Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

 

ex machina

by Alan F. Zundel

“Ex Machina” has plenty on its surface to hold your attention, but underneath it feels soulless—much like the character at the center of the story.

That character is Ava, a humanoid robot played by Alicia Vikander, who made an impression on me in “The Fifth Estate” (2013). Ava is the latest experiment of young tech genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a thirty-something guy who invented a powerful search engine when he was 13 but in recent years has holed up in a remote estate working on his secret project.

Caleb Smith, a programmer for Nathan’s company, wins a contest to be Nathan’s guest at his retreat. There he is told his role is to test Ava and see if she could pass for human. (Caleb is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who starred in “About Time” a couple years ago and appeared with Vikander before that in “Anna Karenina.”)

Sci-fi horror stories are an old film tradition, and this one has echoes of some of the greats. Ava looks like she was patterned on the female robot of “Metropolis” (1927), and Nathan in his remote estate is a modern version “Frankenstein” (1931), a man obsessed with creating artificial life. Other scenes reminded me of the eerie image of women preserved in glass cases in “The Black Cat” (1934).

But while “Ex Machina” has its creepy moments, it never climbs to the heights of such classics. The suspense arises as Caleb is torn between fidelity to Nathan, whose real motives become increasingly suspect, and his sympathy for Ava, a virtual prisoner in her room. When she pleads for his help to escape it’s hard to tell if she is testing Caleb or if Nathan is.

But although Caleb’s dilemma provokes some curiosity as to the outcome, the suspense never ratchets up high enough to make the denouement a compelling payoff. The pacing of the story remains steady rather than picking up steam as it heads toward the climax, and feels more like watching a science experiment foul up than emotional catharsis.

Yet the movie had a lot going for it. The art direction and music create a sense of strange otherworldliness, Ava’s appearance has some nifty special effects work, and the acting is well done. Isaac give a standout performance as the uber-smart and coolly manipulative Nathan, Gleeson is convincing as a awkwardly sweet young guy, and Vikander keeps you off guard as to who or what Ava really is underneath.

Writer Alex Garland, in his directorial debut, gives the film polish and a tight structure, but if there is a message underneath it is obscure. There isn’t much originality to the concept or the plot, and the final act doesn’t provide any revelations, leaving an open question as to what he’s saying about what it means to be human—or inhuman.

I puzzled a bit over the sexual subtext, until it hit me: this is a story of two immature single dudes who spend their days talking about women. Nathan, an obnoxious self-styled player, maneuvers Caleb, an inexperienced guy who wants to be cool like his new friend, into a blind date. Poor Caleb has trouble figuring his date out while Nathan delights in pestering him with questions about what went on in their meetings. When Nathen tries to prod Caleb into having a more intimate relationship with the girl, she finds out what’s going on and gets pissed at both of them.

Maybe Garland didn’t intend that allegory, but it fits pretty well. It actually sounds like a more interesting movie, given that you’d care about the woman because you could guess what she must feeling.

 

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