Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers and some swearing.
English novelist, screenwriter and producer Alex Garland is best known for writing the screenplays to two Danny Boyle films, 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), as well as the novel The Beach which was adapted into a film, again by Danny Boyle (although Garland didn’t write the screenplay for that). He’s also responsible for writing the screenplays to Dredd (2012) and the critically acclaimed film Never Let Me Go (2010). With such a successful career of writing excellent scripts to several well-received and successful films, it should come as no surprise that Garland would make a film as great as Ex Machina. However, Garland indeed exceeds expectations and stuns with a confident and prescient stylish sci-fi thriller.
Ex Machina falls somewhere on the wavelength of intelligent and stylish sci-fi films released in recent years. It bears similarity most with Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her. The two films are analogous in a number of ways, mostly with their story being, in the simplest of terms, about a man falling in love with artificial intelligence. However, of course, these films are much more than that. With every question posed another is raised, and the themes Ex Machina covers are ever so pertinent in 2015, with technology advancing at an astonishing rate and artificial intelligence improving. The key idea in most science-fiction is about our exploration of the world around us as it is changing, as influenced by technological advancements. Although Science Fiction has a long history in film with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) being one of the first major examples, it has not exactly been held in high regard. Even with the seminal Kubrick epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film polarised audiences and didn’t receive its status in film until a while later. The ideas that Ex Machina poses are familiar. The questions it raises have been discussed, but, rather than simply being hypothetical, Ex Machina explores a reality in the near-future that seems entirely plausible.
Although perhaps not as ambitious as Kubrick’s film, considering its fictional setting is more familiar to modern audiences, Ex Machina is still an incredibly ambitious film. It was shot on location with over four weeks at Pinewood Studios and two weeks at Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen, Norway. There were no special effects, green-screen, or tracking markers used during filming; all of the minimal effects were done in post-production. Much of the film’s modest duration of 108 minutes takes place in the interior of the high-security home of the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). However a number of scenes take place outside of the home, notably at the beginning and end. The cinematography by Rob Hardy is incredibly stunning and expertly shot. There are many beautiful, breath-taking aerial shots of the frozen Norwegian mountains and forest surrounding Caleb’s home as a backdrop for the film. Although the scenery is beautiful, it’s worth noting that the protagonist Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is alone with Nathan, apart from a housemaid, Kyoto, in this remote, isolated home which can only turn out well.
The title of the film immediately sets up the idea of a Deus Ex Machina, which is a Latin calque meaning ‘god from the machine.’ The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. This may sound like a contrived and lazy narrative technique that the film will focus on, however Garland entirely subverts this idea. Throughout the film, we are trying to justify Nathan’s actions, and considering whether or not his actions were ethical. At one point Nathan says to Caleb ‘I’m God’, which clearly suggests the meaning of Deus Ex Machina. Not all of the questions Garland raises are answered; it lets use explore this seemingly near-future and it does seem plausible. What would we do?
The film begins with a short scene without any dialogue. The soundtrack in the scene is an almost angelic score composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which again alludes to the idea of God. We see Caleb at his desk at the office of Bluebook the technology company he works for as programmer. The text ‘First Prize’ flashes on his computer screen and the score changes to a faster-paced electronic sound, signifying a transition into the world Caleb is about to enter. Caleb then texts people on his phone and is congratulated by the people in his office. Garland immediately sets up a tense atmosphere for the rest of the film, especially through the use of the electronic score. The opening scene lasts less than a minute and shows Caleb surrounded by people in an ordinary life. The moment he receives the message is the moment his life changes forever, by winning a one-week visit to the secluded high-security home of the company’s CEO, Nathan. The scene then cuts to an aerial shot of a frozen Norwegian Landscape, and the adventure begins.
There are three characters depicted in Ex Machina: Caleb, Nathan and Eva. Although Eva is not human, she is a significant character and treated as human by the film. Caleb acts as a character we can empathise with. We are, like Caleb, unaware of Nathan’s intentions and we do not know what to expect. The information is revealed to us when it is revealed to Caleb, so we see primarily through his perspective. However, as the film progresses it subtly sets up a feminist stance through Eva. It is not overt, but the idea of the male gaze is subtly addressed through the way in which Caleb falls in love with Eva. It raises the idea of a man being attracted to artificial intelligence just because Eva has the face of a woman, and is therefore able to be objectified. It also raises the question of ownership and fetishism: the key revelation in the film is that Nathan has created many feminine Robots with artificial intelligence to be used as sexual objects, and Kyoko, his housemaid, is one of them. Caleb interacts with Eva in a series of tests as part of the Turing Test, a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
Gleeson plays Caleb very well as a shy, introverted and lonely young man, and Oscar Isaac plays Nathan as a confident genius, somewhat unhinged and sinister with a shaved head and a seriously great full-beard. However, Alicia Vikander is truly the star of the film as Eva. She outshines both co-stars with a personal, nuanced approach to portraying artificial intelligence. Vikander’s performance and Garland’s direction, as well as everything else the film has to offer, allows the audience to really identify with what is apparently just a Robot. I got the sense that Eva truly does have consciousness.
The film leaves the story open and does not answer the questions it raises. Did Eva pass the Turing Test? I don’t know. But Garland does something spectacular in making me identify with her, and even though the film ends with Nathan stabbed by Eva and Caleb trapped in his home I felt happy for Eva – for her.
Alex Garland does everything right with Ex Machina. His ambitious directional debut pays off in every aspect. The writing from Garland is wonderful, the narrative and plot are tense and well-written, the visuals and cinematography are well shot and crafted, and the electronic score is perfectly composed and fits exactly with the action. And finally the incredible performances of Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and most importantly, Alicia Vikander were flawless.
Finally, I’m going to give props to Oscar Isaac’s dance moves. He really did ‘tear up the fucking dancefloor.’ Check it out!