This is a little known, but often lauded film, I have been waiting for. In multiple previous reviews I have slammed the films for having a fear of science and more importantly a fear of AI. Transcendence is one the more recent criminals in this vein. I have a near unique perspective where I am just as eager to look at and love the past as I am the future. I am not afraid of science. I am not afraid of any advances and point in fact I resent those that hold us back from even more. Too many sci fi movies these days seem to be based on a fear response rather than hope or driving us to better ourselves, our world, and our technology.
So please pardon me if I wax a bit philosophical as I write this review, the movie asks some very important questions in the right ways.
Let’s switch things up a bit and get into the acting, this film runs on a minimal cast. While not as small as say Moon, for the better part of the film there are 3 main actors who must do all the work; those being Oscar Isaac as Nathan, Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, and Alicia Vikander as Ava. Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Robin Hood, Drive and soon to be in Age of Apocalypse) plays scientific genius Nathan the man with a compound in a remote area of either Canada or Norway. I appreciate his take on the eccentric billionaire. There’s something roguish and even brutish about his performance yet with a calculating intelligence that drives him and his protege Caleb forward. It is a surprisingly detestable character yet he captures your attention much in the way Tony Stark does. Gleeson (Bill Weasley from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows) is nearly the opposite. For all the extrovert force that Nathan is, Gleeson’s performance as Caleb is almost wall flowerish. It is a well controlled and constructed performance that allows you to buy into his decision making and approach through the film His body language is on point during his Turing test conversations with Ava. Vikander (Seventh Son, Anna Karenina, Man from UNCLE), may have the hardest performance. Where the boys must be equally demanding of the camera during their shots both energetic and quiet; Vikander’s Ava must capture the camera and your attention with something else. Every motion she makes must look as if she is a machine pretending to be human but so human she passes. This is more difficult than it sounds yet she achieves it in her own body language. Her face alone is allowed full expression yet her body tells you as much in how she moves and positions herself. It’s really quite remarkable.
The technical prowess in which the actors performed must get some credit from the writer and director Alex Garland. Garland, who previously gave us the genre redefining 28 Days Later, the lack luster Sunshine, and criminally underrated Dredd, is in top form here. It’s clear the man knows how to shoot a film and get a performance from his cast. The three films I mentioned are clearly watching a man come to understand his gifts behind the camera and with a crew with each one building on the successes and failures of the other. That leaves us with Ex Machina. Nothing is wasted in the film. Not a single shot is without some level of purpose be it literal or metaphorical. Every camera angle is where it should be for maximum effect. It truly is a technically amazing film from a cinematic point of view. While I know there is much that was in the can that hit the editing room floor, as there is with any film, we are given the purest essence of film making. Music, Light, Shadow, Color, Negatives, all interplay perfectly.
Before I talk story and the questions, I do need to say as good as the movie is – it still falls into some traps that I found displeasing. The character of Nathan, while breaking many stereotypes, hits enough of the wrong ones to bother. While the movie does not directly objectify the female cast members there is an overabundance of shots that made me think someone from Game of Thrones was involved. Obviously I have no issue with the female form, as I am in the process of giving myself one, but there’s just something off putting in the delivery here. It is largely clinical if you narrow your eyes at the movie, but a moments though and it becomes uncomfortable again. This is probably the one major flaw of the film. It’s enough of a flaw that if you genderswap any of the characters the film likely may not be made or retain the rating it did under the iron thumb of the MPAA; which is an entirely different problem in how American’s view film, much less those psychotics over at the MPAA.
From a story stand point, Nathan hires Caleb to be a living Turing Test for Ava. For those who don’t know, (though the movie explains), the Turing Test is a method in which a human tests a computerized system to determine if they can tell they are working with a computer. This is normally done as something blind, but the nature of this experiment requires it not to be. Caleb is flown in and brought to a massive remote compound and meets Ava, a fully functional AI. She deliberately looks like a machine in order to see if she can make Caleb (and the audience) forget that fact.
There are so many good questions the movie asks and it spends just a little less time on the topic than I am happy with. This is a minor flaw, as the movie delves into the philosophical topics around AI and Robotics, but doesn’t commit to them lest it lose the audience entirely. I fear that is the issue, the risk of boring the wider audience with a certain amount of techo-babble and philosophy. What it does ask creates powerful questions that we ourselves can look at and have conversations about? Questions about Gender and Sexuality; though the movie does mostly classify under the binary format, the larger conversation could be had. Questions about wants, needs, loves, lies that we tell each other and ourselves. Most importantly the movie asks us if we are human, can we truly define that? Can we define what separates us from a truly advanced AI or what really would pass the Turing Test? The movie wisely and thankfully doesn’t make us fear AI save a throw away line of evolutionary/revolutionary theory, but embraces that it is an inevitable future and what that could mean. This had me excited as the trailers kept their word. here. The trailers however, sell the movie short giving it a horror vibe or perhaps a bit of a sexual objectification vibe. I could go on for hours about the conversations that could be had from watching this film and delving deeper into the questions it literally and metaphorically asks.
This movie is not for everyone. I would love to give the Darke Seal of Approval (I need a seal of approval first) and that everyone should see it, but I can’t.
There is no action here, this truly is a thinking persons film. IF you want to grab a drink and chat with friends in the spring night air after seeing the movie – this is a good film for you. It is both visually stunning and mentally stimulating. For my SciFi, Philosophy, and Psychology lovers, you really need to see this film.
All others, I couldn’t say you would enjoy it. You might and if this review has made you the least bit curious then I say find a matinee and see it; otherwise give it a pass.
The movie satisfied me greatly in that it doesn’t fear AI and the scientific advances that come from it. It deserves to be a critical darling if not a box office one. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance in the film and I hope you feel the same.