Do a Shot: for each clever plot twist
Take a Drink: whenever Nathan takes one
Take a Drink: when the tension ratchets up
Do a Shot: during each darkly comedic moment
Take a Drink: for the great dancing sequence
By: Matt Conway (A Toast) –
One of my favorite genres in film has always been high-concept science fiction. Sure the fun, action-packed nature of films like Star Wars are always a blast, but my favorite science fiction films are the ones that discuss the issues of today through a unique story. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers to even Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, science fiction has proved to be a great canvas for discussing issues in society and insight on the human condition.
With that being the case, Ex Machina has been a film on my radar since its debut last month at SXSW Film Festival. Not only were most reviews raves, with most calling the film the first great film of 2015, but the promise of a high-concept science fiction film intrigued me, because audiences do not see as many films like that anymore. Add that with 28 Days Later and Dredd scribe Alex Garland being involved, and my anticipation levels were through the roof. Thankfully, Ex Machina lived up to the hype, as I can safely call it the best film of the year so far.
Ex Machina follows Caleb, a young programmer who wins a contest to visit his boss Nathan’s estate. Once he arrives, he is offered to be apart of a breakthrough experiment, testing a life-like artificial intelligence unit.
Despite its small budget, Ex Machina is absolutely gorgeous to look at. This is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and he shows incredible poise despite that being the case. Garland, teamed with cinematographer Rob Hardy, shoots the film beautifully, from the gorgeous vistas of Nathan’s estate to claustrophobic shots inside the complex that help build up tension. It’s a real credit to this duo’s talent that they can create a film that looks this good for cheap.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its cast, which all deliver A-list performances. Between this and several other upcoming releases, this is turning into a breakout year for Alicia Vikander, with this likely being her highlight performance. As Ava, the artificial intelligence, Vikander is able to get across a real sense of naivety while seeming like she could turn at any minute. That tight-rope act is balanced brilliantly by Vikander, and this is the kind of performance I hope that receives awards attention.
Stealing every scene he is in as always is Oscar Isaac, who continues to become one of the best in the industry. Isaac’s affable personality leads to several surprisingly funny moments, but Isaac is also able to show a darker, more mysterious side as well. Domhnall Gleeson has the least showiest part of the three, but still does solid work as Caleb. His breakdown as he becomes more and more involved with Ava is believable and heart-breaking to watch.
Managing every aspect of the film to perfection is Garland, who really delivers a fantastic effort with his directorial debut. Garland paces the film with a real sense of patience, but also is able to do a solid job of building tension from the opening frame. Throughout the film’s 108 minute running time, my eyes were hooked to the screen because of said tension.
The anchor of Ex Machina is Garland’s script, which is truly fantastic. One of the aspects Garland had struggled with previously is building strong characters, but he is very much up to the task here. All three characters in the film are complex and realistic, even Ava as the artificial intelligence. With this realism, each decision the characters made also felt realistic, despite these choices not always seeming like they would be in their character’s best interest.
The story itself, while seemingly simple at first, is quite engaging. Garland does a nice job of add new twists and turns to the story, without it ever feeling disingenuous or as if he was going overboard with the jumps the story makes. All of it feels like one smooth yarn, that slowly but surely unravels with relative ease. Everything that happens feels realistic to what the film previously sets up, but there are also quite a few clever surprises.
Garland and company should be given credit for just how original and off-kilter Ex Machina is. One would think the way it is being marketed that this is a rather conventional science fiction film, but that is far from the truth. Garland is able to incorporate some darkly comedic moments that deliver big laughs, but also tackles sexuality with a few surprisingly steamy moments. All of these elements thanks to Garland mix quite well, which is a tall task for any writer.
What makes Ex Machina truly special is the wide array of themes and ideals it tackles. Garland’s ideas on artificial intelligence strike especially close to home now, as the continued advancements of technology are leading us closer and closer to that point. Garland also tackles far more existential issues of humanity, such as who we are as people on this universe. These kind of big ideas are captured smoothly, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled.
For such an icy film, Ex Machina surprisingly has a big heart. Garland shows the imperfections of his characters in full force, but it’s hard not to understand or feel for them despite these flaws. This is especially the case with Nathan and Caleb, as their search to find answers to their problems in life through technology is as destructive as it is heartbreaking.
Ex Machina is an example of masterclass filmmaking by Alex Garland and company, as it’s an engaging science fiction yarn that features fantastic performances and some larger than life ideals. It’s truly a special film, and a must see for any film fan out there.