Film Review – Ex Machina
I like low budget sci fi movies. Not just alien creature features from the fifties, but modern indies that deal with things a little outside the ordinary. Because of the tight financing, smaller science fiction films need to focus on the essentials: storytelling, acting, and tone. They are often more about ideas than special effects, and locations tend to be limited. A recent example would be the film Coherence from 2013 about what happens one evening when a comet passes over Earth. It’s inventive and fun, and while not being anywhere near perfect, it was a hell of a good time. Screenwriter Alex Garland’s first feature length film Ex Machina, feels like it takes these strengths of lower budget films and adds fancier effects and some soon-to-be-everywhere actors. It’s fun, tense, and relatively smart. It also made me very frustrated. (More on that later.)
Ex Machina opens on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer for the world’s number one search engine who has just won a lottery to go visit his boss for a week. This doesn’t sound that interesting until you learn that his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a genius recluse living in an isolated mountain retreat. Nathan invented his search algorithms as a teen, and it turns out he has not just been hanging out getting drunk since then. (Although he does appear to be doing that a lot.) He reveals to Caleb that he has actually been brought out to his compound to conduct a Turing test on Nathan’s recently developed Artificial Intelligence – the beautiful female robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). (Long story short, Nathan just wants to figure out if Ava is able to exhibit intelligent behavior equal to that of a human.) Caleb is off the wall excited about this and is enchanted by her. Everything seems cool until the power goes out, and – unobserved by any cameras – Ava tells him that Nathan is a liar and Caleb better watch out for himself. Caleb begins to realize that not all is what it seems, and as more and more is revealed, he struggles with figuring out what is the right thing to do.
This film is paced and structured like a gothic horror romance. There is a scary mansion with a beautiful girl who just happens to have a guardian who is keeping more secrets than he reveals. There are twists and turns and feelings and scary things. And while it is not as smart as it thinks it is, it is smart enough. All in all, it’s a pretty effective piece of horror science fiction. Domhnall Gleeson is great as the naïf young man who has entered a world beyond his experience, and Oscar Isaac is also really good as the inscrutable Nathan. I really bought into this story, which is why I got increasingly pissed off as it went on. I watch a lot of horror films. A LOT. And I especially enjoy an eighties slasher pic. And honestly, this film does not have one bit of the understanding a low budget stalker film has about how it is portraying it’s female characters. NOT ONE BIT.
So, the writers here at the MacGuffin understand that we are not actually supposed to spoil the movie we are reviewing, which limits what I can say about why this film is so problematic. I’m gonna do the best I can. First of all, Alicia Vikander is a really good actress who is able to give Ava both a childlike vulnerability and a sharp adult intelligence. However, all of the women in this film are objectified in a way that goes much far beyond the fact the fact that Ava is an actual manufactured object. Nathan is a grade A creep. Other than Ava, his only other companion is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who does not speak English. She serves as both servant and sex partner. And while that is kind of yucky, he’s got some character quirks that reveal him to be darker than we expect. The film does a good job of making him a creeper, but it doesn’t stop once it makes its point. It just keeps on going. Listen, I have nothing against lady nudity in movies. (See my love of eighties slasher films.) I am currently watching a Swedish show about robots called Real Humans, and it deals with a lot of the same issues. There are robot boobs, and robot brothels, and creepy (and non-creepy) people who want to sex up both sexy robots and sexy humans. At no point does it ever seem exploitative. But this did. Also, I can accept that Ava is an artificial construct, and as such all the things that make her “female” are things that Nathan programs into her. It turns out that his definition of femaleness is kind of depressing, and I feel the film could have actually dealt with that in some way. I can like a problematic movie, but this goes beyond that into cluelessness.