Ex Machina Review SXSW 2015

Alex Garland is no stranger to the big screen nor big ideas. Having penned some of director Danny Boyle’s lauded efforts ( 28 Days LaterSunshine) as well as one of my personal favorite films of the past few years (2012’s superb Dredd), Garland has finally decided to step behind the camera for his directorial debut,  Ex Machina, a minimalist Sci-Fi excursion down the well of creator vs creation and, in the end, which one is truly god.

The film opens on Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), a coder for an internet search engine known as Blue Book, as he has finds himself the winner of an in-house contest. The prize: a week spent with Blue Book’s founder and billionaire CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is quickly whisked away by helicopter to Bateman’s hidden home in the wilderness and upon arrival discovers that there’s much more to his being there than merely bro-time with the big boss. Bateman’s home is in fact a giant, art deco research facility and within it’s walls he has created what he believes to be legitimate walking, talking and, most importantly, thinking A.I. and it’s nestled in the form of an android girl named AVA (Alicia Vikander).

It’s upon this reveal that Bateman’s true intentions, at least his surface ones, come to light. While he believes that AVA is a truly perfect form of artificial intelligence, he has surreptitiously acquired Caleb to “test” her over the next seven days. This test consists primarily of one on one sessions had between AVA and Caleb away from Nathan’s presence but, with cameras located everywhere, still within his all-seeing eye.


These sessions are the real meat of the movie and provide multiple levels to read and enjoy the film. From the very first session, Caleb has developed somewhat of a crush on AVA and AVA has seen Caleb as a sort of escape from her sad and tiny confined life. She informs Caleb that Nathan is a liar and that he shouldn’t trust anything he says. These sessions are then followed up by conversations between Caleb and Nathan, with Caleb never fully revealing everything AVA is telling him and Nathan becoming all the more suspicious. The third level to these meetings is rests with us, the viewers. We’re privy to both sets of conversations yet in reality we’re just as in the dark as Caleb because we don’t know Nathan or AVA’s true intentions outside of what is shown. It’s only as the film patiently unfolds, building upon every growing uneasiness available, that it culminates into a showdown of wit, desire and determination.

Ex Machina has some truly wonderful ideas going on within its cold, clear walls. There’s Nathan with his Dr. Frankenstein complex mixed with his own “creature” that seemingly despises him. Not so much for creating her but for inhibiting her from escaping to a full life, whatever that may be. Caleb is the eternal boy scout. He wants to help Nathan with his work but as he gets closer to AVA he wants to help her more and more. AVA is a story all unto her own and watching her motivations unfold and take shape is fascinating.

Just as much as Caleb is there to test AVA, Nathan seems to be just as eager and pleased to test Caleb. He knowingly has created AVA to be this beautiful girl that he’s hoping will use her feminine charms on Caleb to woo him to her side. Yet, he’s left her incomplete. While her face and hands are covered in “skin” the rest of her body is decidedly robotic, with an upper torso that even exposes her inner workings. This feels deliberate on his part. He could have easily covered AVA entirely and made her a “complete” human, but the test of Caleb possibly falling in love with what is clearly a robot is too much for Bateman to pass up on.

For a first time director, Garland is seemingly already a master of the craft. For a film with such big ideas and impossible questions, the tone remains decidedly intimate. The subject matter in its barest of bones has been done time and again to the point of almost Sci-Fi cliche, yet Garland, with the help of his more than capable cast, is able to project a sense of freshness to the material.

And man, what a cast it is. Oscar Isaac is just churning out next level performances with every role he takes on. With his character of Nathan, he’s somehow able to create a character that is equal parts braniac and jock with a penchant for working out to exhaustion during the day and getting black out drunk at night. He’s at times terrifying and hilarious. He’s all these things and most importantly Isaac is able to make him 100% believable. Not once did I ever remotely question a single motivation of this character. He feels completely organic and it’s that kind of performance that helps nestle this subject matter deeper into realism.

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Not to be outdone is Vikander’s work as AVA. There’s so many ways people have played robots over the years, trying to find that nuance that typically leads to a lack of outward emotion. Here, Vikander is able to pull off the subtleties of an android passing as human but without forgoing an emotional resonance. When AVA tells Caleb that she’s never seen outside the four walls she’s trapped within, you the viewer wants to help her see the world just as much as Caleb does. There’s also a standout bit during one of AVA and Caleb’s sessions where, before Caleb arrives, AVA decides to dress up. It’s a tender moment seeing this creation attempting to be as human as possible and this clearly affects Caleb in a variety of ways, some of which are possibly manipulations on AVA’s part as she hopes to succeed at her own desires. There’s a tremendous amount of ideas and layers going on and Viklander pulls them off effortlessly.

Ex Machina manages the near impossible task of being haunting, heartbreaking and surprisingly hilarious in fairly equal measure. It brings high concepts to a small stage and doesn’t so much as answer the big questions as it does cement them within your mind leaving the viewer to think and decide on their own. It’s littered with brilliant set and production design from the beginning to the end. Garland shows a sure hand and complete understanding of his craft throughout and features blockbuster performances from Oscar Isaac and Alicia Viklander. This is easily one of the must see films of the year.

Ex Machina is now playing in select cities.

out of 5

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