Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ex Machina


Directed by Alex Garland.

2015. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Cast:
Domhnall Gleeson
Oscar Isaac
Alicia Vikander
Sonoyo Mizuno

Caleb (Gleeson) is a hot-shot programmer at Bluebook, the world's most popular search engine. When he wins a company-wide contest, his prize is a trip to the middle of nowhere to spend a week at the mansion of Nathan (Isaac), the company's CEO. When he gets there, he finds out that it's not just the boss' house, but a full-blown research facility and that he's there to help with a super-secret project. Nathan has built a robot, whom he named Ava (Vikander), and given it what he says is the most advanced artificial intelligence the world has ever seen. He wants Caleb to see if it passes the Turing Test. In short, Nathan wants to know if Ava can convince Caleb he's interacting with a real human being. The trio is only joined by Kyoto (Mizuno), a maid who speaks no English. Since nothing is as it seems, Caleb trying to figure out what the hell is going on ensues.

Initially, the movie draws us in on the question of can the artificial be made to feel human. It's one that has always fascinated us. However, the story actually turns on another grand question: What makes us human? To answer either of those questions is to inform the other. The film does this, as well. It presents us with things we need answers to only to have those answers lead to more questions. As a result, we feel as if we're watching Caleb fall helplessly down a bottomless rabbit hole. We're aware that he's in deep, but we're just not sure how deep. Whenever we think we've figured out, he drops another level. Domhnall Gleeson does an excellent job making us feel he's truly bewildered by what's happening. Nathan, ever the puppeteer, appears to be holding all the cards.

Referring to Nathan as a puppeteer brings us to the film's ultimate inspiration. Ex Machina clearly owes a lot to the classic fairy tale Pinocchio. Nathan is nothing, if not a sinister, or at least a suspicious, version of Gepetto, pulling as many strings as needed to content his heart. To be fair, neither sinister or suspicious are accurate descriptions of Nathan. He is, however, a man with an obvious god complex. As if to underline this issue and type it in all caps, his home is rigged so that he sees and hears everything. More importantly, he's hellbent on replicating humanity through technology rather than nature. It's as much about challenging the supremacy of whatever deities may exist as it is about making technological advances. Oscar Isaac, rapidly becoming one of my favorite performers, handles the role exceptionally well. His Nathan is the classic tormented genius. What bothers him is not what he doesn't know. He seems to have all the answers. His problem is how to make it so that us mere mortals have no choice but to bow before his greatness.  To do this, he needs a perfect machine, the perfect puppet - one that dances on his string while appearing to be moving of its own free will.


This is where Ava comes in. From the very first time we see her, she puts us in the same position as Caleb. Like him, we're administering her the Turing test. We know that she's a robot, but we're trying to see how human her reactions are. We're checking to see if she really exhibits the human capacity for learning and the depth for emotion. We do this subconsciously by convincing ourselves those are just the things he is looking for without realizing we're doing the same thing. In that sense, the movie's success hinges on whether or not the viewer can align themselves with Caleb. If we can feel his curiosity and frustrations, we'll feel empathy for his peculiar situation. The movie elevates itself further if Ava passes her test and we can relate to her. To what extent do we believe in her humanity? If she manages to rope us in, she becomes more than an inanimate object masquerading as the real thing. She becomes a damsel in distress begging to be saved. We root for her. To engender our sympathy, Alicia Vikander exudes the perfect sense of innocence. She truly feels like a person meeting someone outside of her family for the very first time.

Spectacular visuals aid Vikander's performance. Before we ever meet Ava, her world is set up perfectly. Nathan's home/research facility feels sterile and cold. There seems to be no room for anything other facts, figures, and the things they come together to create. Once we lay eyes on Ava, it's clear she's one of those creations. Her appearance means that she will maintain the awkwardness needed to make us believe that each experience is a new one for her. During a pivotal scene late in the movie, things veer into horror territory with some really creepy imagery that serves to illuminate certain aspects of our tale. From that point on, we're in a different movie than the one we've been watching. To the film's credit, this is not a jarring change, but merely the next step in a logical succession. This isn't to say that it's predictable. It's not. However, what happens makes sense within the context of the story.

It's the speed of those steps, or the lack thereof, that creates the biggest problem of Ex Machina. If you're not totally into it from the outset, it might drag. After all, it's a string of conversations. A number of these exist on an egghead level. That means a lot of deep, philosophical, mostly humorless discussions. They are the sort that regardless of however many of us would like to have, some number less wouldn't mind listening to someone else have it. I find it all fascinating stuff, but would understand if anyone were bored by it. We cruise along for quite some time until the gas pedal is mashed late in the proceedings. It's a little more of a problem because the movie was marketed as sci-fi action flick in the mold of I, Robot. It isn't that, at all. Ex Machina deals with similar themes, but has a lot more on its mind. This is most evidenced by the finale. When this movie ends, we're not sure whether it's a good thing, or not. What does it mean for her? More importantly, what does it mean for us?

22 comments:

  1. Great reivew! This has great visuals, and the finale was simply mind-boggling.

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    1. It was, and in such a good way. Thanks.

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  2. Still trying to work out if you liked it ("enjoyed" is too much?) or not? Personally, I'm hoping this film snags a BP nom at the Oscars (doubtful, knowing those assclowns) and i still rate it as one of the best films so far this year. Yeah, it does ask a whole bunch of questions without providing obvious (or easy) answers, but that's part of this film's charm, I think. Gleeson nails his performance, Oscar is the current golden boy of Hollywood (he's in damn near everything) and as long as Garland keeps making films as thoughtful as this, I'm in for the long haul....

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    1. Sorry about that. I wasn't quite clear enough. I really liked it. Easily my fave of 2015, so far (out of only about 10-15 films, but still). Due to its January release and being a genre film, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that BP nom. Pretty sure it ain't coming.

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  3. I can't wait to see this one. I never got the impression that it was an action flick, but then again, I've never seen a trailer for it...only read reviews and followed production, so I kind of had a handle on what to expect. I almost saw this the other night...and then crying children happened.

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    1. Yeah, I remember the days when crying children stopped the world. Hope you get to see it, soon. I really enjoyed it.

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  4. Great review! This has been one of my favorites of the year so far.

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    1. Absolutely my fave of the few movies I've seen from this year, so far.

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  5. Great review! This is one of my favorites among the movies I've seen lately. I thought the rather slow-paced, cerebral style really worked here.

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    1. That approach worked exceptionally well. I was totally into it all the way through.

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  6. This sounds really interesting, I think I have to see this.

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    1. Nice to meet you, Tizzy! It is very interesting. Hope you give it a go. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Thanks for reading!

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  7. Great review! This is easily one of my favorites of 2015 so far.

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  8. Right now, it's one of my favorite films this year. I look forward to what Alex Garland will do next.

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    1. He has me intrigued, also. Hopefully, whoever he makes his next film for leaves him alone to do as he pleases.

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  9. I really love this one, it's amazing what Garland accomplished in such a small budget. I actually love the slow pace and the deep, philosophical discussions that I find fascinating. It's the kind of thought provoking sci-fi I'd love to see more of, and all three leads are astounding, esp. Vikander.

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    1. I am right with you. Garland hit a home run with this one.

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  10. Glad you enjoyed it so much! I quite liked Ex Machina,though the last act was a tad underwhelming to me given the promise of the first half. I get what you're saying that the pacing could drag for some viewers who might find it too intellectual. Another reviewer wrote the film is absorbing but never crashes through to riveting or shattering(which I agree with)

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    1. I agree that it never crashes, but that's for people like us. I know that due to the way ot was marketed and our expectations of the genre as a whole, some people will tune out when there are long stretches without action.

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  11. I love this movie! I saw this a week after Avengers: Age of Ultron and it thankfully got the bitter taste of AOU out of my mouth. Alicia Vikander is a subtle revelation as Ava and Oscar Isaac stole every scene he was in. I'd love it if he got a strong Best Supporting Actor campaign. But the category is too packed this year. If it can at least get tech stuff, I'd be happy.

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  12. I definitely agree about your comment regarding this film's marketing not quite doing it justice. I thought it was going to be iRobot meets Frankenstein but it really was more. Like you said, this film has a lot more on its mind. I really liked the questions of humanity it posed. It reminds me of a conversation a group of friends and I had. One friend asked that with laws and society's attitude to things changing, is it possible to still draw lines between what is right and wrong. Things that were wrong ten years ago are perfectly acceptable now. Definitions are becoming broader in a lot of places, and completely disappearing in others so how long before the idea of humanity becomes completely borderless? It's an interesting idea, hope we see more movies handling this issue with Ex Machina's insight.

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