You know that moment when you’re staring into the eyes of someone you love and trust and realize for the first time that they’re not who you want them to be? Have you had one of those moments? It’s unnerving. It’s hard to stomach because it unravels quite rapidly in your mind and everything starts spinning and it really does happen like it does in the movies; with tiny flashbacks and rapid recalculations of countless conversations and ‘moments’. If you’ve ever been in that kind of a situation, then you’ll understand where I’m going with this.
Ex Machina sees us for who we are, and it’s not pretty.
Themes such as ‘playing God’ and the transcendence of fantasy and reality have been played with, explored and presented in so many different ways, but there is something special about the way that Alex Garland structures his debut film that leaves me rather spellbound, even all these months later. I keep going back to it, keep massaging the film’s themes and moments and aspects in my mind because it all feels so intricate and complex. There is a very profound statement about the isolation of human emotion that floods into the fabric of this film, creating something that feels much richer and deeper than many give it credit for.
This is not your run of the mill sci-fi movie.
Ex Machina tells the story of three individuals trapped in a triangle of desires, impulses, reactions and motivations that unravels in the most unexpected and bizarrely rewarding of ways. Nathan is the CEO of an internet company, but in his spare time he’s constructing and cavorting with A.I.s in his mountain retreat. Caleb, an employee of Nathan’s, is selected to join him at his retreat in order to converse with and essentially test out his latest creation, Ava. Ava is a stunning creature, luminous and endearing and entrancing. When he opens her mouth, raises her eyes, peers into your soul…you feel it in your gut. So does Caleb. He’s immediately smitten, not even fully aware of his feelings and how to process them. But soon things start to shift within the fabric of their little world. Ava begins to confide in Caleb, filling his head with ideas of who Nathan really is and soon his affections for Ava overtake common sense in the most spectacular of ways.
The film’s core question appears to be, “Who is Ava?” Is she someone we can trust, that Caleb can trust. Are her concerns, observations and condemnations legitimate, but in all reality the real question is, “Does it matter?” In the grander scheme of things, is the truth all that important here. Would the truth even matter one iota to Caleb? Are his actions really caused by anything Ava is saying and doing or was this an inevitable reality spurned by something inside Caleb himself? There is an astute observation about mankind’s aversion to loneliness and their need to be needed here that exudes itself so brilliantly in Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Caleb. The juxtaposition between his efforts to assert himself as the ‘hero’ (who asked you?) and Nathan’s insistence on playing God (who asked you?) brilliantly anchor the film, allowing Ava’s complexities to shine forth. For an entity that is inhuman, Ava becomes the films soul. Her journey of self-discovery beautifully captures the film’s core messages.
Her moment, applying her own skin, says more than almost any other scene this year was able to say about who we are as human beings and what makes us ‘alive’.
Vikander is a revelation. There isn’t another way to put it. What she does with every subtle shift in movement is so articulated and so in character. She is equal parts compelling and cold, which helps create an astonishingly full bodied portrait of a woman finding her way. She’s had an incredible year, and this is yet another reason why it was deserved. She’s supported by two very well constructed (and very different) performances from Gleeson and Isaac. Isaac’s subtle menacing is very well placed, delving into the charisma of the ‘generic bad boy’ while shading him with not only ‘troubled traits’ but giving him an air of neediness of power, almost akin to that of Gleeson’s Caleb, just not as virginal. In fact, the way that these two play two sides of the same coin helps anchor the film’s climax and Ava’s ascension brilliantly because it validates her final decision.
She knew what Caleb would become.
I can’t gush over this one enough. From the performances to the stunning sets to the dazzling special effects to the profound screenplay, Garland’s debut is a ravishing exploration of humanity at its most humble and most haughty.