By Justin Rocksund
Ex Machina is a riveting film, equal parts science fiction, thriller, and horror, that preys on our fears and insecurities. Most importantly, Ex Machina is a movie that invites anyone watching it to ponder its multitude of underlying themes.
To say that Ex Machina is a welcome departure from the current Hollywood trend of remakes would be a gross understatement. Released under A24 Films in the United States on April 10th, this independent film with a budget of $14 million seems anything but an independent production. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film is an ingenious examination of relevant subjects like technology and its intrusion into our lives, man’s ability to create life, and the basic laws of humanity and attraction.
The film immediately introduces the audience to Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a software programmer who works at the fictional search engine company Bluebook. He wins a company-wide contest to spend a week with Nathan Bateman (played captivatingly by Oscar Isaac), the company’s CEO, at his remote home in the wilderness. Shortly after arrival, Nathan informs Caleb that the true nature of his visit is to be a part of a Turing test for an artificial intelligence android that Nathan has built. For those unfamiliar with what precisely a Turing test is, the film has a good expository scene to fill in the particulars, but it boils down to whether a computer has the ability to fool a human into believing the computer itself is human.
It is here that the audience meets Ava (portrayed by Alicia Vikander), the humanoid machine created by Nathan, and the complexity of the film truly begins. Caleb is tasked with determining whether Ava possesses true consciousness, and the intimate interview sessions where Caleb and Ava get to know one another are heart-warming to watch. Nathan watches everything and later discussions with Caleb after each session touch upon the complicated issues that arise from this endeavor, including a computer’s ability to stimulate an emotional response versus an actual emotional response, or whether consciousness on any level can exist without sexuality. As Caleb grows more attached to Ava, and more suspicious of Nathan’s true motives, a growing sense that all is not what it seems becomes abundantly clear.
In addition to exploring our inner humanity, Ex Machina also makes a strong statement about our ever-increasing reliance upon technology. In the opening of the film, after Caleb is notified that he has won the contest, the audience sees that his computer is recording and analyzing him. Later on, Nathan explains how he was able to create Ava’s natural facial expressions; he hacked all the cell phones in the world and used their cameras and microphones to create an algorithm and used all the results from his own search engine to contribute to her brain. He even admits the cell companies were aware of this intrusion, but could not do anything lest they admit they were doing the same thing. This is one of the film’s most brilliant themes, a glaring indictment on a world that hands over more and more permissions and responsibility for our lives to technology.
Dr. Nan Morelli-White, an English Composition, Humanities, and Literature professor at the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg College, offered this insightful critique: “In Ex Machina, as he did in adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the screen in 2010, Alex Garland indicts contemporary society for our often uncritical adulation of technology. While acknowledging the allure of the temptation to play God, he simultaneously sounds the warning, reminding us of the inevitable consequences of overstepping our bounds. Although some of his characters fail the test, Garland still celebrates what makes human life valuable: our capacities for innocence and for empathy.”
The music and setting also contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the film. The music, composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, molds perfectly with each scene. Ava’s light-hearted and high-pitched music brings to life her hope to be seen as human and her desire to be free. As the film presses on, the slow, reverberating bass-heavy notes become more prevalent, evoking feelings of dread. The slow camera movement and wide angles give a sense of the grandeur in what Nathan is attempting to achieve, and the beautiful serenity and naturalness of the surrounding forest is in perfect contrast to the sterile research area and the escalating terror brewing within.
Rightfully receiving widespread critical acclaim, and owning a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ex Machina is an original film that presents a multitude of themes to its viewers and beats down the belief that there are no new ideas in Hollywood. Nothing is as it seems in this isolated corner of the world, and as soon as it is over, there is a desire for a repeat viewing. Ex Machina is all at once a beautiful film and a terrifying one; a film whose ideas will mesmerize in the present and continue to haunt in the future.