Movie Review: “Ex Machina” – Deus is Dead

Written by Andrew Dodd May 27, 2015

Caleb, Ava, Nathan, Ex Machina

“What happens to me if I fail your test?”

Writer/Director Alex Garland’s atmospheric sci-fi thriller Ex Machina presents a tense and ominous look at the darker side of human desires, behaviours, and relationships, even in characters that aren’t strictly human. The film succeeds at being an edgy, stylistic, and often surreal exploration of humanity although it seemingly lacks a sharply focused theme with which to hook its premise on. While its ending may leave some viewers scratching their heads about what to think (or feel) about its characters, Ex Machina will undoubtedly provide audiences with what so many other summer films don’t: something to talk about.

In Ex Machina, a young computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest wherein he gets to spend a week at the home/research facility of eccentric and reclusive computer programming prodigy, Caleb (Oscar Isaac). There, Caleb reveals that he has created artificial intelligence in the form of a young android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb studies Ava using a test designed to explore her humanity, he can’t help but develop a romantic attraction toward her and soon begins to question the nature of her existence in Nathan’s laboratory prison. He quickly comes to learn that there is something more sinister behind both Ava’s creation and her creator than he was initially lead to believe.

“This building isn’t a house, it’s a research facility.”

Making his directorial debut, Garland shows right off the bat that he’s a capable director, creating a sense of tension and suspense that hangs over the entire film. This is in no small part attributed to properly utilized art-direction, which effectively creates an eerie environment in which Garland can play with his characters. The atmosphere borrows as much from mythology as it does from science fiction and, in good sci-fi fashion, harmoniously achieves a blending of the two; Nathan’s mansion/research facility is a modern-day villainous castle, complete with dark, winding hallways and forbidden secret rooms which can only be accessed by a magic computerized key card. The cold, clean and dark set-design of Nathan’s laboratory inspires feelings of stark sterility in an environment that’s designed to create life. The enclosed claustrophobic and often labyrinthian space is akin to what was created in Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining and the similarity is compounded, as is the tension, as we realize that our protagonist is locked in this dungeon with an untrustworthy and emotionally unstable antagonist.

Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina”

Speaking of which, if Domhnall Gleeson is Ex Machina’s modern knight in shining armour coming to rescue Princess Ava from her castle prison, then Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is indeed the story’s dragon. It’s easy to understand why Isaac is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most coveted fresh faces; his technique and mannerisms are something of a bizarre cross between Al Pacino and Jake Johnson, able to achieve both the intense and often frightening nature of the former with the natural and very contemporary comedic style of the latter, making him a versatile acting commodity.

“Does Ava actually like you or is she just pretending to like you?”

Alicia Vikander is endearing enough as the film’s most iconic character, Ava. While she often plays the character with the same sort of innocent naiveté as so many others before her have when playing androids, she is able to portray a nuanced and remarkably appealing character; one that you can’t blame Caleb for falling for. It’s fascinating to ponder just how little screen time Vikander needs before a single, awkward, twenty-something year old computer programmer becomes infatuated with her: she just needs to appear young, virginal, impressionable, and utterly interested in him.

Alicia Vikander is Ava in Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander is “Ava”

Considering so many works of science-fiction and fantasy have already pillaged the deep thematic and philosophic depths of androids, artificial intelligence, and the blurred line that defines humanity, it would be easy for Garland to simply retread those territories. While it’s nice to see that Ex Machina attempts to cover new ground, it ultimately can’t avoid concepts that have been done too often elsewhere. Luckily, most of the story hinges on the human desire for possession and control within romantic/sexual relationships and the role life-like artificial intelligence can play in that regard. It’s an interesting premise, but one that gets buried under the weight of all the other political, social, and moral commentary that Garland was obviously excited about enough to jam into his story. Sometimes Ex Machina seems like it wants to be about the dangers of privacy invasion by search engine data collectors. Sometimes it wants to tackle those big philosophical questions regarding the difference between organic and artificial life and whether one should one have dominion over the other. Sometimes it wants to be a character study of what happens when someone’s individual freedoms are taken away from them. Sometimes it takes a leering look at human sexuality and just how far it extends beyond humanity. And sometimes it just wants to be a cautionary story about the dangers of playing God. In the end it becomes all of the above; a psychosexual science-fiction thriller from a writer/director who liked enough about Star Trek, Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I, Robot, Frankenstein, Short Circuit, and even Basic Instinct to take the best of those stories and weave them into a well-crafted though sometimes unfocused piece of art that aptly explores the dangers of trying to have too much control. If “Deus Ex Machina” translates literally to “God from the Machine,” then Ex Machina is indeed a story of a machine that is missing it’s God.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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