Deus Ex Machina: a god introduced by means of a crane in ancient Greek and Roman drama to decide the final outcome.
The ‘deus’ of course means god or diety, the ‘ex’ means from our out-of, and the ‘machina’ would refer to a machine. So it’s interesting that Alex Garlands directorial debut removes the ‘deus’. I didn’t give this much though, but after watching the film, I wonder if he removed the ‘God’ from the equation very intentionally. We hear mention of the concept of ‘God’ and artificial intelligence very early on in Garland’s Ex Machina, so it was clearly on his mind. It’s a topic that is obviously very important to the future of our society, as technology advances and the world we know now changes. Garland explores these themes in Ex Machina. They aren’t themes that are unique to this film, and have been explored plenty of times before. So the question for me was not only would Garland be able to make a good film, but would he be able to differentiate his work somehow?
Ex Machina stars Domhnall Gleeson as a young programmer (at the world’s now powerhouse search engine company Blue Book) named Caleb who wins a competition held by the owner of the company. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the eccentric owner who lives at a top secret facility in the middle of nowhere, who brings Caleb in. He immediately tasks Caleb with performing a Turing Test on an A.I. that he’s managed to build. A Turing Test is a technique where a human attempts to determine if an A.I. has consciousness, and Caleb couldn’t be more excited about this. Then he meets the subject, a beautiful and almost fully formed female robot named Ava (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and things begin to change.
The performances in the film are masterful. I was a little thrown off by Gleeson’s performance at first, and decided to put it down to the fact that he’s doing an accent, but I quickly realized that his performance was very intentional, and exactly how it needed to be. Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, and she is ridiculously absorbing, drawing us in as she begins to do with Caleb. But the best performance of the film comes from Isaac, as the eccentric Nathan, who he brings to life with an incredible amount of skill. Nathan is a complete douche bag, but also an incredible genius. Isaac manages to blend the two with remarkable grace, and a little subtlety, to the point where we can’t tell exactly how we feel about him. Ava is equally complex, and somehow Caleb gets caught in the middle of these two characters, a dynamic which proves to be the crux of the film.
Ex Machina is a film that inevitably poses all kinds of philosophical questions. We get much of this through the dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, discussion what it means to be human and how you can prove or disprove humanity. But we also begin to ask them of ourselves as we see Caleb and Ava become closer during their interviews. The questions are never really answered, but that’s by design, and we’re left to draw our own conclusion is almost every instance. It’s a pretty awesome dynamic and if I was to guess I’d imagine that all of the films key moments, and it’s conclusion, will draw completely opposite reactions from large groups of viewers.
The drama of the film unfolds in a formulaic way, where we see an interview between Caleb and Ava, and then a segment of Nathan and Caleb interacting. The makes up most of the film, and each interview gets a little deeper and more sinister. The tension in the film begins to build early on, as we begin to sense that there’s trouble. But the films genius is that you can’t quite get a hold on the source of the trouble. Caleb is a strange guy, who is a little unsettling somehow. Nathan is a total douche, and seems a bit manipulative. He’s also an alcoholic. Ava is a machine, who is showing raw emotion and is very sympathetic. But she’s a machine. There’s a weird servant type lady who doesn’t speak. There’s clues everywhere, but you don’t know what to do with them. It’s pretty awesome how they laid it out, looking back. I can’t say too much, in fear of spoiling anything, but perhaps the films best plot device is the fact that it kind of pits Ava and Nathan against each other both morally, and personally, in terms of who we ‘like’ more. Nathan is a douche, and Ava is very nice, but then at the end of the day Nathan is real. He’s a man. I’ll bet different people will have a different opinion, and I love that.
The tension continues to rise and rise until we get a number of twists and turns, and a bit of a crescendo if you will. I will say, as great as the film was, somehow the conclusion seemed like it was a tiny bit rushed. Or if not rushed, it just wasn’t able to completely nail the landing. I think it’s a result of such huge philosophical questions, and incredibly awesome moments that made up the film, as they give you this sense that you’re going to get some immense revelation or learn the key to the future of humanity. Of course this is unreasonable. That’s not an answer that exists, and when you realize that you can say the film had a very satisfying conclusion. A good one in fact. Thrilling, shocking and powerful. But somehow it just wasn’t enough. I guess that’s a compliment to the film in a weird way.
All in all Ex Machina lived up to the hype I gave it in my own head. It didn’t give us any massive revelations, but it reiterated the questions we’ve heard before in a way that’s as effective as any I’ve seen, and pretty unique. It’s also a thrilling and suspenseful film, regardless of the subject, and the direction from Alex Garland is remarkably tight and well done. Hats off to him.