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I mentioned in a previous post that movies aiming for awards are usually released in the last few months of the year. I should also stress that some movies released earlier in the year could be award contenders too, albeit much fewer. Last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is one fine example. And this year, Ex Machina could be another one.

The title would instantly lead one to think of the literary device ‘deus ex machina‘ (Latin, direct translation: God out of a machine). Originated in Greek theatre, when the imminent disastrous ending is suddenly intervened by a god extended by mechanical means, saving the day. Without the word ‘deus‘ for God, what we have left is Ex Machina, out of a machine, and in this science fiction/suspense thriller, it’s the robotic Artificial Intelligence (AI). Leaving out the word ‘deus’ only intrigues us more: who is God now, the human creator, or the AI?

Ex Machina

I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, neither a CGI or special effects aficionado.  But I’m always drawn to those movies that, despite their genre, carry a meaningful thematic element. Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut is one such production. Garland’s previous adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go into screenplay had drawn my attention for the same reason. It’s the substance that makes it worthwhile.

In Ex Machina, viewers are gratified not only by the content, but the form as well. The set design is minimal but stylish, the music is ponderous and inviting, just like the natural environs we find the ‘research facility’ in the movie, home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the software genius and reclusive founder of the world’s most powerful search engine Bluebook. Nathan conducts a competition in his own company, and the winner is a young coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The prize is to spend a week in Nathan’s estate nestled in a pristine, natural setting. Just imagine a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home like Fallingwater with a futuristic touch.

After being dropped off by helicopter onto the grounds of Nathan’s remote, well-hidden facility, Caleb soon finds out the purpose of his mission – if he’s willing to accept it and sign a non-disclosure agreement – to conduct a Turing Test on Nathan’s latest invention, an AI called Ava, hauntingly played by Alicia Vikander, the highly sought after Swedish actress today. To complete his task, Caleb has to test if Ava is on a par with human in terms of her intellectual, language, and emotional competence. The thematic element unfolds like that of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

Another gratifying element is the cerebral components of the film. Here are some examples. Nathan got the name Bluebook from Wittgenstein’s Blue Notebook, which contains the philosopher’s rumination on language and thinking. Even the Jackson Pollock on the wall carries a deeper meaning. How is art made? By the rational mind or automatic impulses? Ultimately, the key questions are: What is the essence of being human? And what will become of the human race if we continue down the unchecked trajectory with our technology?

But the story is not just one-sided with man creates machine, man tests machine. It is utterly intriguing to see the interplay among the threesome. The psychological wrangling between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava is mind-boggling. The twists and turns are the juicy bits in the plot line as we try to figure out actually who is out-smarting who. The suspense engages even more than a Hitchcock movie. The visual designs and effects of the AI is haunting as an existential horror because it is right here on earth and not lightyears away in space; we can relate how possible a similar scenario could be reality one day. A cautionary tale, if you will, and a brilliant one.

A successful debut for first-time director Garland, albeit he is no novice in writing. Garland has been a prolific novelist and screenwriter; his crafting of Ex Machina is highly nuanced and intelligent, at the same time, very human.  I will not go into the twists and turns, and definitely not the denouement; the viewer must experience it first-hand.

What I can say is the engrossing performance from all three actors. Oscar Isaac, who from his minor role in Drive to his Oscar nominated Inside Llewyn Davis, to last year with Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, has shown time and again his versatility as an actor. Very convincing as the mastermind Nathan, the chilling genius and yet a mysterious, macho figure, Isaac portrays quite a fusion of seemingly incompatible characteristics. He could get another chance for an awards nod.

Domhnall Gleeson had his breakout role in Harry Potter, but has grown into an actor suitable for a myriad of roles that is congruent with his innocent, boyish look. His character here in Ex Machina develops a mutual relationship with the AI Ava, a scenario similar to Her (2013), wherein Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his OS Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Why do Gleeson and Vikander, the innocent coder and the robot have such unlikely on-screen chemistry? Maybe because they had worked together in another film as a loving couple. Remember Anna Karenina (2012), Joe Wright directing Tom Stoppard’s adaptation? Well, these two had much interaction there as Levin and Kitty. And watch for Vikander in two upcoming book to movie adaptations: Testament of Youth and The Light Between Oceans, and Gleeson in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. 

Ex Machina is a film that fits all aspects of a well-crafted production, in its writing, directing, thematic elements, set designs, visual effects, choice of music, and overall gratification as a sic-fi suspense thriller. Hopefully by the time Awards Season comes at the end of the year, it will not be forgotten.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Update January 14: 

Oscar Nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Visual Effects

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Other related Review posts on Ripple Effects:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Movie

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

Anna Karenina (2012)

About Time: The Use and Abuse of Super Power

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