Overview: A low-level programmer at a massive software corporation is invited by the CEO to test the humanity of an artificially intelligent android. A24 Films; 2015; Rated R; 108 Minutes
Deus: In interviews promoting Ex Machina, the film’s writer and director Alex Garland has been vocal about his distaste for auteurism. At the film’s SXSW premiere last month, he downplayed his own role as the director and discouraged the thought process that would emphasize interpretation of his intent. I hope he’ll forgive me for this, but his comments are especially interesting given that Ex Machina depicts a creator God (that would be billionaire tech genius Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac) whose relationship with his creation (that would be the android Ava, played by Alicia Vikander) is contentious to say the least. Isaac is phenomenal as the perpetually drunk Nathan, whose swaggering, down-to-earth bro-ishness only serves as a further exercise in egoism. To misquote Mean Girls, his “I’m not like a regular God, I’m a cool God” schtick is less a show of humility and more a showing-off of it. He’s the auteurist auteur, so secure in his dominion that even his modesty is self-aggrandizing. That would make Ava his work of art, and Ex Machina is about art longing to be a part of the rest of the world, free of the artist’s influence.
The Eye: It doesn’t hurt that Ex Machina is such an aesthetic pleasure. Cinematographer Rob Hardy has a tendency to make things look like those Apple commercials with close-up shots of a product against a white backdrop. This is the era of the White & Grey Future, where symmetry and minimalism dominate design. It’s all attractively slick, full of sharp digital imagery that befits a film about something digital and sharp. Intrusions of color are sudden and overwhelming; more than once, the house where the film takes place is entirely bathed in red light due to “power cuts,” and the complete change in color comes to signify the shifting power dynamics among the three main characters. Ex Machina is visually simplistic, but then again, so is the front of an iPhone until you turn it on.
Turing Test: That’s not to say that Ex Machina is particularly complex in its narrative, either. Yes, it tosses out plenty of familiar sci-fi quandaries regarding AI, but it’s far less interested in the questions than how the characters react to them. In many high-concept sci-fi stories, the characters are just mouthpieces used by the screenwriter to get the story’s ideas across. Ex Machina can easily be taken as that kind of movie, presenting a bunch of thought experiments to the audience and coyly refusing to share its own opinion on them. But the conversations between Nathan and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) always feel more like explorations of who the two men are, and that’s literally the stated goal of the conversations between Caleb and Ava. The ideas the film puts forth are meant for the characters to answer, not the audience, and the film finds more value in exploring characters than spouting platitudes. For that reason alone, we would be lucky to have more sci-fi films like Ex Machina.
Wrap-Up: Ex Machina is a slick locked-room thriller that prioritizes character over concept.