– Spoiler-Free Review –
It won’t be long before you’re asking who is testing who in Ex Machina, an engaging and thought provoking science-fiction movie with a tightly written script, outstanding performances, and an increasingly chaotic series of events that is not to be missed.
Caleb Smith, a programmer at the search engine company BlueBook, wins a lottery to spend a week with the company’s young, eccentric billionaire CEO Nathan Bateman, who has been developing an A.I., Ava. He wants Caleb to be the human component in its Turing test, which will help them decide if Nathan has truly created A.I.
Caleb Smith is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who has had a knack for coming off as an easily likable everyday-man-type character in most of his parts and does so again in this film, giving us copious reasons to be invested in his character’s plight throughout. His growing obsession with Ava is understandable, not just because how pretty the actress is, but because their dialogue is relatable, despite the situation, and comes off better than most films who’s focus is romance. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman with a very convincing conviction, making reclusive and eccentric seem like a second pair of shoes he can always easily wear. There’s a rawness to Isaac’s performance, not just because Nathan’s hitting the bottle hard everyday, but due to the nuanced duplicity Nathan shows Caleb. Their conversations increasingly feature loads of double-talk as they slowly begin to wonder who is pulling who’s chain and for what reason, helping slowly build the tension between them and for the viewer.
As important as the interactions between Nathan and Caleb are, none are more important than Caleb’s time with Ava. Alicia Vikander stars as the A.I. and she uses her dancing background to give a childlike innocence mixed with small hints of mechanical rigidness to Ava’s every movement, while her inflections and facial expressions hint at something so much more. For most of the film you can clearly see the robotic features of her body, but the way she engages Caleb makes it difficult for both Caleb and the viewer to not see a real woman hiding in her features somewhere. Her performance is critical to helping the film achieve what it’s setting out to do and Alicia nails every bit. Out of all the strong performances, Alicia’s was my favorite and I would say the best of the film; Had someone been picked who didn’t bring the same mentality to the role, the whole premise of the movie, and the goals the filmmakers had with the script, would’ve been for naught.
Alex Garland, who’s been involved with such films in the past as 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Sunshine, Dredd, and the video game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, wrote and (for the first time) directed Ex Machina. A lot of his work has relied heavily on strong character interactions and that characters and plot drive each film’s tension, instead of outside sources, something which is used to wonderful affect throughout Ex Machina. The suspense, building paranoia, and dread definitely depend on the characters first and foremost here, as their decisions and how they let the events of the film affect them make the entire thing worth watching. It’s thanks to the tight directing and writing that the performances are so strong, something inherently necessary to sell the pretty evocative ending.
Here are a few other things:
- For the editing and visuals, I have to say my favorite aspect was the gorgeous shots of the nature surrounding Nathan’s mountain retreat shortly before another session with Ava. It seems to create a subconscious connection between the beauty of nature and Ava, as another way to ensure the ending hits viewers like it should.
- I’ll confess I only watched the trailer when it first came out because I knew Gleeson and Isaac were to be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I wanted to see them in other works first, especially Isaac. In exchange, I ended up with quite the movie to watch.
- The role of Kyoko (played by Sonoya Mizuno) was a little on the underdeveloped side and just a little too obvious.
- There are some really freaky images in the third act and they might just be what keeps you up at night.
Ex Machina‘s ending subverts many of our basic notions, to the point where you wouldn’t be crazy to wonder if the film made you subconsciously perform the Turing test on all the characters within, seeing as you’ll likely be duped as much as they were at the end. It’ll leave you questioning just what you’d consider human and it’s a thought that’ll stay with you for days, weeks, and months after the credits roll. For a film that sets out to test your preconceived notions and use them against you, it achieves the job wonderfully and then some. Do not pass up an opportunity to see this heady sci-fi film.
+ Stellar performances
+ Effective, suspenseful atmosphere
+ Evocative ending
+ Will stick with you long after it’s over
+ Simple, but pointed imagery
+ Convincing special effects
– Kyoko’s underdeveloped role