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Josh Reviews Ex Machina

October 26th, 2015
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In Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer for Bluebook (a company that, in the world of the film, is the world’s most popular search engine).  Caleb wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s brilliant and reclusive young CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  It turns out that Nathan has chosen Caleb to give the Turing test to an artificial intelligence he has created, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she is truly sentient.

Ex Machina.cropped

Ex Machina is extraordinary, a riveting piece of speculative fiction and an engrossing closed-door character study.  In the best possible way, it feels like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or, to pick a more event example, of the brilliant British TV series Black Mirror.  (Click here for my review of that brilliant and horrifying show that explores ways in which, in the near future, advances in technology might dramatically impact the nature of our lives.)

I just wrote about Oscar Isaac, who was so compelling in Inside Llewyn Davis, in my review of Show Me a Hero.  Here Mr. Davis is again, in an entirely different role from either of those two characters, yet once again absolutely brilliant.  I love the way he has crafted Nathan, someone who looks and feels totally different from the cliche image of a brilliant recluse inventor that one might have expected.  Mr. Isaac plays Nathan as a bulldog, a gruff, blunt man who likes to push and confront.  And yet we also can see his brilliance — this man’s arrogance is not unearned — as well as the insecurity that lies underneath his bluster.  I love every choice that Mr. Isaac and writer/director Alex Garland have made.  I love the look of the character — bald head and scruffy beard — that is so unusual and striking and yet makes perfect sense for a character not used to much human contact.  I love that when we first see him he is working out in sweaty clothes.  Most of all I love the intensity and force of personality that Mr. Isaac brings to the character.  We can understand how this man became as hugely wealthy as he did, and, like Caleb, we are both impressed by and slightly fearful of this unpredictable man.  It’s an incredible performance.

Domhnall Gleeson has been doing great work, these past few years, playing the “everyman” in a variety of science fiction stories, from a terrific episode of the afore-mentioned Black Mirror to the sci-fi romance About Time.  He’s tremendous in this film as the character through whom the audience experiences this story.  This is a far harder role than it might seem at first.  Caleb is sympathetic and a great audience surrogate, but he is also a fully fleshed-out character of his own right, with his own flaws and complexities.  I found myself strongly rooting for Caleb to make good choices and to find a way out of the puzzle in which he finds himself ensnared.  This is critical for the film to work.

Then there is Alicia Vikander in her star-making role as Ava.  Ms. Vikander caught my attention in Guy Ritchie’s film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (click here for my review), which came out after Ex Machina but which I saw first.  She was a burst of light in that film, but here, in a far stronger film, playing a far more complicated role, she is spectacular.  There’s a proud history in sci-fi films and television of an actor portraying a robot or non-human creature.  These often tend to be the characters with whom the audience most falls in love, often because these non-human characters wind up being the most human in the piece.  Ms. Vikander’s Ava stand firmly among the very best of these performances.  She brings enormous subtlety and complexity to the wrong, and as the film progresses we the audience study her just as Caleb does, attempting together to determine whether this machine is indeed sentient, and what is going on inside its/her head.  Alex Garland’s strong writing plays with the audience expectations — sometimes playing into and other times subverting the arc that an audience familiar with sci-fi tropes might be expecting for the character of Ava — and Ms. Vikander takes the role on the page to the next level with her performance.  This is an actor to whom I will be paying close attention in the future.

I was familiar with Alex Garland’s name, but curiously, even though he has been involved with a number of sci-fi projects that one would suspect would have interested me, I haven’t actually seen any of his previous work.  But after watching Ex Machina that is going to have to change ASAP.  I am extraordinarily impressed by Mr. Garland’s work here.  The script is masterful, and the film looks gorgeous — I would never have suspected that this was the work of a first-time director.  The film is beautiful to look at, and I was particularly impressed by the varied ways that Mr. Garland shot the various Caleb/Ava interview scenes.  Those could have very easily been static and boring, but instead they are not only visually arresting but they are also electric, laced with suspense and intrigue.  (Huge props must clearly also go to cinematographer Rob Hardy for his tremendous work.)  Mr. Garland clearly has a great eye for casting and a wonderful way of working with his actors, as he has crafted a film steeped in rich performances from his three leads.  (Let’s also, by the way, not forget to praise the fourth actor in the piece, the nearly-silent work of Sonoya Mizuno.)

For a film that was clearly made on a small budget, Ex Machina is beautiful.  The set design is extraordinary.  Alex Garland’s clever script is mostly a series of conversations between three characters in a variety of rooms.  (This is a smart approach to crafting low-budget sci-fi.)  But as I’ve just commented, the film is never dull or drab, it is a visually stunning piece of work.

I also have to lavish huge praise on the visual effects that brought Ava’s look to life.  These photorealistic effects make it look like, without question, this lithe, translucent robot was actually there.  My mind knows that, in reality, Ms. Vikander wore a form-fitting suit that was mostly replaced during post-production.  But the illusion works perfectly, and watching the film I never questioned the reality of what I was seeing.  It’s beautiful, subtle work, and all the more impressive considering this was not a big-budget spectacle sort of film.  (Wikpedia lists the film’s budget at a paltry $15 million.)  I am tremendously impressed.

Ex Machina is a terrific film, a complex character-piece and an engrossing sci-fi mind-bender.  I loved it.

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