Ex Machina (2015)

I mentioned in a previous post that movies aiming for awards are usually released in the last few months of the year. I should also stress that some movies released earlier in the year could be award contenders too, albeit much fewer. Last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is one fine example. And this year, Ex Machina could be another one.

The title would instantly lead one to think of the literary device ‘deus ex machina‘ (Latin, direct translation: God out of a machine). Originated in Greek theatre, when the imminent disastrous ending is suddenly intervened by a god extended by mechanical means, saving the day. Without the word ‘deus‘ for God, what we have left is Ex Machina, out of a machine, and in this science fiction/suspense thriller, it’s the robotic Artificial Intelligence (AI). Leaving out the word ‘deus’ only intrigues us more: who is God now, the human creator, or the AI?

Ex Machina

I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, neither a CGI or special effects aficionado.  But I’m always drawn to those movies that, despite their genre, carry a meaningful thematic element. Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut is one such production. Garland’s previous adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go into screenplay had drawn my attention for the same reason. It’s the substance that makes it worthwhile.

In Ex Machina, viewers are gratified not only by the content, but the form as well. The set design is minimal but stylish, the music is ponderous and inviting, just like the natural environs we find the ‘research facility’ in the movie, home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the software genius and reclusive founder of the world’s most powerful search engine Bluebook. Nathan conducts a competition in his own company, and the winner is a young coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The prize is to spend a week in Nathan’s estate nestled in a pristine, natural setting. Just imagine a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home like Fallingwater with a futuristic touch.

After being dropped off by helicopter onto the grounds of Nathan’s remote, well-hidden facility, Caleb soon finds out the purpose of his mission – if he’s willing to accept it and sign a non-disclosure agreement – to conduct a Turing Test on Nathan’s latest invention, an AI called Ava, hauntingly played by Alicia Vikander, the highly sought after Swedish actress today. To complete his task, Caleb has to test if Ava is on a par with human in terms of her intellectual, language, and emotional competence. The thematic element unfolds like that of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

Another gratifying element is the cerebral components of the film. Here are some examples. Nathan got the name Bluebook from Wittgenstein’s Blue Notebook, which contains the philosopher’s rumination on language and thinking. Even the Jackson Pollock on the wall carries a deeper meaning. How is art made? By the rational mind or automatic impulses? Ultimately, the key questions are: What is the essence of being human? And what will become of the human race if we continue down the unchecked trajectory with our technology?

But the story is not just one-sided with man creates machine, man tests machine. It is utterly intriguing to see the interplay among the threesome. The psychological wrangling between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava is mind-boggling. The twists and turns are the juicy bits in the plot line as we try to figure out actually who is out-smarting who. The suspense engages even more than a Hitchcock movie. The visual designs and effects of the AI is haunting as an existential horror because it is right here on earth and not lightyears away in space; we can relate how possible a similar scenario could be reality one day. A cautionary tale, if you will, and a brilliant one.

A successful debut for first-time director Garland, albeit he is no novice in writing. Garland has been a prolific novelist and screenwriter; his crafting of Ex Machina is highly nuanced and intelligent, at the same time, very human.  I will not go into the twists and turns, and definitely not the denouement; the viewer must experience it first-hand.

What I can say is the engrossing performance from all three actors. Oscar Isaac, who from his minor role in Drive to his Oscar nominated Inside Llewyn Davis, to last year with Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, has shown time and again his versatility as an actor. Very convincing as the mastermind Nathan, the chilling genius and yet a mysterious, macho figure, Isaac portrays quite a fusion of seemingly incompatible characteristics. He could get another chance for an awards nod.

Domhnall Gleeson had his breakout role in Harry Potter, but has grown into an actor suitable for a myriad of roles that is congruent with his innocent, boyish look. His character here in Ex Machina develops a mutual relationship with the AI Ava, a scenario similar to Her (2013), wherein Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his OS Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Why do Gleeson and Vikander, the innocent coder and the robot have such unlikely on-screen chemistry? Maybe because they had worked together in another film as a loving couple. Remember Anna Karenina (2012), Joe Wright directing Tom Stoppard’s adaptation? Well, these two had much interaction there as Levin and Kitty. And watch for Vikander in two upcoming book to movie adaptations: Testament of Youth and The Light Between Oceans, and Gleeson in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. 

Ex Machina is a film that fits all aspects of a well-crafted production, in its writing, directing, thematic elements, set designs, visual effects, choice of music, and overall gratification as a sic-fi suspense thriller. Hopefully by the time Awards Season comes at the end of the year, it will not be forgotten.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Update January 14: 

Oscar Nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Visual Effects

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Other related Review posts on Ripple Effects:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Movie

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

Anna Karenina (2012)

About Time: The Use and Abuse of Super Power

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

Oscar Issac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan copy 2

Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

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