A Review of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina: An Engrossing and Idea-Driven Sci-Fi Drama

Ex Machina review

Film: Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Primary Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
US Release Date: 10 April 2015

I hadn’t seen a movie on a screen bigger than my laptop in forever (like 3 weeks), so I forced myself to make time for a trip to the theater last weekend. When I saw what was playing, I immediately choose to see Ex Machina. After all, Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander have recently become some of my favorite actors, and who doesn’t love a film about a robots that blurs the line between the human and the artificial?

But, before we get to the review, I thought I’d let you know that I am now a film columnist for Side B Magazine’s blog. Side B “believes that all people have the right to read, see, and hear voices that affirm their identity,” and I am excited to be writing for them. Not everything I write here will appear on Side B, and anything I do write for Side B (including this review) will probably show up here eventually.

And Now for the Review
The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest at work, which gives him a chance to spend a week at the very private and strangely beautiful subterranean home of the company’s CEO, a reclusive-alcoholic-genius-billionaire named Nathan (a bearded Oscar Issac). He does not initially realize it, but in entering Nathan’s residence, Caleb also enters a sort of underworld in which he will be used, manipulated, and brought to the brink of madness; by signing an NDA agreeing not to tell anyone about whatever it is that Nathan has to show him, he also seals his own fate.

What (who?) Nathan has to show him is Ava, a strangely beautiful and incredibly captivating humanoid robot who Nathan (the brain behind the world’s largest search engine) has imbued with artificial intelligence (and possibly even sexuality). Once Caleb agrees not to share anything Nathan tells him about his work, Caleb asks the young coder to help him conduct a sort of Turing test. Conceptualized by Alan Turing, such a test requires a human to interact with a machine and is used to determine whether or not that machine can pass for human. Caleb agrees and proceeds to have daily “sessions” with Ava, which Nathan watches from another room via cctv.

In the end, it all makes for a subtly unnerving and perfectly engrossing film—which has gotten into my head unlike just about anything else that I’ve seen this year. No, this is not a heart-pounding film, and it may even bore some viewers. That said, the film is, above all, a testament to how thoroughly interesting and how human the sci-fi genre can be, especially when it’s allowed to exist independently of the chase sequences and the fight scenes that our culture has come to associate with it.

Written and directed by established novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a visually arresting, well-acted, and thought-provoking sci-fi drama that viewers will be hard-pressed to forget. Though imperfect, the film is also a wonderfully promising directorial debut from Garland, and I for one hope that he will continue to express himself on the screen as well as on the page.

One of the places where Ex Machina shines the brightest is in its layered script, which (much like Ava) manages to be elegant, alluring, and deeply unsettling all at once. The film is built on concepts and queries, not on actions, and it takes it’s time saying what it has to say. In progressing slowly, Ex Machina gives viewers time to latch on to and to truly consider the various questions that it is interested in asking. The film’s deliberately slow pace (which, come to think of it, is not at all unlike Ava’s measured and oddly graceful gait) also enhances its ability to get under the skin and gives viewers time to be affected by its blurring of various seemingly fundamental boundaries. As interesting as Ava is to look at it (the VFX that bring her to life are incredible), Ex Machina is not a film that’s built on spectacle, and it doesn’t feel quite right to call it a thriller either. It’s an idea-driven sci-fi drama, and it’s a pretty damn good one at that.

In addition to the line between man and machine—and, more importantly, what defines the human—the film is also interested in questions of gender, of sexuality, and of privacy. While much of the drama in the film includes Caleb’s interactions with Ava, Ex Machina is also interested in the ways that humans interact with more common forms of technology (cell phones, the internet, etc.) and in the ways that that technology may or may not be interacting with us.

After its script, Ex Machina’s greatest strength lies it in its performances. Alicia Vikander (who is fantastic in A Royal Affair) is excellent in the film. Her performance is the one on which Ex Machina’s success depends the most heavily, and she bears that weight beautifully. As Ava, she is gorgeous, naïve, calculating, and quietly intimidating all at once. She is fluid and she is fascinating, and she manages to convey a great deal of thought and emotion through subtle changes in her face and speech. Just as she commands Caleb’s full attention whenever she is in his sight, she also makes it just about impossible for viewers to look away from her.

Oscar Isaac (surprising no one) also does good work in the film. His performance in Ex Machina is not necessarily the most impressive one he has given, but it’s precisely what Garland’s film call for. As the often opaque Nathan (who is a sort of computer-scientist-meets-Victor-Frankenstein-meets-Bluebeard figure), he gives a complex and fully realized performance that is intense without being overblown.

While there is nothing really wrong with Domhnall Gleeson’s performance, he is somewhat overshadowed by his co-stars. Here, as in Frank, he is perfectly watchable, and he demonstrates a clear proclivity for playing everyman characters who are essentially stand-ins for the audience; but that doesn’t change the fact that Caleb is the last of Ex Machina’s characters that viewers are likely to find themselves talking about after the credits roll.

Maybe its the arresting visuals, the eerie music, the interest in sexuality, and the somewhat cold and distant tone, but Ex Machina actually feels a little bit like Under the Skin (which is both spectacular and spectacularly disturbing). No, Ex Machina isn’t as obscure as Under the Skin, nor does it rely quite as heavily on that which is below the surface, but it does possess a certain more abstract layer meaning that is never quite spoken aloud. However, even though Ex Machina may not spell everything out for its viewers, it is not esoteric either.

In fact, perhaps one way to understand the film is as certain contemporary revisiting of Frankenstein in which the monster is beautiful rather than repulsive and in which the creator is more interested in keeping his creation under his control than he is in running away from it. (Perhaps that’s what happens in a patriarchal society when the creation is female.)

It’s probably the English major in me, but I don’t think I could properly review this film without mentioning the title. “Ex machina” is typically only heard in English as part of the larger Latin phrase, “deus ex machina” (or “god from a machine”). In literature, this phrase is used to refer to a plot device (like the eagles in Tolkien), which suddenly and improbably fixes a problem that previously seemed all but impossible to resolve. By the end of Ex Machina it becomes clear that, if there is a deus ex machina in the film, it is Ava herself.

As intellectually and as aesthetically strong as the film is (it features a number of truly stunning images), Ex Machina does have a few weaknesses, which—lest I come across as an uncritical critic—I feel compelled to mention. While the patience with which the film presents its material is mostly a good thing, there are places in Ex Machina where the plot slows a bit more than it should, and the ending drags on a little longer than would be ideal. Another issue that may haunt the film is that is premise is not especially original (its presentation of that premise might be, but that’s a separate issue). As positively as I feel about Ex Machina and as mesmerizing as the film is, some are bound to be underwhelmed by it; I suspect that this will prove especially true for those who refuse to brave its depths.

Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear what you thought of Ex Machina. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. Come next Oscar season, this film will surely be lost in the shuffle, but, at this point, it’s one of the best of the year.

5 thoughts on “A Review of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina: An Engrossing and Idea-Driven Sci-Fi Drama

    • I understand what you mean, but I am also inclined to disagree. If you look at the film from Ava’s perspective (instead of Caleb’s), what she does seems pretty justified. On top of that, Nathan and Caleb (the only real ‘human’ characters in the film) are both pretty selfish (Caleb cares about Ava, because he is attracted to her, but he has no interest in freeing Kyoko. Meanwhile, Nathan is manipulative and builds robot women to imprison them as sex slaves). This would seem to indicate that humans are much more inclined to serve themselves than they are to show empathy. Of course, this is a film that invites multiple readings, and it’s ending is open-ended enough that it can be read in a number of ways.

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