Obviously, Alex Garland is not familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics…
Spoiler Alert: I love movies, pretty much everything about them. I love the smell of the theater, the touch of real celluloid, and that indescribable feeling of sitting with a crowd of fellow cinephiles, chomping on popcorn, and letting an experience wash over you. It’s my idea of Heaven. Honestly, I’d rather watch Michael Bay stomp on my childhood dreams than never see another movie. However, I do tend to nitpick, especially when presented with a film bordering on perfection that takes a detour into the mundane — goes the easy route — because the screenwriter or director was too afraid to be innovative. So yes, kiddies, this is going to be one of those Rachel reviews, where I applaud and then complain. A lot.
Young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), creator of Bluebook – a kind of Google/Facebook hybrid — at his isolated estate in the mountains. Once the programmer arrives at the cabin, however, he’s given the opportunity to participate in the greatest experiment of the modern age: to test Nathan’s latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent female robot. Sleek and suspenseful, Ex Machina explores the very definition of humanity and consciousness, delving deep into the human need for connection, to define one’s place in the universe, and ultimately, achieve freedom.
Now for the applause: Ex Machina is inarguably a beautiful film. Each frame resembles a painting or Jules Verne vision; futuristic and fantastical, though quite grounded in real science, writer/director Alex Garland fills Nathan’s world with staunch reds, cool gray tones of technology, and vibrant oranges of creation. As Caleb feels more isolated and drawn – equally and separately – to Nathan and Ava, claustrophobic framing and overbearing colors take over his world. Garland plays with the comfort of the audience to varying degrees, offering an absurdly silly, surreal dance number right in the middle of an uncomfortable encounter with servant girl (yes, that’s a thing) Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), coupled with a scene where Caleb questions everything he knows. It’s my favorite in the film: Caleb stands before a mirror, concerned that he might not be exactly who he thinks he is. As the intensity of the prior week rains down on him, the brutal nature of the moment is palpable and heart-stopping.
Layered in sophisticated motifs, for the most part, no scene or set-piece appears wasted. Mirrors, video, and glass play a huge role in the film, as well as the aforementioned colors — as if we are part of the experiment itself when observing others observing things. Isolation is a strong theme, explored through the false appearance of space when Nathan and Caleb hike through the vastness of the former’s estate. Every time we encounter Ava, Caleb’s world seems to shrink, to where nothing else matters but the automaton. It is obvious Gardner and cinematographer Rob Hardy planned each frame out.
The casting might rank among the genre has to offer. Oscar Isaac is all at once vulnerable and frighteningly megalomaniacal, playing on both Nathan’s insecurities and his God complex. Gleeson, the quintessential everyman, is easily relatable. He is openly mystified by his surreal surroundings but completely confident in his charm and wit when interacting with both Nathan and Ava. Alicia Vikander’s Ava portrays the exact face you’d want in your first sentient robot: the vulnerable ingénue with the scars of an acutely aware prisoner. It is easy to see why Caleb would fall for Ava and trust her over the actual human being before him.
The pacing of the script flows organically, and the viewer should find herself on the edge of her seat before the frustratingly disappointing denouement (more on that in a moment). The dialogue is full of authentic banter and acerbic wit; you feel you are observing real people discussing this high concept, as if it could really happen. Every character, and there are so few in the film, is well-rounded and deeply explored. Each one is holding something back, and though they seem trustworthy on the surface, we know there is so much more. The very layered approach Gardner chooses to take is innovative, and delightful, and always interesting. The first two acts of the script reach 2001: A Space Odyssey territory. However, there must still be a third act… and it’s a doozy.
Complainy Complainerson says: Not since Looper has an ending so annoyed and fascinated me, and not exactly in a good way. Gardner’s well-paced, introspective look on relationships, with genuine dialogue and complex characters, just utterly spirals into ludicrous, simplistic, easy beats. The predictable conclusion nearly negates the strong beauty displayed in the hour and a half prior to the characters’ final desolation. And I say “desolation” not as a plot point, but as an examination of how each one seems to act so far out of their established character. Although I must admit, during this mind-numbing finale there are still stunningly choreographed scenes, particularly from the Ava character. I do not want to give anything away, especially because I’m probably in the minority with my hatred of the ending, but the meditative examination of her existence and transformation in the final moments are quite spectacular. Still, all of the applause I wanted to shower upon the film died in me the moment I realized the path the film was on. I begged the screen to change, but I knew it would not. Like Sunshine, Looper, and The Edge of Tomorrow, Ex Machina bordered on greatness but settled for “eh.”
I want to rank this so much higher, because the film is worthy of it, but I am still…so…angry…Grade: B-.