Friday 24 April 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Synopsis is here

I’m currently reading Dataclysm, an irreverent view of data dating, social science and human behaviour by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OK Cupid. The book is a sharp and witty insight into how social networks, search engines and the internet are quickly revealing more about ourselves and our urges than we would like to think. Unfortunately, I saw Ex-Machina while I started reading Dataclysm and I found myself more than slightly unnerved.

Ex-Machina holds two moments for me, which not only feel eerily plausible, but frighteningly close. One conversation is between Nathan (Issac) and Caleb (Gleeson) in which we discover how the female A.I. obtains her knowledge. The other is a grander reveal within the plot, which is almost brushed away like a small aside, yet had me wonder why certain, powerful companies have now poured vast amounts of cash into drones and robots. Ex-Machina doesn’t expand too far from an episode of Black Mirror, however the film’s three central leads, and Garland’s evocative screenplay engages with our anxieties with conversations and mind games in a way that feels fresh as well as frightening. 

Garland’s directional debut, reminiscent of Frankenstein, is a remarkable clash of contrasts. It’s deliberately paced yet we always get the feeling we’re hurtling towards something. Its cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots the film with impressive wide angles, and yet the films isolated locations and limited cast, give a grim sense of claustrophobia, much like The Shining (1980). The film lingers on the form and physique of the female Machina, Ava (Vikander) which it wants us to admire, yet the male characters Nathan and Caleb indulge in profound conversations which not only progress the screenplay organically but hint at the ugliness of human nature. This constant disharmony, which appears in so much great sci-fi, is what drew me into the film.   

The film’s leaning on the male gaze, as observed by some female writers, while feeling problematic to some, actually felt to me as an accurate portrayal of the shallowness of human beings and the ease of how their emotions can be manipulated. Also the lead female character, clearly inhabits the most agency. Garland’s film delivers us an A.I. that not only holds our knowledge but may also make better use of our mistakes and flaws. The most fascinating thing about the film however is how the combination of Vikander’s elegant performance and the great use of the film's premise, like Under the Skin (2014), has the audience question both gender politics and human connection in a deeply absorbing way. From a surface view, the treatment of female characters within the film can be seen as deplorable, and yet that is only if you consider the female characters to be “human”. If the film hits you in the right spot, you go with your gut. I do not mean this as a criticism of female writers who find some of the film's sequences problematic. However, I must stress at, not only the motivations behind the more sinister characters in the movie, but also how well the mechanisms work within the story. Even I felt perturbed by some of the aspects I witnessed in the film. I feel this is because I felt for Ava.

Dominic Gleeson and Oscar Issac create the kind of combative foil you would expect from a feature like this. Issac embraces his inner Victor Frankenstein with added boozing, gym visits and creepy dancing. It is a completely bombastic turn around from his performance in A Most Violent Year (2014). Gleeson brings his likable charm to the table. Caleb’s pining for Ava is believable and his paranoia towards his situation is palatable. Watching the three characters trade blows against each other strangely reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), but the resonance I felt between them was far more effective here than anything I found in films such as Her (2014) or A.I (2001).   

Ex-Machina does what good sci-fi should, which is, despite the more fantastical elements we may witness within the narrative, it never loses touch of the human element. My knowledge of the singularity may be a little light, but I found ideas the film poses to be well presented, while the way the story uses those ideas to toy with its characters and the audience to be thoroughly invigorating. Garland’s debut directional feature stride into those darker areas of our grey matter with the sort of confidence that I wish the likes of Transcendence (2014) could attain. Let’s hope Garland can continue making his science fiction so good that it continues creeps me out when I read my non-fiction.