” Tyson said last week.

Tyson noted that human beings have been inventing machines to replace human labor since the days of the Industrial Revolution, and computers have succeeded in outsmarting people since before Watson beat Ken Jennings at “Jeopardy!”

In movies, artificially intelligent beings might look human, but most real-life robots don’t, he said. The robots welding parts on automobile assembly lines look like machines, not mechanics.

“The first thing we think of when we have a machine that has capacity is not to put it into something that looks human,” Tyson said. “Because the human form is not very good at anything, so why have it look human?”

An exception would be “sex robots,” he said, adding rhetorically, “Is this robot going to take over the world?”

For Scott, the possibility of evil artificial intelligence comes back to the question of the creator: Who is doing the creating, and for what purpose?

“Whoever the inventor is, he’s going to want to go the whole nine yards,” the filmmaker said. “Hence you get the expression of the mad professor who makes a mistake in going too far where the alien is way smarter than he is or the monsters are way smarter than he is and that’s where you get problems.

“But we will definitely go there…. Because what it’s leading to is the question of creation. And creation, I don’t care who you are, is on everyone’s mind.”

Tyson is also fascinated with creation. His latest book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” is about the birth of the universe and carbon-based life.

Androids, though, “are just completely pointless,” he said. And they couldn’t become self-aware without consciousness, something scientists have yet to fully grasp.

“You’re saying we’re going to end up programming this into a machine and then it’s going to decide we shouldn’t exist, when we don’t even understand our own consciousness? I just don’t see it,” he said.

Besides, if somehow artificially intelligent androids do go rogue, Tyson has a solution.

“This is America,” he said. “I can shoot the robot.” (AP)

By Mark Kennedy

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