Fantastic. I’ve been meaning to get to this one ever since it’s Theatrical Release, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I’d heard nothing but positive mention of this film, and it only added to my reasons for slapping it on my ‘Must See’ list. The primary reason was that it was accomplished screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut. I’ve liked many of the films written by him, solid flicks like ’28 Days Later’ (2002), ‘Sunshine’ (2007) and ‘Dredd’ (2012), among other notable titles…so I was curious to see how his talent with The Written Word would translate to pictures on a screen. Secondly, I was intrigued by the casting of Oscar Isaac (‘Sucker Punch’) as ‘Nathan’, the reclusive genius billionaire who triggers the whole twisted story. Isaac is fast becoming one of my favorite actors, as it seems like there’s no character out there that he can’t capably inhabit and give ‘flesh’ to. I’m curious to see how he’s going to bring his diversity and commitment to the ‘Poe Dameron’ character in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, in a month’s time.
Taking place “10 minutes from now”, as writer / director Garland puts it, we open with a 26 year old ‘coder’ named ‘Caleb’ (Domhnall Gleeson), working for the gargantuan search engine company ‘Blue Book’, and being selected via office lottery to spend a week with the CEO of the company at his mountainous, country-sized estate. After a long helicopter ride and bewildering arrival at the high-tech house / research facility, we meet ‘Nathan’ (Oscar Isaac), who soon explains why ‘Caleb’ is there. It seems that ‘Nathan’ thinks that he’s tackled ‘artificial intelligence’, and needs to administer a form of ‘Turing Test’ (the test protocol established to determine the validity of an A.I. experiment). ‘Caleb’ is introduced to the subject, known as ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander). Wearing a human face over a really unique-looking android body, ‘Ava’ is a ‘young’ A.I., seemingly still trying to come to terms with her own existence, while also seeming fascinated by her interactions with ‘Caleb’; the first human male ‘she’s met since ‘Nathan’ created ‘her’. At first, everything proceeds as it should, but it soon becomes evident that the house is being plagued by mysterious power shut-downs that interrupt some of the testing sessions. It’s during one of these sessions, when it’s believed that surveillance is down, that ‘Ava’ starts demonstrating unexpected and alarming behaviour: confiding in ‘Caleb’ and warning him that all is not as it seems in the house…or with his host. And things spiral from there.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this film was terrific! I was thoroughly impressed with what Alex Garland came up with as a story and even more impressed with his visual presentation of it. I’m genuinely interested in what his next directing job will be, and after this one, he DEFINITELY deserves a second chance in the director’s chair. There was a distinct ‘patience’ to the cinematography and editing, and the pacing of the story allowed me to get sucked into the world and the situation. It was ‘minimalist’, in the best way possible.
One element that really ‘sold’ the story was the characters, as brought to effective ‘life’ by the three main leads. Topping out the cast, as performances go, was Oscar Isaac. I loved the way he portrayed ‘Nathan’. Typically the CEO of a company like ‘Blue Book’, in any other movie, could be expected to be a somewhat robotic, stuffy and/or overbearing caricature of a human…or some socially-awkward nerd (given the ‘tech’ angle) a la Bill Gates. ‘Nathan’ uses the word ‘Dude’. A lot. He instantly came off like a Real Guy, with Isaac’s natural charisma shining through and helping to pull me into the story. While a clear genius of scary proportions, the man also liked getting drunk, waxing poetic, effortlessly using slang, and admiring his place in Life. The very first meeting of ‘Caleb’ and ‘Nathan’, where he psychologically breaks down the awe that ‘Caleb’ is feeling from his trip, from the property, and from meeting ‘Nathan’ himself, where he basically flat-out says “I just want us to just be ‘Nathan’ and ‘Caleb’…two dudes, not Employee and Employer.” This intro nicely established the foundation of their dynamic and made character sympathy all the more engrossing because of certain revelations that later emerge. ‘Nathan’ was brilliant, likable and approachable…which made certain twists in the story and his character all the more intriguing. ‘Caleb’, as played by Domhnall Gleeson, at first, could been played by anyone. For the first quarter of the run-time, I couldn’t help by to think that I could easily see Rupert Grint (‘Ron’ from the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise) stepping in and being physically appropriate, using Domhnal as a casting reference. But that casting would’ve also lent to the expectation of the character being a bit of a ‘fish out of water’ dummy, and played up for potential comedy (yay, type-casting!). THAT expectation was quickly dashed though, as ‘Caleb’ soon proves that he’s, in his own way, a force of intelligence to be reckoned with, and Domhnal pulled off that portrayal admirably. There are no stupid characters here…which was soundly refreshing. Rounding out the main trio was Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ( ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’) as ‘Ava’. Her portrayal of the self-aware android was haunting, especially when certain conditions reveal themselves in the 3rd Act. I could see this film being a platform from which Hollywood would, and should, hoist her up, as she managed to make me ‘feel’ a mixed bag of emotion, for the inanimate object; an issue I’ve had with other ‘robots as sentient beings’ story-lines. In a nutshell, the girl can act!
Another aspect that I admired was Garland’s use of ‘quiet’. Numerous keys sequences used only ambient sounds as the sonic backdrop and it helped me focus in on the meat of the character interactions. When music score WAS placed on a scene, it was tonally perfect, and accented the tension and suspense that steadily arose in the narrative. The disciplined use of sound, in conjunction with the steady, patient ‘cuts n compositions’, reminded me heavily of the films of Stanley Kubrick (‘2001: A Space Odyssey’), and also of Danny Boyle, whom Garland has worked with several times in the past (I was heavily reminded of ‘Sunshine’, for some reason). The Kubrick Connection is even more substantial when you consider that Kubrick’s ‘last’ film, the Spielberg-directed ‘A.I.’ (2001), dealt with many similar themes.
All in all, ‘Ex Machina’ was well worth the wait. I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy it, just based on it’s pedigree, but there was almost a palpable sense of relief when it actually surpassed my expectations. I was riveted by the story, the performances and the presentation. The acting, especially by Oscar Isaac, was great, the world was believable, and the narrative wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions. It also comes with one of those “Holy Shit!”, punch-in-the-gut endings that I like so much. This movie was very much worth my time…and I think it would be worth yours as well. If you like patient pacing, a sci-fi story that makes sense without insulting the viewer, tangible suspense, and complex ideas thrown in the mix…then this is a film for you. I highly recommend ‘Ex Machina’…and now eagerly await Alex Garland’s next film, whatever it may be. Check it out!
Caleb: “You tore up her picture.”
Nathan: “I’m gonna tear up the fuckin’ dance floor, dude. Check it out.”
*This scene was unexpected…and hilarious.