The UnPopular Opinion: Ex Machina
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Every so often, a genre film defies convention and becomes a critical and commercial success. Often, those films explore lofty ideas in a way that is different than every other film like it to create something special. 28 DAYS LATER is a film like that. SUNSHINE is another. Even DREDD, which I found to be highly overrated, delivers something outside of the norm for science fiction and action movies in general. What do those three films have in common? Screenwriter Alex Garland. Garland has become the go-to writer for deep genre films which take B-movie characteristics and mold them into something loftier and far more thought-provoking. EX MACHINA was acclaimed as a film like those named before but it is not worthy of being considered great. EX MACHINA is instead a movie that aims to break the mold of science fiction but instead plays by the numbers and gives us a story that is far too safe and far too conventional for all of the talent involved.
I recently listed Alex Garland as a director on the verge of becoming a household name and I stick by that assessment. He was a phenomenal screenwriter and a talented novelist before that. I implore you to read The Beach and The Tesseract and tell me this guy doesn't know his way around the English language. But, when he took on dual duties as writer and director on EX MACHINA, the writing suffered. From a conceptual point, EX MACHINA is a brilliant story: a genius inventor brings along an employee to assist in testing his latest creation, an artificially intelligent android. The young man begins the test with apprehension but soon begins to feel an emotional pull towards the woman who is not a woman at all. What this story has to it's credit is a rich narrative idea that is perfect for deliving into the hard science fiction that is overlooked in mainstream studio films. Instead, EX MACHINA descends rather abruptly into a cliche genre movie.
There is a surrealistic and nightmarish feel to many of the sequences in Garland's film. From Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his windowless room or Nathan's erratic behavior including late night dancing with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), EX MACHINA has a feeling of foreboding that keeps you on the edge of wondering just what is going on. Could Caleb himself be a machine like Ava (Alicia Vikander)? Is Nathan plotting something far more nefarious than the Turing test? Caleb begins a spiral as he spends more and more time with the attractive and sensual Ava that forces him to question his own humanity. It is when he is just on the brink of madness that...nothing happens.
EX MACHINA is the very definition of a slow burn and for the majority of the 108 minute run time, it moves very deliberately and draws the viewer into this isolated and confined world. Garland does a great job of putting us in a similar place as the trapped Ava and we feel the same desire to free her as Caleb does. Nathan, who starts the film as a bit eccentric, quickly becomes a mad scientist by the film's end. We want to see Caleb and Ava escape. While the decision to have Ava leave Caleb and set off on her own quest to become more human is not an issue for me, the execution is. I do not fault Alex Garland in any way from a director's standpoint, but as a writer he dropped the ball big time. The final act of the film is rushed and a jumble of unresolved questions and plot points that leaves us questioning why many elements were introduced into the story only to be abandoned.
The final act also delves into many cliches of the science fiction genre rather than exploring new ground. Continually through the film, you are able to anticipate what the characters will say or do next and it almost always turns out to be exactly that. There are really no curveballs in this movie despite the fact that it sets up multiple moments that could have knocked audiences on their asses and left them scratching their heads. Instead, you get exactly what you get and not even the stellar acting from the trio of Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson can save it. I wanted badly to feel some connection with Ava or Caleb beyond their confinement but it never develops. When Nathan is murdered by his own creations, it didn't even register as much more than what was to be expected. We should have felt that suckerpunch feeling that comes with investment in the movie but instead it just plods along to the next sequence.
It is a shame that EX MACHINA doesn't make it all the way over the bar it set for itself as the visual film is quite excellent. Garland makes great use of cinematographer Rob Hardy who films the films with beautiful helicopter shots and brilliant framing. The special effects are second to nome with the effects used to make Alicia Vikander look synthetic achieve the desired result of forcing the viewer to pause and question if what we are seeing is real or not. With all of these positives, I am not shocked at the acclaim heaped on this movie by critics and audiences alike. But, when you really delve into the film, doesn't it come up short?
Like Neill Blomkamp's DISTRICT 9, this is a debut feature brimming with talent and potential. But whereas Blomkamp's science fiction held a great deal of humanity that helped the central message of acceptance and racial tolerance, EX MACHINA ends up being a generic B-movie with outstanding visual effects. Take this film apart and you can include numerous elements on any number of best of lists, but taken as a whole, EX MACHINA is mediocre at best and vanilla at worst. This is a movie with so much story to tell that it is a damn shame it doesn't have a satisfactory ending. Alex Garland is far too talented to let himself get in the way, so here is hoping that he either relinquishes the scribe duties to a co-writer for his next big idea or sticks to one job or the other.
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