Movie Review: Ex Machina.
Welcome to the future…the cerebral, macabre future! First time director Alex Garland (writer for the equally disquieting films 28 Days Later and Dredd) has cemented his place as one of the film industries most gifted futurists, creating engaging and visually striking films that attempt to peer behind the curtain of time and show us where our current trajectory as a society may lead us. Having tackled disease, drugs, and authoritarian rule, Garland now sets his sights on technology. Rich in staggering visuals, oppressive sounds, and fascinating characters, Ex Machina manages to be both terrific and terrifying.
Ex Machina (2015)
The film opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson,) an aspiring programmer, receiving notification that he’s won a lottery to spend a week at the secluded country home of genius tech mogul, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac.) Bateman created Bluebook, an analog to Google, which controls 90% of all search traffic. Once he arrives at Bateman’s eccentric glacier-ringed retreat, he finds that he is to take place in a seminal experiment: he will administer a Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander,) Bateman’s very own top-secret artificial intelligence, in order to discover if she will pass for human.
Shall We Play a Game?
Right away, we suspect that Caleb is playing a game way out of his league. Caleb is incredibly smart in his field, but Bateman is a deranged super-genius, and Ava is literally a learning machine with reams of facts and data at her fingertips. Oscar Isaac imbues Bateman with an unnerving sense of ability and entitlement. He twists Caleb’s dire philosophical musings into accolades to burnish once he has revealed to the world his ultimate creation. He is an apex predator, having conquered everything he has put his mind to. His ultimate goal may be a mind that could exceed his own. To this end, he keeps Caleb a virtual prisoner, all while creating a false dude-bro camaraderie.
As a counter point, Ava is mild and meek, seeking to offer companionship to Caleb. She is solicitous and earnest, but capable of subtle manipulation, and not afraid to display her clearly superior ability before shrinking behind her veil of kindness. Caleb ponders that discovering her true potential is like trying to beat a chess computer without playing chess. If so, Ava is like Deep Blue in Bobby Fischer’s body, while Caleb is the guy at the park who hustles new players out of a few dollars.
The House (of Horrors) of Tomorrow.
Ex Machina is a beautifully sculpted film. The cinematography is lush, with panoramic vistas butting up against claustrophobic interiors that seem inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The setting of Bateman’s fortress of solitude combines both of these aesthetics wonderfully, with sweeping exterior shots canvassing the upper levels Batman inhabits, while the lower levels that Caleb and Ava reside in feel tight, controlling, and antiseptic.
The sound work is emblematic of the “new” school of horror that seems to be cropping up around films such as Ex Machina and It Follows. It is harsh, electric, and nerve tingling, as if the score from Halloween were acid washed and run through an elevator Skrillex designed. At turns comfortingly bland and jarringly aggressive, it sets the mood, but perhaps overplays its hand at times.
The pacing may be a breaking point for many viewers. It is methodical, and may seem tedious for those who wish that the momentum would keep pushing relentlessly forward. At first, we are thrust into the film in a blur, whisked along by Bateman’s cult of personality, and deposited in strange country, where the film slows down to get the lay of the land. The layers of scientific jargon and philosophical maneuvering between the three leads may put off some, but since the film manages to remain largely “hard Sci-Fi” (read: realistic,) I was delighted by all of the scientific name dropping that informs the middle of the film. It’s a knife’s edge: people in the know will want more depth since the film shows that it did its homework topically, but people drawn in by the dramatic aspects will wish that the film hurried past all of the computer programming shibboleths. Both may be slightly disappointed.
What won’t leave you wanting is the performances. Isaac is a titan, easily inhabiting the role of the megalomaniac who can back up his bluster with talent. You will love to hate him. Gleeson manages to be vulnerable, durable, naive and calculating all at once, making for a wonderful protagonist. Vikander’s Ava is a thing of beauty, and not just because she is gorgeous. Ava is multifaceted and intricate, everything you would expect of the genius product of an insatiably cunning creator. She nails her performance. Hell, they all do.
Passing the Test.
Ex Machina is the perfect film…for some audiences. I loved it. It is visually engaging, texturally innovative, well performed and well directed. The topical treatment of bleeding-edge scientific speculation is exhilarating, if that is your cup of tea, and the psychological elements of horror are quite terrifying. While some viewers will find the material over complicated and the pacing to be hard to bear (even loving the film, I wished I could cut some of the middle to keep the plot as lean and taught as the beginning and end,) I would recommend it to all audiences, if only for the innovative visuals and terrific performances. Alex Garland has shown that he is a director to be reckoned with, and in Ex Machina, it is a dark reckoning indeed.