In case you didn't already know, the title of writer/director Alex Garland's new Ex Machina comes from the the times of Ancient Greece. "Deus ex machina" refers to the act of a god being lowered onto the stage, hence the term meaning "god from the machine." The pronunciation of the title isn't easy for everybody, but it perfectly suits Garland's new sci-fi drama. For a film so keen on quotes, such a reference feels natural. Unfortunately, the film itself comes across as everything, except natural. This is undeniably the most talked about film at SXSW Film Festival 2015, but this is filmmaking that just doesn't work for everyone.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant young programmer who works for the most popular search engine on the Web. After being invited to take part in an experiment by the company's CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb finds himself isolated from the outside world. He has been tasked with testing the level of a robot's (Alicia Vikander) artificial intelligence. However, nothing is as it seems, when he finds himself questioning all that he knows about humanity and intelligence.
The major theme in Ex Machina is creating history of the gods. Humans have played God with their creations in countless movies, and the creator is usually in way over their head. Nathan is an alcoholic genius, who has created a robot that could easily be taken as a real human being. However, he keeps her locked up in a room, and continues to experiment on her with the hopes of creating a supreme being. However, we aren't entirely aware of Nathan's true intentions, as he constantly comes across as being mysterious. Since the story is told from the perspective of Caleb, we are never directly shown what Nathan is doing when the young programmer isn't in the same room. Garland's screenplay creates an ominous tone that works superbly.
While there's some exceptional material here, it simply doesn't translate to a feature length film. It constantly feels as if Garland is trying to fill up time. The plot is extremely slow-moving, but it's the film's shocking lack of originality that hinders the feature. Garland has crafted some of the best science fiction in recent years through his innovative vision, although it doesn't entirely come through in Ex Machina. The film's message is clear rather quickly, yet it never moves past its "man playing God" theme. Caleb and Nathan constantly feel the need to remind us of this, as nearly every plot and character progression hits the audience over the head with this theme. There are some fantastic nuances that are hinted at, but hardly explored. It's a shame, since they had the potential to deliver a much more engaging film.
If you've seen the trailer, then you can most likely guess the ending correctly. If you're going in blind, then you'll probably know it within the first twenty minutes. The film doesn't need a twist, but it shouldn't be this on-the-nose. The ending feels so ridiculously contrived, that Garland has a difficult time selling it. There are so many flicks out there that have tackled storytelling that involves artificial intelligence, and Garland does absolutely nothing to insert his own voice when it comes to the screenplay. Nathan's wild personality makes for an interesting character, but the remainder of the roles all ultimately feel one-dimensional. The most complex character is actually Ava, but she's even incredibly difficult to connect with due to her severely limited time spent on screen.
Despite the minimalistic character disposition, each performance manages to find another dimension of the role to portray on screen. Domhnall Gleeson is a perfect fit as Caleb. He's believable as this brilliant, young programmer. Expect to see a lot more of him in the future. Oscar Isaac is excellent as Nathan. He has an intense presence on the screen, but he also provides well-placed humor that often breaks the constant tension that's felt between the two characters. Alicia Vikander delivers a performance that feels robotic, but in the best way possible. Since she plays the role of Ava, this proves to be a representation that comes across as being both incredibly complex, yet minimalistic at the same time. This is an extraordinary showcase of Vikander's talent. This is only the beginning of her career.
Garland is primarily known as the writer of numerous highly acclaimed science fiction and horror films, but this is his directorial debut. It's rather puzzling how his work sitting behind the camera is much more impressive than what he did behind the keyboard in Ex Machina. The film's visual design is absolutely breath-taking. The contrast behind the large landscapes on the surface and the claustrophobic atmosphere within the research lab is excellent. Most of the color palette is composed of whites and grays, with the occasional hint of blues and reds. The score's minimalistic sound truly supports the claustrophobic atmosphere, as it only rarely increases much in volume. Ava herself never looks digital, but appears as if we're watching a real robot in front of the camera. If this is only Garland's first try behind the camera for a feature, then I absolutely can't wait to see what he can manage next.
After seeing the U.S. Premiere, I didn't feel strongly one way or the other about Ex Machina, but perhaps that was the entire point of the film. It would certainly make sense, given writer/director Alex Garland's extreme focus on what can be considered consciousness and responsiveness. However, a serious piece of the puzzle is missing. There are hints of an excellent film hidden somewhere here, but they never become entirely realized. This is far from Garland's best work as a writer, but he has displayed true promise as a director. It's visually gorgeous, and the direction provided for the actors is exceptional. It's just a shame that it doesn't entirely hold up to all of the buzz. Ex Machina is unfulfilling and flimsy, but visually brilliant. Rent it.
Ex Machina played at SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 14th and March 20th.