Earlier in 2015, I saw Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, an enthralling dissection of humanity among other things all done on a haunting Sci-Fi canvas. That film puts forth its own ideas which audiences will undoubtedly be gripped by but it further presents an interesting juxtaposition with Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland whose film, also engaging the idea of humanity, races to a more grim and chilling conclusion.
The two films present polar ideas to the question of humanity and they will make an exhilarating Sci-Fi double bill someday. The focus here, however, is on Garland’s cerebral contemplative thriller which puts artificial intelligence vis-a-vis sentience under the scope. Ex Machina opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an in-company competition that affords him a week alone with his software firm’s eccentric and reclusive owner, Nathan, played by the ever rising Oscar Isaac.
Caleb is a geeky coder confident in his skills and he relishes the opportunity to rub shoulders with his firm’s founder who has himself paid his dues to the software industry by setting up a Google-type platform called Bluebook, which is a massive deal in this world. He is transported to Nathan’s magnificent island which is cut off from the rest of the world and looked like it was doubling as the staging ground for the juvenile death match in Battle Royale.
Things kick off when Nathan reveals his AI project and gives Caleb the opportunity to interact with the female AI robot he created to determine if she truly has self-awareness or is simply and advanced simulation of intelligence and human awareness all in line with the “Turing” test. This robot is Ava, played with such innocence and propriety by Alicia Vikander as Caleb tries to decipher her persona from behind a glass panel in encounters that have the feel of cold war era debriefing sessions. The days and encounters Caleb spends with Ava are presented as chapters in a book as each session sheds more light on the happenings in this secluded fortress and slowly tenses up proceedings.
One of the things that becomes apparent as Ex Machina cyphers on are the themes of gender embedded in the script. The impervious glass panel that separates Caleb and Ava during their discourse not only represents a divide between human and robot but also man and woman. This compact film essentially has 4 central characters with Caleb and Nathan especially on the male domineering side and Ava, who longs for a simple walk in the natural outdoors, and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizono), a mute cowering woman seemingly subservient to mainly Nathan.
This creepy dynamic is reinforced with Kyoko’s character who is in effect Nathan’s slave with the adjective accompanying her status changing as the film goes on. This fact paints Nathan in a shady light as Ava and Kyoko win empathy points, with Caleb serving as a conduit for these emotions but the film never gets carried away with petty sentiment, largely maintaining the cerebral tone before changing gears in the final act when the character of Ava appears fully fleshed out.
The film arrives at a point where we want to regard Ava as human despite the awareness of her robotic nature and this dabbles in the interesting idea of humanity being defined by the people we interact with. We believe Ava to be self-aware/human because of Caleb’s disposition towards her as he connects to her fears and her dreams but consider Kyoko on the other hand and how her relationship with Nathan influences the way we perceive her.
We really are immersed in a top class screenplay brimming with ideas which is really what true science fiction is about. The subtle commentary on gender politics adds tremendous weight to this story along with the ideas of fabricated femininity tailored primarily by twisted a patriarchal society amidst some religious and philosophical subtext that makes this film all the more engaging.
Garland stuck to a small budget to ensure his ideas weren’t diluted and everyone, save for the businessmen, win. The budgetary constraints never inhibit his craft with flawless special effects swathing the sleek design of Ava surrounded by impeccable direction that attains greater significance on a second viewing – the claustrophobic blackouts accompanied by ominous snippets of information, the disturbing manic shots that cause us to question Caleb’s humanity and even the simple establishing shot of Caleb and Ava across each other evoking a mirror image to name but a few.
Garland churns top performances from his cast with Vikander and Gleeson extremely nuanced and compelling and Mizono as Kyoko puts in and alluringly grim shift as she lingers in the backdrop but Isaacs, in particular, is as amusing as it gets with his intellectually cunning persona to go with his overall understated eccentricity which never threatens to take the shine off the film’s direction. Ex Machina gifts us an amusing sequence as Nathan and Kyoko break out the synchronised disco dance moves as Caleb watches on totally bemused.
When the film’s ending arrives, we are somewhat overwhelmed by the absolutely chilling route we do not see coming but upon reflection, it will hit home and play well with intrinsic cynics. Anchoring ideas, intelligent direction and sharp performances combine to give us a genuine Sci-Fi classic that would have been at home in any era. Ex Machina is a timely reminder of what the science fiction genre should aspire to and a validation of the fact that huge budgets aren’t needed to convey awe and vision.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana