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Film Review: Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015; Directed by Alex Garland)

Ex Machina wastes next to no time diving into its premise. Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) receives an email while working at his high-tech industry job, informing him that he’s won a coveted prize, and he sends and receives a series of celebratory text messages to his mobile phone. The experience is filtered entirely through digital technology, as are so many of our contemporary experiences. Debutant writer/director Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later) registers this fundamental modern human/computer interfacing not merely as an inextricable part of our current reality but as something a bit more unnatural, a bit more sinister. This will prove important.

The company contest that Caleb has won carries an exciting but ambiguous prize: a week alone with his boss, CEO of Googlesque market-dominating search engine Blue Book (the name is a reference to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1930s lectures on thought, language, and signs) and coding genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), at his remote, top-secret estate. Helicoptered in over spectacular landscapes and admitted into the compound via an automated keycard that opens some doors but not others, Caleb enters a mysterious, ominous sanctum like Jonathan Harker approaching Dracula’s castle, like an unwitting visitor to Victor Frankenstein’s lab. Both of these associations will prove important, especially the latter.

Caleb finds that Nathan is a fitness freak, heavy drinker, and treacherously intelligent, innovative and dominating personality. He also has a hidden agenda (maybe several, but only one that he will disclose, anyway) for bringing Caleb to visit: Nathan has been working on a top-secret project, mass-farming data through Blue Book to forge a functioning artificial intelligence. He tells Caleb that his task will be to administer a Turing Test on his humanoid AI robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine how convincingly human-like her intelligence seems. But it doesn’t take the astute but solitary Caleb very long in the company of Nathan or Ava to begin suspecting that he is the one being tested somehow.

Ex Machina is built on a foundation of well-read references: Ancient Greek drama, Wittgenstein, Turing, Oppenheimer, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jackson Pollock paintings. But its meanings are also erected by its masterful, unnerving visual design, its production design (by Mark Digby) and art direction (by Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg), visual effects, and cinematography (by Rob Hardy) all combining into a singular vision of chilled precision. Vikander is tremendous, but her CG-assisted appearance – soft, attractive human face, sexy-sleek mesh-clad upper torso and hips, intermittent transparent plexiglass windows into her inner circuitry – has an iconic, uncanny effect. Her sexualization is apparent, but Caleb struggles to grasp its significance and the intentions of her creator in granting it to her, even when given relatively straight answers on the subject by Nathan.

Nathan’s home/research facility resembles a labyrinthine lab rat maze (a comparison he acknowledges in the late stages), its opaque glass walls, modernist furniture, and occasional windows on the wilderness that surrounds it invoking a cold, isolated prison (the exteriors of forests, mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers were filmed in Norway). The preponderence of glass also leaves ample opportunity for shot compositions that emphasize reflections, duplications, and fragmentation, all resonant themes and symbols that peek above the surface of Garland’s rich (and ambiguous) film.

If the excellent Isaac’s Nathan is Dr. Frankenstein, creating his alluring monster not from discarded human remains but from a flood of digital detritus gleaned from the search results (the patterns of thought and desire) of Blue Book’s billions of users, then Gleeson, in one of multiple strong roles this year for him, is a more grounded and morally upright Igor, caught hopelessly in an experiment with the forging of life that is threatened by encroaching death. But Ex Machina does not merely model The Modern Prometheus for our contemporary modernity, it takes the implications of our revolution in information technology much more terribly seriously than we have ever thought to take them. What Alex Garland’s indelible film concludes is that our machines increasingly have a life of their own, and that life can be a danger to us, their creators, even as it might be a repository of potential transcedence and immortalityfor our finite lives, our temporary civilization, as well as entirely apart from it.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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