Ex Machina is a beautifully crafted film, one that is neither too convoluted for its own good nor too straightforward for its complex, interwoven ideas. It immerses you in a world of visual and thematic contrasts, never letting go as it takes you from automatic to deliberate, from night to day, from machine parts to consciousness, from lush green forests to clinical, windowless rooms. It’s a well drawn, tension building masterpiece that combines wit, intelligence, and great performances as it delves into a plethora of fascinating topics.
The performances are key. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play off each other well, the former a lanky, excited computer programmer with an air of innocence and the latter a muscular savant both defined and hemmed in by his own creation. As expected, Isaac in particular is brilliant, the amount of facial hair yet again changing from his previous movies but the acting ability never wavering. Nathan and Caleb can be seen as stand-ins for much of society, but they’re also fleshed out characters in and of themselves, and their shifting dynamic is one of the most intriguing aspects of the movie. And this dynamic, of course, is influenced by the reason they’re both here: to perform a Turing Test on Ava, Nathan’s new AI creation. Alicia Vikander gives a pitch perfect performance here, precise enough to be seen as a machine and sympathetic enough to be seen as a human, and she and the visual effects team work together to create a truly fascinating character in Ava. It’s a star performance, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.
These performances are so important because the movie is structured around conversations, conversations that shed light on motivations and further the themes of the movie. They have a philosophical air to them, going deeper than the typical “Robots are cool but dangerous!” through line that governs much of sci fi these days, and they tackle topics ranging from gender to art to sexuality to consciousness. “What is consciousness, who can possess it, and does Ava possess it?” the film asks, and it takes us on a ride from there.
-That dance scene, man. Such a surreal and beautiful-looking scene, and while it’s certainly entertaining to watch, it also cements a more uneasy, nightmarish mood moving on from there.
-Ultimately, the main questions of the movie seem to reside in a middle area between the deliberate and the automatic. This middle area is exactly what the discussion of the Jackson Pollock painting revolves around, and it’s exactly what results in the creation of Ava. We see at the end that she is a reflection of certain elements of her creator–just like the Pollock painting reflects its creator–and the line “Fucking unreal” is a perfect encapsulation of the entire Ava-Nathan dynamic. For all his hubris, Nathan’s a guy who talks about the inevitability of his demise–and all of humanity’s, to be honest–so although he’s shocked in that moment when the knife slides in, deep down, he really isn’t surprised at what transpires here. What gets him is the fact that he actually loses control.
-The knife scene itself is handled in a really brilliant manner. Some movies would have it all go down in a brutal and bloody fight scene climax, but this just…happens. That’s the best way I can describe it.
-Does Kyoko have free will at the end? Does she go to that room because someone told her to, or does Nathan underestimate her? Here’s a machine that Nathan viewed as a machine rather than as a human–the lack of talking ability is key–but the machine can learn…
-I like the way the movie handles gender roles, especially the subversion of the white knight trope at the end. Then again, perhaps this is just the audience playing into the notion that Ava is actually a human.
-So, Ava is conscious at the end–then again, how exactly do we measure consciousness?–but she is not necessarily “human”. Empathy is then a big topic of discussion that can be brought up here, and Alex Garland himself has referred to it as a look at selective empathy.
-The montage of the women banging on the doors is extremely chilling. Also, I really like the scene in which Caleb decides to slice up his arm; you might be expecting him to actually be a robot, but this scene confirms he isn’t. Less predictable this way.
-I really wanted–and expected–the final shot to be of Caleb banging away at the door, the red lights surrounding him as he becomes the one entrapped. I think that would’ve been more powerful, but hey, the actual ending shot is still pretty good. Very allegory of the cave-esque. Only thing: how is Ava going to recharge?
Photo Credit: DNA Films, Film4 Productions, Ex Machina