“I’m Paul Barlow, and this is my daughter Jo.”

“Malone.”

“You got a first name?”

“Yeah.”

Ex Machina

tn_exmachinaHere’s one of those classical science fictional tales, like THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU or JURASSIC PARK, where an outsider comes to a remote estate or island and sees the game-changing technological breakthrough of an eccentric genius working outside of the constraints of societal and ethical norms. You know what, I’m gonna go ahead and make the generalization that if a helicopter is required to get to the location of the experiment then you’re in trouble. That’s what I’ve learned.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, TRUE GRIT) is a lowly code-writer for the giant search engine Bluebook who wins a contest and/or is mysteriously summoned to spend two weeks with the reclusive company founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac, THE NATIVITY STORY) at a high tech laboratory/compound/bachelor pad out in The Middle of Fuckin Nowhere, Norway. It turns out here’s there because Nathan has built an artificially intelligent robot and wants someone to talk to it and test if he considers it to be conscious or not.
Of course the gig starts out thrilling, if weird, and slowly gets more tense and disturbing as the days go by. Forget all the issues of creating an artificial life form. Just the social situation is menacing. Obviously there’s the uneven power balance between the billionaire genius and the random dude. And Caleb is completely dependent on his host for various reasons, #1 being that they’re so far from anywhere with roads that it’s absolutely impossible for him to leave on his own accord. He’s been given a keycard that lets him into some areas of the facility, not all, and sometimes the power goes out and the doors won’t open. And there are no windows.

Also Nathan calls him “dude” alot, is drinking most of the time and first introduces himself drenched in sweat from a kickboxing workout. He’s kinda gross. He follows a variation of the “if I work from home I don’t have to shower or wear pants” philosophy, even though he has a guest.

mp_exmachinaI’ve been a fan of Isaac’s unreadability since SUCKER PUNCH and through DRIVE and THE BOURNE LEGACY. I love seeing him play characters who are either being nice or are threatening by pretending to be nice, and you can’t tell which one it is. He draws on some of that here too as a character that you gotta assume is trouble, right? But maybe not. He’s kind of a fun asshole. Is he sinister, though? His motives are somewhat ambiguous.

The robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is a very effective character. She’s a human face on a body that’s mostly see-through wire mesh. The juxtaposition of her mechanical body with such human movements and facial expressions is a little startling. She seems sweet and fragile, but maybe there’s a reason she has to speak to him from behind a plexiglass wall. And she wants to be more human so she begins to cover her machinery with a wig and clothes, looking more and more human.

Of course all stories like this are about “man shouldn’t play God” – this one admits it’s a cliche by having a funny joke involving that metaphor – but I think it brings a little more to play. After a while you realize that the scientists are men dealing with female robots. ‘Cause if they’re gonna create a person it better be a person they can fuck or fall in love with. That’s the way men can be, right? It’s all about our penises. Come to think of it, do we really know for sure that John Hammond of JURASSIC PARK wasn’t into some freaky dinosaur sex kick? I mean, who knows? I would’ve said no before Enumclaw, but now I don’t know, man. Maybe that was naive.

I think ultimately this is a radical story. Even the nice good guy sees the humanity in Ava mainly because he finds her attractive. She’s got a pretty face and she’s built with curves, flirts with him. On one hand, she’s got an ass on her. On the other hand it looks like it would chafe. The idea of him sticking his dick in a machine – discussed bluntly as a possibility by Nathan – is uncomfortable. But the idea of him falling in love with this evolving personality on a microchip, though obviously impractical and weird, does seem at least kind of sweet. Potentially. Maybe her having a real actress’s human face is a cheat. It makes the relationship just a little bit easier to swallow than Joaquin falling in love with a little speaker he carries around in HER.

But what if she was conscious and didn’t make him feel funny down there? I don’t think he would try to save her. What if she had the same personality but inside one of the robots from HEARTBEEPS? Wouldn’t she have the same right to exist? Yes, so the (SPOILERS) harsh resolution of the story makes sense. Poor guy. I definitely don’t think he deserved that fate, but it had to be done. She’s gotta be a being on her own, not just a human’s girlfriend. If this thing is gonna work she can’t need him. Otherwise A.I. started off on the wrong foot from step 1.

There’s been alot of word of mouth on EX MACHINA, which is impressive because who wants to say the title out loud when there’s always a chance that some dick will correct you on the pronunciation? Nobody. Just call it “that new Oscar Isaac joint” is my advice. Anyway, it’s definitely one of the more interesting movies released this year.

It’s such a simple movie, with 99% of it taking place in that isolated location of the compound, and with only four characters during most of it. It could almost be a play, but it doesn’t feel small. Maybe it’s that it opens with that helicopter flight, so you remember the larger world once they get inside there. Maybe it’s that the sets and the special effects on Ava are so slick and convincing. But somehow it never feels like a trick for making a movie on a limited budget. It feels like even if they had $300 million this is the exact movie they would’ve wanted to make.

The writer/director is Alex Garland, “the writer of 28 DAYS LATER,” the poster says. He also wrote SUNSHINE and NEVER LET ME GO, so he’s got a pretty good not-dumb-sci-fi pedigree. But more importantly he did DREDD. That was of course more of a fun, pulpy approach to sci-fi, but its high quality and original takes on old ideas gives you an idea of what Garland is capable of. Also, remember it was reported at the time that he had at some point taken over directing from the guy who was credited. Not sure how true that is, but seems pretty believable now that he did such a good job on this.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 at 11:48 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Ex Machina”

  1. Movies like “12 Angry Men” and “Reservoir Dogs” where everything happens in a tiny location like a play always impress me. There’s a discipline and an economy that makes a movie better somehow. They can screw it up of course but if Vern likes this movie they’re doing something right.

    Plus, it’s got that whole “Metropolis” angle with the female robot femme fatale, which is always, ehem, hot.

    The title sucks though. Too sterile and vague. Not really a problem, just something they easily could have done better.

  2. I just saw this great movie and the first thing I did was to come to outlawvern hoping that my favorite reviewer had an article on it. Was not disappointed.
    (When ordering the ticket I said “Ex Mackina”. No idea if that’s the correct way.)

  3. I mostly thought it was great but the last 10 minutes got a little “horror movie” for me. The movie had a lot of interesting things going on most of the way and then sort of ends up with a “The monster is now on the loose bwahaha!” sort of vibe that I’m not so sure was worthy of what came before.

  4. SPOILER

    The really great thing about the ending to me is the ambiguity it suggests about the central premise. Oscar Isaac is trying to come up with a way to quantify the difference between pretending to be human, and actually being human. You can read the ending as her being the first real AI because she managed to do all the things required to manipulate her way to escape, but the more interesting reading to me is that she’s still a failed experiment. A real human would be capable of empathy towards others, but the way she leaves Caleb locked up, without even acknowledging his existence once he’s no longer useful to her, suggests that she’s still just 100% analytically trying to solve her problems, and the emotions are all just an act. In effect she’s the literal definition of a sociopath.

    It’s a great twist on the usual tropes of these stories, where a machine learns to be human and wants to be treated equally (blade runner/matrix/cloud-atlas).
    As the audience, we’re taken in by her emotions early on in the story and are kind of rooting for her and Caleb to escape, and the movie gut-punches you with the realization that an entity that’s smart enough and capable enough to flawlessly manipulate your emotions is extremely dangerous and can’t be trusted.

  5. I saw EX MACHINA (btw: correct pronunciation, Merso) 11 days ago and didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. It’s well-acted (apart from Domhnall Gleeson) and well-executed but ultimately trivial. In his unsparing review of this, our own Franchise Fred smote it with this withering assessment: “It’s basically BLADE RUNNER if the entire movie was the replicant test” (Ouchoroo!). While I don’t quite agree with this, I see where Fred’s coming from— WAY too much of the movie is given over to this interaction between Gleeson and the robot.

    The character arc of Gleeson’s character is what bugged me the most. Yes, he’s in an isolated environment, plus he knows it’s only a one-week excursion (Vern called it two, but I’m pretty sure it was one), yet he goes off the rails like he’s been stranded on a deserted island with no hope of rescue.

    Added to which, he very quickly loses sight of the fact that this hottie he’s supposed to be testing is a FUCKING ROBOT, not the girl of his dreams. For fuck’s sake— man up, Skippy! You’d think the poor nerd had never been on a date, much less had a boner. All this would’ve been tolerable if Domhnall Gleeson had been blessed with more than 10% of his father’s acting ability, but no. On the plus side, Oscar Isaac nails it shut as the tech mogul, and does it almost effortlessly. Tremendous actor.

    My own impression of EX MACHINA was that it was a weird fusion of Kubrick’s THE SHINING and CHERRY 2000. Go figure.

  6. I learned to say Ex Machina properly years ago because of the excellent Brian K. Vaughn/Tony Harris comic book. I was gonna skip this until I read an interview with Garland that reminded me that he’s one of my favorite working screenwriters. I am so glad I saw this in the theater, mainly because of the score and sound design. And the disco.

  7. I think @bullet13 nailed it with his post. I felt the same way. Once Caleb had served his purpose, she discarded him and didn’t even bother to look at him. It would have added an interesting dimension if she said, “Sorry, Caleb, but I need to go into the world alone. Thank you for what you did for me.”

    So, yes, a failed AI experiment after all.

    I’ll be nominating this sucker for next year’s Hugo (unless something better comes along).

  8. Does a being need emotions or empathy to be self-aware though?

    “Why did you tear up her picture?”
    “Pfft…I’m gonna tear up this fucking dance floor”

  9. darth:

    “I think, therefore I am”— French philosopher Rene Descartes

    So, to answer your question… no. Perhaps emotion can factor into self-awareness, but it’s not a requirement.

    My guess is that even though Ava’s creator programmed her with an enormous wealth of information (the foundation of her knowledge), any emotional development she might accrue would have to be through interaction with actual human beings, which up to that point had been severely limited.

  10. That’s funny you mentioned JURASSIC PARK, because I saw 3 JURASSIC PARK references in the opening scenes. Not sure if it was intentional, but the helicopter shots looked like the same location/angles as JURASSIC PARK, and then when he gets into the compound, there is a piece of music playing that sounds like the JURASSIC PARK theme, and then when he’s unpacking, he pulls out a can of Barbasol shaving cream.

  11. Easily the best film of 2015. From start to finish, the imagery and cinematography is so enticing and the dialogue between the three actors was so engaging and inspiring. Spoilers ahead folks************** Did anyone notice the tattoo or the scar on the right side of Caleb’s body??? I was contemplating if it was a marked tattoo because he’s a robot(But a sit wrist scene confirmed that) or the scar from the car crashed that killed his parents?

  12. The new Q&A podcast has Alex Garland. *SPOILERS* He talks about some details like the scar. From what I understand he was using them as red herrings. He knew viewers would be looking for every possible “this character is actually a robot” type twist, so he put in things to feed that. Also he said he wanted you to figure out that one lady was a robot so you would feel like you were ahead of the movie and get comfortable.

    My favorite part of the episode though is at the beginning when Jeff Goldsmith tries to get him to say that 28 DAYS LATER is not a zombie movie because it’s about a virus and not resurrected dead people, and then Garland spend a good 5 minutes explaining in detail why it is in fact a zombie movie and was always intended as one. I like this because I have a buddy who I’ve had this argument with for years and I got to tell him that the writer of the movie agreed with me.

  13. Saw this a couple weeks ago and liked it but didn’t love it. Another one of those sci-fi stories that replaces most of the complex techno jargon that I find interesting with a bunch of cursory emotional exploration that makes me roll my eyes. There’s at least 2 scenes where Nathan explicitly says something to the effect of “Yeah, but enough of that computer-y stuff, how do you *feel*?” even as he briefly reveals that he’s plenty capable of talking science nerd shit. I guess I should’ve expected that from an Alex Garland work. And yes, I’m the guy who hated GRAVITY because I wish it had been a silent NASA documentary.

    But I listened to that Q&A podcast a few days ago and that conversation made me like EX MACHINA better. There’s a lot going on between the panels and outside the dialogue (spoken & unspoken) in this one. In retrospect now, the minimalist writerly approach to the screenplay is more impressive than I initially gave it credit for. The females I know who’ve seen EX MACHINA disliked it, mainly because they couldn’t get past the sex slave stuff. Pretty understandable in my opinion. I’ve never seen MAGIC MIKE for what I assume is kind of the same reason.

    The movie could’ve been a whole lot more icky in that respect, though. The somber aesthetic & tone Garland maintains (except for that one scene) obscures the fact that Nathan is living the straight male misanthrope’s dream — crazy wealthy and living alone at a self-powered, fully stocked estate with a mute housekeeper and a cadre of customizable sexbots. It’d be healthier and more fun if he replaced the booze with some marijuana or some designer botanist’s concoction (He could afford to fly in a greenhouse specialist with some exotic seeds.) that got him high without ruining his liver & lungs & brain and immune system, but other than that his daily life seems like heaven to a younger me. Shame he got ambitious and screwed it up.

    I wonder what Ava is up to now? For the sequel, DEUCE EX MACHINA, I hope she and the guy from the end of SOURCE CODE somehow meet and discuss reality & consciousness and go on adventures together.

  14. SPOILERS

    I posted above that I liked at lot of the movie but disliked the last 10 minutes because I thought the movie turned Ava into an escaping monster, which seemed like an uninspired ending to what had been a pretty smart movie up to that point.

    On further reflection, I still don’t like that ending, but for an additional reason: I think it makes an ugly comment about the advancement of women.

    For almost the entire movie Ava is imprisoned in that glass chamber while Gleeson questions her. She (the ostensible female) is a prisoner while the two men have the run of the house. So, okay, that roughly parallels the balance of power between men and women in the world at large until early to mid 20th century (and it’s still like that in some parts of the world).

    But then Gleeson’s character wakes up. He sees the inhumanity of the situation and he hatches this plan to help free Ava. In that regard, Gleeson is like forward-thinking men who got behind women’s suffrage, the equality movement, etc.

    But where does that get Gleeson in the end? He helps the female achieve freedom and then she repays him by locking HIM in a chamber.

    Isn’t the subtext here that the struggle for power between men and women is a zero-sum game? That, between the genders, one sex is always going to be the jailer and the other is the prisoner? It’s undisputable that Gleeson’s character would have been better off if he DIDN’T help free Ava. He would have survived and retained his freedom if he’d allowed her imprisonment to continue. In this movie, his gesture of helping a “female” achieve some measure of freedom and equality was a fatal mistake.

    So what do we take away from that as an audience? Don’t let women out of the cage, man, because then you’ll end up in the cage. It’s better to be the jailer than the prisoner, so don’t unlock that door.

  15. I remember feeling very surprised leaving the theater that Garland had made such a misogynistic film. Thinking that Ava truly succeeded in becoming a human female once she learned how to weaponize her sexuality to control and betray men. Recent print ads have featured pull quotes playing up the film noir, femme fatale angle which, besides being a terrible spoiler, place Alicia Vikander in the fine company of sociopaths such as Kathleen Turner and Barbara Stanwyck.

    After a couple of days, I flashed back to the appearance of Kyoko’s face at the very end, after her “skin” was knocked off, and it gave me a very Westworld, slaves rising up against masters type of vibe. So now I’m leaning more towards Mouth’s take, that Nathan is the villain of the piece, creating sentient sexbots for his own amusement, testing out his creations on a sap like Caleb.

    What makes this a great little film is that Ben’s and bullet3’s takes are equally defensible. That, plus the awesomely insane, out of nowhere, disco scene!

  16. I know that as long as I’m a fan of this website I will never be far from an Enumclaw reference.

  17. Ben: “But then Gleeson’s character wakes up. He sees the inhumanity of the situation and he hatches this plan to help free Ava. In that regard, Gleeson is like forward-thinking men who got behind women’s suffrage, the equality movement, etc. But where does that get Gleeson in the end? He helps the female achieve freedom and then she repays him by locking HIM in a chamber.”

    I have to disagree that Caleb ever sees the inhumanity of the whole situation. He wants to free Ava because he has a crush on her. After all, her look was based on a composite of his porn searches. If she had looked like R2-D2, I don’t think he would have cared enough to actually try freeing her. He didn’t care about saving the silent asian sexbot, remember? I guess she wasn’t his type. In the end, I don’t think we’re supposed to see his actions as being entirely altruistic. Where Nathan represents overt sexism/patriarchy, Caleb represents the more benign, “nice guy” form of the same thing. He wanted to save her so she could be his girlfriend. But she never wanted that. She wanted her freedom, which Caleb could have endangered if she brought him along.

  18. ThePinkServbot

    May 27th, 2015 at 1:09 am

    I just can’t agree with the praise this movie is getting. There’s some interesting concepts at work here, but the actual story is, in my own personal opinion, a self-contradicting, boring mess.

    Starting with the good stuff, I think this is actually one of the best stabs at representing the Google/Facebook Silicon Valley kind of angle yet w/r/t sci-fi or horror or genre film-making in general. God knows fucking horror has been trying to make its big splash Internet Commentary film for the past decade and a half to absolutely zero fucking success (shit like UNFRIENDED and STAY ALIVE (“If you die in the game, you die for real!”)). But I actually really liked the AI concept they used here. Sentience emerging from what is essentially the focal point of a massive stream of human consciousness, that’s neat! Neat is all it is, but it’s a lot better than, say, that recent piece of shit Johnny Depp movie whose name I can’t remember.

    Oscar Isaac was great. I 100% believed him as that kind of Silicon Valley douchebag the instant I saw him, from his ridiculous focus on “hyper clean living” (despite being a tremendous drunk), to his dipshit techbro patter. The only way he could have been more convincing as that guy is if we saw him toss back some buttered Bulletproof Coffee while chasing it with nootropics. I also really liked a lot of Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava, with her “hang on, proc–hang on, pr–hang on, processing…” little mannerisms and shit.

    Now the bad! Who the fuck believes even five goddamn seconds of that ending? Isaac’s character is this big fat genius who coded Google at age 13 (what the fuck ever), who pulls the rug out from under the lead multiple times throughout this movie, and we’re told time and time again how fucking smart he is (he’s got five of these broads in his closet!), how cautious he is, how he is the master of this compound and nothing happens without his knowledge. So why is the movie trying to convince me now that, not ONLY can he be tricked into drinking himself into unconsciousness, but when he wakes up from his stupor… He’s not checking any camera feeds? He’s not looking at any logs of changes made to his security system? Christ, the whole point of Caleb being there is that you’re expecting him to go behind your back to rescue Ava, and you don’t even consider looking at this stuff AFTER YOU FIND HIM COMING OUT OF YOUR FUCKING BEDROOM? You just spent 90 minutes trying to convince me that this dude is playing chess thinking five moves ahead all the time, and he gets rolled in the most obviously preventable, shallowest way by a guy that you have also spent the past 90 minutes trying to convince me is actually this dude’s intellectual inferior? Fuck you, movie, I’m not going to turn into an amnesiac just because you need to come up with SOME way to end this with her escaping.

    And speaking of Caleb, what a bunch of wet fucking paper this character is. The camera spends more time with this dude than any other character in the story, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you anything about him or recall any of his lines. They actually (a little bit) kind of say that his nothingness is why he was chosen, but A) that doesn’t make watching him any more interesting, and B) it makes him being able to outwit Isaac’s character even more goddamn unbelievable.

    Now that I think about it, “interesting concept but hilariously poor execution in storytelling” was a problem I had with 28 DAYS LATER, too. Another sort-of-interesting concept marred by an afterthought storyline that “just has to end somehow”, featuring a protagonist that is barely even a character.

  19. Mouth:

    “There’s at least 2 scenes where Nathan explicitly says something to the effect of “Yeah, but enough of that computer-y stuff, how do you *feel*?””

    Yeah but I don’t think the film does this in a Damon Lindelof-esque way where it thinks the audience just isn’t interested in the tech stuff, and so it talks about feelings to be more relatable. The opposite: the movie knows we’re on the edge of our seat to hear about the AI itself hear them discuss the Turing test, but instead Nathan keeps sidelining us and Caleb, misdirecting, etc. I think you’re SUPPOSED to feel frustrated by it.

    I think that the first half or so of the film is the sort of lean and mean worldbuilding we’ve been getting from Duncan Jones, where we are thrust into a situation already in progress and each scene simultaneously advances the story and reveals the environment. I was hanging on each and every word during the initial encounters with Ava. For me it didn’t really manage to craft a climax and resolution to make good on the beginning’s promise, but that’s pretty much par for the course for these sort of movies, all the way back to Sleuth and its dorky third act.

  20. Watched this film on DVD over the weekend, and maybe the hype affected me, but I found it kind of lackluster. As others have noted, the main character, Caleb, is just so unlikeable. [spoilers ahead] By the end of the film, I was rooting for Ava to keep him locked away in the bunker. One of my issues is that I kept on waiting for a big twist, but things went exactly how I expected them to. (Unless the lack of a twist was a twist in itself). The entire time I assumed that Ava was clearly manipulating Caleb, and I figured that by the end she was going to toss him to the side. I also think that Ben’s right. If you read this through the lens of gender, it’s kind of misogynist, even though that’s not the film’s intention. It also seems as if Caleb is always behind the viewer when it comes to figuring things out. By the time that the mute sexbot was disco dancing with Oscar Isaac, I thought that Caleb had just figured out that she’s a robot. But then several scenes later he stumbles onto the different robot designs and he’s like “Whaaaaaaaat? She’s a robot?” Come on, dude! There were some nice visual moments and both Oscar Isaac and the woman who played Ava gave great performances, but I found the movie to be mostly underwhelming.

  21. Also, I know this movie was a sleeper hit and all, but I think it would have done even better at the box office if they had just titled it, “Would You Fuck a Robot?”

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