Wrapping up 2015: Ex Machina
It’s 2016, but there are still several movies from last year that I need to wrap up. Oscar season, and the lack of compelling new films that accompanies it, makes this a great time to catch up.
Ex Machina has a great film hiding in its wings. You can see it, feel it in the extraordinary sets where the film takes place. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive, wealthy CEO of the computing company Nathan works for. Nathan lives in a sprawling estate, buffered from any curiosity society might have for his work by many miles of forest, hills, and rivers. His home is a maze of windowless concrete hallways dressed with expensive widgets that do little to desterilize them. Writer/director Alex Garland makes the most of the Norwegian landscapes where the film’s outdoor scenes were shot. Indoors, he cultivates a perpetual sense of unease. There’s no way to feel safe in a place this alone. It’s a custom made playground for Nathan, whom Isaac plays with an edge of Tom Hanks in the second act of Cast Away (beard included): there are endless possibilities here, and with Nathan at the helm, all of them are perturbing.
Nathan wants Caleb to administer the Turing Test to an AI he is developing. The AI is not a computer, but an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Once a day for seven days, Caleb tests Ava’s intelligence by talking with her.
To this point, the story more or less telegraphs how it’s going to play out. It’s not hard to predict that Caleb will begin to fall for Ava, or that Ava feels imprisoned by the perpetually* strange Nathan.
*I was going to write “increasingly” but from the moment he appears on screen, Isaac is playing sinister arpeggios.
It’s not the plotting itself where Ex Machina began to frustrate me, but its focus. There isn’t much suspense about whether or not Ava is self-aware, that she has a consciousness and a personality. She is, for the purposes of the film, alive and desperate to escape. But rather than focus on Ava, and the development of her awareness, and on Nathan and his feverish desire to build a fully intelligent AI, the movie’s focus is squarely on Caleb.
Unfortunately, Domhnall Gleeson simply is not as interesting here as Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. This is the third film I’ve seen Gleeson in this year, and I liked him in the other two. As Saoirse Ronan’s would-be suitor in Brooklyn he projects earnest passion that he lacks here. And as First Order General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens he dutifully gnawed the scenery to pieces and, well, that was good fun in a different type of movie. The short of it is, he’s not interesting here, his character’s arc isn’t all that interesting here, and he would have been better off as a supporting player to Isaac and Vikander.
Because what good performances those two give. Isaac is one of the most charismatic actors working today. He needs only seconds to project the full force of a character’s personality, and he can make the most expository dialogue sing with spontaneity. He doesn’t waste time letting Nathan transform from affable to sinister; there’s something off from the outset and he owns it.
Vikander’s performance was less obviously impressive to me at first. I thought Ava was operating on the same wavelength as Caleb, and it was a bit mundane. But her physical acting is always intriguing. The only part of Ava’s body with skin is her face; the rest is glass, mesh, and metal. Not knowing any androids, I have no basis to say that Vikander is a convincing one. But, well, she convinced me. And as Ava slowly reveals that she might have developed ulterior motives for growing closer to Caleb, Vikander’s performance gets increasingly interesting. Vikander is performing a virtuoso solo here with only a couple of notes to work with. By design, her personality is fairly static, but in showing multitudes she suggests the potential for even more. She gives the film a much needed dose of mystery.
But perhaps there’s too much mystery here in the writing. I wanted to see more of Ava, and more of Nathan and his descent into single-minded obsession. There’s a conversation about halfway through the film that’s revealing of the script’s weaknesses. Caleb and Nathan talk at length about Ava’s sexuality, how she is programmed to be able to have sex and enjoy it. The conversation is driven by the fact that Caleb is clearly attracted to Ava. This material could be interesting, but as presented here it comes off as not much more than a discussion of male fantasy. Ava’s view on the subject of her own sexuality is never even floated, never mind depicted. There are a lot of questions about android sexuality in this film’s world that could be thought-provoking, disturbing, and worth exploring in a story. A bolder script might have shown these characters grappling with them, and with the moral quandaries of developing AI as a result. They would have let Ava tell her own story, one she is clearly capable of telling. But those opportunities are shoved aside for an explanation of how Ava was designed to appeal to Caleb’s taste in porn.
The film does attempt to subvert the gender power balance at the end, in ways I won’t reveal. It’s satisfying in how it ties up loose narrative ends, but again, they were loose ends I was not particularly invested in. Caleb was never going to be the most interesting window into this world. I was desperate for this story to be sprung free from the constraints of its main device, for the plot to follow the characters the story wants to be about. Ex Machina has too much quality in it for me not to recommend. The style and atmosphere. The performances from Isaac and Vikander. But its narrative is stuck on shallow end of the pool. I wanted desperately to see it dive off the deep end, into the questions it raises, and into the world it presents at such frustrating arm’s length.