I believe that the Sci-Fi genre is too often limited by stereotypical preconceptions. These preconceptions include the belief that it’s not a serious art form capable of reflecting society. This may be because it’s too often confused with “fantasy,” which unfairly suffers from low credibility. In many ways Sci-Fi is an ideal platform for commenting on modern events as it shows us how the future may look. The movie Ex Machina does just that. Technology is becoming more and more a part of our society and culture. Everything from communication, merchandising, education and recreation have their ties to technology. Ex Machina delves into a near future in which technology takes a quantum leap as true artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a reality.
Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland, is a phenomenal work of modern Sci-Fi cinema that won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It is a genre changing film right up there with Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott and Brazil (1985) directed by Terry Gilliam. The film is more than cheap entertainment and shows how intelligent and relevant a Sci-Fi film can be.
The film begins with a young ambitious coder named Caleb who has won a competition to meet Nathan, the reclusive genius head of the company he works for. The company is named Bluebook and it is the largest internet search engine in the world. With the money Nathan has accrued he has built an ultra-secret, ultra-state-of-the-art research center (so far so Sci-Fi!). Caleb is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of what appears to be Pacific Northwest wilderness. He finds his way to the lab, meets Nathan and quickly learns just exactly why he has been summoned. Over beers and introductions, Nathan casually brings up the fact that he has created an AI (artificial intelligence). Nathan wants Caleb to run tests to prove that his “machine” is truly AI.
The plot unfolds more like a play than a film. With the exception of the very beginning and ending of Ex Machina, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s remote and secret research center. Though one of the strengths of film making is its ability to have multiple locations and scenes, the director of Ex Machina chose to limit the action to a few rooms and corridors. Basically, he chose suspense over action and uses all of his director’s tools to keep the suspense building. The film’s minimalist score by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury maintains a constant feeling of ominous foreboding. The fast editing and combination of close ups and medium shots vary the action without taking us anywhere. The film is so beautifully shot and edited it doesn’t matter that it is mostly dialogue. Listening to the dialogue makes you feel like you are experiencing a duel. In many ways it reminds me of a Shakespeare play. It is full of intrigue and betrayal. This is one of the only films in recent memory to take place in a primary location and have only three main speaking characters.
The film’s success is also largely due to its absolutely remarkable cast. Domhnall Gleeson does an excellent job portraying Caleb, a mild mannered, sensitive and highly intelligent coder who we witness change from a willing student to a suspicious outsider. Oscar Isaac projects Nathan’s unchecked ambition and cockiness through an intense polarizing energy that seems to explode and recede at random. He is a character of extremes: extreme ambition, extreme appetites and extreme ego. In some ways he envisions himself as a god, the creator of a new and burgeoning race. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, offers up a magical performance as the lonely AI whom Caleb is sent to test. It was an interesting choice by the creators of the movie to make Ava look like a robot from the neck down. It would have been easy to have Alicia Vikander simply act the part, altering her voice slightly to appear more android like. In the close ups of her face, we see a young woman but when the camera pulls back, we see the robot body. This keeps us unbalanced and conflicted.
Ex Machina will undoubtedly stand as a Sci-Fi classic. It truly is a game changer when it comes to the genre as a whole. The film covers poignant and relevant themes such as what it truly means to be human, the possible consequences of unchecked technological advances and the potential repercussions of playing god by creating another “more advanced” race such as AI. The film takes the Frankenstein theme in a new direction by making the monster pleasing to the eye and ear. These themes are solidified by strong performances and breathtaking yet reserved cinematography. Ex Machina is a breath of fresh air. It feels clean and polished and not a bit derivative. The film shows a near future that is in no way unbelievable and offers up a very suspenseful story that unfolds like a tight rope act. Someone is going to fall and we are kept wondering who it will be until the very end.
All images are screenshots from Ex Machina
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