In November, I followed in my father’s footsteps.

My dad — Larry Overstreet — taught high school throughout my childhood. He was my first hero. I remember visiting his class when I was five, sitting in the back and marveling at his confidence and expertise, and at the attentiveness of his students.

I know several high school teachers now, and none of them describe their students as being the same kind of attentive, well-mannered, hard-working kids that my dad taught. Oh, they have their star students, but in general, they find it challenging to kindle enthusiasm.

I take that back — there is one: Steven Denlinger, who teaches English and more at Vashon Island High School. Denlinger has raved about his students at Vashon Island High School. He told me they seem to have come from another era, one in which high school students were respectful, attentive, focused, and eager to learn. He was not wrong. When he invited me to guest-teach two of his classes — a class focused on science fiction, and another where he trains up writers and editors in professional standards of journalism — I wondered if I was up for the task. I didn’t need to worry: the students made the experiment a success by listening closely, contributing their questions and perspectives, and going to work. They carried me through.

I thought of my dad. I realized that he was not kidding — teaching can be inspiring work. I had a grand time.

Over the course of three Friday class sessions and then some subsequent correspondence, the students and I examined the art of the film review. We read well-written reviews by Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, Alissa Wilkinson, and other exemplary film critics. We considered the different lenses through which we can assess a film’s qualities. We learned to distinguish the difference between liking a movie and thinking about a movie with critical discernment. We considered the difference between focusing on the movie as a thing (a technical achievement, inviting us to assess the quality of everything from acting to cinematography) and as a way (an invitation to explore ideas). This was a distinction highlighted by one of my own high school teachers — Michael Demkowicz, who wrote the essay “Mystery and Message” that serves as the foundation for Looking Closer.

This week, it will be my pleasure and privilege to present four of the finest film reviews turned in by Mr. Denlinger’s students.

Today, we’ll begin with Sierra Richter, who was inspired to write about Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. It’s an honor to publish her first review…

In the past fifty years, films about robots have dominated the movie market. We’ve seen the likes of Forbidden Planet from the ‘60s, The Terminator from the ‘80s, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence from the early ‘00s, among other successful science fiction films. This is probably because a strong presence of artificial intelligence is expected to dominate our world in the near future, and it fascinates people. But while a lot of sci-fi movies keep mediocre plots interesting by using special effects and action, Director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina uses complex concepts to make the film more intellectually stimulating. Ex Machina is different than most movies; it tries to change the way you think.

Unlike the common, jam-packed films full of violence and action, Ex Machina is extremely calm by comparison, and intrigues the viewer by the quiet eeriness of the film, and the instinct it gives viewers that things aren’t quite as they seem.

The setting is in rural forested Norway, where billionaire CEO (Oscar Isaac) lives and designs robots with artificial intelligence. The plot is simple enough: one of the company members, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a trip to visit his boss Nathan for a week, and view his never-before-seen creations. The AI that Nathan introduces to Caleb is named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He is to spend most of his week with her, and is to determine by the end of his stay if she passes the Turing test. The Turing test is a test of whether a human can interact with artificial intelligence and not be able to tell whether they are communicating with a robot or with a human.

While Ex Machina is labeled a sci-fi thriller, it doesn’t necessarily present itself as a scary movie. The scariness of it lies within just how realistic it is. Caleb comes from the city and lives a life that many of us are familiar with. What’s hidden behind closed doors is the eerie world of AI that have us wondering if this can in some way be a real place tucked away in an obscure, secret location.

The superb acting that Vikander, Gleeson, and Isaac bring to the screen contributes greatly to the believability of the film. Vikander perfectly treads the line between human and robot in her role as Ava. She makes us as confused as Caleb; not quite understanding her, but wanting to. It’s no surprise that she’s nominated for a Golden Globe award for her part in the film. Gleeson and Isaac also add credibility to their characters. Isaac works the screen as a narcissistic alpha male and CEO, while Gleeson lends his talent as the counterpart, a lanky, diffident computer programmer. Vikander, Gleeson, and Isaac work so naturally in their roles that it feels as if they and their characters are one and the same.

What really brings the movie together is the music and the cinematography. The music within the film is cohesive in tone. The sound dominates, while the conversations tend to be minimal and simplistic. The music’s tone evokes a subconscious anxiety within viewers, where we don’t even realize that we’re frightened until afterward, when the full experience really hits.

With the cinematography, we are given a feeling through the imagery. Most of the movie is filmed inside Nathan’s giant home which is clean, sterile, windowless, and nearly uninhabited. The scenes are very open and cold, showing expanses of colors like white, that make us feel uncomfortable. Our subconscious is alarmed by the sudden bursts of red that occur at unexpected, arbitrary times.

The only downside to Ex Machina is how slow moving it is. With the same few sets dominating the film, it would have been more captivating and interesting if events in the plot had developed quicker.

Even so, Ex Machina is a spectacular movie. It is an intellectually stimulating film that causes us to think about plausible concepts and their relation to us and the world we live in. The audience is given an idea to sit with, not just while the movie is playing, but afterwards too: Is integrating artificial intelligence into our society morally right? Is this what we need in our future? In a large way, this film makes us think about ourselves and helps us decide the course that science will and/or should take. We may go into the movie with one opinion on technology and come out with another. One thing is for sure, this movie is one that viewers won’t likely forget.

Sierra Richter is a senior at Vashon Island High School. She’s an avid reader and aspiring journalist.