Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

Ex Machina is one of the best films of the year thus far: smart, thought-provoking, brilliantly acted and well-crafted. But thinking about it for too long may cause your brain to implode.


Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, wins a company lottery to visit CEO and scientist, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded property in the mountains. Once there he discovers that this property doubles as a research facility concerned with artificial intelligence, and that Nathan wants him to test his latest creation, humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander).

A revealing outfit.
A rather revealing outfit.

Ex Machina doesn’t deal in bullshit. It cuts straight to the chase, wasting no time on drawn-out set ups. In the first few minutes we’re at the research facility: a cold and clinical environment juxtaposed with the beauty of nature just outside. Nathan explains that he wants Caleb to determine whether Ava is human, even though he can already see that she is not. Is it already sounding like a bit of a mindf***? Because it is.

I, Robot
I, Robot

But! Thanks to the filmmaking gods (in this case there’s just one: dual director and screenwriter Alex Garland), Ex Machina isn’t one of those films where you feel like you can’t get involved unless you have a degree in science. Though there is some discussion on software and hardware, the conversations that dominate the film are of a philosophical nature. Big questions are posed about consciousness, gender, attraction, and the ethics of artificial intelligence. Don’t expect to leave with a nice little wrap-up, and be warned that extra reading on the film’s themes is likely to mess further with your head (though you should totally do some).

What male gaze?
What male gaze?

One interesting aspect in critical commentary of the film is in the discussion around gender and different readings of the film as misogynistic (the humans are men, the robots are female; there is full frontal nudity appealing to the male gaze; etc.) or feminist (Ava kicks some arse). There were similar discussions when Gone Girl was released, and I personally never had a strong feeling either way with both of these films, although I certainly felt more empowered after both films, so what does that tell you? It’s not that I want to screw over men, contrary to appearances. But these female characters are strong and powerful so I have no complaints in these films’ depictions of gender. Each to his (or her) own.

Plotting world domination?
Plotting world domination?

Alicia Vikander is a bonafide goddess, and it’s no wonder she was chosen to represent a creation made by a man, because she is out of this world beautiful, stunning, gorgeous, GOD I WISH I LOOKED LIKE THAT. (Also, is it just me who leaves films with beautiful women feeling temporarily like I am much more attractive than I truly am?) Vikander’s past life as a ballet dancer serves her well here – she has natural grace and poise. Domhnall Gleeson certainly isn’t an obvious match, but he can always be relied upon to play an infatuated nerd and to do it well.

Oh my god I'm GORGEOUS!
Oh my god I’m GORGEOUS!

Oscar Isaac is in the process of blowing up into an absolute legend of cinema. Every performance of his feels vastly different from the last (the lonesome loser in Inside Llewyn Davis, the swindler in over his head in The Two Faces of January, the immigrant pursuing the American Dream in A Most Violent Year, and now a borderline sociopathic drunk genius in Ex Machina). His skill as an actor is extraordinary, to the point where I wonder who the hell is Oscar Isaac? There’s barely a trace of continuity in his performances. He also shows off his dancing skills here – in a possible homage to Pulp Fiction he breaks out into spontaneous disco moves with his sex slave robot Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno) which is at once bizarre, hilarious, and magnificent. Keep an eye on this bloody superstar.

Eat your heart out, Travolta.
Eat your heart out, Travolta.

Screenwriter Alex Garland (whose credits include Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and the novel, The Beach) directs for the first time here, and he certainly proves his capabilities. He doesn’t go for any of the mindless action shit that plagues cinemas, instead focusing on meaningful interactions with just a few characters. As with many great films, Ex Machina is receiving a limited release (exclusive to Nova in Melbourne) which kills me. Audiences aren’t idiots, and they can handle films without happy endings. Unfortunately, they don’t get the chance to even realise this because of the limited opportunities to see such films. Let’s hope when the robots do take over, they improve film distribution.

4.5 stars

3 thoughts on “FILM REVIEW: Ex Machina”

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