This isn’t a review, more a collection of thoughts on the movie, as such it does contain PLOT SPOILERS.
The central theme of James Cameron’s seminal Sci-Fi movie, The Terminator is a war between man and machine. The premise, is that the AI (artificial intelligence) created by man became Sentient, man pulled the plug, machine didn’t want to die so fought back. Written and directed by author and screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina takes a different look, at the idea of a sentient robot.
It is Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) express goal to create a sentient being the way Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein did. As with Frankenstein, it asks the question, by creating life does one becomes god. To its credit the film doesn’t get bogged down in the philosophy letting the ideas linger in the viewers mind after the film has finished. Caleb’s (Domhnall Gleeson) part in the story is to ascertain if Nathan has succeed by way of a variation on the the Turing test. By talking to and questioning Nathan’s creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) Caleb must decide if she is sentient or just faking it. The analogy of a chess computer that Caleb uses helps us, the audience keep up with the problems of the test. It is to the credit of Garland that he can keep the viewer up to pace with minimal exposition and without making us feel stupid.
It is explained in the set-up that she is a robot and that Caleb knows she is a robot is central to the test. The bar is set seemingly impossibly high, he knows that she is a robot and can see that she is a robot but she must be able to pass as human. The story is very much from the point of view of Caleb and as with so many well told stories the main character is behind the audience but not so far behind that we exasperated with the plot. He realises that the test isn’t what he thinks it is thus creating conflict between the character and tension in the story. But the agenda is kept at just enough arms length for the viewer to think they know what is going to happen but not be sure until it plays out. As Ava first questions, then flirts with Caleb the inevitable questions come up, is she flirting because she likes him or because she is programmed to flirt. If she is flirting because she likes him, does she like him because she has the emotional capacity to like someone, or because she is programmed to like him. If she has emotions are they a sign of consciousness or is she programmed to exhibit the mechanics of emotions. To quote Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator “God, you can go crazy thinking about all this”. But the rabbit hole goes that little bit deeper, just as you think the movie isn’t going to ask the Deckard/Blade Runner question of Caleb, it asks the question and threatens to take the story in a whole new direction. This is only a small part of the story and is only touched upon, but it is hugely significant, again letting the ideas linger in the viewers mind.
Possibly the cleverest thing about the film is the story, or more to the point, the storytelling and the simplicity of it. You could remove the Sci-Fi and the philosophical elements and set it as a classic Film Noir, with a femme fatale, her shady husband and the young dupe staying with them for the weekend. If you look at it from that point of view, it isn’t a new story, it is one told many times but as Caleb describes in the film, the film itself is the magicians attractive assistant distracting us from the simplicity of the plot. To return to the Sci-Fi, the end is nicely tied up but it does leave a lot of questions. Most notably, who is the hero, who is the villain? Are there any heroes or villains? We don’t know for absolutely sure, just as we don’t know if Ava actually passed the test(s) or simply fulfilled her programming.
Interestingly as a first time director who started as novelist then a screenwriter, Garland isn’t obsessed with clever dialogue, he is often willing to tell his story with wordless visuals, an idea that many directors never master. The philosophical questions that he asks aren’t new to Garland, in his second (and possibly my favourite) of his novels, The Tesseract, he uses the giant metaphor of the ‘tesseract’, a four-dimensional hypercube. In that story he is looking more into the perception of cause and effect on people than the deeper questions of Ex Machina but the two works (the 1998 novel The Tesseract, not the Oxide Pang film adaptation) fit well together.
I have said all this without mentioning how beautifully shot or well acted the film is. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac have been impressing hugely varied films for a few years now and again impress here, but Alicia Vikander, is the real star of the film. Her performance is totally mesmerising. This is best captured in her poise, her stillness as well as her movement, this is possibly a testament to he past as a ballerina. When she moves, she never looks robotic, but it isn’t quite human either. Nominated for BAFTA’s rising star award in 2013, she missed out to Juno Temple in the public vote. Expect to see a lot more of her, Testament of Youth is out now and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Tulip Fever are all set for release this year. Based on this performance I am looking forward to seeing more of her.
As the Ex Machina is compared to the work of Kubrick, Scott, Cameron and Lang it will be interesting to see how the film ages and how is stands up to repeat viewings. For now I am happy to report that Alex Garland has delivered far more than I expected of him as a first time director and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
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