Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Ex Machina</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – Ex Machina (2015)

Sean Hanson

June 5th, 2015

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“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa: an upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

It’s a powerful idea, succinctly expressed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an impossibly wealthy Internet entrepreneur whose alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies may translate into the ultimate annihilation of the human race — and an idea by which he seems strangely comforted. His houseguest, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), asks why Nathan felt the need to create a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence, fully knowing the implications. Nathan’s response is simple, chilling: someone else would have.

The idea itself, that increasingly complex self-replicating AIs are simply the logical next and final step in our evolutionary chain, turns 57 this year. Even if it’s somewhat timely, it’s old hat for the sci-fi genre. And if that were the only concept writer/director Alex Garland explored in Ex Machina, the film wouldn’t be half as good or novel. After all, the film is ninety percent dialogic sequences in which Caleb, who thinks he has won a contest to spend a week with Nathan in his sprawling Colorado compound but is actually there to administer the Turing test to the AI prototype Ava (Alicia Vikander), debates computer science and philosophy with Nathan or quizzes Ava to determine the extent to which she qualifies as an autonomous being.

Predictably, the debates are only one order of magnitude more complex than the average freshman survey class. (In a winking nod to lay audiences who might be turned off if it were a Shane Carruth film about artificial intelligence, whenever Caleb starts asking highly technical questions about Ava’s programming, Nathan shuts him down at every turn.) Narratively speaking, it’s the sessions between Ava and Caleb that provide the film both structure and a hook. After all, the age-old question “what does it mean to be human?” will always remain more fascinating than discussions of circuitry, and, as Ava increasingly asserts her own humanity and hints that Nathan is a tad more malevolent than the average narcissistic code-bro — bolstered by what we objectively learn about Nathan, such as his bizarre relationship with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a live-in Japanese cook who doesn’t speak a word of English and who seems to exist only as a food-making mannequin for tight dresses — Ex Machina generates the kind of tension and mystery that drives every great sci-fi thriller that came before.

Normally, misdirection in a sci-fi film serves to mask a twist (and, make no mistake, there is a twist, and maybe more than one of them), but here, writer/director Alex Garland uses misdirection to mask Ex Machina’s chief thematic concern. Caleb and Nathan spend a lot of time talking — and in one blunt exchange, a discussion about Ava’s burgeoning romantic attraction to Caleb and her sexual functioning leads to an intriguing, if half-baked, argument about the construction of and need for android sexuality. Make no mistake, Caleb and Nathan would no doubt beat Garland in a coding contest, but when it comes to humanity, Garland is twice as smart as either of his male protagonists, but only about half as smart as Ava. It’s sly, how they spend so much time arguing about Ava’s — a android, but a woman nonetheless — sexuality, autonomy, and agency while she remains locked in a glass cage in the lower floors of a drab concrete compound. They ask each other a lot of questions, and offer up a lot of answers, but they’re never quite the right questions or the right answers, and they dance around what the film is really about. In a way, it’s like Garland penned a different film entirely in the margins of this screenplay, using invisible ink.

We typically break sci-fi into subgenres based on their attendant concepts — time travel, space travel, utopias, dystopias — but in Ex Machina, the evolutionary inevitability of artificial intelligence is, to borrow this film’s metaphor, the magician’s assistant. This film is finally less concerned with the construction of self-perpetuating androids than it is with the construction of gender, and it’s another wonderful entry (after last year’s Predestination) in the growing canon of sci-fi films that are riveting on one level while operating on another level entirely, using the genre’s unique potential to compound, abstract, and investigate contemporary gender politics.

As a screenwriter, Garland has written some of the most intelligent genre films of the past fifteen years — more or less reinventing zombies with 28 Days Later…, the space-travel thriller with Sunshine, and the ultraviolent future-cop satire with his adaptation of Dredd — but Ex Machina (improbably, his directorial debut) is his most nuanced, lucid work to date. As a stylist, he’s mimicking the cool austerity of David Fincher’s recent films, sometimes to wondrous results and sometimes to a fault, but Garland accounts for that by finding humor in the most unlikely situations, just when it’s needed most, and by trusting viewers to decide what subtle exchange motivates the climax. Ex Machina is a film that constantly has one more surprise up its sleeve, and it’s the best sci-fi film of the year so far.

Ex Machina begins its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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