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Saturday , May 27 2017
My Favorite Film of 2015: Ex Machina

My Favorite Film of 2015: Ex Machina

Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 9   

I resisted designating Ex Machina as my favorite film of the year, seeing as how I had picked its kinder gentler sister (Her) for the top spot only two years ago, but resistance is futile …

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“When God created the first man alone, God said ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’  [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith.”

– The Alphabet of Ben Sira 78

With Ex Machina, veteran sci-fi writer Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go (2010), Sunshine (2007), 28 Days Later (2002)) has created a chamber drama involving a reclusive genius/entrepreneur (Oscar Isaac’s Nathan), Nathan’s latest creation of artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander’s Ava), Nathan’s programmer/employee selected to evaluate said artificial intelligence (Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb), and Nathan’s resident maid/dance partner/sex doll (Sonoya Mizuno’s Kyoko), all set within an undisclosed Eden hundreds of miles from anywhere.  The setup is deceptively simple.  Caleb initially considers himself part of a real-life Turing test.  (For those of you who did not catch last year’s Oscar bait, The Imitation Game, click here.)  But as he points out early on, in the Turing test, “the machine should be hidden from the computer,” and in his initial “sessions” with Ava (which literally mark the chapters of the film), Ava’s electronic components are exposed, until “she” molds herself into the object of Caleb’s desires …

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… , and once she is free from both Nathan and Caleb, the identity that she chooses for herself.

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Garland’s talents as screenwriter have garnered an Oscar nomination.  And on a textual level (to which the critics seem most attuned), the film certainly serves as a cautionary tale, spotlighted by two men debating the finer points of the sentience and sexuality of Nathan’s creation – over a beer …

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… or in a workshop – you know, like dudes.

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But there’s more to Garland than an above-average genre scribe, and there’s more to Ex Machina than a technological fable.  With the aid of strong performances, a wonderfully appropriate score by Portishead alumni Ben Salibury and Geoff Barrow, and an Oscar-nominated effects team, first-time director Garland demonstrates a rather impressive acumen for visual storytelling.

The key to his approach is evocation.  As a novelist, Garland certainly knows his cinema, as well as how to effectively draw from sources as diverse as Stanley Kubrick …

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… to Joseph Mankiewicz …

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… without ever over-reaching.

And Garland relies quite heavily upon a motif that should be quite familiar to cineastes – reflective surfaces.  Of course, there are mirrors to convey both self-actualization, as well as self-doubt.

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But Garland’s fixation goes beyond the obvious.  For example, the glass between Caleb and Ava is used to accentuate shifts in their relationship.  Even though the physical space remains constant, the perspective of the actors vis-à-vis the barrier between them changes from the introduction to a caged Ava …

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… , who assumes a distinctly submissive position, …

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to their second meeting, when Ava begins to exert an emotional authority …

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… while Caleb appears to be the one who is contained.

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That said, cinematic elements need to add up to something compelling.  And in this regard, one of my favorite scenes of the year is the first contact between Ava and Kyoko, which within less than a minute evolves into a conspiracy of newly-minted protagonists – a scene that plays, wordlessly and sensually, like its own self-contained story.

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And ultimately, Garland’s imagery serves a broader subtext, as a revisionist creation myth and liberation narrative.

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“Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God’s ineffable name and flew away into the air.”

– Alphabet of Ben Sira 78

Grade: A

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