Robots have been a topic long explored in science fiction, but there are only two films I’ve seen so far that look upon it in a deep, compassionate way, one that has stayed with me long after the credits rolled. The first of them is, of course, 1982’s Blade Runner, which, despite being a lot slower and moodier than I was expecting, is quintessential viewing for any film lover. The second is the much more recent Ex Machina, which is now one of A24’s most popular films ever (even spawning an entire book) since Universal refused to distribute it in the United States. Looking at the kind of stuff they’re pumping out now, I can see why a film like that wouldn’t fit in, so that makes sense. Still a big loss for them, though.
If there’s one basic statement that could be used to summarize this film, it’s that almost nothing in it is as it may seem (except if you watch any of the trailers, which I don’t recommend since they spoil way, way too much). Those who have seen it will be thinking of the pessimistic ending, and yes, I am referring to that too. Pay close attention, however, and you will pick up on some other strange things as well.
For instance, Ex Machina kicks off with what seems to be a major plot hole, as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), an ordinary programmer for the search engine company Blue Book, is flown all the way to the isolated home of the company’s brilliant CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac), to test out a highly advanced humanoid robot by the name of Ava (Alicia Vikander). How did he get such a major honor, you may ask? Why, it’s seemingly just because—and only because—he took the first place prize on some Internet contest, and (presumably) a completely random one at that.
That little gap isn’t shoved in your face, but stuck out to me so much that I found myself leaning closer to the screen, desperately wanting to know what was really going on. And believe me, those who take that approach with this slower, more dialogue-focused film will be rewarded in droves, as I was once the reason for that gap was finally revealed.
Also worth keeping your eyes on is Ava herself, who isn’t just “non-autistic” (as Nathan puts it), but even has an intelligence level that’s even beyond some humans. She’s cunning, clever, manipulative, and—worst of all—kind, but as the film progresses, we’re not sure who we should be more distrustful of: her, or Nathan, who hides some dark secrets of his own.
The aforementioned ending, however, completely turns that on its head, and although it didn’t make me like Nathan any more than I did beforehand, the shocking revelation about his various claims (not delivered overtly, thank goodness) really threw me for a loop. Some people will walk away from these final minutes thinking that they’re too cynical, and I completely understand that. However, they perfectly fit with the film’s overarching themes of technology, power, control, and futuristic paranoia, and the fact that it had the courage to end on that note is part of what makes it so daring and unique.
Speaking of that, it’s simply incredible what writer/director Alex Garland was able to do on a technical level with a relatively small (for a 21st-century sci-fi film, anyway) $15 million dollar budget. The superb visual effects (which deservedly netted the film’s only Oscar), beautiful cinematography, unforgettably stark production design, and gorgeously eerie color palette—best displayed in a surprisingly hilarious dance scene—all benefited the film’s haunting story quite well, proving that you don’t need a gigantic amount of money in order to make something powerful and effective.
My only real issues with Ex Machina lie with the messages and ideas presented in it, which I felt were delivered a bit too bluntly at times, and a couple logical holes that don’t seem to be intentional (how is a security system developed by a genius scientist able to be hacked into just by stealing said scientist’s ID card?), but otherwise, this is a near-masterpiece of small-scale sci-fi filmmaking. May it never get dumbed down by future Hollywood generations.
Note: After thinking it over for a while, my opinions on Ex Machina have slightly changed. Too much of it is predictable for me to give it a 9 now, but I still enjoyed it enough for it to secure a solid 8.