Ex Machina (2015)
Dir: Alex Garland
Many of the themes addressed in this glossy sci-fi are far from new, however as technology advances closer to turning what was once only ‘science fiction‘ into commonplace reality, the fears raised seem ever more prescient.
When a tech company employee (Domhnall Gleeson) wins an in-company competition to spend the week with the genius CEO (Oscar Isaac), he discovers the purpose of his visit is to perform a ‘Turing Test’ like no other with beautiful A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander).
I remember writing an essay on Sci-Fi representing mankind’s fears of artificial intelligence when I was in university. That was nearly a decade ago, before everyone had a smartphone in their pocket, long before the days of Siri and before Google was the ever-expanding corporation it is now. We often forget how much technology has advanced, but the same ideas, concerns and even fears are raised time and again in films with ever decreasing levels of fiction.
This is the first feature directed by Alex Garland but he’s already well regarded for films such as ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Sunshine’ both of which he wrote. Those films are also examples of his writing science-fiction that plays on certain recurrent fears, however presenting them in a way that gets right to the nub of the issues as they’re expressed in the most captivating of storylines. Garland’s previous experience has obviously enabled him to refine his screenwriting and he’s well-versed in composing a film that keeps a solid story and good development at the forefront rather than just the visuals or action, this time with his direction of all those elements and not just the writing.
The film features really just one main location and only a handful of roles. It’s key that the three main characters are perfectly cast, which I have no doubt they are. Starting, as the film does, with Domhnall Gleeson who is great as Caleb, though I can’t understand why his natural accent wouldn’t be okay to use, the company he works for is multinational so why would it matter where he was from? However his gentle nature is the aspect that makes him suit the role, as seen before in such films as ‘About Time‘ and this year in ‘Brooklyn’, his nice guy demeanour is paired with a savvy intelligence that works really well.
Oscar Isaac gets the more interesting of the human roles however as Nathan, the CEO of a company that is quite clearly akin to Google (especially when you consider they are behind ‘Android’), starting with a popular search engine and now invested in smartphones. More than Nathan just being a reclusive genius, his lines of morality are clearly blurred, adding a darker edge to much of what he says and does. There’s a much deeper level that the film doesn’t dwell on quite enough, that of how he’s been a genius from a young age, oft something that can go hand in hand with social isolation, and that is definitely alluded to as a motive for his endeavours. When you factor that into his pursuits and behaviour it adds a lot more to how we interpret his moral ambiguity. If his creation of artificial intelligence is a desperate attempt at mitigating loneliness, then putting such intelligence in the form of a beautiful woman may be indicative of his longing for love, the easiest way for him to do this is by creating it himself, turning the perceived barrier of his intellect and technological pursuits, into the solution.
Rapidly ascending star Alicia Vikander was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role (as well as other nominations for her part in ‘The Danish Girl’). In the past few years her work has been prolific, with varied roles spanning different genres in no less than six films last year alone. This may have been one of her greatest challenges, finding the perfect level between the appearance of robotic and humanity. Her responses, movements and speech all have to walk a fine line between being the result of advanced programming while also being advanced enough to pass this test that’s ostensibly a ‘Turing Test’ though it’s clearly stated that as Caleb can see he’s not talking to a human, it’s actually a completely different type of test altogether. The classic Turing Test was to convince someone that the A.I. they’re interacting with was actually human, whereas the visual effects here have to convince us that Alicia Vikander is actually a robot. Seeing she’s not human is clear, the way Ava is shown is superb, with Vikander merged flawlessly with elements of CGI that looks incredible. Forget the uncanny valley, this is production design on another level that mixes the actress human attributes and complete face with a body that looks like advanced machinery. The posters don’t do it justice, you really need to at least see the trailer or the film to see how perfectly this effect is achieved in motion.
The film has an abundance of visual style. Firstly the setting is important as nearly the entire film takes place in just one building, an example of quite modern architecture with a really formal and functional feel, said to be a research facility rather than a home. However, it’s almost hewn out of the rock and surrounded by lush greenery, with a strong contrast of this bleak glass and concrete building in the midst of the most beautiful natural surroundings. This blend is mirrored in the deisgn of Ava, a beautiful blend of form and function, natural and mechanical. There are a few scenes you can imagine the effects team breathed a sigh of relief, but for so much of her time on screen you see this superbly slick and fully convincing robot that beautifully incorporates the real Alicia Vikander with cutting-edge looking technology.
It’s hard to fault the concept and story which tackles much of the science and ethics behind robotics and artificial intelligence, while raising interesting concepts and illuminating common fears. A lesser film might have focused on the sexualisation of robots and possibly done so in a leering way, thankfully this film deals with that issue in a powerful and detailed way that’s not the focus, yet may tie in with everything else.
Also of note are names both of the characters and the film itself. Ava being the most obvious as a reference to Eve, however Caleb and Nathan can be viewed from many levels, Caleb being a spy sent by Moses whose name can also be rendered as ‘whole hearted’, and Nathan, a prophet whose name can be rendered ‘God given’. Then there’s the film itself, the latin term ‘Deus Ex Machina’ means ‘God from the machine’ though obviously the film takes God out of the equation putting Nathan in the creatorial role. The phrase has also come to refer to a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved through introducing an unexpected character or event, often done when the writer has given themself no clear way out and needs to bring things to an end. I cannot elaborate any more without risking spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it, but all of these references are in play, and serve as evidence that Garland reasoned through the story in great detail.
You don’t have to delve that deeply into the film to get something from it, I can imagine it being perfectly enjoyable just to watch as a science fiction drama that would get much of the audience caught up in the unfolding events. Everything leads to a really brilliant ending, not through any huge shock twists that couldn’t have possibly been foreseen, much is clear and the audience can tell right from the start that trusting certain characters won’t be easy, but the swift way it all develops may still manage to surprise. I don’t think shock is what Garland was aiming for anyway, writing a film that holds together in a way that makes reasonable sense is of higher importance.
Is this the best movie example of automatonophobia? Possibly. Like the exchanges between Ava and Caleb, the film is captivating, drawing the audience in to ponder and reason while possibly forcing them to change the way they’re thinking as events progress. With the futuristic gloss and striking outward beauty that makes it a pleasure to watch, there’s clear intelligence contained within, that ensures it will stick in your mind long after the film has come to its gripping end.
‘Ex Machina’ was nominated at the Golden Globes for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ though Alicia Vikander didn’t win. It is currently nominated at the BAFTAs for five awards including ‘Visual Effects’, ‘Supporting Actress’ and ‘Outstanding British Film’ and ‘Outstanding British Debut’ for Garland as a director as well as his nomination for writing the ‘Best Screenplay’. Academy Award nominations followed for ‘Visual Effects’ and ‘Original Screenplay’. It is also available to buy in all formats from the usual places. Try saying automatonophobia three times quickly… well done… now have a few drinks and try again!