A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]

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5 thoughts on “A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

  1. “Ex Machina” B+. Very solid film here from the genius that is Alex Garland. Great to see him enter the world of film difrecting after being a renowned screen writer and novelist. This guy pretty much has one of the most innovative, brilliant, and intelligent minds on the non acting side of film going today. I’ll read/watch anything the guy puts out in the future. Loved the tone of this film, with that futuristic feel but in a modern setting. Oscar Isaac once again a great performance, only a matter of time before this guy gets nominated for Oscars on a routine basis. One of the better films I have seen this year.

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  2. I think we can both agree on this film as being one of the more intelligent, brainier, thought-provoking Sci Fi films since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” in 2009. I’ve always been a fan of Garland’s screenplays that he penned for Danny Boyle throughout the last 16 years (though admittedly I can’t say I was a big fan of “The Beach”). But “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” are two of my most favorite Boyle films, coincidentally also written by Garland. As stated it was just a matter of time where he made his transition from screenwriter to the director’s chair. I’m just surprised it took this long. And I couldn’t agree with you more about Oscar Isaac. The guy just keeps churning in one good role after another. As does Brendan Gleeson’s son Domhnall, who’s done solid work in both last year’s “Frank” and now this. Also, hats off to Alicia Vikander, who I was previously unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film but who I thought was expertly cast in her role as an A.I. Great soundtrack too by the two guys from Portishead. Currently stands as my favorite film of the year with only “Eden” and “Ugly” trailing behind it.

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  3. Re: your comment on Moon – I thought Moon was pretty terrible. But I did like Ex Machina quite a bit, especially for not really liking Sci Fi movies all that much. I’m not a fan of Sci Fi & thought this was engaging & thought provoking. Alicia Vikander is extremely pretty, wow – I had previously never heard of her. On the year, I’d put it right behind “Results” and grade it at about an 85/B

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  4. I should have probably added to my comment above that I thought Ex Machina was extremely clever, thought-provoking, complex, & extremely well executed. I also agree with Brendon’s remark that Oscar Isaac was phenomenal in this; although I am not very familiar with him as an actor from any of his previous work

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  5. I couldn’t agree more with both your and Brandon’s comments regarding this film. It’s a landmark achievement in a genre I personally love but which unfortunately produces only a handful of quality entries but every few years (the aforementioned “Moon” and “District 9” being the other 2 Science Fiction films that I have adored that have come out this past decade). I too thought Oscar Issac was fantastic. He’s another actor I’ve been championing for who has been great in almost every role he’s been in over the past 5 years (“Drive”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and “A Most Violent Year” come to mind). He’s another talented and versatile young actor in his thirties, like Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, who seems destined to win an Oscar in the years to come. I genuinely enjoyed just about every component of it from its original and intelligent script, to its casting (Vikander is about to break out into something big after her strong work here), an unpredictable plot that constantly keeps the viewer guessing, to its dazzling cinematography and wonderful score. This film currently stands as the best film I’ve seen so far this year (in an admittedly somewhat weak year so far for commercial film imo). With a slew of interesting looking films that are still yet to be released, many of which are just awaiting fall/winter Oscar season release dates, I’ll be interested to see how this one holds up at year’s end.

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