Box Office Democracy: Ex Machina
I didn’t expect too much from Ex Machina walking in to the film. I had seen the trailer every week for what feels like months, a perk of patronizing one of the few theaters that participated in the limited engagement I suppose, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. It looked like a competent but pedestrian sci-fi thriller with a second act twist I was reasonably sure I had figured out in advance. I was wrong about all of those things. I was wrong about the twist, I was wrong about the film being pedestrian, and the film is so far beyond pedestrian I’m ashamed at the thought. Ex Machina is one of the most compelling, gripping, transfixing movie I have seen in quite some time. It’s such a fascinating movie to talk about that I’m crestfallen that it is in such a limited release that I will likely have to wait weeks to talk about it with anyone. I want to stand on street corners and bully passersby to go buy tickets, more people need to see this movie.
Ex Machina is the first directorial effort from veteran screenwriter Alex Garland and it’s almost unbelievable how skilled he is as a novice. While he is working with a small cast the performances he gets from his actors are uniformly excellent. Oscar Isaac has been fantastic in every film I’ve seen him in but he’s on another level here as Nathan. Nathan is a character that needs to have a quiet menace about him and Isaac oozes it from every pore. He commands all attention when he’s on screen in much the way I imagine it would be to share a room with a predatory cat. Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander make for a fascinating on-screen duo as the software engineer Caleb and the artificial intelligence (Ava) he has come to test and I suspect that their performances will feel even more special on repeat viewings once the viewer understands the whole story.
Garland’s directorial debut is special for more than simply the performances he gets from his actors, it is also a wonderfully effective, complex, thriller. There’s this simmering feeling of menace that feels like it’s constantly lurking just out of the edges of the frame waiting to strike despite relatively low stakes for the first two thirds of the film. There’s a disturbing turn in the second act that turns everything up well past 11 but it was like activating the nitro boost in a race with Dominic Toretto, weren’t we already going fast enough? It was hard to handle in all of the best ways.
I also want to single out the powerful use of color throughout the film. Scenes often start and end with frames overloaded with one color or another and it’s so effective in conveying mood. Scenes end with a room bathed in red light but open again in the rich Norwegian green of whatever Narnia they discovered to shoot this movie in. It might read as a cheap trick to some but I’ve always been partial to movies that use color to quickly communicate shifts in tone. It creates an easy shorthand throughout the film so it comes to mean even more when the last shot we see of Caleb is bathed in the red light we’ve come to associate with so much tension throughout the film. It’s the kind of wonderful thing that can only really be done in film and is the kind of thing that make me appreciate the job of reviewing movies.
My favorite film of all time is probably Blade Runner so I was predisposed to enjoy a movie that focuses so much on what makes a person human but Ex Machina goes further than anything I’ve seen before and that’s what pushes it in to the rarified air it gets to. While most science fiction about artificial intelligence asks us what it’s like to treat computers or robots as human Ex Machina asks what it would be like to treat women as humans. While the movie ultimately judges Nathan for his systematic mistreatment, to put it mildly, of the robots (all women) that he has created it similarly judges Caleb not for participating in the same depravity but for being silent about it and not seeming to really care, or even ask the questions about what might have happened until he was interested in Ava as a romantic partner. Not everyone who sees the film will necessarily share that read of the characters or themes and I’m far from certain they’re the intent of the filmmaker but it’s special to see this kind of ambiguity in modern science fiction and I’ve missed it dearly. I’ll be able to have conversations about this film with people who care about it for months and years to come and that’s the greatest value I can get out of $15 ticket these days. Ex Machina is a special film that deserves to be watched, rewatched, debated and argued about for years to come.