Passing the Test
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The phrase “Deus ex machina” is a familiar one to anyone who has been remotely interested in dramatic storytelling of any fashion. The name itself derives from a Greek phrase that translates into “god from the machine” and that essentially describes its primary function. A deus ex machina is a plot device that solves an impossible quandary but does so in a contrived fashion with no precedent for the solution to begin with. The result is, understandably, often jarring. Thank goodness Ex Machina only uses deus ex machina in a metaphorical, symbolic sense and not otherwise. It is remarkable these days to find a sci-fi film that feels germane while retaining elements of genuine originality, suspense, and depth. Ex Machina is above all a film about the potentiality of artificial intelligence tapping into the complexity within humanity and the consequences that can thusly arise. And if that potentiality is matched, what does that mean for the future, for evolution itself? Is the artificial intelligence unit that one has created at that juncture equivalent to the human experience? Is it superior? Inferior? And if so, why? If a human being can be considered to be at the top of the evolutionary chain, what about their creations? A man or woman can make a machine as if they were a god, but can the machine become that god? Ex Machina raises these questions, providing its own point of view while simultaneously leaving much for the audience to ponder.
Considering all of those questions, Ex Machina is rarely an overtly ponderous, dull affair. It envelops all of its philosophical quandaries within an expertly crafted sci-fi experience that never allows for a single dull moment to brim to the surface. The pacing is excellent, each scene clipping along to another with just the right speed. The dialogue is sharp, becoming absolutely hilarious at just the right moments so the macabre and depth never becomes overwhelming (it helps significantly that the humor is absolutely pitch perfect for each character). Ex Machina is a heavy science film but it does a remarkably job of hardly ever feeling like it is. The sharp dialogue is largely responsible for that feat. The problem (or at least one of the problems) with Interstellar for example was how it explained the science behind it to audiences who perhaps aren’t quite familiar with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In one problematic sequence, all of the NASA scientists are sitting inside one room, explaining spacial circumstances in heavy verbiage that was clearly intended for the audience because professional, experienced NASA scientists would be well aware of those technicalities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with explaining some of the heavy science in a movie to the audiences, but it doesn’t work when the dialogue doesn’t fit the characters in that specific moment. The explanations within Ex Machina never feel like the film’s trying too hard, they flow concisely enough for the audience to know what’s going on without ever feeling like the film doesn’t trust their intelligence enough.
The beginning is quiet enough, with a programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) discovering that he’s won a contest to spend a weekend with the company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The film’s ominous undertones are entrenched immediately, perhaps because as an audience we’ve become somewhat attuned to cinematic patterns of lone weekends somewhere leading to a naturally nefarious conclusion. The film never doubles down on that tone early on, however, tricking the audience into believing that perhaps that ominous aura was just a trick their own senses were playing on them. As is expected, Nathan is working on a top-secret project as tech billionaires who live in a remote Norwegian estate with mountains and waterfalls are oft to do. That project involves the concept of artificial intelligence, which has fascinated humanity ever since the first ideas of machines with human intelligence was conceived. More often than not, however, the ideas of artificial intelligence have been presented with a fearful eye for all of the wrong reasons. AI has been perceived through two prisms: one is the idea of robots wanting to take over the planet, which is fun if done well but otherwise is rarely poignant.
The second prism is the far more annoying one, embodied famously in Mary Shelley’s excellent Frankenstein. The novel concentrates on the pertinent reality of the thin line that exists between knowledge and dangerous omnipotence. Shelley’s question is inherently about if humanity ought to use knowledge that it has accrued simply because it has accrued it. It’s not a question of the morality of science, it’s a question of the morality and hubris of humanity. Frankenstein attacks the concept that humanity can dare to ever try and control science, to box it in based on its conditions. That revolutionary, accurate concept has been twisted more often than not into a “scientists are playing God and everything goes to Hell” route that serves largely to demonize science and inhibit scientific progress (don’t even get me started on how Frankenstein has become the monster’s name). While the upcoming Jurassic World looks like it’s going down the same route amidst other problems, Ex Machina absolutely nails the crux of Shelley’s groundbreaking novel. Never does Alex Garland’s script demonize science or scientific inquiry. It upholds it in the highest regard, arguing passionately as to why the nature of scientific query is so vital to progress. Caution is necessary, but it never should it become the inhibitor to broadening humanity’s horizons through science. Garland’s script argues that we should be wary, not of the science itself, but our own hubris and greed that can twist scientific progress into a quest to further our own conviction of superiority.
As the titular god machine Ava, Alicia Vikander simply stuns in an absolute powerhouse performance. The visual effects are astounding, leaving only Vikander’s original face on Ava while the rest of the body is constructed through various metals and wires. Not for a single second does Vikander allow all of the extremities on her body to get in the way of her performance. With just slight movements of her eyes, she expresses a vast array of complexity that propels you to believe in her absolute, innate humanity despite the wiring evident across her body. Caleb is essentially trying to understand if she had passed the Turing test of consciousness. In a Turing test, a human judge interrogates both a human and a machine to see if he can distinguish between the two. But that test as the film explains in its essence tests the human and not the machine. The true trick is to see that Ava can exhibit consciousness with the complete visual understanding that she is, in fact, a robot. That forms the crux of Ava’s fascinating interactions with Caleb. Is Caleb testing Ava? Is it the other way around? A combination of both? Or is it something else entirely? And if it’s something else entirely, what are Caleb and Ava’s true roles? The most arduous quandary that the film presents, however, is of the true extent of Ava’s humanity and what the consequences of that extent could be.
As the audience grows to know Ava more and more, that quandary becomes nearly suffocating. Smartly Ex Machina thus always allows for room to breathe right before the next big twist that rips apart the film, while surprisingly keeping its skeleton fastidiously intact. At that bare skeletal level, Ex Machina can function as a simple sci-fi thriller, so it’s well, thrilling when it consistently proves itself to be so much more. In a Soderberghian move, Garland’s script throws curveball after curveball that never feels inhibitive because the framework has been so carefully crafted that the twists and turns all feel germane, earned. The visuals are simply astounding (especially considering the film’s budget), boosted by the impeccable production design that creates a stifling claustrophobia with an open escape right outside effortlessly. The inside of Nathan’s residence is especially brilliant, the sharp, futuristic beauty balancing utopia and dystopia in a perfect symbiosis. The pacing is as smooth as Nathan’s dancing skills, with considerable credit going to Mark Day’s editing. Perhaps more than anything, what makes Ex Machina stand out amidst all of the bustling films around it is that it never sacrifices intelligence, wit, and depth for the sake of mass appeal nor does it inhabit a pedestal that would make it inaccessible. Ex Machina is a brilliant endeavor in every way, a simply astounding directorial debut from Garland whose daring remains ensnared in one’s mind long after the screen has gone dark. In the espousal of that daring, it instantly becomes one of the greatest sci-fi classics of the modern age.
Title: Ex Machina
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Alex Garland
Produced by: Andrew Macdonald, Scott Rudin
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Music by: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Edited by: Mark Day
Production Company: DNA Films, Film4, Scott Rudin Productions
Distributed by: Universal Pictures (United Kingdom), A24 Films (United States)
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Dates: 21 January 2015 (United Kingdom), 10 April 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Live For Films