Writer & Director: Alex Garland
Cinematographer: Rob Hardy
Composers: Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac.
I was a little apprehensive about watching this film as I am not a very big science fiction fan and tend to dislike movies with too many special effects. More time than not films rely too much on CGI and forget to include a satisfying storyline with compelling characters and some artistic ingenuity. The end result of movies of the genre usually expects viewers to be distracted by images and explosions and a tired story with barely drawn or defined characters. Unfortunately audiences as a whole are satisfied and in droves pay good money to see thinly veiled commercials and poorly crafted garbage (i.e. Transformers). Especially the action, fantasy, and science fiction genres are responsible for this trend, but all movies seem to be at risk nowadays, which makes finding quality cinema much harder, but not impossible. Documentary film is, in my opinion, showcasing an all time high production of fantastic films with deeply affecting stories. And, though more rare nowadays, there are still a good number of inventive, creative, and well executed films – but they need to be discovered and found, through blogs, reviews, and some personal research as well. I’d like to think that this blog also serves that purpose, so that other like-minded film fans (and tv and book fans as well) may discover content they otherwise would never have heard of.
In spite of my fears I gave Ex Machina a shot, and am so glad I did, because it was such a satisfying film that provoked emotion, strong reactions, and deep insightful thought in me, unexpectedly as well. This film, written and directed by Alex Garland, was everything I wanted from a science fiction, but wasn’t sure I would ever get: it was compelling, interesting, captivating, visually mesmerizing, perfectly acted, paced excellently, and overall beautiful and fantastic. Even more impressive is that Garland is a first time director – he’d worked as a screenwriter (collaborating often with Danny Boyle) but scored a slum dunk on his first outing behind the camera.
Let’s start with the story. Caleb Smith gets picked from a company wide lottery to go to the private home of Nathan Bateman, the founder and CEO of the software company Blue Book, in the American northwest. The secluded and beautiful location finds Bateman’s home nestled in the woods, between beautiful rock formations, the greenest flora found in nature, and the most peaceful waters and streams. Starkly contrasting the nature that encapsulates the CEO’s home, the construction is a formidable showcasing of modernity’s progress and ingenuity. A key card lets Caleb know which rooms he can and cannot enter (hello there Bluebeard and biblical allusions). After signing a nondisclosure agreement, Caleb finds out that his job is to assess an android named Ava (the name evoking the biblical Eve) and determine is she passes the Turing test: if the machine can convincingly persuade a human that it is human too. The rest of the film is a gentle and well choreographed dance between these three characters, each disclosing and concealing secrets at well timed intervals. Dread and fear creep in and out, unease settles into complacency until an electric current reignites fear and unease into the characters and viewers alike.
The shots and perspectives in the film are just simply breathtaking and brilliant. For example, during the interviews that take place between Caleb and Ava, the android is free to roam and move, while Caleb is trapped in a tiny glass box and sitting in a chair, and yet Ava is the one who feels trapped, as she paces around like a caged tiger. Even the use of lighting is mesmerizing. Anytime the compound experiences an energy loss, the safety measures cause all lighting to turn red, reminding the viewer of a submarine in distress – anytime this occurred I found myself feeling claustrophobic, almost as if the air was immediately sucked out, heat and breathlessness creeping in, distress slowly taking over. So effective! And the special effects, of which there are actually many, are not at all intrusive. A great movie doesn’t draw attention to its effects, and this shows just how seamless the film is, every effect and image is so grounded and necessary to the story that even when an android is literally peeling the skin off its face, I didn’t bat an eyelid. Bravo!
The film really only features three cast members in Caleb, Ava, and Nathan. With a cast this small, the burden each actor carried must have been tremendous and any flaw in the performances would have been glaring and distracting. Luckily, they are all three amazing actors and their performances excellently executed. Domnhall Gleeson seems to have appeared out of nowhere, popping up in 2015 alone in, aside from this film, Brooklyn, The Revenant, and the most recent Star Wars film. His Caleb is filled with awe, excitement, and his character’s journey is immediately felt through his body language and his extremely expressive eyes. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davies) relishes in his role of the genius and innovative CEO with a drinking problem. So often actors tend to play drunks as belligerent and over the top, scenery chewing left and right, but not Issac – his drunk is realistic, somewhat lucid, just unstable enough that you believe him capable of turning at the drop of a hat. The most difficult role, though, is clearly Ava the android, performed by the recent Oscar winning actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl). Having now seen this film, I do believe the right actress won the Oscar, just for the wrong film: it should have been for Ex Machina. Ava is at the same time so human and robotic, she is inquisitive and we forget that she is a machine even when staring directly at the chords and wires that make up her abdomen. Vikander’s performance is one of those roles that establishes an actor as a household name overnight.
I cannot speak highly enough about the film, whose themes also touch upon our collective fears concerning the future of technology, violence against women, and the impossibility to arrest or even discourage progress, regardless of its implications of dangers. Alex Garland has made a masterpiece that, had I watched it sooner, would have easily found a place in my year end’s top 10 list (an addendum was just added). I encourage anyone to watch this film, it is a masterpiece and cannot wait to see what everyone involved has in store next, because I am suddenly a fan of everyone who had a hand in crafting this great gem of a film.