Ex Machina: Review

Leela: “She doesn’t really love you. She can’t. She’s just a machine that—”

Bender: [Shaking his fist] “Stay away from our women! You got metal fever boy! Metal fever!”

Just so y’all know, I’m probably going to make a shit-ton of Futurama references in this review. Specifically from the third season episode called “I Dated a Robot” in which Fry downloads the personality/image of Lucy Liu into a blank robot and proceeds to date her. You’ve been warned meat-bags.

If Ex Machina teaches us anything, it’s that Alex Garland’s future is a bright one and that most humans will be complacent so long as the A.I. takeover is at the hands of beautiful androids. You hear that? She likes me! Well, Duh! She’s programmed to like you.

In his directorial debut, Garland has moved beyond his tenure as simply a celebrated screenwriter to craft a superb psychological sci-fi thriller (try saying that five times fast). Garland, as you may remember, has penned two exceptional films in Sunshine and 28 Days Later—both of which are personal favorites—as well as the novel The Beach. It is overwhelmingly evident that his partnership with director Danny Boyle has afforded him the skill and vision that will no doubt complement his career as a director.

When Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb wins a company-wide lottery, he is whisked away to spend a week deep in the wilderness with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As part of Caleb’s prize, the young programmer must act as the human component in the Turing test for an android that Nathan has created out of bits of wire and a sex robot. Oh, dear, I should have shown him “Electrogonorrhea: the noisy killer” instead.  Ava as she is called—played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander—is as beautiful as she is beguiling, so naturally, Caleb will have his convictions and humanity put to the test.

If you’re expecting something akin to other android films like the Terminator franchise or Blade Runner, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ex Machina predominately is grounded in a series of philosophical discussions between the three main characters.  Since the Turing test is meant to determine whether or not a machine can exhibit intelligent behavior equal to or indistinguishable from that of a human, Caleb proceeds through a series of sessions with Ava to gauge her A.I. It’s scientific, it’s engaging, and it’s good ol’ fashioned sci-fi like Mom used to make. Like…Mom from Futurama. Get it? Because she was the friendly robot maker? Forget it.

“Now that’s a wave of destruction that’s easy on the eyes!”

These conversations are fantastic as they all start off rather innocently and quickly build into intense philosophical discussions. Sure you’ve seen these debates time and time again in science fiction, but there is something truly unsettling about Ava as she increasingly blurs the lines between man and machine.

Naturally, the audience, much like Caleb, becomes more and more sympathetic to Ava’s artificial personality, but this consideration is at the expense of questioning our humanity. As we are party to each subsequent session, there are fewer visual stimuli to remind us that she’s still actually a machine. Eventually, only the subtle sounds of her mechanisms tether us to the fact that underneath her prosthetics, she’s merely a collection of wires and synthetic materials—physically that is. Evil is inherent in the human mind. Whatever innocence may cloak it.

These sessions are crucial to the story as they challenge the audience to think for themselves and to identify each character’s true motivations. Does Ava actually like Caleb? Are her responses genuine or merely just a subroutine in her programming? Questions such as these are often deconstructed after each session in discussions between Caleb and Nathan. The mysterious employer attempts to rationalize Ava’s behavior, but this only serves to further the speculation as to the questionable motives of his character (as well as the motives of Ava).

Nathan starts off a recluse, yes, but quickly builds into a tyrannical and mercurial menace. There’s clearly a hidden agenda, but one that is in no hurry to unveil itself. Oscar Isaac crafts a truly sinister antagonist that embodies the hubris of being a billionaire genius as well as the sickly insanity begotten through his binge-drinking and isolation.  He is every bit of the classic mad scientist envisioned by Mary Shelley, only more reminiscent of someone like General Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game.

I found this to be an immensely pleasing movie mosaic, as there is clearly an element of cat and mouse between employer and employee. Much like The Most Dangerous Game, intentions are all hidden just below the surface, literally represented by Nathan’s subterranean research facility.  There’s even the parallel between General Zaroff’s deaf/mute servant Ivan and Nathan’s silent servant Kyoko played by Sonoya Mizuno (who supposedly only understands Japanese).

As I said, most of you are no stranger to these kinds of literary and cinematic conflicts, and Ex Machina does come across as a thematic melting pot more often than not in its 108-minute run-time. What does it mean to be human? What’s the morality of playing God? Does mankind have a place among intellectually superior machines? These are all things that we’ve been beaten over the head with time and time again, but the sad reality is they’ve never been more relevant. The Singularity IS near my dear Kurzweil, and I for one welcome our sexy robotic overlords. Now that’s a wave of destruction that’s easy on the eyes!

Alex Garland is clearly paying homage to a host of sci-fi classics like Weird Science, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, A.I.—you name it! Though I’d say Ex Machina separates from its peers by concerning itself more with the speculation of sci-fi rather than the thrill of combat between man and machine. Furthermore, I’d say it’s unfair to think of Garland as merely ‘borrowing’ from these other films as the man is no doubt a genius in his own right. It’s quite evident that he’s managed to maintain the sophistication of his writing previously seen in 28 Days Later and Sunshine. A.I. is just an incredibly saturated topic nowadays, and one that has been talked about since the advent of computers decades ago.

That being said, I would highlight one very evident reference Garland makes to the original Star Trek Episode of Requiem for Methuselah. To summarize: the Enterprise crew stumbles upon a seemingly immortal being named Flint and his beautiful and extremely intelligent muse named Rayna during a search for a rare medicinal ingredient. Long story short, Rayna is an android of Flint’s design who is meant to accompany him in his immortal loneliness. Kirk swoops in, charms the chassis off of her, and she subsequently ‘dies’ after achieving human enlightenment through her discovery of love as an emotion.

In Ex Machina, Nathan at one point makes direct reference to the timelessness of Star Trek and you better believe yours truly lit up like a fucking birthday cake. Just like Rayna in TOS, the audience can’t help but fall in love with Ava and her childlike innocence. She’s gorgeous, intellectually stimulating and if you’re into that sort of thing – a mastery of robotics. Alicia Vikander is absolutely divine and summarily steals the hearts and souls of the audience through her playfulness and vulnerability. Similarly to the development of Nathan and Caleb however, I’d advise you err on the side of caution as nothing in this film is merely black or white.

Much like in the previous review of Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River, I would emphasize the role of the director as being the master of all components of his or her film. There is more to a movie than simply making a composition of light and sound, and I firmly believe that Alex Garland understands the importance of story, characters, dialogue etc. as foundations for the technical aspects. It is evident by the well-structured narrative and that fact that every character has a certain familiarity in addition to their overwhelming air of mystery.

Overall Ex Machina has a very claustrophobic feel that is designed to heighten tension and highlight the sterility of the ultra-modern atmosphere of the sets. This allows us to focus in on the characters and combat the wordiness and philosophical denseness of the dialogue. The internal camerawork is all rather aesthetic with a minimalist focus, while the shots outside of the complex are meant to evoke feelings of isolation(in my opinion more so than the windowless interior) through their expansiveness.

If you’re looking for a film to bury itself deep in your subconscious and challenge the viewer’s philosophies, then look no further. Ex Machina is sure to make you question consciousness and the nature of man vs. machine vs. god. It’s a masterful psychological thriller that is as engaging as it is unnerving. Well done Alex Garland, this is a truly breathtaking film.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to come to grips with the possibility that I may in fact be a robot. Why else would human females refuse to date me?

*Beep*

The Bottom Line:

I really cannot recommend this movie enough. It’s smart, playfully humorous and slightly unsettling. With strong characters and engaging dialogue, Ex Machina delivers challenging philosophical discussions that will permeate the majority of conversations with your fellow bar patrons – oh wait that’s just going to happen with me. Join me at 400Rabbits bar and we’ll talk about robots! I’m that handsome scoundrel with the zeppelin parked out front. XOXO

In all honesty though, this is a film that will leave you want for naught. There are strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, but it is Alicia Vikander as Ava that easily steals the show. The only thing that might deter certain folks is the wordiness of dialogue and the occasion slow pace, but fans of other psychological thriller’s won’t even register the slightest hiccup.

This is definitely a film that needs to be watched multiple times in order to appreciate everything Garland has achieved in his directorial debut, and you can bet your servos and gears that yours truly is already working an additional viewing into his hectic cinephile calendar.