See Ex Machina

I have a new favorite film. Ex Machina.
I have a new favorite writer/director. Alex Garland.
Garland has crafted on of the best stories in cinema. Ex Machina really is that good. It explores our fascination and fears of technology. It illustrates the modern ability to have a relationship with devices. Man creates these thinking machines, but he may be incapable of understanding them. And that concept, sincerely considered, makes for suspenseful terror.

I will refrain from spoilers here, except my review is written with the understanding that any reader of this probably have seen a trailer for Ex Machina. And I assume that anyone who has seen a trailer understands the mysterious, foreboding tone of the film.
Ava is a robot. This robot has a gender. Female. She is robot-semi-naked, with visible tech innards. But her form is that of a beautiful, graceful young woman. She has a gray mesh fabric to cover her Rated R parts. She has been adorned with realistic skin on her face, hands, and feet. At first it is easy to see why she has completely believable facial features and hands. These are the utterly expressive parts of human anatomy – and as Ava makes clear, it is how those parts are used that reveal, and conceal, us and our intent.
Her feet seem less critical to her personality and our attraction to Ava – until she moves. She has a ballerina’s grace. She moves with hypnotic precision. This was the intent of the actress who plays her, Alicia Vikander, a dancer herself. It was Ms Vikander’s choice that one thing that would make her alien was her inhuman precision. Her moves are not mechanical. They are graceful and exact. Perfect. She is perfectly beautiful, and eerily enigmatic.
Alicia Vikander’s character choices were explained by director Alex Garland in a brief Q&A that was held following the showing of Ex Machina Friday night at the Landmark Theatre in West LA.
We learned that Alex Garland is categorically opposed to a sequel to Ex Machina, though it certainly leaves you wanting more. But, the ending is entirely satisfying and suited to Garland’s tale. Garland also shared his deep fascination with the science and strive for artificial intelligence. That interest fed his desire to create this story. Garland observed that our relationship with real artificial intelligence will be like a dog’s relationship with our conscious intelligence and vice versa. The dog cannot understand what it is like to perceive the world as human. Neither can we fathom the dog’s take on existence and their perception of a presumed reality.
Addressing artificial intelligence is hardly new to cinema. There was that sweeping, unsettling A.I. where Spielberg interpreted Kubrick with mixed results – more Barry Lyndon than The Shining. And this Summer’s blockbuster-in-waiting – Avengers: Age of Ultron – has malevolent, all-powerful, artificial intelligence as the plot device aimed at the annihilation of man, but for our super-heroic saviors. Please note, in spite of my tone, I am really looking forward to this Avengers sequel.
But Ex Machina stands alone in its beautiful contemplation of relationship with a self-aware machine. It is a finely crafted, tight 110 minute, thrilling piece of entertainment. I propose that Ex Machina is far more of a Kubrick-style tale than A.I. Ex Machina as a story also shares its DNA with Isaac Asimov’s Robot Chronicles. Ava could be the mother of R. Daneel Olivaw.
Ex Machina stars two of today’s best young actors as the creator and tester of Ava – Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Isaac and Gleeson are brilliantly cast as puppetmaster and unknowing puppet. Everything about these two men is meant to illustrate their differences. Isaac as Nathan – muscular and confrontational. Gleeson as Caleb – humble and cerebral. Nathan uses his intelligence to control. Caleb uses his to explore and delight in the exploration.
Isaac and Gleeson’s distinct physicality helps define the differences in these two points of an isosceles triangle. Oscar Isaac is Nathan Bateman. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb Smith. Nathan is dark. Caleb is light. Nathan is dense. Caleb is lithe. Nathan is hard. Caleb is soft. Caleb is our friend. Nathan is a dick. A fascinating dick.
The movie this one reminded me at first was Gattaca (1997). Both Gattaca and Ex Machina are character studies built in a believable future science framework. Gattaca is much more stylized – a bit of sci-fi noir (BTW, I want an electric Avanti, please). Ex Machina is hyper-controlled. it’s setting is Nathan’s oasis – his home and laboratory are far away and removed from the world he manipulates. Nathan’s home is like Milton’s Shangri-La, only more exclusive.
Another film I was reminded of was The Hit (1984). Both that film and Ex Machina dangle their audience in suspense throughout. The sinister, brewing undercurrent keeps you enthralled like a deadly dangerous romance. The anticipation is desire and dread. And it engulfs you.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Ex Machina is the most satisfying moviegoing experience I have had in a decade or more. It really is that good. See it.

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