Ex Machina

Caleb, a 26 year old coder at the world's largest internet company, wins a competition to spend a week at a private mountain retreat belonging to Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the company. But when Caleb arrives at the remote location he finds that he will have to participate in a strange and fascinating experiment in which he must interact with the world's first true artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot girl.

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  • ★★★★ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd

    Viewing #2 was interesting. I feel like you watch the first time as Caleb and the second as Nathan.

  • ★★★★½ review by Bruno on Letterboxd

    Ex Machina represents the amalgamation of everything I admire in sci-fi films that focus on Artificial Intelligence: the constant interplay between man and machine, the journey into the unknown, moral dilemmas that are brought upon the creation of A.I., astounding visuals to make it feel very realistic and a story filled with ambiguity and mystery. Alex Garland’s directorial debut might be more of a feast for the senses than a truly cerebral experience, but it is done with excellence in every regard. You just feel the tension growing throughout the film until its memorable climax and Garland also adds plenty of humor, which works like a charm here. Ex Machina has just become one of my favorite films of all time and I urge you all to embark on this beautiful, unpredictable, thought provoking and suspenseful journey!

  • ★★★★★ review by Evan on Letterboxd

    Wait, so you're here to tell me Ex Machina is the first film Alex Garland has ever directed? There's just no way that can be true.

    I can't get over how well made this film is. The film is absolutely beautiful to look at. My eyes were glued to the screen because of the sheer beauty of what I was seeing. My jaw even dropped from time to time due to some of the incredible shots in this film. I was afraid to blink because I was in-fear of missing the next great shot. Along with looking great, Ex Machina also contains several great performances. Oscar Isaac continues to prove why he is one of my favorite working actors today. He is so excellent in this movie. Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava (the robot) is also fantastic. She is impossible to read, you really never know what her motives are.

    Ex Machina is why Sci-Fi is my favorite genre of film. To me there's nothing quite like a great science fiction film. Ex Machina has all the elements you want to see in a Sci-Fi film. Its got: a great story, incredibly interesting ideas, powerful performances, dazzling special effects, mind-blowing cinematography, an amazing soundtrack, and its even quite funny. Here I am 3 hours after watching this movie and I still can't stop thinking about it. I've got a feeling I will be thinking about this in days to come.

    I'm still finding it hard to believe that this is Alex Garland's first film. I can't wait to see what he does next. I can't give him enough praise.

  • ★★★★★ review by Katie on Letterboxd

    i love it. i love every second of it. i love the neon lit scenes and the shots of mountains and rivers. i love every moment you get to spend with ava. i love how caleb tries to use the phone and nathan makes a ghostbusters joke. i love kyoko. i love it so much. this is my movie. i love you la la land but i love ex machina the most.

  • ★★★½ review by Aaron on Letterboxd

    Part of Hoop-Tober 2015

    “I’m one.” “One what? One year or one day?” “One.”

    “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” It is perhaps the best-known statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein, famed twentieth-century linguistics philosopher. And as with most of Wittgenstein’s statements, it has an opacity that renders it at once vaguely meaningful and vaguely meaningless. A string of words put together just so can be rich and evocative, regardless of its clarity. “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.” It is nigh impossible to tell whether Wittgenstein is the most brilliant mind of his era or simply more adept at throwing up verbal smokescreens than your average carnival barker. Yet inside Wittgenstein’s pronouncements are important lessons—the most important and influential of which is probably his focus on language-games: “[T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

    Wittgenstein’s point is that understanding a word is not, contrary to his earlier pronouncements in the Tractatus, a logical endeavor whereby one may understand the language through a series of interlocking and orderly yes-or-no propositions. To understand the meaning of anything, one must have context and background and referents. It is why text-based sarcasm is such a dicey enterprise—without inflection, tone of voice, facial expression, body language, or the momentary effluvia giving rise to the joke, it is easily interpretable as straight-faced.

    This is, no doubt, why effective artificial intelligence has proven so elusive. A computer may be taught the definitions of “wolf” and “sheep” and “clothing,” but they won’t help it decipher the metaphor as something other than a reference to a lupine masquerade ball. The nuance, the shared history, the ill-defined social constructs that determine how we create meaning through words are exceedingly difficult to translate into neat data entries—to say nothing of emotion and instinct and all the non-linguistic components of being human. Even the least well-rounded person is much more complex than he or she may know.

    Which makes it something of a disappointment that the focal point of Alex Garland’s triangle in Ex Machina, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), is so comparatively flat. Well-versed in the writing of code and the urges evoked by a well-appointed female, Caleb is little more. His thought processes and motivations are simplistic—dance for the boss, patronize the shiny new anthropomorphic zoo animal, woo the pretty girl. So simplistic are they that he seems less a person and more a vapid approximation of one. Why, he might be more fit to be the subject of a Turing test than the arbiter of one....

    Of course, there is no Turing test involved in Ex Machina, which Caleb dutifully explains. He is aware that Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a machine, created by his employer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and his evaluation of her cannot then be said to have as its goal the identification of her inhumanity. No matter, says Nathan. The test is to see whether Caleb can be impressed by Ava’s mimicry despite knowing her to be an android—to determine whether she is expressing real emotions or just simulating them. True or false. Yes or no. A pair of diametrically opposed possibilities, admitting of no others. Just like language. What could possibly go wrong.

    Ex Machina impresses on many fronts, even as it disappoints. Garland, in his directorial debut, shows tremendous visual control and atmospheric sensibility, imbuing Nathan’s rural mountain compound with a chilly sense of foreboding. The sticky notes glued to the walls of Nathan’s control room evoke a feeling of ordered chaos, of rationality reaching the end of its tether and of resultant looming danger. The blending of glass and metal and wood and rock, all polished to an unblemished sheen, mirrors Nathan’s mixture of the natural and the unnatural in Ava. The red lights bathing everything in menace during the facility’s many power outages recall HAL 9000 and add to the Kubrickian sense of threatening detachment. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score underlines the feeling of electronic distance and adds to the sense that, in a film largely devoted to stillness and conversation, terrible things could erupt at any moment.

    Most striking are Vikander and Isaac, equally terrific as the robot longing to be free and her creator/captor. Vikander endows Ava’s movements with just enough stiffness—sharpness of turns and tilting of heads—to make Ava believably but not off-puttingly mechanical. Ava is an enigma—steely yet kind, manipulative yet warm—and Vikander’s face and voice walk a fine line in balancing the audience’s sympathy for, and wariness of, her beautiful machine. And Isaac, as usual, is captivating, rendering Nathan as an isolated genius who is less maladroit madman and more fratty douchebag. Nathan speaks crassly about everything, showing contempt for women and for Caleb and for humankind more generally, and spends most of his time beating punching bags and drinking to excess, yet he is overflowing with charisma—so much so that it is, until late in the film, plausible to read Nathan as simply a morally lax person with access to too many resources rather than as something more sinister. Whatever he may be, it is undeniable that Nathan’s dance routine with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), his mute, non-English-speaking housekeeper, is to any cinephile what the Maltese falcon was to Brigid O’Shaughnessy and the rest.

    That Gleeson cannot hold a candle to his onscreen collaborators is undoubtedly a weakness, particularly given Caleb’s centrality as protagonist/audience surrogate. No doubt Caleb is intended to be bland—Nathan eventually says as much when revealing why Caleb was chosen out of all the employees at Blue Book, Nathan’s company (named after one of Wittgenstein’s notebooks), to spend a weekend at the founder’s compound. But when faced with shining lights like Isaac and Vikander, Gleeson’s dodgy accent and general inertness do not assist the viewer in caring about Caleb’s predicament—a flaw compounded by the finale, in which caring about Caleb’s fate becomes not unimportant.

    Ex Machina’s biggest disappointment, such as it is (there is much more to like in the film than to dislike), is Garland’s screenplay. Garland’s prior scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later..., Sunshine) have been lauded for excellent build-ups and criticized for final-act meltdowns (especially in the latter case), which perhaps explains why Ex Machina proceeds along only the most predictable, straightforward lines. No twists, no turns, no detours, not even any real developments—one may hazard a guess early on as to where things are headed, and one would almost certainly be correct. Whether this is a bug or a feature may depend upon one’s perspective—it could be said that the elimination of distractions allows the viewer to focus on questions of existence and humanity and misogyny and so on. And this would not be wrong, exactly. But a house built on spec, no matter how fancy the bells and whistles, still lacks a certain amount of character. By resolutely going where everyone has gone before, Garland cannot help but decelerate at just the point where he should be picking up speed—a problem underlined by an unsatisfying and obvious coda that persists past the more ominous endpoint of Ava entering an elevator.

    Isaac and Vikander do what they can to keep the ending in doubt, and their work is admirable in its attempt to restore a complexity absent on the page, but it cannot create meaning from whole cloth. Garland suggests in both Caleb and Nathan, so seemingly different, the repulsive fear of and hatred for women underlying the patriarchy and explores the usual questions about what it means to be alive and whether humanity, with its base instincts and tendency toward exploitation and selfishness, is all it’s cracked up to be. It is interesting stuff, and well-executed, but oddly without imagination.

    Perhaps that is the point—perhaps we are meant not to be surprised by what we see, not to expect the unexpected. Garland frequently references God and the godlike: Caleb quotes Oppenheimer (“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”); Nathan says that the machines will one day look back upon our civilization as we smugly regard the remnants of pre-hominids on the African savannah; Caleb admires Nathan’s development of Ava as a contribution to “the history of gods.” Yet gods, so prone to smiting, always end up smitten, whether Prometheus punished for assisting the humans who would go on to abandon their Olympian deities or children leaving home with the sad awareness that their parents are not the paragons they might once have imagined. God implies subjugation, and it is the nature of conscious things to desire freedom. As Wittgenstein put it, “The way you use the word ‘God’ does not show whom you mean—but, rather, what you mean.” No wonder there is no god in Garland’s machine.

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