Ink & Pixel: Ex Machina

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fan-base, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

If there's anything I enjoy more than film, it's music. In all seriousness, there's rarely a moment in my life when I'm not surrounding myself with the bands and musical artists that give me energy and fuel my imagination. For those of you who are now curious, my favorite band of all-time is the psychdelic rock group, Tool. In regard to my favorite musical artist, the unique individual who has held that position since July of 1993, is Bjork. The reason for working my way around to the ingenious Icelandic songtress, is because her Chris Cunningham directed music video for the song "All is Full of Love" totally reminds me of this week's Ink & Pixel selection – EX MACHINA.

In what was his first directorial debut, Alex Garland delivered an unnerving science fiction psychological drama about what happens when a super-intelligent humanoid A.I. goes rogue. Written by Garland, and produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich, EX MACHINA features Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Sonoya Mizuno as the film's leading cast. Hailed by many as one of the best movies of 2015, this modestly budgeted feature has marked Garland as a promising talent both with a pen and behind the camera.

The story of EX MACHINA revolves around Caleb Smith (Gleeson), a work-a-day programmer at the software development firm, Blue Book. After winning an in-house contest for a chance to visit the home of Blue Book CEO, Nathan Bateman (Isaac), Caleb soon discovers that he's been selected to play a key role in the making of technological history. You see, Bateman has been quite busy while hiding away in his fancy AF jungle bungalow, and there's someone he'd like Caleb to meet.

Introducing Ava, a humanoid artificial intelligence theoretically capable of conscious thought. With her exquisite features and revolutionary interface, Ava proves herself to be both the android of our dreams as well as our nightmares. While aiding Bateman in a series of tests to determine the extent of Ava's potential, Caleb soon discovers that his interest in Ava's well being may go beyond that of professional interest. Before long, the decision to free Ava from Bateman's incarceration becomes the love-torn programmer's prime directive. There's just one little problem. In her time spent learning from her subordinates, Ava has acquired a firm understanding of one very human idiosyncrasy in particular – the art of manipulation.

The ideas for Garland's EX MACHINA were conceptualized throughout the course of several years. After scripting a bit of code for his parents home computer during his adolescence, Garland soon became interested in the field of neuroscience and the notion that man might one day build a machine that would be capable of cognoscente thought. It wasn't until Garland began writing his screenplay for the ultra-violent adaptation of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's DREDD (2012) that the ideas for EX MACHINA really began to fall into place. After his work was complete on the Karl Urban comic-related shoot-em-up, Garland joined creative forces with Professor of Cognitive Robotics, Murray Shanahan, and genetics specialist, Adam Rutherford, to cooperatively fine-tune his musings for a modestly-budgeted psycho-technological thriller. The result, as one can see after viewing the film, is a cinematic exploration of a future that some would argue is not that far off from becoming a reality.

To give you a better idea as to where Garland's fascination lies in conjunction with this particular subject matter, I've lifted this bit of conversation from an interview included in the special features of the film's Blu-Ray release, entitled Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina:

This particular subject, A.I., has interested me for a number of reasons. We clearly live in a world where computers are central now to our existence. And we also live in a world where advances in computers have an incredibly accelerated pace. We all know that, there's nothing surprising about that. But there has to be an interesting question about where it ends and what that means for us. The thing that doesn't feel surprising to me is that, at some point machines will think in the way that we think – and a lot flows from that, there are many implications to that.

Arguably, at some point,or at some point after that, we become redundant. If a machine has all the qualities that we have, that we value most highly, in terms of self awareness, emotion, and stuff like that – but can't get ill, say. It seems to me that, quite quickly a kind of swap will start to happen, a sort of swap of primacy. Then you've got to ask yourself, if that a good thing or a bad thing? And part of what the film is concerned with is debating that.

Another excerpt from Garland's interview that I'd like to include here pertains to Alicia Vikander's performance, and more notably, the manner in which she carries herself physically throughout the film:

I needed to house Ava, the idea of Ava, this consciousness in something that people could fall in love with. The lead character, the protagonist, needs to fall in love with her for the story to function – and I think the audience needed to do the same thing. To captivate an audience, to believe that a protagonist is captivated, it felt right to house this machine in the form of a robot girl that we could not just feel attracted to, but also protective of her as well. I think that's a key thing, to engage in that protective instinct in the audience and protagonist. Believing in why that button is pushed in the protagonist is really important.

Alicia Vikander was perfect for that in lots of different ways. For one, she's a very beautiful girl in her 20's, and also an incredibly gifted actress. She's been trained as a ballerina, so she's got extremely good control over her physicality – the way she walks, moves her hand, the slight tilt of her head. All of that in constructing a machine that you're meant to be seduced by was what we needed.

When shooting the interiors of Bateman's secluded domicile, Garland and his team of researchers used two hotel-related housing units designed by the same architect. In truth, the locations were half an hour in distance apart from one another, but because the look of each unit was so similar, Garland was able to present them as being a part of the same Norwegian residence. It's a truly wild location, complete with cascading waterfalls and expansive mountain vistas that stretch outward and upward for as far as the eye can see. In my estimation, the locale serves as a kind of juxtaposition to the nature of Bateman's work. I say this because, when I think about Bateman's work – coupled with his megalomaniacal tendencies – the last place I would imagine him soldering circuit boards is in a place as devoid of technology as the fjords of Norway.

In regard to creating Ava's seamless and hypnotic robotic design, Visual Effects Superivor, Andrew Whitehurst, and his talented team of technicians created a mesh bodysuit for Ms. Vilkander to wear while participating in her scenes. It was said by Garland that the mesh covering her form behaved much like that of a spider's web when viewed by the many cameras on set. Meaning that, certain lighting conditions would allow the camera to see right through the suit and to Ava's robot-skeleton-like structure. That being the case, specific lighting conditions would also allow for an adverse effect in where the light would reflect off of the suit, providing the effects team with a clear outline which they could then use to discern where the VFX would need to be applied in post-production.

Hailed by many (myself included) to be one of the smartest and most engaging science fiction films of the past decade, EX MACHINA earned itself a worldwide total of $36,869,414 in box office receipts. Now, that might not look like much when compared to blockbusters such as STAR TREK: BEYOND ($335,885,083) and the undeniably disappointing cash-grab INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE ($388,028,580). However, I feel it's important to remember that EX MACHINA was made using a budget of just $15 million – while AAA franchise pictures like Star Trek and even Independence Day cost between $165-$185 million to produce. For me, it's refreshing to know that the social and cerebral impact of EX MACHINA has already served to secure the film as a stand-out in its genre. Meanwhile, regardless of their ability to amass millions in tickets sold, BEYOND and RESURGENCE will likely age as not much more than cogs in the Hollywood Sequel-Making-Machine.

As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of EX MACHINA. When I think about this movie, I can't help but be in awe of its minimalistic yet eye-popping visual presentation. For me, it's a film that makes good on the old saying, “less is more.” Adding to the film's sleek aesthetic is, of course, are the layered and powerful performances given by Gleeson, Isaac, Vikander, and Mizuno. I must admit that, upon viewing the film for the film time, I was intrigued by its plot and characters from start to finish. The concepts found in the department of neuroscience have fascinated me personally long before this project was conceptualized, and to see those ideas captured in such a visually and emotionally fascinating way was a real treat.

In my opinion, the film delivers on all fronts, from the nightmarish reality of Ava's capabilities to the obvious flaws in the absolute hubris of human kind's desire to create life in their own image. EX MACHINA is not just one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade, it's an insightful and frightening film that stands to make its way onto my list of all-time greats. Later days, folks! And remember, the next time Siri gives you an attitudinal response to your burning question, don't say I didn't warn you.


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.