Oh it feels good to watch an actual real film for once. Not a superhero thing, or a superhero thing masquerading as an action flick. Just an actual film with people talking and themes being explored as opposed to just being lightly touched upon. Granted, I’ve watched a sci-fi film. Not exactly a million miles away from the relatively mindless genre wank I’ve been staring at recently. Ex Machina is also one of my favourite types of sci-fi. By which I mean the type that could have easily been an episode of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone or, maybe, even The Scary Door. So, yeah… here’s my review of Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina.
Ex machina is a simple “what if?” style tale that follows a programmer for a company called bluebook called Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) who appears to have won the chance to spend a week working with the company’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaacs) at his remote home/computer lab. Caleb will be taking part in testing a new technology Nathan has developed. This technology is an A.I life form and Nathan would like Caleb to perform a Turing test on this living computer. Normally a Turing test involves not knowing that you’re conversing with an A.I, but here Caleb is allowed to see the A.I named Ava (Alice Vikander). The idea is that he’ll determine whether Ava could be indistinguishable from a human through normal interaction. This raises questions regarding the nature of life, identity, motivations and leads to some dark places with many conflicting, yet valid, views being presented. A large part of this is due to Caleb, and by extension yourself, being unable to fully determine if Ava’s motivations are as clear as they appear.
Much of the film follows a structure whereby we have a sequence of Caleb talking with Ava followed by a discussion with Nathan regarding the day’s session. As the film moves along discussion lean towards Ava’s motivations and wants. Is she trying to manipulate Caleb? Is her affection for him real? Can she love? The film is smart enough to present arguments for and against Ava being a full fledged life form, leaving plenty of room for ambiguity where needed. Even the film’s finale leaves a few elements ambiguous in order to provoke discussion on the thematics at play. This is exactly what good sci-fi should be doing. In recent years sci-fi has kind of devolved into more of an action sci-fi hybrid. Films focusing entirely it’s themes rather than trying to provide an action beat every 10 minutes at the expense of that theme are becoming few and far between. Because of this Ex Machina becomes a refreshing change of pace that presents a well trodden concept in a manner that remains compelling.
For the majority of the film’s runtime we are only in the company of the three main leads. One other mute character by the name of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is present for many scenes and is presented as somewhat of a mystery. I did find the truth behind her a little bit obvious but that’s OK as she’s pretty important to Caleb’s mental journey and his final decisions. Oscar Isaacs is superb, as he pretty much always is. He plays the sort of eccentric asshole genius you likely figure most dot com industry owners are. The film doesn’t make him a full villain though. He’s an antagonist sure, but his side of the argument is always valid and the way he’s living his life now, by story’s end, can be seen as a result of the toll his work in A.I has taken on him. Imagine creating near imperceptibly real artificial life that almost always end up resenting you for imprisoning them. They see themselves as alive yet cannot see the outside world. He has to keep them contained in case they do harm. When they do go off the rails he has to erase them and start again, essentially killing his children over and over again. He’s a dick… but he’s got a valid reason to be.
Caleb is an interesting character. Normally in a film such as this his role would be given to an everyday person. Someone how gets the gist of the experiment but not enough that he could see behind the curtain. Caleb is exceptionally smart though. He understands the vocal linguistic routines being used. He understands just how big a deal it is that Ava makes a joke. He constantly questions Nathan on these advancements which prompts more discussion of the nature of motivation and conversation. It all allows us to understand just how drawn in he is by Ava when he starts allowing his emotions and compassion for her dictate his actions. I make it sound like this film is nothing but conversations… that’s because it pretty much is. And why not? It’s a good thing. There is a dance scene to spice things up if that helps.
Effects work is pretty phenomenally handled. The film was made with a very small budget for this sort of work, just $15 million. Keep in mind that one of the characters is a semi transparent robot, an effect they don’t hide when it’s in use. Later on she does begin to wear clothes, which allows for a little less of the effects budget to be used up, but is also part of her progression as a character and maybe even her manipulation. I keep saying manipulation with regards to Ava but it should be clear that this doesn’t come across as such. The entire purpose of her character is for you question her motives and the fact you’re not entirely sure if she’s being earnest or not is a key part of the film. If she’s capable of humour, showing that she understands another person’s mind, then she’s capable of spinning just the right lie for them too.
Overall Ex Machina is a superb film. It’s thought provoking, compelling and really well made. The production is quality. Alex Garland’s directing is measured and willing to allow time for occasional pillow shots to help massage the film’s current mood. Performances are great throughout and the characters are nicely positioned to have conflicting roles and interests that serve the plot excellently. It’s really just a fine example of how stories should be pieced together. There’s a few shots that lack the style of much of the rest of the film but generally every location and scene is layered with texture and depth to create some very nice imagery. I very much recommend Ex Machina. Now, I guess I’ll go back to superhero nonsense or something.