Why It Works: Ex Machina
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
With the intriguing sci-fi thriller MORGAN coming to theaters this weekend (you can read our review here), I thought it might be a good time to look at the most recent major addition to the world of man vs. his creation films. With the scripts for 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, and NEVER LET ME GO, Alex Garland has delivered some captivate science fiction stories which feel as human as any standard drama. In 2015, Garland not only brought us another fascinating story but proved he's a damn fine director to boot. Featuring one of the most interesting takes on Artificial Intelligence we've seen in recent years, a stellar cast and score, and a ending to leave you terrified of things to come, EX MACHINA has been well-received among sci-fi fans and film lovers alike. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
Save for the silent Kyoko, whose significance isn't understood until late into the film, EX MACHINA features only three characters. As the innocent everyman, Caleb gives a lens through which to view Nathan's beguiling world. Not only do we adore Caleb's pure, trustworthy nature, but the almost oppressive nature of Nathan and his experiments has us rooting for Caleb as brilliant but seeminly inferior underdog. Nathan is the requisite other side of the coin, but rather than coming across as a villain, he radiates a mysterious intensity in that "maybe he's harmless; maybe he's a serial killer" kind of way. It also helps that Nathan comes across as the most three-dimensional character in the film, breaking expectations of what we think of when we think eccentric billionaire genius and harboring a sadness that keeps us wondering what exactly is going on with him. Finally, Ava is the star of the show as an AI who shows more childlike, emotional qualities than the stilted, calculating android we're used to seeing on film. In her desire to understand and see the world, we feel for her on a human level, even though her portrayal consistently reminds us she's a machine.
Back when General Hux was the good guy and Poe Dameron was a dick.
WHY WE CARE:
In their conversation, Caleb and Nathan refer to "the magician's hot assistant," or more specifically showing you one thing to draw attention from a trick happening somewhere else. This is a perfect metaphor for EX MACHINA, as the film is clearly presented as a mystery- from the first moment, we know something's up, but we can only guess as to what it is. On my first viewing, I actually wondered if Nathan himself might be the real AI being tested, as it seems they went out of their way to show how human he is (working out, drinking heavily, having a short fuse, etc.). Also, while it seems pretty obvious Kyoko must be an android, by neither confirming nor denying it until late in the game, the film has us thinking we spotted something and helps to keep us distracted from the more intricate points. Above all else, the film refrains from feeling too heady by giving us two very simple stories to latch onto. Both the charming, almost adolescent relationship between Caleb and Ava and the other being the growing threat of Nathan and Caleb ad Ava's plan to escape allow us to connect on an emotional level rather than feel inundated with the scientific and philosophical implications of Nathan's work.
"Did you program her to flirt with me?"
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Aaand this is where shit gets real. In a series of twists, Nathan thwarts Caleb's plan to help Ava escape only to learn Caleb had already set things into motion. In a showdown between Nathan and Ava and Kyoko (who are now in whispery cyber-cahoots), Kyoko is destroyed and Nathan left for dead as Ava assembles a suitable body and outfit to pass for human in the real world. Locking Caleb in Nathan's estate, presumably with no way to escape or survive, Ava unceremoniously leaves the facility, showing no signs of sympathy toward the confined Caleb. Artificial intelligence rising up against humans is an age-old story at this point, but EX MACHINA takes it up a notch by introducing an AI highly capable of emotional manipulation. In a bold move, the film actually introduces this idea in one of Nathan and Caleb's final conversations, with Nathan suggesting this is exactly what Ava is up to. This again is the brilliant misdirection of the movie- once an idea is introduced, we immediately disqualify it (like how, in every heist movie, the more we see of the planning phase, the less we expect to actually go according to plan). Other than seeing Nathan get taken down by his creation, it's not a satisfying ending from a character perspective. Our hero is defeated, and his love interest may wipe out humanity for all we know, but we're satisfied in realizing the meticulousness of Ava's plan and equal parts excited and terrified by the sheer plausibility of the story as a whole.
"One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
As with much of what we've seen from Alex Garland, EX MACHINA gives us science fiction without spending the duration of the film showing us scientist in lab coats studying readouts in sterile environments. Instead we have Caleb and Nathan talking over beers or traversing the landscapes of Nathan's vast estate. The premise of the film is made that much more real by letting us spend time with organic characters complete with funny, endearing, thoughtful dialogue and the flaws and weaknesses that make them so relatable. At the same time, as a director, Garland along with cinematographer Rob Hardy and the production team give us a film that feels at once warm and otherworldly, real and unreal. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's excellent score amplifies the tension and drives the film forward with an urgent pulse, and editor Mark Day lets the important moments breath while never letting us sit in one place for too long. Finally, the incredible cast of Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac (as well as Sonoya Mizuno in a smaller but important role) gives a powerhouse performance, with each needing to carry a significant portion of the film and succeeding beautifully. As with any good science fiction film, EX MACHINA not only reflects the current state of both technology and the human condition but also continues the conversation started by previous films in the genre, the result of which has us eagerly questioning and anticipating exactly what might come next.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at email@example.com.
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