If you can’t tell it’s a machine, is it not a machine? Does that make it a human, then? Or something somehow of a lesser order like an animal? Hundreds, nay, thousands of films across the world’s cinematic history have tackled such questions from the silent Era’s Metropolis to the most notable, in this respect, Blade Runner. Ex Machina only deliberates the first of these questions; here we watch as Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) applies his best Turing test to the sexiest HAL 2000 I’ve ever seen.
Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the creator of Bluebook, which in the film’s universe seemingly represents an amalgamation of Google and like… all the social networks. It rules the internet. Henceforth, Nathan rules an endless expanse of exotic rainforest that looks torn right out of Jurassic World; wet, humid and most importantly overgrown enough to hide his own personal residence and research centre that could make Tony Stark jealous. Bluebook employee and master programmer, Caleb, wins a competition and soon finds himself face to face with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s AI, within the confines of this claustrophobic, windowless but overtly modern and naturalistic RnD condominium. Under CCTV watch by Nathan (the only points where Nathan isn’t drunk or exercising), Caleb (in his fair-to-middling American accent) and Ava interact and consequently unearth a side of Ava’s consciousness (or lack thereof) that Caleb just isn’t prepared for.
Vikander steals every scene she’s in and carries a nicely written film. Some simple green screen effects, I suspect, similar to those removing Marion Cottilard’s legs in Rust and Bone, make Ava look like a hypermodern Grandfather clock lady. Coupled with just the tiniest amount of twitch and robotic, mechanical movement (so, so similar to Sean Young in Blade Runner) and a gentle, emotionless voice, Ava embodies the classic AI filmgoers have come to know and love.
The small cast cements the fact that this film is about characters and their development; there is going to be dialogue and you’re going to have to like it and fortunately it’s good here. Look at the love Locke received, one face and a handful of voices to constitute an entire film and it works magnificently. Ensemble casts can work, again, with great writing. The last film I saw before this was Jurassic World: with its clusterfuck of high-profile stars from international markets performing insignificant roles; unknown actors spouting gobbledygook, watching Ex Machina felt like a straight scotch and JW a shot in a bucket cocktail of chaser and wasted potential.
Alex Garland does a great job with his first plunge into the pool of directing because he produces something unique and interesting, I’m sincerely hoping (despite already being clearly established as a writer) this won’t be another case of the Trevorrow’s or Gareth Edwards’ where he’ll be picked up to backseat direct a big budget franchise film or the like. I can see it now, the Blade Runner remake… hold on.
Dear Alex Garland,
I know $$$ feels good in your pocket and I can’t blame you for taking the money if it were to be offered, but please, please, for the love of God, stick to your guns.
What you create is worth so much more to art and to culture than another shoddy reboot.
Look at Edgar Wright, look at him and what happened with his involvement in Ant-Man. He worked on that script for a decade and it was thrown out so the director of the 2006 classic The Break-Up could take the reins. I know I don’t have to explain to you why that’s wrong.
Anyway mate, have a good’un,
Now that’s over, back to direction. Garland and crew emphasise the feeling of being trapped by only using stark artificial light in Ava’s (apart from a “window” looking at a plant of some sort in a small enclosed courtyard, possibly used to evoke Ava’s longing for freedom) and Caleb’s rooms and deep red warning lights whenever certain power-cuts occur, a contrast to the sweeping wide shots of the area surrounding the home. Nudity is tasteful and has purpose in the film’s context, something that really irks me about Game of Thrones and no unnecessary story arks arise other than to raise suspicions of Caleb’s being human or not.
And I can’t finish without commending our two leading men either. At first, I thought Isaac’s character was underwritten but after reveals, upon reveals he clicked into place perfectly and you realise what a bloody great performance was actually put to screen by Isaac who’s continues proving himself as a top-tier actor year in year out. Gleeson we’ve always known will become a superstar like his father, but right now I can’t say I ever want his run in lower budget films to end; he was awesome in Frank.
Just watch this film, I left it too long because my in-artificial lack-of-intelligence didn’t have sufficient processing power to drag my body to the cinema during its short screening period. Enjoy.