There have been a plethora of films about man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood. From cult classics like Blade Runner, Terminator to most recent ones like Robot & Frank, Chappie, etc., clearly not all are created equal. I’d say that this Alex Garland‘s original story has some striking similarities to the 2013 tiny-budgeted British indie The Machine, given that the creator and the machine are the main key players of the film. However, Ex Machina explored the eternally-fascinating topic of ‘what it means to be human’ in a much deeper and more immersive way.
The film started out with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being dropped by a chopper into this secluded estate of a billionaire scientist in the side of a Norwegian mountain. He’s supposed to spend a week with the CEO of a large internet search engine company, but other than that Caleb has no idea what’s in store for him. As it turns out, he’s invited to participate in a breakthrough experiment in testing artificial intelligence. After meeting the mysterious tech baron Nathan (Oscar Isaac), things just seem to be even more cryptic. I love the initial interaction between the two actors and the unpredictability and suspense of it all. First time director Alex Garland infused the scenes with a sense of appropriate eeriness, as well as a dose of humor that prevents the film from being too heavy handed or frigid.
It’s when we meet the subject of the Turing test, a luminous female A.I. named Eva (Alicia Vikander), that things starts to get REALLY interesting. Even though Eva’s robotic parts are visible, unlike some other films where the droid looks fully human on the outside, she is as fetching as ever. It sparks intriguing questions about why Nathan created her with sensuality, with the ability to flirt and emote. The unhurried pace allows for a lot of reflective moments, thanks to the sharp and focused script by Alex Garland himself.
“One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossils and skeletons in the plains of Africa” Are the arrival of droids and drones mean we’re on the verge of extinction? That seems far-fetched perhaps, but the way Garland made this film, this scenario seems almost entirely plausible. His idea of the future is ‘ten minutes from now’ and companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today.
The spirituality aspect, whether intended or not, is one of most thought-provoking aspect I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. Humans may think they can replicate ourselves and build something with *consciousness,* but is a soul something we can create? What these sci-fi films prove is the always-present and increasing desire of humans to become God.
I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a screenwriter (especially 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), so we know he’s a master storyteller. But I think he has a gift behind the camera as well, and perhaps because of his writer background, he’s more concerned about letting the story flow and immerse people into a certain realms, instead of bludgeoning us with action, action, action. Plus he’s got an International cast formed by three accomplished young actors to tell his story.
Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac has been churning out one fantastic performance after another. He’s truly one of the most fascinating actors working today and it’s such a joy watching him mature even more as a performer. The best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes of the year, is the dance scene that’s both unsettling but hilarious. Isaac certainly has screen presence to match his acting chops.
Irish Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly captures the naive curiosity of Caleb, as well as the young man’s intelligence and vulnerability. He’s effortlessly likable and you immediately projects yourself into his character as he navigates into this new environment he’s thrown into. Isaac and Gleeson have a good rapport together, and the human relationships are just as intriguing as that between man & machine. In the key role of Eva, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more perfect in the role. There’s a certain innocence and fragility about her, but yet you know she’s far more sly than you think.
The film is appropriately R-rated for the graphic nudity. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that most of the time, nudity in movies is unnecessary and gratuitous. But I have to say that it’s not the case here, it feels integral to the plot. For the most part, Ex Machina is a quiet, reflective film. It did veers into mystery thriller territory towards the end but it’s a natural progression of the story instead of a forced divergence. It’s definitely a great film to see on the big screen and be fully immersed in the story and the characters’ journey.
Despite the relatively low budget (under $15 mil), the production values are fantastic. From Nathan’s state-of-the-art estate and his lab where he builds these machines, as well as the mountain scenery, it’s a good looking film. I also love how atmospheric the film is, thanks to the cool, ethereal-sounding soundtrack and resplendent cinematography. But the most striking of all is the robotic look of Eva, which is both mechanical as well as organic, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. We’re as drawn to her as Caleb was in the film.
But as evident in films like Elysium, visual flair alone does NOT make a movie. Ultimately what you remember is the story and how it affects you as you watch it, and this film certainly offers plenty for the senses. There are so many scenes that linger long after the end credits role, such as one where one of the characters has a moment of doubts about himself as a human. It’s got such a haunting quality about it that adds another layer of intrigue on the human/machine exploration. It’s further proof that one doesn’t need an astronomical budget or big stars to tell a compelling and memorable story. Dazzling, provocative and haunting… everything you’d expect from a futuristic sci-fi film. An outstanding directorial debut from Alex Garland, I’m curious what he’d tackle next, both as a writer AND as a director.
Have you seen Ex Machina? Well, what do you think?
65 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Ex Machina”
Indeed, Ruth. Indeed. This movie was awesome!
The budget limits ($15 mil, you say??) weren’t obvious at all, this was such a cool-looking and feeling little sci-fi. I loved the contrast of the unearthly technology in Nathan’s facility standing in stark contrast to the beauty of the natural environs. Just loved the setting. One of my favorites of the year for sure.
Hi there Tom! Glad we’re in agreement here. Yes it’s 11 million British pounds to be exact, so LESS than $15 mil. It’s amazing what they could accomplish with that. Yes I agree w/ the contrast between more mechanical, modern look of Nathan’s house vs organic nature of its environment. Great setting and adds so much to the piece.
That dance sequence is kinda crazy, huh? What a great film though. Thought provoking, intelligence and brilliantly acted. Great read.
It is indeed! It’s so unexpected which makes it even more fun to watch. Yet it still feels unsettling because we don’t know just what’s gonna happen next.
Nice review Ruth. I also liked this…I think it’s a fascinating take on a much-covered subject (as you point out!) and I agree Isaac is very good here. What a run he is on, and I too loved that dance scene. So weird.
It’s cool that Garland still manages to inject something fresh into the oft-explored scifi sub-genre. Fantastic performances all around but Isaac is quite the scene stealer, even compared to the fetching fembot that is Eva.
Indeed!!! One of my favourite modern actors. Did you see A most violent year?
I liked this a lot too. There were some logic errors that bugged me but it messed with my head and that’s always a good thing.
There’s always logic error as you call it, in sci-fi films like this one but it still made you think about the plausibility of this scenario. It certainly made me ponder if I were in Caleb’s shoes.
Saw this last evening and felt much the same as you. Extraordinary feature debut that handled aspects of sci-fi and spirituality with equal aplomb. Notice how, like the other films you mentioned, it used the male/female dynamic to denote the recurrent human beings vs. A.I. theme. Us facing our progeny…our successors of being. A natural fit, seemingly, that audiences easily buy into because it works so well in the “…man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood.” Try and imagine it the other way (the man and woman switching places) and it comes off as odd, doesn’t it? Fifteen mil? Wow. Accomplished a great deal with the comparatively small budget of today. Great review, Ruth.
Awesome Michael, great to hear you love this too! I had the same thoughts as you about having the man & woman switching places. I’d imagine that if the scientist were female, would we make the male droid as attractive as the fembots created by MALE scientists? 😉 Yeah, I think the budget is actually less than $15 mil, so yeah it’s quite an amazing feat!
Still have to wait for it to be released over here, but I’m very much looking forward to this one, heard nothing but good things about it
Hi Nostra, I thought this has been released in Europe ahead of the US. But when it does reach your area, definitely give this a watch!
I apologize, I jumped to the end. I’m going to see this tomorrow afternoon and wanted to review it. I want to go in fresh and clear. I did see you gave it a 4.5. Cool! Let’s see how much we agree. 🙂
There’s no spoiler here but I totally understand Cindy. Hope you appreciate this as much as I did.
Hi Ruth. Just got back from watching it! I liked it very much. Alex G. certainly makes good use of the gorgeous setting and the crescendo of sound to emphasize a key moment was a thrilling aspect. I loved the special effects and think Oscar Isaac is turning out to be another Mark Ruffalo–both can do no wrong these days. Okay, now I’ll go up and read what you had to say about it. 🙂
Sounds fantastic, this. I need to see it 😉
Yes you should Josh! Definitely worth your time.
I really want to see this as I love Alex Garland’s work as a screenwriter.
His strength as a screenwriter seems to translate well as a filmmaker.
Having watched The Machine, and seeing how similar in genre this film is, makes me excited to see it. Great review, Ruth. Can’t wait!
Glad to hear you’ve seen The Machine, Rodney. It’s a good sci-fi and it’s also amazingly-accomplished given its teeny tiny budget. This one takes the theme of man vs machine much deeper.
I’m still pissed off I missed this in theatres. Its right up my straight and with high praise from you I want to see it even more.
I bet it’d look fab on Bluray Mikey. The visuals are great but thankfully it’s not style over substance.
Great review! I’m going to see this one next week!
Hope you like it as much as I did, Brittani.
Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander were all great here and helped give this film some much-needed depth. Nice review.
Yes indeed, perfect casting all around to bring the story to life.
Pleasantly surprised that you liked it that much, Ruth. I can’t wait to see this one!
I have a feeling this’ll be a good one Josh, but it still exceeds my expectations. Hope you get to see this soon.
I haven’t seen this. but I will add it to my list.
Yes you should Irene!
Great review. I really want to see this one as I’m a huge fan of Isaac and Gleeson. Besides, the premise sounds fascinating! And oh my, Oscar looks so hot in that gif!
If you’re a fan of those two, you’d love this one Fernando. Oscar does look good in this film 😀
That beard and shaved head! And the man cleavage! HAHA
I look forward to seeing Ex Machina, it sounds like something I would enjoy! Looks both visually and thematically interesting.
Hi Chris! It’s definitely worth a look on the big screen, no doubt one of the best of the year so far.
This comes out Thursday down here, I’ve been waiting for ages!! Now I’m even more excited 😀 nice write up Ruth
Awesome Jordan, it should be worth the wait man.
Too bad it doesn’t have release date here in Indonesia. I never heard nothing but praise about this one. Given the track record of Garland and the Star Wars warming up from Isaac and Gleeson, I could never be more excited to see it once it is available b
What? That’s too bad Paskalis! Well I hope you can see it soon somehow, it’s too bad films like this don’t get a decent worldwide distribution.
Well, 3 months before I can order it I guess 🙂
Oh wow, that’s a long time! Well, it’ll be worth the wait surely.
I just skimmed through your review there since I plan to see it either next weekend or sooner. It appears Hollywood is becoming more friendly with filmmakers coming up with “original” ideas for true sci-fi flicks. I’m glad Interstellar was a big hit, which means they’ll be more real sci-fi films coming out instead of the usual action/adventure/sci-fi.
Hi Ted! I think this film is more involving than Interstellar to me, and given the tiny budget (a fraction of most Hollywood sci-fis), it’s quite a feat.
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Excellent review! I really want to see it and now thanks to you I know same guy wrote Never Let Me Go which I really enjoyed
Hi Sati! If you like Never Let Me Go, you should like this one too. It’s a more character-driven sci-fi where you truly feel for the characters, humans and non-humans alike.
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REally liked it. I know what you mean about the spiritual side of it. The ‘God’ part is dropped from the title but the comparison is there nonetheless. It definitely makes you think about that unknowable component that distinguishes us from other.
We’re trying to get a discussion going about it, if you’re interested:
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I can’t believe I missed this in cinema, your review makes me want to see it. Vikander seems to be a very talented actress from I’ve heard.
Hey Vin! It’s available in VOD now, you must check it out man, it’s excellent. It sits in my top 5 of the year and Vikander is superb here, as is Oscar Isaac.
I’m planning to watch it as soon as I can.
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I just got this on DVD and can’t wait to see it. I also recently watched another movie with Alicia Vikander in called Testament of Youth. It moved me a lot and I reviewed it.
Awesome Vinnie! Oh I haven’t seen Testament of Youth yet but I’ve been meaning too. I really like Vikander, she’s brilliant!
She is a really talented actress who has gone from strength to strength.
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