Ex Machina marks Alex Garland’s first foray into directing, making the film his first “proper” auteur piece. And while the film’s exploration into the near-future of artificial intelligence is dark and unnerving (in that signature Garland way), it is unfortunate that it isn’t as good as the other films in the genre.
Ex Machina (coming from the Latin phrase Deus Ex Machina, meaning “God From The Machine”) is about a young IT intern named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who after winning a prize from his company gets to spend a week with its reclusive owner Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac). It is during this week that Nathan shows off his newest invention to Caleb, an almost fully functioning AI called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who starts to interact with Caleb.
First off, I like Alex Garland. Whether it’s The Beach, 28 Days Later or even Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, the man knows how to write a compelling story, and that is one of Ex Machina’s strongest points. The dialogue spoken between our three leads (there are other characters but most of the film is spent within these three company) has been planned out methodically, with many references to science, art, religion and philosophy, with scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and his infamous “I have become death” quote from the Bhavagad Gita being used or Nathan’s fascination with Jackson Pollock’s creative process. But fundamentally, that is also Ex Machina’s problem. It feels like a grab-bag of many ideas that it doesn’t get to carve out its own ideas on the genre, instead using other people and themes to parallel the characters in the film.
On to a more positive note, the acting in the film is top-notch, with Alicia Vikander performing a standout role as Ava. Her time spent as a ballet dancer can be seen throughout her movement in the film, to the point where it looks like she almost glides across the modernist sets. Oscar Isaac is also worthy of mention as Nathan, who seems to be reprising his role from The Two Faces of January, of a man who is devilishly charming yet there is something brewing under the surface. Domhnall Gleeson meanwhile, seems to be getting type casted in the quiet role again. He’s a perfectly fine actor in Ex Machina, but after About Time, Calvary and his stint in Black Mirror he does seem to be filling the role of a shy, socially awkward character, and it would be nice to see him branch out into a different role.
The film does present some of Garland’s signature unnerving moments, one scene that springs to mind is a montage when Caleb finally realises what Nathan is actually up to in his research facility and why he was integral to the creation of Ava, ending with a freeze frame of a security camera which shows a picture that is quite unsettling (no spoilers). Garland does these scenes well and they fit with the overall tone of the film, with the ending suitably Garland-esque, which stays with you long after the film has ended, leaving you pondering the aspects that were left hanging.
Overall, Ex Machina wants to be a film about big ideas, but comes off as not being as smart as it thinks it is. With the aforementioned Jackson Pollock painting and conversation about it (again no spoilers) becoming a recurring motif, or the fact that there are seven “sessions” of Ava coming to life (I see what you did there with the number Garland), it feels like there was something bigger waiting in the wings but then was never actually revealed.
This does however; signal the start of a trend in films, with Big Hero 6 before it and Chappie coming in March, 2015 seems to be the year of the Artificial Intelligence.
Score: 7/10, Interesting and laced with meaning, but feels like there is something lacking.