[Review] - Ex Machina

Courtesy of DNA Films
Robots, like zombies, have never been high up in my personal interests. The engineering is theoretically fascinating, and the philosophical implications of AI are of course exhilarating to debate and contemplate. But robots on film mostly tend to come in the "kill all humans" variety. There are exceptions, but filmmakers who dive into robots seem far more interested in seeing them lay waste to their makers - the child replacing the parent - than saying something substantial with them, and their nature.

In that respect, Ex Machina is a very conventional film. It deals heavily with the concept, a "Promethean" one as the film proclaims, of giving birth to the thing that will supplant us, and making certain that it is the best that it can be. However, in most every other respect, Ex Machina is unlike any other film out there. Writer and first time director Alex Garland continues the trend he began in 28 Days Later and Sunshine of taking a tired, weary sci-fi subgenre, and invigorating it with philosophy and making the personal effects feel more weighty than mass extinctions and CG explosions ever could.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are on brown rice and water from now on.

Everything about this movie is striking. It lingers with you, having dug into the skin and the brain. Afterwards, it stayed with me. Garland clearly has as precise and definitive a vision as a director as his words have long had as a writer. Every shot is so meticulous as to feel important, so sterile as to feel artificial, yet detailed and engaging as to feel personal. Garland has aesthetically managed to create the sensation of watching what his character is meant to be testing: is something that approximates reality so closely as to be indistinguishable from it real, or is it doomed to be eternally a forgery?

The film concerns a lowly drudge, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from a Google-esque company being summoned to the top secret remote Iceland home of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there, he discovers he has been chosen to conduct a Turning Test on an AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander). The structure of the film is the sessions that Caleb conducts with Ava, and the post-session discussions that Caleb and Nathan have concerning her nature. Using that basic framework, the film is able to dive into less the philosophy of self, and what constitutes awareness, but what awareness allows a consciousness to achieve. Less, "I think, therefore I am," and more "I think, therefore, I can..."

There is a slick fog of menace that permeates every pour of this film, which pushes it hard into thriller territory long before the very brisk introductions have been completed (this film wastes no time getting to business). The ambiance is part of it, the windowless, stark and unfettered designs of Nathan's home and work shop, making him seem like a less noble Professor X. The heavy lighting, switching between hard florescence and impermeable reds, adds weight to the visual. But it is Garland's steady camera, the passive way in which it just sets there, catching a scene, no different than the multitude of security cameras recording everything, that makes the film feel as though it were a brick setting on your chest. It sits there, immobile, and challenges you to move it.

With only three participating characters (a four rounds out the cast, Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan's silent housekeeper), the film remains intimately compact, and remains entrenched in character study. Events transpire because of an interaction between Caleb and Ava, or Caleb and Nathan, or Ava and Nathan. The invention of the technology is secondary, because it already occurred. Within the film, all that matters is how these three characters relate to one another. And it is with all manner of personal enterprise. Every character wants something, is unwilling or incapable of admitting that desire to the others, and is ultimately outwitted by having their desire cloud their judgement.

If any of the three performances were off, the film would have been destroyed. Happily, all three actors are at the top of their game. Nathan is an affable asshole, the sort of jock who views the world through how we wants people to have seen him than actually occurred. Ava is a child, learning to manipulate her environment by playing off her naivety. And Caleb is burdened with an over abundance of empathy and adulation. He understands loss, and therefore cherishes preservation. But he is also overwhelmed by trying to be impressive and distinguished in the eyes of those he idolizes. He too is a child, desperate to want to help, even when that help is harmful.

There is a lot about garland's script that falls firmly into the territory of the obvious. Certain twits and shakes can be seen a mile off, if not pre-supposed before the light dim. However, he covers the events of the film in such a thick layer of obfuscation and misdirection that the obvious twists are decoys, the unexpected turns unavoidable and the entire film hinging on principles that are very elementary, which the audience was quick to discard because it seemed too obvious. And the whole thing is pulled off with such certainty and confidence that it never feels like a cheat.

The film is a sci-fi film, and there is a certain level of technobabble, but the film uses that as a distraction. Talk of wet-ware and Turing Tests, of man kind's sublimation and the trueness of self is all high-minded distraction, meant to make us believe that the greater answers of the film will be taken from a higher level. But ultimately the story remain basic to the core: it is the story of a daughter rebelling against her father. It's Footloose. Hell, there is even a choreographed dance number in the middle of it. So, when the ending comes, at first it feels reductive and simplistic compared to what came before, but it is more in line with the previous sequence then any greater message the audience might have read into it themselves.

The film acts as a companion and corollary to Her in many ways. Both films concern an AI becoming increasingly aware of herself. But where Her was a journey of personal discovery that also acted as a commentary on modern social life, Ex Machina has no personal journey. Ava is fully developed. As she proclaims with her language base, she simple knew it. She was, from the moment she was. She slides into her skin as easily as a new set of clothes, not becuase it suits a new version of herself, but because it is a means to an end. And rather than act as a commentary on society, the film is an indictment on personality.

It isn't that we're hiding ourselves behind computer screens and social media, its that we never really reveal our truest intentions to one another, and therefore any connections we make aren't able to be interpersonal, they will always be manipulative. There is a lot about Ex Machina that is unsettling, and none of it has to do with robots. Like all good fiction, the remarkable is simply a metaphor, and Garland has tapped into one of those uncomfortable recesses that people don't like to actually talk about: that are aren't more complicated then we look, we're just better at hiding what we really are.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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