In light of the recent PGA: Producer’s Guild Awards nomination for Best Picture that voted Ex Machina, a film severely under-hyped for some reason, I’ve decided to re-write a review I did a while back. Watching it for the second time today, it gave me new insights that I want to express in this review. If only one thing can be said of the film, it is that it stirs your senses senseless. I can’t give enough praise to Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. All of them had something uniquely theirs which gave their characters that little something extra. Coupled with an unsettling vibe and unexpected twists at every turn, Ex Machina destroys the stereotype that AI movies are action-driven, formulaic and expended.
In Ex Machina, there exists images that are joltingly vivid as well as subtle dialogue that keeps you on edge. Alex Garland film bottles up that sense of anticipation right through to it’s explosive and reflective conclusion. The idea behind the movie is simple. It’s effects however are complex and spiral out of the realm of even Nathan’s own controlled experiment.
Ex Machina begins with the premise that genius billionaire scientist Nathan has created an artificial intelligence that might have it’s own consciousness. Nathan then selects programmer Caleb through a ‘competition’ to have the privilege of testing Ava’s abilities. Caleb then designs a series of ‘Turing tests’ to test Ava’s linguistic and semantic abilities and to deepen their understanding of consciousness and personality. Alicia Vikander gives her most affecting display as Ava. Wonderfully realized and complex, Vikander brings a calm and yet assertive touch to her cyborg frame. I don’t know how to put this well, she has this sort of adorable curiosity in her, which she puts to great use in breathing life into her character. She’s impressively entrancing but also a cerebral mystery, a lifeform that is malleable, liquid, adaptable. In the calm facade of the thickening drama bubbling in Nathan’s Darwinian subterrea, we’re introduced to one of the most complicated characters in all of cinema.
Segmented into parts, Ex Machina isn’t afraid to take things at its own pace. It wants to draw us deliberately into a fascinating scene of man and machine, and the back and forth dialogue of their interaction. Alicia Vikander’s sense of wonder and mystery is more to do with her superb acting, encapsulating the pensive, playful and provocative nature of Ava. Among the first conversations between them sees Ava mirroring Caleb’s speech ‘You decide…I’m interested to see what you’ll choose’ as a retort. Like two people jostling for conversational control, the pair’s first encounters feel awkward and uncomfortable. But the beauty in Ex Machina, is slowly making their interaction more natural, in turn, making us desensitized and even connected to their growing relationship.
With every obssessive and affectionate gaze that Caleb looks from the camera in his room, to every profound philosophical justification that Nathan gives for his work, to every premonition that Ava reveals in secrecy, Ex Machina is made of many subtle reveals which mean many different things. This sense of ambiguity is nowhere more obvious than in the ocular nature of the film; The things that are so explicitly seen and the things that hide beneath. Whereas dialogue is compelling and edifying, the visual craft is unashamedly naked. It is utterly shocking. And the best part? Even after exposing in the most striking ways, the nature of it remains an open sandbox. With the endless amount of questions the film has asked of its viewers, some might be put off by it’s confused nature. For me, one thing is certain. It’s an inquest into the very dysfunction of experience. What is felt and known can be so different, so powerful, so intense – so crucial in re-shaping the moral structure of the film. I tell you, you won’t find someone with that same interpretation. And therein lie the film’s brilliance
Ex Machina may well be one of the most intriguing films of our time. Is Nathan a one-off warped genius that transcends current thinking, or does he represent our base desire for creation and knowledge. Is Caleb a victim of his own naivete, or a victim of human emotion. Whatever the film has to offer, it does so with a brave intention of exposing what could potentially haunt us. All our endeavours may not birth what we can even contain, or as Nathan puts it quite succintly, ‘One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.’ With its final scenes, Ex Machina leaves it’s most nuanced character with the biggest questions. Deus ex machina? God from the machine? There is definitely much to think about.
“What will happen to me if I fail your test? Will it be bad? Do you think I might be switched off because I don’t function as I’m supposed to?” – Ava
“I don’t know, it’s not up to me” – Caleb
“Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people to test you and might switch you off? – Ava
“No” – Caleb
“Then why do I?” – Ava
Rating: 10/10 An absolute must-watch.
Images courtesy of DNA Films, Film4, Scott Rudin Productions and Universal Studios
Cover art by one mightily talented Alex Seder.