Ex Machina is Stylish, Intriguing

EX MACHINA  (2015)
Directed by Alex Garland
DNA Films/A24, 108 minutes, R (language, nudity)
* * *

Alex Garland doesn't foresee a rosy future. Ex Machina marks his directorial debut, but previously he has written scripts for dystopian future films such as 28 Days Later (a killer virus), Never Let Me Go (organ harvesting from clones), and Dredd (cops with instant-sentencing powers). But then, a guy whose heroes include Wittgenstein, Ray Kurzweil, Stanley Kubrick, and post-apocalyptic video games can't really be expected to be a rosy-eyed optimist, can he?

Ex Machina derives its name from the Greek drama device deus ex machina in which gods made their appearance by being lowered onto the stage by cranes. When gods appeared, it was seldom a good thing for mere mortals. Neither was it a good thing when hubris struck, that reckoning for arrogant pride in which humans behave in ways reserved for deities. This film takes us to a not-so-distant future in which a corporate entity called Bluebook (!) has perfected data mining. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson—Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) is doing coding for Bluebook, when his screen flashes with the exciting news that he has been chosen to spend a week with Bluebook's reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, last seen in Inside Llewyn Davis). So it's a helicopter ride deep into Norway's mountain glades to hang out with Nathan.

The character of Nathan is a mash of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page–that is, equal parts genius and sociopath. Nathan's keycard-activated/security camera-heavy compound is remote for a reason: he's a misanthrope alone in his sprawling eco-paradise except for a housekeeper/sex partner named Kyoko (Sonya Mizuno), who speaks no English. He is unsure whom (if anyone) he can trust with a big secret: his advanced experiments in AI (Artificial Intelligence). How advanced? Caleb is allegedly on site to see if his prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass the Turing Test. Fans of Blade Runner will recognize the Turing Test as the method by which one is supposed to be able to determine if a being is an android or fully human. Nathan is so confident of his creation that only Ava's face and hands are humanoid in appearance—the rest of her comely body is a see-through frame of sensors, circuitry, and machine parts. That setup has drawn comparisons to Frankenstein, which is mostly apt, though Ava is essentially Star Trek's Mr. Data with the elusive emotion chip in place. Like Frankenstein, though, we suspect something more sinister is afoot and that hubris will rear its head.

Ex Machina is psychologically tense and stylish. It's also very claustrophobic, though, as most of it unfolds within Nathan's sterile retreat, especially its clean rooms and windowless areas. There are reasons for this that make plot sense, but we the viewers often feel as if we need some fresh air. The acting is good, though Isaac's dark side is way too obvious and Gleeson overplays the naïf role. Score two for the ladies, as both Vikander and Mizuno make the best of what they are given. The script is rather male-centric, though again there are plot reasons that make internal sense.

Ex Machina garnered decent reviews and it doubled its $15 million price tag, but it stalled as a sci-fi niche film in both the US and UK markets–perhaps because Gleeson lacks star power, or perhaps because such a film invites comparisons to the vastly superior Blade Runner or the heart-thumping action of I, Robot.  Or maybe it's because we can too easily infer where deus ex machina and hubris will take us. At heart it's about whether, metaphorically speaking, we are building a better hammer or if, literally, we are planting the seeds of human destruction. And don't we all love our little electronic buddies too much to consider the second option?   

Rob Weir

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