Film Review: Ex Machina

Posted on February 5, 2015

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It all seems so serendipitous. Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is an unassuming coder working for Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine. He wins a competition to spend a week with company CEO and enigmatic recluse, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). During this time he interacts with a robot named Ava, (Alicia Vikander) designed with a range of emotions, feelings and cognitive behavioral patterns.

Ex Machina doesn’t waste time getting to the point. As soon as Caleb approaches the billionaire’s luxury pad via helicopter, he is met with a sweat-drenched Nathan, as he’s finishing up a boxing workout. Whilst they down some beers upon their initial meet and greet, the enigmatic, standoffish CEO shortly tells him he only has access to certain rooms and that others are off-limits, although not going as far as explaining why.

Throughout the duration of Caleb’s visit at Nathan’s place, each passing day is split into sessions. With each passing session, Caleb and Ava develop a superficial relationship, albeit through a thick pane of glass between them. After one particular session, Caleb enquires if what he’s undertaking is basically the Turing test, which is a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. This is used in the context of a game throughout the movie to see whether Ava or Caleb passes or fails.

Ex Machina is in equal parts elegant, minimal and sexy. While the film itself only has 4 characters, it’s one where the men keep their clothes on and the women have them off. As a result, sexual tension is prevalent throughout. After a particularly hot-under-the-collar session where Ava tries on a dress and short-hair wig specially for her opposite number, Caleb asks Nathan afterwards if Ava was programmed to flirt with him. Another moment in the film to set pulses racing, sees her attach artificial skin from another humanoid – with full body parts on show – to literally make her feel whole.

There are two salient themes for the viewer: one is the issue of privacy as Ava is programmed by algorithms and speech used by every Bluebook smartphone in existence. In the movie, Nathan takes advantage of an open secret in the industry by listening in to other people’s calls for their speech to be put towards building such a machine. He claims that if any of his competitors attempted to sue for tapping phone calls, he could accuse them of a double standard. In reality, Edward Snowden confirmed what many of us knew with our emails and online interactions being monitored by the NSA. But is the guise of national security just a red herring? Could our interpersonal dialogues be used for a more sinister, malevolent cause?

The second theme is the narrowing boundaries between man and machine. Technology in the 21st century has made tremendous leaps and bounds, with new innovations being made at breakneck speed. Robots resemble less like wooden, faceless shards of metal that speak but a few words and more human with expressions, thoughts and feelings. As technology has progressed through every passing decade, the fascination between man and machine has grown with it.

The issue with the film itself is it’s an alternative take on replicants and robots that are only vaguely different from other films. Though Ex Machina is by no means a bad film, it just feels very samey. Blade Runner and Metropolis represent the high-watermark for replicants in a movie. You get the feeling that the director, Alex Garland wanted to paint a dystopian vision of the future, like a paradise lost such as The Beach or the post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later. A similar pattern follows with a theme of the rise of the machines with Garland’s latest offering. But following on from these aforementioned films, the latter falls short as it lacks the depth and content as opposed to the The Beach and 28 Days Later.

Despite its flaws there are a couple of strong positives: Geoff Barrow alongside composer Ben Salisbury are accredited with soundtracking the film with bleak, harsh coldwave noise and beats, which lends suspense to the more ominous moments in Ex Machina. The two are well acquainted as they’d previously scored the film soundtrack for the 2012 movie, Dredd.

Oscar Isaac’s performance of Nathan is a decent representation of a sinister antagonist with an ulterior motive. Ava repeatedly warns Caleb not to trust him and that everything he says is a lie. It is perhaps atypical of a lone recluse that his paranoid behavior of tapping phone calls, as well as to listening in to Caleb and Ava’s conversations from a computer in another room is not necessarily seen by him as being out of the ordinary.

The final ten minutes is hugely suspenseful with a major plot twist from one character going from timid to stone faced killer. Despite that, Ex Machina for the most part is something worth parting cash with. Albeit with a small caveat: you might feel that this has been done before.

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