Review: Ex Machina
Depending on with whom you align yourself, Ex Machina may be inspiring or tragic, a warning against controlling nature or a celebration of the fluidity of consciousness and gender.
Regardless of whichever of the three main figures in this character study dressed up as a science fiction film you most support or sympathize, this story written and directed by Alex Garland is one of the most provocative of the year, a stirring cinematic achievement.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an idealistic, if somewhat unsure coder who ‘wins’ a trip to visit the brilliant, reclusive CEO of his tech company. It’s off to the secure and remote laboratory of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a man who reveals himself not necessarily eccentric, but odd to be sure. He drinks to excess, says things like ‘dude’ and ‘bro,’ and wants to get pass the technical jargon and speak openly and honestly about his latest project.
That creation is an artificially intelligent being, a sinewy robot with the face, hands, and shiny, elegant curves of a woman. Parts skin and part metal, her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander), and as she tries to make sense of her world, which is essentially a glass box, Caleb is tasked with proving sentience and consciousness.
It would be far too boring and easy a film to digest were Nathan simply the villain, Caleb the hero, and Ava the damsel; which is not to say these initially perceived roles aren’t actually the ones they fall into. The bizarre meshes so spectacularly with the ordinary though; Nathan seems both completely sane while also nuts as he has thrown into question what it means to be human.
The test Caleb is tasked with administering is to prove whether Ava can pass as human; the issue in turn becomes what exactly proves someone (something?) is human? Does Ava’s awareness of such a test make her already pass, or does it spoil the procedure? Then of course there is the simple fact that Ava is beautiful.
She is undeniably so. Elegant too, and seductive, and neither Garland as the writer nor Nathan as the creator shy away from it. Sexuality after all is a part of human nature and also a device which bonds and divides people, for better and worse.
Ava is hypnotic in her measured speech and graceful moments; her mesh ligaments moving with fluidity, her metal shimmering in the light. She is a most believable, human-like robot, and when she starts to turn off the power in the sterile, labyrinthine laboratory, another level is added to the mystery that is swirling around the viewer and with whomever he or she aligns. Doubt abounds for all.
Garland clearly wants to stir and comment; he’s not seeking to bamboozle the viewer, but to make sure there is the chance to see things from as many angles as possible. It starts with an image of Caleb at his desk from the perspective of his computer, almost as if he is being scanned, watched. Later on we’re alongside Caleb’s confused point of view, starring at a bit of energetic dancing by Nathan and his gorgeous assistant. Both moments create pause, distract, and linger.
There is a game afoot, but it’s unclear who is playing and whether or not there are any rules. A haunting score underlies a beautifully-crafted, tension-filled thriller that tempts and titillates, posing many questions while answering few. The stories and characters holds true throughout, coming together in a chilling, satisfying finale.