I saw a lot of films in the last year, but nevertheless, this was an easy choice. Like everyone else, I have my interests and expectations, but also try to take each film as it comes and judge it on its own merits. For example, I am not a fan of the comedy or horror genres, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy comedy or horror films, or indeed films from another genre incorporating comedic or horror elements.
I had been aware of Ex Machina when it released earlier in the year, but for whatever reason I didn’t go to see it in the cinema. After that, I completely forgot about it. I was only reminded about it upon my preparation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, during which I attempted to familiarise myself with the former projects of both cast and crew. As fate would have it, Oscar Isaac’s portfolio led me straight to Ex Machina, which also happens to star Domhnall Gleeson (with whom, as an Irishman, I am more familiar).
Generally, what appeals to me most in film is a set of three things: well-written and -acted characters; a simple, internally consistent story; and good cinematography. Of course, a decent score can elevate mediocrity to greatness, but music just falls short for me in importance compared to the aforementioned three elements. Ex Machina had all three.
Our three leads (in actuality, pretty much the whole cast minus Sonoya Mizuno) each give great performances. In the lead-up to Star Wars, a lot of people pointed specifically to this film as an example of what Oscar Isaac was capable of as an actor and why we should be excited with his casting. I now retroactively echo those sentiments. He is definitely the standout element of this film and gives the character of Nathan a complicated and understated menace, the likes of which we don’t see much in modern films. Domhnall Gleeson turned in a solid performance as Caleb, and it is nice to see him breaking the mould of his recent string of indie-esque films (Frank, also starring Michael Fassbender, is also a nice example of Gleeson’s acting capabilities). Alicia Vikander is great as Ava, and perfectly treads the “uncanny valley” we see mentioned more and more due to the advancement of special effects and such. She gives what is in my opinion the most grounded performance of an A.I. in any film I have yet seen. I don’t want to spoil any of the nuances in any of the performances, but trust me in saying that the performances are worth seeing.
I don’t want to say much about the specifics of the story, either, because I would encourage experiencing them for the first time in the film itself. However, I will say this: the story doesn’t attempt to be greater than the sum of its parts, but lets itself be told organically through both silent, reflective moments, and interactions between the three leads. As an aside, I also found it deeply ironic and a subtle nod to the film’s premise that the postmodern laboratory setting of the film is out in the middle of nowhere, encircled by the natural world. It’s quite meta without being heavy-handed.
I loved the muted, soft focus of the shots – they give the film a very distinct look, and enrich the muted sense of the location, and the tone and theme of the story. Rob Hardy lets many of the shots breathe, which is sadly lacking in the majority of modern big budget, popular films. Rather than simply being a window into the world of Ex Machina, Hardy’s cinematography is its own character, and plays an active part in informing the scene.
Of course, if I was to scrutinise, some of the science doesn’t hold up – but despite the subject matter dealing with artificial intelligence, the science of A.I. is not one of the driving components of the story. It instead provides a backdrop upon which a very human and introspective drama plays out. To briefly bring up Star Wars again, the original trilogy and now The Force Awakens both provide a similar example. Someone with even the most basic understanding of science can point out flaws in the logic of the Star Wars universe. But it doesn’t matter, because scientific consistency is not the point. The technological, galactic setting is just a backdrop for the story and characters, which is what Star Wars is all about. Just so with Ex Machina – if we substitute bioengineering and artificial intelligence in for lightsabers and Death Stars.
It is by no means a groundbreaking or particularly culturally relevant film, but that’s part of why I enjoyed it so much. Alex Garland showed admirable restraint with the subject matter, and as a result the film knows exactly what it is, never straying from that identity. Ex Machina is a down-to-earth, intelligent, well-made film with three stellar performances. I’d recommend it.