24th Jan2015

‘Ex Machina’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander | Written and Directed by Alex Garland

ex-machina

It’s rare these days to find a sci-fi that doesn’t bog you down in condescending exposition for the first half an hour, boring you senseless with background and character history to the point that you’re unlikely to care all that much when the story proper kicks in. Last year’s Lucy was a prime example of this: the movie kept explaining its ridiculous plot to you despite the fact that no-one’s ever gone into a Luc Besson movie expecting complex, intelligent storytelling. 2014′s other sci-fi starring Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin, however, is a masterclass in understatement and trusting the audience to comprehend the story without it being spoon-fed to them.

I say all this because, thankfully, Ex Machina is much closer to the latter than the former in its storytelling. Though there is a lot more dialogue.

Opening relatively cold on an average 20-something coder who’s won a trip to a distant estate to meet his brilliant inventor idol, Ex Machina doesn’t bother with giving us character history in the opening scenes because all we need to know about Caleb and Nathan is in their eyes and their actions. Caleb’s smart but sycophantic and needier than he should be, while Nathan’s strong, confident but also darkly brooding and an alcoholic.

As far as young actors go, you couldn’t ask for brighter rising stars than Gleeson and Isaac, whose cat-and-mouse odd couple tensions might just be compelling enough to carry the movie. Things get far more interesting, however, with the introduction of Ava, a female humanoid A.I. Nathan brought Caleb to his compound to test. The goal? To see if Ava is capable of human-level consciousness.

Naturally, things go downhill from there. Between Caleb’s growing affection for Ava and distrust for Nathan, the mysterious power cuts that keep occurring and a distinct sense that something’s being hidden from Caleb, Ex Machina develops into more of a relationship-thriller than its marketing would suggest, and that’s no bad thing.

No stranger to subverting genre expectations, screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) makes an assured directorial debut that appears to have benefited hugely from his many years entrenched in the fringes of mainstream genre filmmaking. He allows the actors to do the bulk of the work – a savvy decision – but the visuals certainly aren’t lacking, with the claustrophobic, clinical interiors being given a dreamlike sheen that makes the leads’ isolation from the rest of the world all the more strange.

It’s that isolation, too, that allows for some of the film’s most interesting aspects. The ethics of creation are posited, as is the morality of a person abusing their property when said property might just have feelings. In the end, the film seems to come down on the side of Caleb, who wants to protect (and possibly sleep with) Ava from her tyrannical father Nathan because he believes her to be conscious. Naturally, Nathan is a more interesting character than Caleb as he’s painted the villain, removed from society and thus moving further and further from healthy human behaviour. This is most apparent during a scene in which Caleb confronts Nathan about a power cut only to have the former – blind drunk – fade the lights and perform a choreographed dance routine with his mute assistant. It’s a peculiar joy to see Llewyn Davis so animated and exuberant, and Gleeson so baffled.

I think, in large part, Caleb’s affection for the robot hinges (don’t excuse the pun) on Ava’s face. Which is to say that, if she didn’t have one, we – like Caleb – wouldn’t be able to fall in love with her. Alicia Vikander is strikingly beautiful (a fact that’s the butt of a dark joke towards the film’s climax), but for most of the film she’s just a face attached to a metallic body composed of see-through plates and whirring machinery. To massively paraphrase John Ford, it’s all about the actor’s eyes. And occasionally the choice between blonde and brunette, which are the only wigs in Ava’s (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) collection.

But fall we and Caleb do, and to our own discredit; Ava’s much more than a great box you can talk about your childhood and sleep with (particularly enjoyable is a conversation about electronic vaginas, naturally had between two male characters while Ava isn’t present). Vikander’s performance draws us in with her precocious fascination with humanity, and we assume her naïveté to a fault – as do the other characters.

By the film’s climax it’s become clear that Ex Machina is Ava’s story, not the two men who think they know what’s best for her, and it’s not too big a stretch to read a sharp critique of both religion and institutional misogyny into the movie. This delighted me, as I’d expected a fairly rote dystopian actioner, and being both surprised and enthralled by a film – beginning to end – is one of my most treasured pleasures. Second only perhaps to Oscar Isaac’s dance routine, the final scene contained my favourite moment of the film: a meditation on free will that both echoes Plato’s Cave to great effect and wryly answers a question posed earlier on.

We need to have more movies like Ex Machina, frankly. Not clones of its robot-love triangle plot but more sci-fi stories that rely on concepts, characters and relationships more than special effects and empty plot. Because they’re a damn sight more satisfying that way.

Ex Machina is out now in the UK.

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