Review – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

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39 comments

  1. sweetarchive · February 16, 2015

    Looks like an amazing film!

    • Three Rows Back · February 17, 2015

      It’s pretty good, not amazing, but thought-provoking.

  2. theipc · February 16, 2015

    BOOBS!

  3. Andrew · February 16, 2015

    This sounds really interesting. I’m not always sold on these sci-fi films that feel like carbon copies of one another, but this looks special, so I’m all for it. Great review!

    • Three Rows Back · February 17, 2015

      Thank you Andrew. Garland is a great writer first and foremost (28 Days Later/Sunshine/Dredd among others – not bad!) and he invests a lot into this. As a debut directorial effort it’s pretty impressive.

  4. le0pard13 · February 16, 2015

    On my must-read see list. Thanks, Mark.

  5. mettelray · February 16, 2015

    Saw the trailer yesterday and I was so interested! Besides, I like Gleeson based on that one rom-com he did.. 😀

    • Three Rows Back · February 17, 2015

      Was that About Time? Never saw that (not a massive Richard Curtis fan). He’s a good actor, not great, but he does what he does with some panache.

      • mettelray · February 18, 2015

        Yes it was.. I was too lazy to look it up. I like Curtis.. that’s probably why I like Gleeson now.

      • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2015

        Fair dues!

  6. Mark Walker · February 17, 2015

    Fine work amigo! I’m quite looking forward to this. Garland often does well in his writing duties and I’m intrigued to see how he fares directing. It helps that Isaac is one of my favourite actors these days too. But for the life of me, I have no idea which other Sci-Fi you’re referring to 😉

    • Three Rows Back · February 17, 2015

      Ha ha! Yeah, whatever could that be! His screenwriting career has been pretty top-notch so far (the writer of Dredd gets my vote!) and if this is anything to go by he has a decnt directing career ahead of him. Thanks as always Mark.

  7. ruth · February 17, 2015

    Great review Mark! I’m keen on seeing this as I always love the man vs machine story. I was impressed by the tiny-budgeted British film The Machine that deals with a similar theme. Nice to see Oscar Isaac getting more prominent work, as is Gleeson. Vikander seems to be everywhere these days, I’ve only seen her in Anna Karenina so far.

    • Three Rows Back · February 18, 2015

      Ah, thank you as always Ruth. I thought you’d like The Machine; that has our good friend Toby in doesn’t it?! Vikander is great (and not just because she’s rather lovely, ahem), while Isaac adds another string to his impressive bow.

  8. fernandorafael · February 17, 2015

    Great review! Super excited for this one 🙂

  9. Naomi · February 18, 2015

    I’ve been waiting for this. I mean, it’s Alex Garland’s directorial debut!! Hope I can see this soon.

    • Three Rows Back · February 23, 2015

      Sorry for the delay in coming back to you Naomi. Have you managed to catch it yet? Would be interested on your thoughts.

      • Naomi · February 27, 2015

        It’s not screened here in Indonesia yet (I don’t even know if it will be). Hope I’ll be able to see it soon! But you know, when I heard about the project for the first time, I hoped that it would be GREAT. Like, exceptional. Turns out it doesn’t seem so, but I hope it’ll lead Garland to even better projects 😉

      • Three Rows Back · February 27, 2015

        It’s not capital letters GREAT but then that was going to be difficult anyways. It’s about as good as you could expect a first time effort such as this could be I think. Hope you get to see it soon.

  10. Victor De Leon · February 19, 2015

    Great write up! This sounds very cool and substantial much like a film that came out before hand called “The Machine” Will put this on my to watch list. Thanks for the head’s up!

    • Three Rows Back · February 19, 2015

      I’ve heard a few good things about The Machine; I’ll be making sure to check it out. This is one of those films you can watch on Netflix and it won’t lose much.

  11. Stu · February 23, 2015

    Nice write up mate. I thought I’d already checked it out, sorry; maybe I did so but didn’t comment! I enjoyed this but thought there were a few problems with the ending. It’s solid sci-fi and for a debut film it’s pretty good going.

    • Three Rows Back · February 23, 2015

      No worries! What problems did you have with the ending? I must say I was intrigued throughout; an interesting debut from Garland.

      • Stu · February 24, 2015

        I don’t want to post a spoiler here so will reply as a DM on Twitter!

  12. Tom · February 23, 2015

    Lovely piece. Yours is the latest that puts Ex-Machina on my “Must Watch” list. I am intrigued as hell about this one. Particularly with an Oscar Isaac who seems to be playing up the villain a bit more. Man that guy’s good.

    • Three Rows Back · February 23, 2015

      Why thank you. Isaac is turning into one of the most versatile actors around; a real treasure and a sure fire awards winner in future years. It’s well worth your time mate, although a small screen viewing will certainly suffice.

  13. Jay · May 5, 2015

    I really loved this; we were quite taken by it. Hoping to start of a discussion on it with movie bloggers such as yourself, if you’re intersted:
    http://assholeswatchingmovies.com/2015/05/05/ex-machina-the-spoiler-filled-discussion/
    I was particularly impressed with Oscar Isaac. Is it just me, or does he seem to transform for every role? I feel like I would hardly know him between movies.He’s really good, but never showy.

  14. vinnieh · January 22, 2016

    I missed this in cinemas last year, but I’ve just ordered a copy because it looks so good. And I really love Alicia Vikander in other movies, sounds like she knocks it out the park here.

    • Three Rows Back · January 22, 2016

      She’s awesome mate. As is Isaac. It’s a real treat that will make you think too.

      • vinnieh · January 22, 2016

        I’ll be certain to let you know what I think of it.

      • Three Rows Back · January 22, 2016

        Look forward to it:)

      • vinnieh · January 22, 2016

        There are so many movies I need to catch up on. This is the main one. I only just saw The Man from Uncle the other week.

      • Three Rows Back · January 22, 2016

        Me too mate. Too many movies!

      • vinnieh · January 22, 2016

        I plan to see more movies in the cinema this year.

      • Three Rows Back · January 22, 2016

        I’m hoping to!

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