WRITTEN REVIEW – Ex Machina (2015)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander & Oscar Isaac
Music: Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Release Date: January 23rd 2015
Screenwriter Alex Garland has been a critic and audience favourite for over a decade, writing the scripts to beloved classics such as ‘28 Days Later‘, ‘Sunshine‘ and ‘Dredd‘ whilst also being one of the million screenwriters in the industry to write a draft of the ‘Halo‘ movie that has been stuck in development hell forever. Now, making his directorial debut, Garland seeks to explore artificial intelligence in ‘Ex Machina‘ (translated from Latin means “From the Machine”). AI is a topic that has been debated and analysed in countless films over the past century with one of the first being 1927’s ‘Metropolis‘ as well as recent movies such as the upcoming Neill Blomkamp directed film ‘Chappie‘. Can Garland reach the same heights as a director as he did as a writer, or is this movie as devoid of life as the robots it garners its inspiration from?
Geeky and unassuming Caleb (Gleeson) who works for the fictional software giant Bluebook (this universe’s version of Google) discovers while at work one day that he’s won a competition to spend a week with the owner of the company on his remote private island. Once there, his employer, Nathan (Issac) reveals that Caleb is there to test out his new Artificial Intelligence, Ava (Vikander) and subject her to “The Turing Test” where Caleb must question Ava to discover if she truly has consciousness. However, it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems with Ava leaving Caleb cryptic messages about Nathan’s true motive, all the while Caleb finds himself falling for the cybernetic, enigmatic Ava.
What makes ‘Ex Machina‘ stand out from other films that have dabbled in similar themes is its ever-shifting dynamics between the three leads. As the movie progresses, the character in control of the situation is constantly changing which frequently disrupts the tone of the movie as it progresses. Sometimes Nathan is in control and his drunken monologues turn ‘Ex Machina‘ into a dark comedy. When Caleb is in control of his frequent conversations with Ava it feels like a sweet, if unconventional romance movie and when Ava is in control it can become a thriller, especially when combined with the ‘Silence of the Lambs‘ imagery of Caleb and Ava interacting between glass walls. These aforementioned tones aren’t exclusive to those three characters, however, resulting in an “edge-of-your-seat” tech-thriller that is essentially a series of extended conversations.
Thankfully, with so much talking going on, Alex Garland’s script is up to the task as it delves into intriguing themes about the nature of deception and not just artificial intelligence, but artificial affection and artificial sentiment. Early on, exasperated Guinea Pig Caleb asks Nathan why he gave Ava a gender and he explains that in order to create the singularity, Ava needs to understand and be cognitive of something most living beings have in common; the instinct/urge to reproduce. Nathan then explains in…thorough…detail that Ava is capable of having sex and that she would enjoy it.
However, another reason for Ava’s assigned gender is boiled down to Nathan himself; a social recluse who is able to get rip-roaring drunk at a party even though he’s the only person present in his subterranean facility. A man who, without irony, mis-quotes Caleb’s lines so he can view himself as a god-like figure. While Caleb is the Guinea Pig and Ava is the test subject, Nathan is the orchestrator and he’s the one the history books will be talking about or referring to by name. Also, the fact that he owns the world’s largest search engine means he’ll probably be the one writing those history books as well.
While it’s not elaborated on in ‘Ex Machina‘, it makes perfect sense that if any corporation would be capable of creating the singularity or a human-like A.I. it’d be a company like Google who has access to the populations habits, thoughts and queries. Though Nathan isn’t a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs-like figure, instead he’s more akin to a drunken rock-star, having grown duplicitous due to his seclusion with his only company being a Chinese maid who doesn’t speak a word of English, though both can impressively dance to “Get Down Saturday Night” by Oliver Cheatham at a moment’s notice. The term God-Complex does a disservice to Nathan, played confidently well by Oscar Issac. Both simultaneously an intellectually smug superior, but also the picture of health displaying his muscles and curing his hangovers with weight-lifting sessions and boxing. Issac is walking a tight-rope with his performance by portraying someone with continually shifting motivations and he’s a great watch.
Equally compelling is Domhnall Gleeson, initially Nathan’s polar-opposite but he proves himself to be a very capable intellectual foe. Gleeson is a rising star (he’ll be staring in the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ which also stars Oscar Issac) and ‘Ex Machina‘ is another great showcase of his talent showing that he’s not just capable of playing a one-note, naive underdog, but a character who has been hardened by trauma and has a dark-edge capable of being drawn out with the right motivation.
And that motivation comes in the form of Ava and while Issac and Gleeson are terrific, it’s Alicia Vikander who snatches the movie right from under their noses. Vikander provides a pitch-perfect portrayal of a youthful A.I. with a wide-eyed curiosity, but also a formidable, pre-programmed intelligence. With curious head-tilts as well as the way Vikander almost sets her eyes to default, looking straight ahead when asked a question that she needs to process the answer to, it’s hard to take your eyes off her with her deliberate, delicate movements executed with pinpoint-focused precision. Her angelic, almost ballerina-like movements make her one of the most compelling visual portrayals of artificial intelligence seen in recent memory, although a lot of that has to go to the stellar work from Double Negative (a London-based VFX company whose filmography includes many Christopher Nolan movies and the last 5 Harry Potter films) who added the transparency effects onto Ava’s neck, arms, legs and stomach, allowing the audience to see right through her metaphorical artifice.
With her internal mechanisms, including her heart on full display to Caleb during their elaborate Turing test, you’d think that she’d be an easy machine to read. But Garland’s cogent and mercurial screenplay makes ‘Ex Machina‘ an unpredictable sci-fi gem. Just when you think you’ve got the movie’s twists and turns figured out, it quickly announces “Nope. That’s not it. Guess again”. The script is a three-way of deceit and while this makes for compelling viewing, it does lack one key component in the equation and that’s the relationship between Nathan and Ava.
The two barely interact with each other in the movie leaving almost all of the dialogue to be spoken between Caleb & Nathan and Calab & Ava. If Nathan and Ava were given a scene or two to establish their unconventional father-daughter relationship, it could have given the audience more to chew on, as well as help give them an understanding of Ava’s motivations later on in the movie. While the movie does already feel slightly long at 108 minutes, with some judicious editing of the frequent conversation sequences and some of the slower, more methodical sequences, the movie could have found room for this promising relationship to unfold.
With an admirable budget of $20 million, ‘Ex Machina‘ is definitely a looker by utilising a secluded location and a minimalist aesthetic with Nathan’s research facility looking not unlike an Apple shop that you can live in. Handle-less doors, lots of right angles and a white colour pallet with wooden furniture gives Nathan’s home a surreal quality, coupled with terrific lighting, particularly the red “lockdown” mood lighting that comes on when there’s a power failure coming across as very psychedelic. Particularly when mixed with Ava’s light-up, internal mechanisms on display contrasting with the lights creating an affecting visual metaphor as Ava cannot be observed on the cameras during the lockdown, meaning she can be her true self. The music by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow feels like a slightly more subdued version to Daft Punk’s score for ‘Tron: Legacy‘ which, while not a bad thing, does feel slightly rote for this type of movie. It’s a standard synth track with high-pitched bleeps and bloops interspersed throughout. Nothing bad, but exactly what you’d expect.
‘Ex Machina‘ is a confident, slick and even slightly sexy directorial debut for Alex Garland. It touches on well-established material in a new way with confidence and a great trio of actors at the top of their game with compelling characters, with Alicia Vikander being a stand out as a character who will hopefully be a pop culture icon for years to come. I for one, can’t wait to see what all involved do next.
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Posted: 26th Jan 15