Ex Machina (2015)

So this week I watched Ex-Machina (2014), Alex Garland’s generally admired sci-fi flick. I’ll just go ahead and say that it fell short of expectations. I consider it grossly overhyped.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith

The story follows Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson doing the best Domhnall Gleeson yet), a top programmer at a search engine company (lazily named) Blue Book, who wins a work contest for reasons and against criteria that remain unclear, top prize being; living in for a week with his employer (Oscar Isaac).

Caleb is initially elated at the prospect of living with Nathan, (that’s the boss), however his jovial excitement soon turns to trepidation once Nathan lets him in on the ‘real’ reason he’s been chosen. Having said that, the notion of honesty is relentlessly altered throughout the film’s one hour, forty-two minute running time.

Domhnall plays Caleb Smith as smoothly and clinically as possibly. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a wooden performance, however to be honest, at times I wondered whether he really enjoys playing these roles any more. He’s quickly become a Hugh Grant kind of actor where each character he interprets seems to be a different version of the previous character.

One could place the blame on the screenplay and direction.

Oscar Isaac as Nathan, the alcoholic founder of Blue Book

Oscar Isaac did his best with what he was given as the tech-savvy mogul. The boss is an enigmatic, reclusive individual who also happens to be a severe alcoholic. Makes you wonder however he managed to accomplish what he did given the few functioning braincells he must have remaining. He lives in a secluded glass house accessed through an unsightly panelled container, far away from prying eyes, in a mountainous and forest laiden estate.

The Hills are Alive! Caleb arrives at the Nathan’s place

Isaac seems to be a versatile actor, striving to bring a number of different facets to the role, which, however, remains as one-dimensional as cardboard. Again, the fault seems to lie with the screenplay and specifically, lack of backstory development.

In spite of the actor’s efforts, the character neither transmitted the torment nor the genius he was meant to. I expected more depth from a character who’s supposed to dwarf Steve Jobs and Bill Gates into measly peanut-sellers. This is a man with the ability to single handedly create robots who look and sound and feel and communicate like perfect women.

Calab discovers Nathan’s collection of spare robot parts

And this is another aspect that really irked me. All his prototypes (he’s eternally yet to create his masterpiece) look like female runway models. He doesn’t create any fat, hairy men, or any men, for that matter. An insightful reason for this, if there was any, was never given. Why are existing robots destined to be dismantled to make way for new ones, when each of them is a perfect product of innovation with her own identity, and especially given that Nathan keeps a collection of them locked in cupboards? This is also never properly addressed, must like how no insight is given as to how Nathan manages to create robots who can easily pass as perfect women in his tiny, clean little laboratory. I also felt that overemphasising the robot’s presumed sexual nature turned it into a major plot device, which took away instead of added to the film, stifling it from exploring other, more intriguing topics as yet uncharted. 

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The tech-guru in Black Mirror’s Smithereens also preferred seclusion in the wilderness

Nathan personifies the ultimate tech-guru. This film shared a number of similarities with Black Mirror’s Smithereens (2019) which also revolved around a Jobs inspired tech founder and dealt with themes of identity exposure and data protection. While we’re on the subject of Black Mirror, it’s also interesting to note that Gleeson himself had a role which takes on much of the same issues this film does in the Be Right Back episode, which was, admittedly one of the weaker ones.

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Then there is Ava (Alicia Vikander) – undoubtedly the most beautiful and convincingly human doe-eyed robot made by man. As in Nathan’s case, I’m again unsure about how I myself feel about the performance. However, Ava’s portrayal is problematic for two distinct reasons.

Ava

Vikander is credited as the one who played the character, although it isn’t clear how much she actually contributed to the role and how much was purely code. For the large majority of the film, the actresses’ face was pasted onto the immensely detailed, intricately designed cg robot.

Ava’s internal structure is a sight to behold

We can tell that robot Ava is brought to life purely through CG (it is becoming harder and harder for films to trick us into believing otherwise). I feel we’ve come to a point (and this has been over-discussed in a million and one film boards), where the majority of CG imagery doesn’t quite do the trick anymore. This is many times down to budgetary and deadline-related issues.

As mesmerising as the digitally created robot may look and as time consuming it must have been to create, it looks patently fake, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a big-budget movie. This was also obvious in other instances such as during a a scene involving a cg knife getting jammed into a character’s back and also whenever a robot peeled their skin off to exhibit their inner works.

No, this isn’t a video-game screengrab

I don’t believe CG will ever really be a substitute for practical effects. Even a human-robot fight sequence late in the film conveys none of the menace the first two Schwarzenegger Terminators brought through their real brawn and metal.

Human

Gradually Ava takes on more human-like qualities, only to prove that her face never really belonged on a robot after all.

Having said all this regarding Ava’s robotic aspect, it was really her human face that spoilt the effect. The see-through bot on its own is slick and fascinating. The face, on the other hand is a perfectly human face digitally grafted onto the robot’s facial skull. Something about the finished effect looks off; the two never really gel together. A human face is capable of conveying many different messages through expressions that a robot might not be able to differentiate between, let alone subtly convey. Through Vikander’s natural ability to convey emotions through her facial expressions, act robotic as she might, the game is immediately given away. Humanity is still far from attaining this desired mastery of practical effects, where a flawless, physical and intelligent human face is married with robotics.

One might argue that convincing us of such a major achievement is the whole point of the movie, and that after all, it is not set in the present day but in the near future. However I also find this point ludicrous. I’m quite confident that it will take a good couple thousand years before a robot this perfect and aware is created by man. By which time I’m sure we’d have found much easier ways to go extinct. I believe that a film, even sci-fi, needs to have certain key elements grounded in reality for them to really take off. That is, if it wants the audience to buy into the premise.

Final Thoughts

Beneath it’s airbrushed cg skin and absurd premise, this movie which attempts to pose and answer age-old questions about data exposure, retention and misuse in a predictable and clichéd good-vs-bad-guy way.

alicia vikander GIF

An intriguing point the film emphasised was that it is so easy to let our guard down in front of something of perceived beauty or attraction, even when we know that it would be a mistake to do so. The presented allegory isn’t at all far fetched. While I’ve yet to personally meet someone who’s fallen in love with a robot clad in cotton stockings pulled over wire-mesh legs, it’s commonplace for humans to make bad judgement calls in a digital world teeming with fake profiles and titillating popups.  

oscar isaac dancing GIF
Dance for me!

In essence, Ex Machina tells a love story of man and machine. I’ve already seen films built on such premises a number of times…and this is coming from someone who has a lot of trouble accessing sci-fi. Joaquin Phoenix’s Her (2013), Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man (1999), and Al Pacino’s S1m0ne (2002) all tackled this same theme in their own ways. The similarity lies with the premise – a human with growing affection for a human-looking robot without an expiry date or essential/reproductive organs. The film didn’t offer anything new or extraordinary in both concept and execution, other than having the robot as a product of one man’s personal search-engine history.

ex machina ava GIF by A24

All in all, I’d call it an okay if predictable and slow-moving movie. The film never really becomes more than just a film. Even rehashed ideas are not fleshed out in an original manner.

Perhaps I expected too much from this kind of cinema.

Have you watched Ex Machina? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!

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