Ex Machina: The Machine In The MachinePosted: April 13, 2015
Perhaps it’s appropriate that a film that centers on robotic intelligence would be driven by such a cool, intellectual tone. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Ex Machina is more of a cerebral puzzle than an emotional catharsis. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the tone and aesthetic of Ex Machina are wrong, or that they aren’t effectively utilized. Indeed, the entire film is very finely calibrated, with all elements working in concert in service to the story being told. But in spite of (or more likely because of) this, I still find myself somewhat detached from Ex Machina. While I greatly admire the film Alex Garland has made and think that it is successful on many levels, I’m not sure if I really loved it, or didn’t love it, or if I’m just pretending to love it.
On a dramatic, structural level, Ex Machina is really well-crafted. The whole story is a chamber piece amongst three (technically four) characters, and could easily work as a stage play. The entire story is character driven, with Caleb’s personal curiosities and faults clashing with the hidden agendas of both Nathan and Ava. Each character is very well-drawn and well-performed: Caleb is a great everyman, wholly identifiable, while Nathan is a live-wire, unpredictable genius and Ava shifts from inquisitive child to caged animal. The way these three bounce off each other, and push the other two against themselves, is the driving force of the story. That story is presented in a relatively procedural fashion, as Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava run throughout the film and set a steady pace and rhythm for the narrative. The tight structure and unsettling tone are supplemented by a surprising sense of humor, mostly provided by Nathan’s blunt and abrasive asides and Caleb’s awkwardness. That humor brings a little bit of chaos and unpredictability to the film, and keeps things lively and not as dour as the rest of the film might suggest.
For me though, the humor is still too far outweighed by the dry tone, which kept me at a remove from the heart of the story. Given the nature of the characters and dramatic situation, I assumed that the procedural structure would really fly off the rails during the second half as things become too destabilized, but this never really happens. While there are some twists and reversals during the climax, they are handled in a matter-of-fact style that allows them to retain their shock but without really knocking me off my feet. Because the narrative feels so tightly wound and cold, I stayed kind of detached from it. Even when aspects of Caleb’s character begin to jive very closely with some insecurities of my own, I wasn’t invested emotionally, just intellectually.
Thankfully, the film is not lacking in depth or intelligence, so even if it only works on an intellectual level there’s still plenty to consider and unpack. The dangers of Ava’s existence versus the disrespect to her intelligence and life, the idea that our ultimate fate might just be to create the life that replaces us, the ramifications of search engines and invasions of privacy; all these come into play in Ex Machina, and all of them provoke a certain amount of thought and potential discussion. So perhaps the film is best experienced as an intellectual narrative first, and maybe the cold tone and deliberate pace are the ideal incubator for such thought-provoking ideas. To be honest I can’t imagine there being another way for Garland to tell this story and still stay true to what his ultimate goal in telling it is. But for me, without the emotional investment that I get from my favorite films, I don’t know if I’ll care enough to consider the intellectual point the film is making.
I certainly think (or more accurately, hope) that Ex Machina will continue to stew in my brain over the next few weeks and months. It is a really good movie that does so many things well, and while excitement and emotional investment tend to be the most essential ingredients to my enjoyment of a movie, I would like to think that something this well-made will find a different way to leave a mark on my cinematic psyche. But whether Ex Machina grows on me, or I find a new perspective to consider it with, or whether it fades from my consciousness, there’s no doubt that it is a very good movie. Anyone that likes smart, cerebral science-fiction should absolutely check it out and consider what it has to say for themselves.