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Review: Ex Machina

Michael C.   returning for review duties. 

Science fiction stories have wondered for ages if people will accept technology that simulates human behavior, but honestly, it probably won’t be much of a struggle. The robots will win in a walk. The urge to empathize is hard wired into the human psyche. I can remember when I was young, watching other kids develop deep emotional bonds to plastic eggs with crude blinking pixel displays just because they were called digital pets. What chance does the species have when a robot arrives with supermodel looks and a subtle range of emotion, one that can take you by the hand, gaze deeply into your eyes and say, “I love you” like it means it? Game over, man...

Nathan, the mysterious tech mogul at the center of Alex Garland’s engrossing Ex Machina, is certainly confident that Ava, his latest AI creation, will be tough for people to resist, particularly straight men. The famous Turing Test involves a machine that is indistinguishable from a human, but Nathan doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that Ava is an artificial person. “She” has the near-perfect face of actress Alicia Vikander but also has a skull of gleaming exposed silver and a see through torso that reveals coils of wires and glowing electronics. When Nathan brings in Caleb, a gifted coder who works for his company, as a test subject the idea isn’t to trick him into loving a machine, but to show him her reality upfront to see if the two of them will form a connection anyway. Judging by Caleb’s reaction to Ava with her features that look like they have been designed by an algorithm to be as appealing as possible, it looks like it will be an easy win, although we quickly surmise that there is much more to this experiment than Nathan is letting on. 

Set in a vague, not-too-distant future, Ex Machina is structured around an escalating series of encounters between Caleb and Ava orchestrated by Nathan at his expansive private estate. The tension is elevated by the fact that 99% of the film takes place at the single location with only these three characters (plus Nathan’s obedient maid floating around the periphery). Ex Machina aspires to the realm of compressed battle-of-wits dramas like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, where the plot relies on peeling back the secret motivations of the players in this three-way chess match. Eventually the twists start arriving, many we suspect, some we may not, but unlike lesser thrillers where it feels as if the writer started with the big twist and worked backwards, Ex Machina plays as if Garland began with his ideas first. The result is some top-notch sci-fi with big ideas nestled in a polished, Kubrick-y production design, all low-level lighting and unsettlingly clean surfaces. When the plot is unwound and all the cards have been turned over it holds together. Garland thought it through and the characters were worth the patience and attention the film asked of us. 

Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are marvelous as Caleb and Ava. Him, naive but also clever and resourceful, her, balanced precariously in the grey zone between simulated humanity and very real consciousness. That praise having been said, the movie belongs to Oscar Isaac’s Nathan from the first time we see him with his shaved head and bushy madman beard. We immediately peg him as a crackpot, because of the slightly unhinged aura he gives off and because movies have trained us to be wary of the scientist who flees to his secluded lair to play god. Isaac runs in the opposite direction, playing up the character's sanity. His Nathan is a casual megalomaniac, kooky around the edges but lucid when explaining himself and sharp at reading those around him. It makes us second-guess our initial assumption and we lean in to try to suss out if this guy is for real.

If Ex Machina lands a few steps shy of new classic status it's because while it is unfailingly absorbing it never crashes through to riveting or shattering. The exchanges between Caleb and Ava can be subtle to a fault and their dialogue could have used sharpening to achieve the spellbinding effect for which they are aiming. Many of Ex Machina’s best moments play like eccentric doodles around the edges of Garland's ultra-precise directorial vision, like when Isaac busts out a bonkers synchronized dance with his maid out of nowhere. More such beats would’ve been welcome.

Artificial intelligence can serve as a handy metaphor for any theme a writer wishes to explore, be it as a stand in for oppressed minorities or as a distorted reflection of our own humanity. Garland looks at Ava and marvels at the way the human race is sprinting towards its own obsolescence. Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" to Nathan who is blasé about his role in hastening the irrelevance of his species, as if anyone capable of doing so has no choice but to proceed, consequences be damned.

More interesting still, is the film’s sly gender commentary, which isn’t limited to the obvious symbolic value of a Dr. Frankenstein who creates a woman to be his personal property. Ex Machina is equally damning in its portrayal of Caleb, the ostensible “nice guy” who cares for this simulated woman to the point of falling in love with her without it ever occurring to him that she might be a creature with thoughts and agency that exists outside out his conception of her as a prize to be won.

I could go on, but this already goes to show that Ex Machina does what good sci-fi should do, which is to reverberate in the imagination with different readings long after the movie is over. It is all too rare a specimen to find occupying multiplex screens these days.

Grade: B+

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Reader Comments (11)

Interesting to read your take. Like you I was impressed by the technical side-- the production design and special effects were breathtaking. I did leave with a completely tell different read on the "sly gender commentary" than you did. I saw it more as an overt attempt to say something bold about gender that slid into a rather alarming casual misogyny. [SPOILER:]. While I valued the idea that seduction and empathy are valid survival strategies hard-wired into people, it seemed downright misguided to have a world so divided by gender: it was created by obsessive, brilliant, lonely men, and women are just their creations: initially just sex dolls, until they decide to own their sexuality and ruthlessly murder/abandon the silly boys who love them. Talk about hostile nerd-boy perspective brought to life....

April 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

I, too, liked the film very much. Unfortunately, the last 1/3 does devolve into a petty game of SLEUTH as you write. Wish more would have been focused on the science rather than the gamesmanship.
And, Isaac is both terrific...and, a hindrance. His performace is technically perfect. Unfortunately, his appearance - wardrobe, hair, beard etc. - and demeanor tell you right away that he's not trustworthy. I'm sure that is how Director Garland asked him to play the part and he does it exceptionally well. But, it actually harms the movie in the end.

Still, very good. Just not as great as the promise of the first 2/3.

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoeS

That opening paragraph just can't be beat. well done.

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's my favorite movie this year so far and will probably remain in my top ten of the year later on

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Still not open where I live, but I can hardly wait to see this. I love films that are both good looking and thoughtful.

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I saw this last night and enjoyed it, although ***SPOILER*** I did feel bad for Caleb at the end. Yes, he was complicit, and both blinded and driven to help Ava by his infatuation with her, but it was clear she was also manipulating his fundamental decency as a human being and could tell he was different from Nathan. Once she got what she wanted (freedom, and revenge on Nathaniel), locking in Caleb seemed unnecessarily cruel; wouldn't it have been enough just to leave him behind? Why did her revenge have to include him, too?

Anyway, apart from that, it was an effective exploration of classic sci-fi and AI themes, and the acting was strong across the board, though the real revelation for me was Vikander. I'd seen and liked her in A ROYAL AFFAIR and ANNA KARENINA, but this performance was impressive at a whole other level. Side note: it's funny to think that she and Domhnall Gleason played husband and wife in ANNA KARENINA; in a weird way, it's like their characters' souls in that movie got reincarnated in this one.

April 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I left the movie thinking this was a film that inadvertently revealed a deep seated anxiety about female power, but the more I consider how smart and well put together and controlled every bit of it was, I can't help but think Alex Garland wanted this to be a commentary upon that male-anxiety. While the men are playing God and savior, the enslaved women are carefully planning their revolt.

For that conversation alone, Ex Machina feels like the first must-see film of 2015.

April 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I liked the progression of the theme of God creates man, man kills God- man creates AI, AI kills man idea. I found it equally intriguing that in the created AI, Ava exhibits the same inherent faults of man/woman, lying, manipulation, deceit, greed and so on. The underlying fear that AI will become our nemesis at some point in the future is a nice touch. There were peripheral thoughts of the movie Blade Runner that subtly surfaced from time to time. All in all a very well made, artistically filmed and thought out movie. Also it was nice to see a film where sound and violence typical of todays movies didn't overwhelm the senses. I liked it a lot and was still thinking of the story line afterwards. Definitely worth seeing again. Bravo

May 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChas Sheld

I finally saw the film last night and we graded it the same way. It was very close to the A- range but it does sputter a bit in the final third like another commenter said.

*SPOILERS* Seeing knives enter and exit a character's body was a bit much. The cutting of the wrist scene may have been a bit over the top too. And I don't buy that Ava wouldn't be discovered for what she is almost immediately upon entering the outside world. Her inner mechanical workings were constantly making noise when she moved, so even a casual passerby is going to noticed there's something odd about her.

I did really enjoy the scene where she puts herself together at the very end. The way Vikander looks at herself in the mirror after she sees herself was pretty astonishing for me. I love when filmmakers decide to let the actors' micro-expressions (to borrow a phrase from the film) speak for themselves.

Overall, it was definitely a must-see and the production design and visual effects are top notch. Really it's worth it just to watch Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac do their dance.

May 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSean T.

I agree with most of the above- but I did not like the last act- not because I was hoping for a happy ending- the Frankenstein story never ends well- perhaps I was expecting more than Revenge of the Fem Bots.

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

The end revealed a flaw in the plot. Caleb explains to Ava that both of his parents died in a car accident. This is supposed to explain why Caleb would, sealed in his room, starve to death. No one would wonder why he had not returned from his stay with Nathan. Did Caleb have friends? Did he have close relatives--aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who would have communicated with him on a frequent basis? What about his coworkers and immediate supervisors? Did Nathan not have any communication whatsoever with the outside world via telephone or email? How long would an absence of communication between Nathan and Bluebook have gone unnoticed by corporate officers including executive assistants? If the helicopter crew expected to transport Caleb but instead a young lady met the crew, wouldn't the crew have sensed something was wrong and reported the incident to corporate headquarters?

Moreover, I do not believe that Nathan would have confined Ava indefinitely but would have patented her, would have showcased her, would have created a position for her within his corporation, and would have produced many more of robots like her for the highest bidders. After he patented her and started selling robots like her would be when he would sell upgrades. He would have been too eager to be recognized for his achievements and to share his invention with the world--that's how most scientists historically have been.

I really do not know how he could manufacture Ava's brain and the components of her body within his bunker. Manufacturing the components for her brain and body would require a much larger facility. Ava probably needed some way to recharge. So I do not think she would have been able to leave just wearing a dress. How would she enter human society without an ability to recharge herself? Would her skin have become stained and torn walking barefoot to the helicopter? AI to enter human society would need to be recognized as AI. That's the only way it would be accepted initially.

To be an AI human is to be a different kind of human than a homo sapien. A homo sapien is a human being whose entire daily schedule revolves around a biological schedule of eating, practicing hygiene, working, sleeping, having sex, reproducing, and building families. Having a different schedule, one that is a nonbiological schedule, would exclude her from human society automatically unless human society recognized her as AI to allow for her differences. So if she were an intelligent AI as depicted in the movie, I do not imagine her murdering her creator Nathan. She would have depended upon him, however intelligent she was, for her survival. After all, who would replaced her components once they broke or wore out? Who would recharge her? Thus, while Ex Machina was very enjoyable to watch the ending was hastily contrived. It was just an ending that served as a quick movie ending.

November 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Franckowiak

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