Ex Machina is powerful

by Steve Pulaski

Ex Machina is powerful because of how low-key and meditative it is. It’s the first science-fiction film in recent memory that doesn’t do one of the following things: ask impossibly big questions, deliver amazing visuals but skimp out on character development and the exploration of such visuals, or decorate itself in glamor whilst ignoring its proposed, fundamental ideas. This is a science-fiction film that I found myself being able to follow as a story and not as a collection of larger-than-life ideas that you’re really supposed to go along with and never precisely grasp or pinpoint (also known as “Interstellar”).

The story revolves around Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a search engine company known as Bluebook, who receives an invitation from the company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), to visit him in his secluded estate in the mountains. Upon arrival by helicopter, Caleb takes note of how immense and intoxicating Nathan’s home is, surrounded by lush landscapes, waterfalls, and elaborate forestry that all hides an enormous research facility inside of it.

Here, Nathan tells Caleb he’s partaking in a Turing test on an artificially intelligent humanoid named “Ava” (Alicia Vikander). Ava is incredibly advanced, looking like the offspring of a human and a robot, with lifelike skin covering some of her body (enough to form a basic human face) and other parts of her (particularly her abdomen and arms) still showing her intricate wiring and robotic composure. Caleb and Ava spend a lot of time conversing, so Caleb can get the feel for how advanced Ava is. She’s so advanced, she operates like a human lie detector at times and a deeply compassionate soul at others. Ava eventually warns Caleb of Nathan’s deception, which Caleb comes to see for himself through Nathan’s heavy drinking, cloudy motives, and vague planning methods for the future.

Ex Machina
Directed by
Alex Garland
Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Release Date
10 April 2015
Steve’s Grade: A

The film is always commanded by three of the same actors for much of its runtime. Gleeson plays lost but not clueless very well here, never becoming the kind of character we lose interest in due to his incompetence nor alienated by because of his intellect. His Caleb character is ordinary, and Nathan recognizes it, with Gleeson assuming the traits quite nicely. Then there’s Vikander, who is so close to being shortchanged in and of herself here, but thanks to writer/director Alex Garland, whenever she’s on-screen, her Ava character is given a purpose. Whether that purpose is to show how advanced she is for someone who is artificially intelligent or for her to exhibit human traits of self-awareness, empathy, and compassion is entirely up to Garland, and he doesn’t skimp on allowing Ava to be a character. Vikander handles the simple and simultaneous complex role very well.

Finally, there’s Oscar Isaac, who has hit a trifecta of fabulous, even Oscar-worthy performances. In three films, he has played depressed (Inside Llewyn Davis), conflicted (A Most Violent Year), and now, standoffish and brash in ways that turn such overused traits into breathing characters. Isaac’s take on a scientist as someone more along the lines of that cocky soul at a party who believes he knows all by employing the Socratic Method or talking around his points is a brilliantly subversive tactic. Isaac delivers the character in a way that, much like Gleeson, has the ability to be off-putting but, instead, is riveting.

Finally, there’s more to Ex Machina than artificial intelligence, which, as I began to realize following the credits, wasn’t what the film seems to really be about. The film illustrates an idea of female empowerment in a boldly subtle way. It shows how a woman, who has been caged and manipulated her entire life, at one time solely by a manipulative egotist, and now, by a “white knight” or nice guy, for lack of a better term, struggles to find an identity and loses her opportunity to explore the outside (or, to her, the unknown). Science-fiction is known to dabble into themes exploring our world and the problems we face, but even with that known fact, it’s surprising for a film like this, that already operates on a middling-budget in comparison to other science-fiction pieces, to explore ideas of women in patriarchal societies. Such concepts only seem too real and close-to-home for our world, but Ex Machina, again, isn’t the traditional, American science-fiction film.

This film is a different breed of science-fiction that may allude the usual science-fiction moviegoers who gravitate towards sound and light shows or constant, existentialist ideas. It’s far too thoughtful to get caught up in those surface concepts. Through beautiful cinematography, accentuating mood through its use of lighting and haunting music, exquisite acting on all fronts, and a probable idea to tie it together, it succeeds on being a terrific piece of entertainment and commentary. The same feeling people had about director Neill Blomkamp following his directorial debut District 9, I think I now have about Garland.