Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikandery
Director: Alex Garland
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
An argument can be made for writer-director Alex Garland's directorial debut being a probing dissection of artificial intelligence, singularity, the God complex, gender roles, and whether or not alcoholism is wired into the DNA of eccentric billionaires, but this review will not be making such a case. Honestly, Garland (who wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and adapted the Kazo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go for director Mark Romanek) is a skilled visual stylist with a gift for conjuring moody atmosphere, but his writing here is more superficial than thought-provoking. This is a film based upon traps, reversals, and withholding information; a sci-fi B-movie with lofty aspirations, and something that could work for moviegoers growing weary of CGI-induced bombast and brainless action sequences. While Garland's slow-burn approach is admirable, the thematic thrust of the narrative becomes apparent early on, and when it eventually dovetails into predictable misogyny and a cautionary tale about patriarchal power, Ex Machina buckles under the weight of it's own unwieldy ideas.
Truthfully, some may claim that the film is actually about female empowerment and how egotistical males objectify the opposite sex for their own primitive urges, but Garland's screenplay isn't really incisive enough to embrace that notion. Instead, the story of how a shy programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), gets called to the hermetically-sealed estate of genius entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in order to enact the Turing Test on his created A.I. robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), lays out all of the pieces of the puzzle up front and without apology. This isn't to say that the film is overly predictable (there's a number of semi-surprising "twists" late in the proceedings), but rather, that Garland doesn't trust the audience enough to subvert expectations of genre filmmaking. First of all, how many more sci-fi pictures concerning A.I. are we going to get where rapidly changing technology is structured around the fear of losing control and the end of human life as we know it? Garland's modus operandi throughout is to slowly tease out the dread; playing on our collective techno-phobias and the age-old God complex motif, and while this works initially in terms of tone, it eventually grows tedious. A more interesting notion; explored beautifully in Spike Jonze's Her, is that such a situation might not be such a terrible thing after all, but rather a means of further understanding our own limited humanity.
Another thing that sets Ex Machina firmly in the wheelhouse of familiarity is how it gives us yet another extrapolation of the way patriarchal culture breeds misogyny. Deep inside Nathan's lair; amidst all of the workout equipment, Jackson Pollack paintings, and fully stocked mini bars, is an array of impressively designed nude female robots. The film's gratuitous nudity, which serves little purpose other than to reveal (shocker) Nathan's testosterone-fueled bro machismo, is indicative of the film's boringly safe depiction of the sexes. Why not cast Isaac as the robot and Vikander as the programmer and perhaps another female actor as the brilliant creator? Such a scenario could have been fascinating in terms of gender roles and how sexuality clouds judgement. Additionally, because a women would likely never react to a male prototype in the simplistic way portrayed here, Ex Machina could have been boldly progressive.
Still, there are silver linings in this high-concept brew, and there's no denying that as a visual/auditory experience, the film impresses. There's a Kubrick thing going on here in terms of style; from the rigid camera moves, sterile coldness of Nathan's immaculately designed compound, to the flashes of stark red glowing inside claustrophobic quarters. The sound design too, is dense and all-encompassing, providing a steady low vibrating hum over most scenes, occasionally punctuated by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's effectively minimalistic score. As a amalgamation of Bill Gates and a douche frat boy, Isaac oozes charisma and off-kilter energy; bringing a much-needed playfulness to the mostly somber atmosphere, which also includes some sweet Disco dance moves. Gleeson is also solid in the audience stand-in role, but his character is mostly a construct in order to shift our sympathies toward Ava, whose played with icy perfection by newcomer Vikander. Caleb's quick transformation from nerdy computer geek to heart-on-his-sleeve romantic before descending into something much more sinister, is also not that convincing. The film's best scenes; such as a lovely moment where Ava tries on a dress and a heartfelt monologue by Caleb about his childhood, are handled delicately, but too much of the film's last half merely descends into alarmist red-herrings and goes exactly where we expected it to.
The obvious rebuttal to the claim that Ex Machina represents reductive portraits of gender roles is that most tech billionaire masterminds are indeed male and that the third act turns things into a subversively feminist take down of the patriarchal system. This, though, is a rather simplistic reading of the film and doesn't take into account that as a writer, Garland could have gone any way he wanted with the premise. The blurred line between human and machine, soul and sentience, and whether or not man should play god are all themes explored before in superior pictures (A.I., Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Garland doesn't really offer anything novel to the conversation, nor does he take genre cliches and twist them on their heads to offer us a fresh way of looking at sexuality and gender. Instead, things go down with a number of late act reveals in which nearly every character motivation reeks of contrivance. Nathan's alcoholism, for example, hints at demons buried under the veneer of isolation and faux-braggadocio posturing, but that too, is simply turned into a plot point. This is all the more disappointing since Garland has created a marvelously evocative world in which to set his three central characters.
As a chamber piece, Ex Machina is nominally effective, but it could have been profound had Garland adjusted his point of view. Though he's adamantly claimed in interview's that Ava is the film's protagonist, he never allows a female point of view to be constructively utilized, especially since Ava is never really human to begin with. What we are left with; after all of Caleb and Nathan's philosophical conversations and Garland's theoretical mind games, is a strikingly photographed, well-acted thriller that basically boils down to men being sexist creeps and robots raging against the machine. Not exactly forward thinking science fiction, but that's simply one sentient being's opinion.