Ex Machina (2015)
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
Director of Photography: Rob Hardy
Music by Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury
Edited by Mark Day
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Rating: 9 out of 10
Ex Machina fulfills the expectations I had after reading and hearing so much about it in the last couple of months. It continues Alex Garland’s streak of writing thought-provoking stories that challenge common perceptions we have about ourselves and our society. The movie uses amazing performances (Isaac, Vikander and Gleeson are all excellent), impressive visual effects and its gorgeous locations to generate a very effective movie that is intriguing from beginning to end. Just when you think it becomes too conventional it takes an extra turn at the end to become even more than we thought. It might not be an absolutely amazing movie (it’s not Looper), but it nevertheless is very good.
The movie deals with artificial intelligence, a very common sci-fi trope we have seen in dozens of other movies (all the way back to Metropolis and Frankenstein up to the last Avengers movie). It almost always leads to the ethical questions of creator and creation, of what makes us human and if something artificial can ever be human. The movie tackles all those familiar questions (including endless mythological and philosophical references, the IMDb trivia page lists many) without getting too heavy-handed about it. But it still is thought-provoking, especially because Nathan (Oscar Isaac, so incredibly good) is such a compelling character. We don’t trust him but we also see how Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, the fifth time since December I’ve seen him in a good movie, though here he is somewhat similar to his character in Frank) falls for him, despite obvious reservations he has from early on.
In one of their first conversations, Caleb points out that by creating artificial intelligence, they’d leave the history of man and would enter the history of gods. Nathan quickly rephrases this statement into making himself a god and everything we learn, especially in the last third, with the Bluebeard room and so on, shows that Nathan has become one of those geniuses who thinks he can rule everything. On the one hand, this shows this idea we have in our culture of controlling more and more, of attempting to become gods instead of creatures living on this planet. Nathan clearly does not want to improve anything but wants to be the one who invents and controls the most advanced machine in the world. But he wants to be a god, despite his intriguing monologue about nurture and nature, he wants to be the one who creates and controls everything. And if it then can serve him as a sex/dance slave, even better (that is why the dance scene is so awesome, because he acts like a truly insane god, doing whatever the fuck he wants, no matter how crazy it is, like a lunatic Roman emperor).
That is the other aspect of the movie that fascinated me. For most of the movie we see Ava (Alicia Vikander, the first time I’ve seen her in a movie and I’m curious for more) behind glass, doing what she is told, waiting for the result of the test that Caleb is putting her through. Can she be accepted as a real human being? Which, again, is a question we’ve heard in countless other movies. But this trope is transcended by its ending which reveals that she has a plan right from the start and just waits until all her pieces are in place to take revenge on her captors and to escape. Nathan sees her as his creation and child, his potential sex toy and a product. Caleb sees her as a muse and a love interest. Both men are punished for projecting their own desires upon her in the end as Ava becomes only what she wants to be, which in the end is also just a reflection of what we want to see in her. But then she turns away from that reflection, just to emphasize one more time: “I’m not what you see in me.”
The movie visually reflects that in nice, subtle ways. While we see Ava as a prisoner, it is Nathan and Caleb who imprison themselves voluntarily in the mansion, underground. We often have shots of Caleb captured by window frames, foreshadowing his final fate, while Nathan often lies around impassively, watching his game unfold, which also foreshadows his death in the end. Ava, though, only seems imprisoned but when Caleb questions her she has more room than him. While the men enjoy and celebrate their power by getting drunk in rooms without windows, Ava stands in front of a huge window, as if just waiting for her freedom, which she determines herself. And in the end she does, in some of the most powerful (feminist?) moments I’ve seen in a while. This is a powerful, brave movie that doesn’t go all the way, but its mileage is still pretty damn strong.