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Ex Machina – Joint Review


Release Date: 10 April 2015 [USA]
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Oscar Isaac - Alicia Vikander - Domhnall Gleeson

Posted February 8, 2015 by

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Ex Machina – Joint Review

Sedef’s Perspective:

The moment I saw the trailer for Ex-Machina, I knew this was one to look out for. We have been rather clumsily exploring the domain of A.I for a number of years now in cinema. And we have been getting better and better at it. If A.I (2001) was more of tearjerker (that reminded one dangerously of Pinocchio as far as the basic plotline went), Her (2013) burst into cinemas last year asking deep and complex questions about the relationship between humans and the intelligent machines they build… It was, in my opinion, one of the best films of 2013.

And now we have Ex-Machina. Ex-Machina is a truly extraordinary film that explores the relationship between the creator and the created in a rather unique way. I don’t need to spell it out of course but this also enables the film to ask questions that could be extrapolated to much greater philosophical questions concerning the human condition. So that’s the first up about this little number ladies and gents. Sure, Ex-Machina is a great two hours of entertainment, but it is a LOT more than that besides…

Ex Machina is in fact a surprisingly minimal film (for the subject matter) as it revolves around 3 main characters in one house over the duration of one week. Caleb (Domhnal Gleeson) is a common or garden coder who works for one of the world’s biggest internet search engines. Quite out of the blue, he becomes the winner of a “staff lottery” whereby he gets to spend a week with the illustrious yet secretive computer genius who founded the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As soon as he arrives, Caleb finds himself in the centre of an extraordinary experiment. Nathan seems to have built A.I. in the form of a woman called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan wants Caleb to be the Turing test for his new creation. Caleb is enthralled at once. But it soon becomes very clear that, though what Nathan has done is truly extraordinary, there is a LOT more to the reclusive genius’ inventions than first meets the eye…

Now, herein lies the difficulty of critiquing this film. It relies heavily on plot twists and I would be loath to give away anything and ruin your experience of it. And yet, with so much of the development concealed in these plot twists, how else to proceed. I shall try to soldier on. And not give away too much.

The main axis of analysis for the film is the relationship of creator to the created. It is no coincidence, of course, that the robot is called Ava (a variation of the name Eve). And Nathan (in the Bible a court prophet to King David) seems to have edged into the domain of hubris, going from being a messenger from the other world to a full blow creator himself. He makes an extraordinary villain that Oscar Isaac brings to life with terrifying realism. The ability to create a full blown human being (for all intents and purposes) to his own bidding has gone to his head and we, along with Caleb, soon find out that he stops at nothing when asserting – and possibly re-confirming, over and over again, his dominance over his household and all who are in it. Of course the main question here is how his minions (let’s call Caleb a minion too as he does work for him technically) react to such an overlord… I do not doubt it is, on some level, meant as a metaphor of religion. Especially since (SPOILER ALERT) Ava ends up “rising up” and killing her creator – and not metaphorically but quite literally. In this context the choice of Caleb as a name is also interesting incidentally, because in a nutshell Caleb is a biblical character whose story represents never-ending faith and belief in God. Although this may well be justified by Ex-Machina’s Caleb at the beginning of the film, by the end, the faith is clearly lost… It would be fair to say that the film does not look kindly on a potential “creator” be it human, or by extension otherwise… That said, we would do well to start talking about this matter in a bit more depth, we do live in a universe where dolls with IOS devices are sold as children’s toys, don’t forget… In his interview on Mark Kermode and Sımon Mayo’s film review, Domhnal Gleeson was quite open about the possibility of a future where the next evolutionary step was humans dying out and being replaced with machines. While I see the logic in this, I personally elect to shudder and carry on to a different paragraph…

In short, the film’s minimal yet suitably atmospheric surroundings (in real life a boutique hotel in Norway if memory serves) concentrate our attention on a spooky and futuristic parable of creation and what the act means – and could mean – in the modern world. On a personal level I am looking forward to comparing it to Neill Bolmkamp’s Chappie, due to be released in about a month at the time this article was written. Not least because it would seem to me that AI films are getting deeper and deeper and more and more thought provoking – and methinks we will be writing about them for quite a while to come…

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Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 18.55.20

Sedef Hekimgil
Essie Speaks
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Josh Adam’s Perspective:

Apart from the occasionally palatable scientist (Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes to mind), the field of technology and science finds communicating their astounding results with the public a difficult task.  Most of us can’t be bothered to leaf through the latest MIT Review or Popular Science to discover what brilliant people are creating or are on the verge of creating.  As a result, it seems as though the public consumes the possible future through mediums such as film and television.  Luckily for us, we’re occasionally fed these messages through the skilled lenses of Steven Spielberg (A.I.) and Spike Jonze (Her), or through the enchanting voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her).  Ex Machina is one of those films, that doesn’t give up halfway through on its’ sci-fi senses just to blow things up.  It’s the best type of work in this genre- a cinematic work that takes a thought and has a conversation with the audience before, during, and after the film.

Director Alex Garland, the writer of such science fiction fables as 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, handles his first directorial charge with the hand of an old pro.  As the title implies, the film deals in gods and monsters, and is never swift to identify which is which.  The subtlety Garland and the cast play between beauty and menace results in a truly mesmerizing, smart fable for our time- well, for all time.  The film is science fiction embodied, chock full of questions, precisely in the manner I prefer to digest it.  As it wades in both the shallow waters of our societal and moral atmospheres, whilst simultaneously toeing the line between tension and horror, it stands as 2015’s best thus far.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a company called ‘Bluebook‘.  We come to him as he’s just won an exclusive trip to meet the company’s founder and stay with him for a week.  I imagine that would be like a Microsoft programmer spending a week with Bill Gates, whether that individual would want to or not.  The fictional ‘Bluebook‘, the world’s preeminent search engine, was created by a mysterious, reclusive genius (is there any other) named Nathan (Isaac).  By now, we know the type; disconnected, awkward, wealthy beyond our imaginations, and lonely.  Nathan is indeed that, it appears, and wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a “female” android named Ava (Vikander).

We know that Ava is a robot because we can see her metal innards, exposed gears, coverings and all.  If we were unable to see her interact with Caleb, however, would we be able to tell whether or not she was human?  That’s his dilemma, and a striking one at that.  As the audience, we’re given their dalliances like acts of a play, each separate in nature, each building upon the previous one in terms of depth, understanding, and tension level.  Caleb is increasingly affected by her pleasantness, curiosity, and insight, leading to emotions he can’t quite understand, including affection for her as a female.  He begins to wonder what has transpired in this compound.  Has Nathan, the creator, abused her?  Does he keep her prisoner for any particular reason other than his own insecurities and misgivings?  Does Nathan understand the responsibility of creating an intelligence, only to then repress its’ growth?

Caleb’s task, per Nathan, is simply to gauge whether or not Ava can pass for human, but it becomes clear early on that it will not, and cannot, be that simple.  From their first chat until the film’s final moment, everything Ava says and does is unpredictable, just like the film itself.  Will she be child-like?  Will she be motivated to evolve?  Will she see humans as a threat?  If she does, will she use brute force, or maybe even manipulation, to achieve that goal?  Does Nathan have a “kill” switch in the event of an emergency?  Why does Ava not appear to be programmed with a template of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?  Is there a reason the film doesn’t touch on them?  Is everything that Ava says and does simply a result of programming, or has she actually transcended what she was intended to be?  I hope you can tell that just by watching, the film inspires a number of interesting and difficult questions and thoughts.  Garland writes this in a way that plays on our wonder of scientific possibility as well as our inherent fears of robots and the future.  We can’t help but question what happens and what doesn’t happen during the film, creating a specific feeling of tension akin to horror.  The film’s location, in an isolated, constricting compound in the mountains that can only be reached via helicopter, only adds to the feeling of impending doom.  The film’s color palate adds to the feeling as well- the foggy, almost smoky wash when the camera is on a human, then clean and clear when focusing on an artificial being.  Whether or not it was intentional, it certainly adds a dimension and a contrast to the film.

Another subtly horrific thought is the care, or lack thereof, in which each character handles the balance of life or death.  We see Nathan throwing it around, not entirely concerned for the well-being of the things he hath wrought.  We see Caleb doubt himself, to the point of questioning his role in the world, and his actual existence.  In one breath, Ava seems to innocently understand the delicate balance of life, and in the next, it appears that she may not care in spite of her understanding.  In essence, this is what humans may not be prepared for- giving life and an abundance of knowledge to a being, without taking the responsibility for what emotions they may encounter, the real fear they develop, and the results of such things.  Thus, should we never attempt create it, as we do lack the comprehension to guide it?  It is quite the sensation to watch and know that Ava is a machine, while simultaneously knowing that she may be more than a human.

I should take a moment to praise the performances here as well.  All three leads are just simply outstanding.  Gleeson is the perfect choice for Caleb, for we already buy him as a sweet, naive programmer, and then he expands on the role to include a darker side.  Isaac, is, well, Oscar Isaac.  His piercing intellect and gaze make him truly believable as a genius, and his awkward attempts to be a ‘regular guy’ with Caleb are perfect.  He just isn’t a regular guy- he’s a reclusive genius, no matter how hard he tries not to be.  Well, he’s also one of the top two or three actors working today, which may explain how wonderful the character is.  Vikander, previously unbeknownst to me, is the real revelation here.  One might assume that as a robot/android, there might be a limited range to display, but she is able to convey such optimism, such intrigue, and such menace with what amounts to just a facial performance.  Her longing to see and do more is not a far cry from any Pinocchio story we’ve seen before, but it may be the most honest portrayal.

There exists the slightest hint that Garland made this material accessible as opposed to trusting the audience to digest an advanced plot about artificial intelligence, but I accept that.  I’m also fascinated with Garland’s continued interest in the constructs of society, and how theoretical situations affect human beings in his work.  In Sunshine, he sees an interesting dynamic within the pressures of saving humanity and our human natures.  In 28 Days Later, he again puts human nature to the test in the wake of an apocalypse.  Ex Machina is yet another test of our theoretical resolve, and I for one don’t believe his result is far from the theoretical truth.   As he put it himself, this film is designed to emulate a future not too far from now, maybe ‘ten minutes out’.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reclusive “Nathan” currently holed up somewhere with his own “Ava”.  For all we know, there may be robots walking among us.  Maybe Garland knows this to be true.  It is clear to me that he should continue telling stories, and continue to generate what all excellent science fiction does- questions.  This is a film that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker.

Written By:

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Josh Adams
Full Contributor

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