Artificial intelligence is having quite a year at the box office, but Alex Garland’s directorial debut is far and away one of the smartest and most spine-tingling films to ever utilize the idea.
Ex Machina centers on a young coder (Domhnall Gleeson) who is tapped by reclusive but brilliant CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test a highly advanced robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), who happens to look like a beautiful human woman (because if you had the power to create life, why wouldn’t you make it gorgeous?, asks the somewhat skeevy inventor) for signs of AI. But really, that’s just a jumping-off point for an engrossing cat-and-mouse game like no other, a story about what it really means to be alive and about the great and terrible beauty of creation.
For no sooner has the coder, Caleb, begun peering into Ava than does she start peering back at him, sizing him up, even ogling him, looking for signs of weakness with either innocent curiosity or cold strategy. Caleb can’t tell – and neither can we. Ava is a truly indelible creation. As played by Vikander, she’s a gorgeous, tragic, intricately layered and completely hypnotic. Is she a slave or a seductress, a damsel in distress or a femme fatale, a mouse or a lion? Or is she all of these things at once, and all the more achingly alive because of it? Garland keeps the mystique intact, and in doing so he cements Ava as one of the most fascinating movie characters of the past decade.
Predictably, things go from strange to scary as Caleb’s interviews with Ava grow more intimate and intricate, and Nathan reveals a darker side that may menace everyone present in his secluded mountain research facility. Ava doesn’t help matters, stoking Caleb’s resentment of Nathan (the dominant male both physically and intellectually, who plays both father and prison guard to Ava) into a seething hatred. Garland adopts a spare, almost clinical shooting style that just serves to impart the ruthless precision of Ava’s machinations, and how Caleb and Nathan are really just pawns in a chess game of her design. One of the writer-director’s most stunning successes in Ex Machina is the foreboding tension he builds in nearly every scene, subtly but inexorably.
Ex Machina is, on some levels, a cutting-edge Frankenstein story about a child rebelling against its parents and, on others, an unsettlingly erotic tale of forbidden desires leading people down a road to ruin. It’s a high-tech, high-concept battle of the sexes in which a painfully human man attempts to craft the perfect woman but isn’t prepared for the posthuman, chillingly cold, self-possessed result to surpass him in every manner imaginable. And as written and directed by Garland, Ex Machina is both a stunning thriller and a knock-out philosophy exercise, as compulsively watchable as it is delectable to take apart and put back together. It’s so much more than the sum of its fascinating parts.
The 1080p transfer given to Ex Machina is sturdy and sharp, giving the film a detailed and absorbing video presentation that fully captures the beautiful CGI work done to Vikander as well as the realistic color palette. There are a few scenes where Garland chooses to bathe the characters in colored light (one brilliantly staged dance sequence is all blood-red hues), and other shots appear somewhat filmy, particularly ones shot from outside Nathan’s complex, but for the most part, detail is strong and the shadows all feel intentionally murky, driving home the enigmatic quality of the plot.
The Ex Machina Blu-Ray is the first to offer its DTS X format, but my player is unfortunately not quite cutting-edge enough for that, so I ended up watching the film with the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track – and it still blew me away. This is a rich, effective, badass audio track, blending quieter moments of tense ambient sound with riveting blasts of noise, whether it be in the furious whirring of helicopter rotors or the simmering, seductive score. Kudos to Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury for constructing such an eerily appropriate musical accompaniment for an outside-the-box sci-fi thriller like this.
Special features include:
- Through the Looking Glass: Making Ex Machina (39:59)
- SXSW Q&A with Cast and Crew (1:00:57)
- Behind the Scenes Vignettes (28:40)
- Making Ava
- Nathan’s World
- New Consciousness
- Becoming Ava
- Meet Ava
- God Complex
As the running times would suggest, this is a pretty mighty crop of extras. The must-watch out of the bunch is “Through the Looking Glass,” which features tons of great interviews with the cast and crew that delve headfirst into trickier philosophical quandaries as well as the logistics of making the film. TechCrunch’s Jordan Crook moderates the “SXSW Q&A,” though she’s the worst part of it, continually inserting words into Garland’s mouth that he needs to backtrack from, but that aside, the Q&A is a fascinating study of what each and every individual involved with Ex Machina brought to the production. The titles of the vignettes are mostly self-explanatory, but they too are worth a watch.
All in all, Ex Machina on Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. The video, audio and bonus features are all resolutely solid, but the movie itself is the real prize. Garland arrives as a true revelation both as writer and director, smartly expanding on many of the ideas he was taken with in his previous works, and the performers are all on his whip-smart tempo every step of the way. Ex Machina is one of those rare sci-fi films more concerned with big, brave ideas than slick visuals or adherence to a Hollywood plot, and that makes it not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best sci-fi stories of our generation.
Ex Machina is a stunning thriller and a knock-out philosophy exercise, as compulsively watchable as it is delectable to take apart and put back together.