Ex Machina, 2015
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
28 Days Later and Sunshine‘s Alex Garland moves from the writer’s desk to the director’s chair with his debut effort Ex Machina. Garland shows his ability to pen a believable science fiction tale, while still showing off directorial flair with a beautiful and claustrophobic style. Sadly though, outside of one or two moments, Ex Machina‘s whole isn’t as good as the sum of its parts. Like Ava herself, Ex Machina doesn’t feel complete.
Garland has made a smart play by taking on a small production for his first endeavour. Rather than hire a cast of a dozen characters with multiple locations, Ex Machina focuses on just three individuals in one setting and the relationships that unfold. It’s such a brilliant setting too, with its remote and recluse atmosphere adding more and more tension to the proceedings, further escalated by Nathan’s inability to keep his cool. The story itself is simple enough, allowing for Garland’s characters to grow naturally and for the audience to settle into the proceedings. Like Spike Jonze last year with Her, Garland presents the sort of science fiction that doesn’t stretch too far from the realms of reality. Ava feels like an achievement that could be possible in today’s age and Nathan’s search engine and its capabilities really aren’t that far outside what Google and Facebook do on a daily basis. This is where Ex Machina shines, in its simple and elegant execution.
What pushes this over the edge are the fact the three main performances are superb. Oscar Isaac (who is also brilliant in A Most Violent Year, out next week) is a true star, bringing the right balance of Nathan’s charming and likeable façade with a darker, more sinister edge. His verbal sparrings with fellow Star Wars: The Force Awakens actor Domhnall Gleeson are really tremendous and Garland always makes you feel uneasy whenever you’re around him, even when the charm is turned up to eleven. But while Isaac has all of the memorable moments (including a brilliant Ghostbusters joke and the most out-of-nowhere dance sequence) Ex Machina is Alicia Vikander’s show. She has a childlike innocence to her character as if she is learning everything for the first time and her Turin Test scenes with Gleeson are spellbinding. Playing a role like this well is not an easy task, but Vikander is simply sublime and Garland’s wickedly excellent vision brings her robotic body to life to the point you never question if she’s just an actor playing a role – which, with the themes of the movie, is a massive triumph.
Its problems, however, lie in that Ex Machina really has nothing new to say on the subject its presenting. When one is looking back at the history of “mad scientist creating life” movies, you can venture as far back as 1931’s Frankenstein all the way to 80s pop culture icons like The Terminator. You can look to other science fiction efforts like RoboCop and Speilberg’s Jurassic Park or even his often overlooked A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Hell, you can look at Short Circuit or its the upcoming 2015 revision, Chappie. They all, in a roundabout way, say the same thing. Man can play God all he wants, but it will never work out in the end. The key to getting this right is twisting that story to say something new. Be it the Monster drowning a child, a A.I system becoming self-aware, a cyborg remembering past life or a man-made T-rex running amok, each effort needs to bring something new to the table in order to feel original. And in the case of Ex Machina, it doesn’t present any new or fresh ideas. Aside from its underlying feminist themes, Ex Machina feels a bit samey and a touch predictable. It builds tension well, but the it’s all too easy to forecast.
Which is a real shame because Garland clearly has a knack for direction, crafting a story and getting the best out his actors. Ex Machina is a beautiful looking movie and its clever use of sound design creates a really immersive experience, but it feels like its saying more than it actually is. If you’ve never seen a science fiction movie before, then a lot of Ex Machina will impress, but there isn’t anything new on offer to what has been done before and that is its biggest failing. A good first effort, but its lack of depth holds it back from being a stellar debut.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.
You can listen to the Flickering Myth Podcast review of Ex Machina using the player below: