Ex Machina is a movie I saw very early on in the year, and we are talking the calendar year, which is not necessarily the one defined by the film industry’s awards season. Longevity of a January release (April in America) in the motion picture world has seldom been a flourishing flavor come the last quarter of the year when the cluster of Oscar contenders hurtle toward us like buffalo. Take into account too the likelihood that a science fiction slash psychological drama has strong enough legs to make it all the way to the red carpet as a serious contender. For Ex Machina, apparently a legitimate awards underdog then, clear audience and critical acclaim would be ample icing on the cake.
While watching Ex Machina, and comfortably affirmed when it was over, I was aware that this was a movie that was going to be hard to shake off. Novelist turned screenwriter to Danny Boyle turned stand-alone writer-director Alex Garland has crafted an intricate, imaginative film experience with his debut feature. This is a film I yearned to go the distance. As awards season arrived, the strangest thing happened (by strangest I surely mean most exhilarating) – Ex Machina was popping up with the critics and awards groups. Boston, Austin, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, countless others, even nominations for Golden Globes and European Film Awards. Alicia Vikander taking much of the accolades (seemingly thriving with two films), but Oscar Isaac and Alex Garland also being honored multiple times.
As if that was not enough of a buzz, when the PGA nominations revealed Ex Machina as one of the ten best for the year, there was yet another invigorating breeze through the awards season – a real mixed bag of an adventure I might add. Although I would like to believe that my advocacy of the movie, including my own limited-audience campaigning on Twitter for the film, had a lot to do with it, the truth is, film folk were still talking about Ex Machina long after it’s first quarter release. It was not going away after all.
Ex Machina’s opening office landscape, sparse while walls, sprinkling of sharp lighting, gives us sheer glimpses of the near future. A future we have already taken steps into in fact. Book-ended by glorious, gorgeous serenity of the outside world, we are also invited in contrast to the darker seclusion of the interiors. Caleb’s mysterious journey continues on foot from the helicopter that drops him in the middle of the green, green forest to a building structure that sticks out like a sore thumb. Reflections through glass and walls impose perspectives and lights, layering the reality before our eyes, not just to begin with, but throughout.
The movie doesn’t waste time fueling your subconscious wonder while you hardly notice it – one of the most subtle touches during every Ava session, accompanied by a faint heartbeat-like hum. Sound design so streamline and effective it kind of taps you on the shoulder from the inside. The music and sounds linger on low level volume, creep into your bloodstream. I mean, visually too. We’ve seen hundreds of robotic / cyborg / bionic personifications in our cinematic experience, but Garland’s visual implication of sedate sci-fi sets up Ava as a being we have not quite seen the likes of. Ava’s physical construction is incredible, portions of her body are just about translucent, outer skeletal grey mesh matter, and movements reflecting light to different extents across her multi-textured torso and head.
Alicia Vikander’s face, unblemished and beautiful, seems perfectly made to fit the artificial form. The attractiveness of Vikander ought not to be queried, the very concept is part of a discussion between Nathan and Caleb as to whether or not Ava’s beauty is an allurement tool in the experiment – to fake Caleb out – though rather it flips this to demonstrate the minimal scope and choices Ava has about who or indeed what to like. With commanding lead performances in The Danish Girl and Testament of Youth, Vikander is having a blinder of a year, and Ex Machina has garnered warranted praise for her unyielding turn as the female android. Her Ava is a revelation, the actress shows a genuine talent, body language, an organic poise, surely not harmed by her ballet and musical dance background.
With The Revenant, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens to name three, Domhnall Gleeson is also something of a prolific presence of late. Adopting an American accent Gleeson handles the central role with an innocent awe, Caleb is a somewhat bewildered, intelligent young man, if a little naive. You can almost see the actor coming to terms with the unfamiliar surroundings through Caleb, which is further absorbing in developing his character. With Nathan on the other hand there’s antagonism and a threat concealed under his quick-fire and penetrating vocal charisma. The experiment and conversation is going his way. Step up Oscar Isaac, who is proving quite the hot property in the film industry, also a huge part of Star Wars, he has a slew of compelling performances behind him. As CEO of the global software company and creator of the artificial intelligence humanoid Ava, Isaac’s swaggering, stealthy Nathan is being touted as his best performance. Understandably so.
If I were an Academy member, much of the technical categories as well both Supporting players for certain would get my vote. The prospect of this potentially becoming a reality is a thrill, sure, but the architect also has to be given his dues. Alex Garland has created, as Caleb says of Ava, something discretely complicated. Garland’s film is so well constructed in all segments, the complexities and rhythms appear quite simple. There is no fat or gristle on this meat, his screenplay is crammed with scenes, actions, silences, dialogue that play their part, not just as is required for narrative progression, but also enlighten our own indulgent intrigue and emotional intelligence. Even the small talk is relevant, distinguishing character relations, provoking a guessing game as to who is smarter than who.
Garland’s execution of his own material is also something to be relished. There are no flaws in the meek movements of character and slow-burn of the narrative, composure is the name of the game here. All the more apprehending with slight jolts in plot and physical action – like boot-down of the building’s power with red-light interiors and alarms ringing out. The tone shifts into pure sci-fi horror towards the end, you pretty much feel that knife go in and cringe, and still feel a private elation as Ava prevails. Then simultaneously evoking euphoria for Ava’s sly genius and imminent sense of freedom while you’re stomach knots for Caleb’s sudden, helpless entrapment. Nathan and Caleb’s ultimate chess game, taking turns in out-smarting the other is utterly captivating, and proves to be both their downfalls.
Ex Machina is a flow of emotional intelligence in itself. There’s often a distinct and distant whiff of fear, we don’t quite know why or for who. There’s even a far-from-subtle open reference to phone and data hacking. The dance scene, a classic, familiar set-piece in many movies, is perhaps the biggest surprise of all – and talked about as one of the memorable moments of 2015. Caleb’s expression may be as dumbfounded as ours as Nathan and Kyoko tear up the dance floor. It’s the spontaneity of Ex Machina that is the most probing, a dynamic, bold motion picture – refreshingly original and liberating. The finale, as Ava takes control of her own existence, is empowering, stemming a kind new outlook on the world we think we know. As I work towards my own end of year film honors, I have no doubts whatsoever that Ex Machina has more than earned its place at the top of the pile.