Breaking Down This Contemporary Tale Of The Future
DIRECTED BY ALEX GARLAND/2015
Erik Yates: Mankind has had a fascination with the notion of machines being the next step in the evolutionary process, eventually supplanting the human race. Robots, androids, and artificial intelligence have always seemed to be at the forefront of the best kind of science fiction. The fear of their eventual takeover, and our inevitable demise has long been a staple at the box office. James Cameron’s Terminator series perhaps is one of the better-known examples along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, I Robot, and The Matrix.
Writer/Director, Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) looks to join the elite company of the above examples with his directorial debut, Ex Machina. Before diving into the storyline, let me say that I think Alex Garland hit a home run with the casting he was able to get. His protagonist is Domhnall Gleeson who has begun to put together a strong body of work, including Calvary, Unbroken, and About Time, in addition to his work in the Harry Potter series. Also starring, is the virtual chameleon Oscar Isaac, who in the last few years has given us A Most Violent Year, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Drive. Incidentally, both Gleeson and Isaac are slated to appear together in this year’s new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Also, Ex Machina stars both Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son, for a total of 6 films in 2015!), and Sonoya Mizuno (Venus in Eros).
Ex Machina marches along at a slow pace, but uses its time to develop a story that seeks to ask where all of our technology is really heading. From innocent search engine queries, to social media posts, we are slowly sealing our fate as today’s artificial intelligence based machinery is learning everything it needs to know about us, before it is ready to remove us as a threat to its existence. And despite asking big questions that might affect the entire planet, Garland uses the backdrop of a remote and restrictive set location to test the fears we have, along with the capabilities of the technology we have unleashed. In that regard, it seemed to draw some inspiration from the original Alien.
Jim Tudor: Alien is a really interesting parallel, one that hadn’t occurred to me. A lot of people have been quick to compare it to Spike Jonze’s Her, since it’s central storyline involves a young man falling for a feminized computer. But a more apt comparison might be The Bride of Frankenstein. Ex Machina, like all of the above mentioned films, is a great one. It’s science fiction first and foremost, but it’s got a foot deeply set in another style of film, as well. These types of genre-blendings are nothing new, as all the above films do them. But Ex Machina does it differently. And to say exactly which might just be too much of a spoiler.
The plot hinges on what Gleeson’s character, Caleb, decides about Ava, the prototypical A.I. robot played by Vikander. Caleb won this privilege via arbitrary selection at his workplace, a tech corporation where he works as just another programmer. The enigmatic owner of the company, a reclusive bazillionaire genius named Nathan (Isaac) has Caleb flown out to his ultra-vast compound hideaway in the mountains (literally in the mountains), where he then presents him with his special task. Caleb’s “reward” is to spend the week performing a “Turing test” on Ava, Nathan’s latest creation, in order to determine whether she actually harbors true artificial intelligence.
This gives way to many chin-scratching discussions about the nature of intelligence, our relationship with machines, and what the future might hold regarding these things, et cetera. But something else is going on, and it’s not hard to pick up on that from the outset. Caleb has a series of sessions with Ava, during which the film’s deceptively simple atmospheric score (by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow) gives way to Pink Floyd territory, as a beating heart is audible, just a few layers below the rest of the music.
Yes, Caleb thinks Ava is hot. She has an unblemished human face and hands affixed to her lady-curvy mechanical body, which is complete with transparent portions that expose the inner wiring and gears. But clearly, for a tech nerd such as Caleb, that might just be another turn-on. The question then isn’t whether or not his attraction is acceptable or permissible, but rather what to do next. The whole movie develops an engaging cat and mouse aspect, particularly when it comes to Nathan’s character, played so repulsively well by Oscar Isaac.
Erik Yates: Isaac to me is the lynchpin of this whole thing. The man is isolated in his mountainous-based home where a helicopter pilot remarks that they have been flying over the property for the last 2 hours. The sort of wealth that has come through technology has certainly brought privilege, but for Nathan and Caleb, it’s a means towards something greater. And like all such films, Ex Machina reinforces the theology of Blue Oyster Cult’s hit song “Godzilla” when they sing:
“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men…”
With all of their talk of “Turing Tests”, the next stage in evolution, and their ability to control such technology, we find that the creation has a mind of its own, and doesn’t always align itself with its creator’s intentions for it. This is the theme of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden, and if artificial intelligence bears our creative image, then the themes of freedom, choice, and rebellion are going to have to be discussed. Ex Machina puts these cards on the table.
Jim Tudor: I agree, but will also say that Ex Machina is a film that does and says a lot of things. There’s talk of A.I. and what the future might look like (this is a contemporary story, despite the brilliantly art-directed futuristic trappings all around), as well as a hard drive’s worth of thoughts about gender dynamics. But ultimately, if we were to boil it down to one thing (and this is not a spoiler), I’d say that it’s about control. A pretty ruthless, insipid area of control, at that.
In reaching these conclusions, it should be pointed out that Ex Machina takes some turns that could be branded as exploitative. In that way, in terms of what he chooses to depict and how he depicts it, Garland allows his heretofore smart chamber piece to drift explicitly into areas that, up to that point, had been very much itching below the surface of both of its male leads. Ex Machina definitely earns it’s R rating. I’m personally not altogether opposed to how it does so, in terms of it’s late-in-the-game exploitation elements, as they are intellectually justifiable, if only as a male-centric view of what the film is dealing with. That too can be a red flag, but one can’t toss away the fact that this is, after all, a film written and directed by a male, and starring two males. It’s nothing if not darkly honest (as opposed to indulgent) in that respect.
That said, Alicia Vikander steals the show. I do not think that women will be alienated by Ex Machina, even as it inches into Saturn 3 territory. That said, re-actions to the film have been very polarizing, leaning towards the positive. It’s being called “the first Great Movie of 2015”, and that may be true. Ex Machina is not for everyone, but for those looking for an engaging film for grown ups, this is one machine that hits on all cylinders.