Review: Ex Machina
By Floyd Rock
Writer Alex Garland published his first novel, The Beach, in 1996. The book was met with a variety of praise, many calling it a quintessential Generation X literary work. Director Danny Boyle made a screen adaptation of the novel a few years later and ever since Garland has gravitated towards film productions. His first screenplay was an original work, 28 Days Later, also for Danny Boyle and later wrote scripts for Sunshine, adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and 2012’s Dredd. Ex Machina marks Garland’s directorial debut as well as his return to penning an original work rather than adapting an existing novel or comic. In Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer working for a company that designed and implemented a massively popular search engine called Bluebook. From a random selection process he is chosen to visit the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in a secluded mountain research facility. When Caleb arrives Nathan reveals that he has been working on an artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to administer to Ava a Turing Test, an examination of a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior indistinguishable from that of a human being. Caleb’s first interactions with Ava go well but the process becomes more complicated when sudden random power outages begin occurring at the facility and Caleb is led to believe that Nathan is hiding more from him than he’s allowed to know.
Garland uses the interview sessions between Caleb and Ava to cleanly structure his film. As the sessions become more personal, for both Ava and Caleb, any attempts the picture may make to present itself as a film about awakening humanity in artificial intelligence become clear to be a bluff. Just as the plot hides its turns and veiled motivations to be revealed later this is more a thriller designed around the façade of free will than a science fiction drama about finding humanity in robotics. The film isn’t concerned with separating humanity from robotics and then bestowing those qualities on to an advanced artificially intelligent construct. Rather than humanizing Ava the film levels the field between man and machine by expressing how human conditioning, vices, and manipulation can be used as strong programing devices for people as mathematic inputs are for computers. With its simple framing the movie is able to move steadily, with interview discussions and conversations between Caleb and Nathan afterwards to drive it. The actors and the script immerse the viewer in a smart analytical, or at least theoretical, science fiction thriller that doesn’t often falter narratively until the end, where a few twist revelations are delivered in curt fashion and in succession.
The movie gives the impression, with its simple and neat structuring, that Garland designed it that way to make it more manageable as his directorial debut. It’s a shame because it’s apparent that there are some interesting ideas flurrying within it trying to break free, contained within that manageable structure. It’s as if the picture is like the research facility itself boxed in its own square confines and gridded corridors. The primary moment when Garland breaks out of his own restraint is the movie’s most stimulating sequence and wildest cinematic image. I’m speaking of course of Nathan’s sudden choreographed dance with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), his only assistant working with him at the facility, which is sure to become infamous among fans of the film. But the scene’s visual joys aren’t its only strength, because what makes the scene so remarkable is how it reaffirms themes from the movie while also serving as a flourish of directorial style. It’s a moment that takes Caleb by surprise, a scene of seeming spontaneity but the synchrony of the dance between Nathan and Kyoko confirms the notion of action by design, even impromptu dance comes to fruition through conditioning and preparation. Garland’s film could use more of these moments, both to empower the complexities of his ideas and to give the screen more sequences that are as bold and vibrant.
Conceptually it’s an intelligent picture and it’s relatively exciting and intriguing but by the end it may be disappointing to have gained little from its conclusion, at least little more than what was presented throughout much of the film already. Garland receives some strong performances from his principle cast with Isaac giving the best with his enigmatic portrayal of Nathan, wrapped in drink, genius, and dark detachment. With his experience in writing Garland is certainly relying on that to propel most of the picture. It’s unfortunate that many of his promising ideas aren’t delivered with as exuberant cinematic flare as the previously mentioned scene. But this is just his first picture as director and if he continues striving for equally intelligent subject matter he certainly has potential to grow as a visual storyteller, to match his experience as a literary one.