Movie Review: “Ex Machina” (Alex Garland, UK 2015)

The title, the art, and the basic plot description of this film made it sound pretty clear what it would be: a straightforward science fiction film about the possible future of robotics and artificial intelligence. More specifically, it sounded like a film about the singularity (a popular topic in the last few years–ask Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan).

A funny thing happened on the way to that sci-fi film. The film’s introduction ended and it began its first act in earnest with sweeping shots of a helicopter flying through lush, green mountains. As soon as the lead character entered the building that would be the setting for the entire rest of the film, a Schubert piano sonata with a striking resemblance to a particularly famous John Williams score began. And so it became obvious that the film we were entering was Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, USA 1993). In simpler terms, it was a horror film with a bit of sci-fi dressing.*

The film tells the story of a young programmer named Caleb working for a large search engine/technology company who is chosen to be the human part of a Turing test on a new artificial intelligence for his company’s owner. Most of what follows is incredibly predictable. The AI of course turns out to be in the form of a sexed-up female robot. Nathan, the owner who built this AI, goes out of his way to talk about her ability to have sex and has another version of the AI wandering the grounds (We’re not supposed to figure out that’s what she is, but it’s really obvious.) as a personal sex toy. She starts seeking her freedom and she and Caleb strike up something like a relationship. Everything is pretty obvious pretty quickly.

The film’s central point is a bit difficult to pin down because it’s actually so simple: Artifical Intelligence is dangerous because it may have the ability to hate. However, the film focuses on its point reasonably well for a film that’s so impressed with its own narrative. For all that it tries (and fails) to surprise and reverse on us, it really doesn’t lose sight of its goal, to Garland’s credit.

Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have some interesting visual ideas. First of all, there’s the house’s design, which is thoroughly modern but not really futuristic–full of simplistic smooth walls and small splashes of color on its wood-grained or white backgrounds. It’s a clever design because it makes immediately clear that the film is not set far in the future–it’s suggesting that artificial intelligence is coming soon. Beyond that, they use a color palette that few modern films use. The typical orange-to-cyan coloring is gone and instead this film is heavy on reds, blues, and greens. The primary colors can be seen as both a reference to technology and a reference to man’s most primal emotions and humblest beginnings, just as Ava has now.

They do use some CGI, but most of it is rather limited. When it does pop up, sometimes it looks silly (like the AI “brain” Nathan shows Caleb), but it’s kept to enough of a minimum that it doesn’t really detract from the film. Even Ava’s clearly CGI body works, because it is supposed to be alien but it doesn’t look so alien as to be laughable. Anyone who reads this blog knows I would take practical effects any day, but if you’re going to use CGI, this film shows the right way to do it.

The acting is excellent, though nobody really has that much to do. Oscar Isaac was so good in Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA/France 2013) in part because of his willingness to be completely cold to the audience and turn totally inward–he was willing to play a self-absorbed bastard without making us like him. Here, he uses that same coldness, never quite opening his eyes completely and constantly turning his head so that he can look down on whomever he is speaking to, to show us what an arrogant bastard Nathan is. He doesn’t have anything else to do, really, but he does what he needs to. Domhnall Gleeson, meanwhile, has a more complex and subtle part, and he does it mostly well. There are a few times when he rather overplays his part, but given the stress Caleb is under those overplays may even be intentional, so it’s difficult to hold them against him. It’s difficult to evaluate Alicia Vikander’s performance, but Ava’s face and voice are definitely appropriately expressive throughout, so she deserves at least some credit for that. Someone who knows more about the technology used would be able to say more about how much.

Overall, Ex Machina isn’t anything groundbreaking or shocking, but it does what it sets out to do quite well. Its point may be a bit facile and its twists quite predictable, but it’s still an interesting story that’s well-acted and looks great, and that’s better than a lot of films.

*No, Jurassic Park is not a sci-fi film just because it mentions DNA. It’s a film about how scary genetic modification is. That’s horror, like much of what Michael Crichton wrote.

Notes

  • “Did you design Ava’s face based on my pornography profile?” . . . “If there’s one thing a search engine’s good for, right?!”
  • The mechanical noises Ava makes when she moves are sort of weird. For how advanced she is mechanically, she sounds, movement-wise, like she is from long ago.
  • Ava talks about micro-expressions, which makes her a “walking lie detector.” That’s pseudoscience.
  • Blue Book does 94% of all internet searches. That’s incredible. I only spent a few minutes looking, but the most recent data I found said that in 2012, Google did 65% of all internet searches. So it’s half again Google. That’s scary.
  • I do not understand the weird camera angle at the end.
  • When she has no hair or anything so you just see the features of her face, am I the only one who thought Alicia Vikander looked a lot like Natalie Portman?
  • Nathan’s stunned reaction to Ava and Kyoko having killed him–“Unreal.”–was hilarious.
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