Ex Machina

Ex Machina Movie ReviewA24 Films
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violences.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

“Ex Machina” is the best movie I’ve seen all year.

Granted, it’s April. At the beginning of the year — especially the months of January and February — it’s notoriously dumping-ground time. But “Ex Machina” is far and away superior to everything else that’s out there right now, and it’s expanding nationwide this weekend — hopefully to a theater near you — so now is your chance to catch it.

But here’s the trouble: I can’t really tell you much about it beyond urging you to go see it. It’s full of twists and turns that build slowly and suspensefully — they are supported and earned, not gratuitously shocking — and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them for you. Just trust me on this.

“Ex Machina” marks the directing debut of British writer Alex Garland, who wrote the Danny Boyle films “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” and — at age 26 — wrote the novel that was the basis of Boyle’s film “The Beach.” He is clearly fascinated by the complicated and sometimes cruel ways in which people interact. Here, he adds artificial intelligence to the equation in a claustrophobic situation, and the result is gripping. Garland’s film is beautiful and precise but also chilly and detached in a manner reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, with a similar taste for injecting quick bursts of intensity to startling effect.

The mesmerizing score (from Portishead co-founder Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury), the cool cinematography, the minimalist production design and meticulous visual effects all work exquisitely in concert to create an inescapable mood, a vivid sense of place. It’ll all stay with you and keep you thinking long after it’s over.

You’ll notice I haven’t gotten to the characters, or the premise, or the plot. This is tricky, but here goes.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a bright, young programmer for a Google-like behemoth called Blue Book. (Gleeson, son of the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, further reveals his likable, versatile presence as our Everyman conduit, and he does an impeccable American accent.) One day at work, Caleb learns he’s won a contest to spend a week at the remote compound of the company’s creator, the brilliant billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He has no idea what he’s going to do there, but it certainly sounds like an exciting opportunity.

Nathan’s home is a thing of wonder: a sleek and spare combination of concrete, glass and steel built into the side of a mountain and filled with modern furniture and art. Accessible only by helicopter, it features sprawling grounds and dazzling views as far as the eye can see. It is a lair worthy of a James Bond super villain, and I pretty much want to move there tomorrow.

When Caleb first meets Nathan, the boss is going through his rigorous, morning workout — part of a routine which will become significant as the film goes on. Bearded and burly, Nathan tries to buddy up to Caleb with copious droppings of “dude” and “bro” and non-stop beer and wine. But this persona seems slightly awkward on him, which makes him untrustworthy from the start. Speaking of versatile, the charismatic Isaac continues to prove he can do anything, and has been on a terrific roll the past couple of years between this, the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and last year’s powerful “A Most Violent Year.”

Nathan soon explains to Caleb what his purpose will be over the next week: He will take part in a Turing test, meaning he will help determine whether the A.I. being Nathan has built can convince him it’s human and believably think for itself. Or rather, herself: Her name is Ava, and in the hands of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, she’s an elegant and beguiling creature. Vikander trained for a long time as a ballerina and it shows in the fluidity of her movements, the delicacy of just the slightest tilt of the head. She also happens to be beautiful and gifted with a melodic, feminine voice.

From Day One, Caleb is hooked — and the days mark off segments in the film like chapters, each more ominous than the last. Man and machine feel each other out over a series of meetings, separated by glass. He is polite and inquisitive but also interested in challenging her; she is needy and eager to please in a way that’s almost childlike, but she’s also quick on her feet. And there is the small matter that Ava is a robot — and Nathan’s creation — so we realize that we probably shouldn’t trust her, either, even as Caleb’s feelings toward her get a little blurry.

And … that’s all I’ve got. Just trust me on this. You don’t want me ruin the suspense that Garland builds gradually through the use of expert pacing and evolving performances. This is just an extremely cool movie.

But, mercifully, Garland also finds ways to break up that tension in strange and darkly humorous ways — a disco dance routine that comes out of nowhere, for example, or an unexpected pop-culture reference. “Ex Machina” is the rare film that truly keeps you guessing, even when you think you know where it’s going. And it’s a welcome opportunity to think and feel deeply as we’re about to entire the summer season of mindless schlock.

26 Comments on “Ex Machina

  1.  by  David Conrad

    Well, another critic I like gives a strong endorsement of the film. I felt it lacked ideas, at least any new ones, and wasn’t interested in really pressing the ideas it had. The writer and director spoke eloquently on Studio 360 about our own minds being essentially automatons, but that idea doesn’t make it into the film in any way I can detect. I thought Caleb was a really lazily-conceived character, and absolutely the wrong person for this plot without some twist to make it work. The twists we got were ones I saw coming and which I felt took forever to play out, and were marred by plot holes. As a story I felt it was a major disappointment, and speaks poorly about our current ability to add to the conversation on AI that has been happening in film for decades.

    Visually, though, it’s great. Clouds of Sils Maria came out last year, so I can agree that this is the best movie of 2015 I’ve seen (out of 4 or 5.) I’d give it 2 out of 4 stars.

    •  by  Dan

      Wow… with respect, I can’t believe you claim to have seen the film or be educated in its subject matter. Having read your take on the film, again, I have to marvel at your lack of awareness of the issues and situations involved.

      Without going into film details just yet, I’ll say that if you saw everything playing out exactly as it did, then you weren’t paying attention to any single scene or giving any consideration to the myriad possibilities opened by each. Given the premises laid out in the trailer, it’s true that there were a limited number of possible outcomes – but the allure isn’t in the result as much as it is in how it happens. Like a magician, the movie tells you what it’s going to do and manages to make it a surprise anyway.

      *Warning: Mild spoilers below*

      Your first and primary criticism of the protagonist is that he isn’t objective enough to be a good candidate for the test, yet you overlook several plot points:
      1. Nathan isn’t the most objective or sane of characters to begin with (hint: he’s the antagonist of the story). When does he ever strike you as a philosopher of science, whose objectivity implies that he’s truly interested in a fair evaluation of his creation? He can’t even quote Caleb properly, and so thinks Caleb called him a god – even when Caleb attempts to correct him on that very point.
      2. Nathan’s first interactions with Caleb are about dropping formalities and getting to a place where they can call each other “dude” (Nathan himself wastes no time in doing so). Either Nathan is very lonely or he wants to put his tester at ease in the most efficient way possible; neither of these possibilities are mutually exclusive, and I find it quite likely that Nathan wagers it’s easiest to lie to someone he can understand (a fellow white male nerd) rather than someone he can’t (say, a female African cultures student). And yet, despite all the dialog of the movie, you think he should have chosen a lay person who can’t keep up with his ruminations on Turing, Pollock, and the implications of instinct in art? You suggest his motivations would be better served by conversing with whom? A heterosexual female gas attendant?
      3. Again, on objectivity – If this is the first time a test of this sort is being done on a creation of his (although there is plot room for this to not be the case), why would Nathan necessarily seek out a participant who wouldn’t fall for the wiles of his creation? If you’re building a jet airplane for the first time, do you subject your first engine to the most rigorous of tests in live airspace over Toronto, or do you start from a bench top in the most favorable of conditions, work your way up to a wind tunnel, and eventually start trial runs over a desert? Why wouldn’t Nathan, still en route to his final perfected revision, throw a soft ball at his own creation to see if it can withstand more lenient testing than what the real world would provide? Is that not the reason for the seclusion of the test in the first place, and the lack of scientific peer review?

      Your second criticism of the film is that the protagonist lacks depth, as if that were ever a requirement for an engrossing film. First, one of Caleb’s main roles in the film is to be a foil for Nathan, to educate the audience on what we’re doing here in the story and what it all means. Second, being a protagonist does not carry with it the obligation to be interesting; see Neo of the Matrix, Luke Skywalker of Star Wars, or Clarice of Silence of the Lambs. Hell, even in movies like Fight Club, the narrator (or “Narrator”, as it were) is often the least interesting of characters onscreen, even though the movie revolves around his perspective.

      It seems to me, also, that you intentionally give an unfair play of the film against others in the A.I. sub-genre. For example, you criticize this film for its austerity in comparison to “A.I.”, not accounting for film purpose, plot premise, or Spielberg’s $100 million budget compared to the $11 mil given to an untested director in Garland. And “less ideas more seriously”? Coming from a person who doesn’t believe Oscars should be given to “erotic thrillers” in the first place (does thrill not serve a purpose in film?), I don’t take that criticism very seriously.

      For a more academic review of the film (to address your philosophical concerns), I’d suggest:
      http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530054.600-ex-machina-quest-to-create-an-ai-takes-no-prisoners.html?full=true
      This review aptly explains why it was so important for the film to highlight the weakness of the Turing test – something Bladerunner only clumsily addresses (as you point out, its messages are muddied by its divergent “surplus of ideas”)

      •  by  David Conrad

        Dan: I couldn’t go into too much detail about the plot in my review, for the same reason as Christy. Thanks for reading, and for your feedback. I believe I did recognize the few ideas that there were in the film. But having seem them before, I was quite underwhelmed by them and their slight treatment.

        I don’t want to hijack this thread by discussing my own review, but let me respond to a part of your critique briefly: “He can’t even quote Caleb properly, and so thinks Caleb called him a god – even when Caleb attempts to correct him on that very point.”

        I think Christy, and my, and your interpretations of Nathan are all over the place. We’re probably all reading into that character — and into the movie — much more than is there. Christy views his use of “bro” as an affectation, and I kept expecting the script to go in that direction as well (one of the twists I envisioned that didn’t come to pass) but in retrospect I don’t see any reason to doubt that he is what he appears to be: a smarter-than-average bro. You say he can’t quote Caleb properly, and I disagree; he intentionally misquotes Caleb, and he knows Caleb’s quotes better than Caleb does (except that he also attributes the I am Become Death quote to Oppenheimer, neither of them being quite clever enough to know where Oppenheimer got it.)

        The one moment when I felt the film could have said something different, that the singularity is already here inasmuch as the human brain is simply a program, is when Nathan presses Caleb on his sexuality. Except that “presses” isn’t the right word; it’s mentioned, then immediately dismissed. The movie is not only declining to answer questions, I don’t think it’s really asking any.

        Again, I do appreciate your thoughtful response. You’re in the overwhelming majority on this movie right now. I wonder if it will hold up in 5 years in any sense other than its visuals.

      •  by  James Langella

        “Wow… with respect, I can’t believe you claim to have seen the film or be educated in its subject matter. Having read your take on the film, again, I have to marvel at your lack of awareness of the issues and situations involved.”

        Get used to it, shes an awful “critic” if that’s what you want to call her.

        •  by  Christy Lemire

          Actually, the “with respect” comment was in response to somebody else’s comment, not my original review. But thanks for taking the time to come to my website and tell me how awful I am.

          •  by  Daleman

            Christy – I thought your review was excellent, very well written and made me consider going to see the movie. Thanks for not including spoilers. Some people will criticize anything, don’t worry about it for one second.

          •  by  Wayne

            Here here Christy. Trolls begone. Shame on James.

            (Full disclosure – I really didn’t like Ex Machina at all and don’t agree with the review. It doesn’t mean I get to be a jerk just because I disagree with a critic though.)

          •  by  John

            Christy,

            I just watched the movie and enjoyed it so much I went read the reviews to see what others thought of it. In a genre dominated by explosions and visual wizardry or endless dialogue that appears either trite or condescending I found this movie neither, and utterly fascinating.

            Now that the movie is out and there are no more spoilers I found the movie filled with a subtle menace lurking just below to surface of placid – like a beautiful blue sky punctuated by fluffy white clouds stuck to the background like a 3d image from a view master (how many of you are as old as me and know what a view master is) with dark hints of the turbulence they contain and the power they will, not may unleash.

            The multi-tiered layers of deception being played out between the three antagonists / protagonists (for who truly was the good guy or bad guy here – with each character merely playing out their interests according to their nature?)

            What truly was the climax for me was the duality of the naivety and sophistication of the truly alien intelligence birthed by Nathan.

      •  by  J.R.

        Ex Machina is by far one of the best contained sci-fi thrillers ever made, and many of its overflowing merits were described perfectly here by the reviewer. One thing I’d like to add that I loved, about this immensely lovable film, is its pure exploration of the “humanness” of human intelligence. That the more “human” a thinking thing is, the more it can and will manipulate its fellow humans to self-serve. And that the smarter a human thinking thing is, the further it will go in this endeavor. In the end, the character’s fates are ultimately decided by this specific capacity, and it’s thrilling to watch it play out, especially because one of them isn’t technically human. A truly terrific and haunting film. Can’t wait to see it again.

    •  by  Ryan Shea

      When they do a mouse experiment and the mouse had to press the button three times to get the food. The mouse might of figured out how to press it two times from the previous experiment, but now instead of figuring it just needs to press it three times, it runs around the bend comes and stands on its hind legs and looks to the observers and then presses it a third time. It would repeat this process because he thinks this is how the process works to get food now, not realizing he just needs to press it three times. Think how much of our lives has been running around the bend and then standing on our hind legs to look at the observers, when we could’ve just pressed the button three times. This movie is for sure one to watch twice over, and I think you’ll see how he did a great job from the get go of including this idea of our minds as automatons.

  2.  by  dude

    I agree with Christy that this is one of the best films of the year. I also agree that Caleb was a weak (and boring) protagonist. He’s an white dude everyman that we see all the time, but the rest of the film is so well paced and the story is fascinating. Ex Machina s not simply about the AI, but about how we interact with this thing that mimics life. I was left despising the human and caring.for.the robots this time.

    •  by  David Conrad

      That’s interesting, “dude.” (Those quotes aren’t scare quotes, I just wanted to emphasize that I’m referring to you by your screenname. 🙂 ) I certainly hated the human protagonists, but I didn’t care for the AI either, and I didn’t think I was supposed to. Emotionally-wired Machiavellianism straight out of the “Lore” episodes of TNG, and old-fashioned paranoia about the lack of empathy on the part of machines. The movie seems to cut against, or refuse to focus on, Garland’s ideas about human consciousness expressed elsewhere, which are interesting.

      If the movie is about how we act with a machine that mimics life, I can’t see that it’s added anything to the conversation.

      •  by  Dan

        Thanks for your reply earlier. As internet conversations go, I tend to expect vitriolic responses when I criticize another’s perspective, so it was a welcome novelty to see your restraint – and I appreciate that.

        Still, with respect, I think you’re missing something about the movie – namely, that art rarely claims or intends to say something that hasn’t been said before. Was Banksy saying anything new when he painted anti-war images on the sides of buildings? Or Fight Club about the modern dilemmas of man? If Garland had intended to say something new about AI, he would have published a paper on it.

        And yes, I think we’re all reading Nathan differently, which itself is an interesting thing. I had a number of running theories in my head regarding his character as I watched the movie, so that added to my continual suspense. Perhaps you had reason to rule them out earlier than I did, but I didn’t feel I had sufficient justification to say the movie couldn’t make any “bad” decisions and go some other routes (lord knows there have been many an M. Night Shyamalan wannabe who’s sacrificed a reasonable ending for a contrivedly-provocative one).

        As far as longevity, I’d compare the plot to Primal Fear in that, once the ending is known, it’s hard to reimpose the original suspense on yourself on a repeat viewing. Still, I think it would be unfair to rule it a less-substantial film in hindsight without appreciating the impact the film had during its initial viewing.

  3.  by  Maria

    Really? 5 stars? It was a good sci-fi, and as good art should made the voyeur question the moral and complex issues of the subject at hand. Suspense? No, not really. The movie is predictable because the antagonist and protagonists are male, the robot female. I found that to be the most unimaginative, way to create a “story”, but of course the most provocative way to present all the ethical questions, the most important being “Even if we can should we?” Because if we can’t even treat humans ethically, are we prepared for the fallout? I mean have we forgotten cinema history? Does Planet of the Apes ring a bell?

  4.  by  meatdawg

    This is the kind of pretentious movie professional film crititics like to slobber over.

    Here’s my review from IMDB.

    A visually pleasing movie with numerous plot-holes and a bad ending.
    19 April 2015 – 13 out of 28 users found this review helpful.

    The idea of a billionaire recluse living in an exotic locale who summons a young and grateful software engineer (Caleb) to evaluate his latest humanoid robot sets the stage for what could and should have been an interesting and intriguing film.

    But soon the movie breaks down into a series of boring interviews with the robot (Ava). The billionaire (Nathan) lives a lonely life with his human(?) servants where he tinkers in his lab and spends his off-time drinking copious amounts of alcohol and then pummelling punching bags and pumping iron in order to detox from the booze.

    But here are the logic disconnect/plot-holes.

    1) If Nathan wanted Caleb to evaluate his latest humanoid “model” then why is Ava incomplete with missing “flesh” exposing her electronic circuitry

    2) Why would Nathan allow his power system to be vulnerable to interference from Ava where she can talk privately with Caleb thus possibly undermining Nathan’s plans?

    3) Why would Nathan live all alone in a compound without any security guards ?

    4) One night Nathan passes out drunk thus allowing Caleb to get his access card allowing him to reprogram the security measures of the building. You would think thatNathan wouldn’t use something so “old-school” like a plastic card thatcould easily be stolen. How about biometrics instead that would make itvirtually impossible to have any security breaches.

    5) In the end Nathan is stabbed to death by one of the robots. One would think that he could have programmed to NOT commit violence on his person.

    6) Eventually Ava gains her freedom by playing Caleb and goes to the Robot storage room. Needing to look more human she strips off faux skin from an Asian model. Did the thought occur to her or the writer that the skin from an Asian wouldn’t match hers.

    7) When the day comes for Caleb to be airlifted by helicopter from the high-tech hideaway Ava struts out to take Caleb’s place on the helicopter. You would think that the pilot would be suspicious about picking up a young woman instead of the computer nerd he was supposed to: duh.

    In short this movie is nothing more than eye-candy set in an exotic locale with a few titillating nude scenes.

    To me it seems most directors aren’t good writers. This movie would have been much better if Caleb himself was actually a robot and he was summoned to Nathan’s hideaway for HIS ultimate evaluation. Caleb, realizing his situation conspires with the other robots and kills Nathan where they all exist together in seclusion or eventually find some way to escape.

    •  by  Dan

      1) They answered this in the movie. The point is that the Turing test is a weak form of evaluation, and Nathan believes his test is better.

      2) There are a dozen possibilities here, all of which were explained or otherwise mentioned in the movie. First and foremost, we don’t truly know if Ava was causing the outages or if she was lying to play along with Nathan’s charades (she pretended to not know she was part of a Turing test, for example). We also don’t truly know if Ava was causing the outages because Nathan let her for the purpose of the experiment (knowing she would use them to try and gain Caleb’s trust).

      3) Why would he need them? For one, he felt he was in complete control even when Caleb was in his house. Second, having a lot of security guards doesn’t necessarily improve your survival when you’re rich and live in a remote area where no one can see you get robbed. Just stage a heist/robbery/murder when the power goes out. Third, a guy who spends his time dancing (and sleeping with) robots probably isn’t keen on surrounding himself with macho male types.

      4) Again, he’s probably use to feeling safe in his own home, and biometrics aren’t impervious (see Demolition Man where the man’s eye was torn out and posted on a writing utensil to pass a retinal scan)

      5) Who’s to say he didn’t? Kyoko didn’t act against him until Ava spoke to her. Maybe she reprogrammed his Asian helper.

      6) With skin that seals itself up after tearing, who’s to say the skin can’t accommodate different ethnicities? (doesn’t take a large shift in pigment)

      7) The helicopter pilot didn’t seem to be the questioning type. He gets paid a lot to not ask questions.

      “This movie would have been much better if Caleb himself was actually a robot”

      – The director specifically added red herrings to the movie to make this a possibility. You did see that, right?

      I wouldn’t always blame the director – sometimes the audience just doesn’t pay attention.

      •  by  J.R.

        2) He wouldn’t. But Ava’s smarter than him. Proven in the end by her defeating him and escaping.
        3) He’s paranoid. He joked that he had his security installers killed once they finished because “There’s too much classified stuff here.”
        4) When you become Nathan, you can prove that’s true. For now, I’ll trust that Nathan thought plastic would work, being that he was the only person in the house besides this single guest and that plastic was just fine.
        5) The movie’s called “AI”. Did you miss that?
        6) The skin is obviously universal. Special material bought with google-level money. Pause the movie and have a look if you’re still confused.
        7) Have you see the way she looks? Did you hear her talk? Refer to #2 if you doubt her ability to outsmart a helicopter pilot.
        *as a free edition to the questions answered, time which I’ll never get back — one observation: Your comments before and after your questions are even worse than your questions.

  5.  by  montom

    Wow, you guys are funny. Talk about over thinking a film. It must be hard for you to watch pretty much any movie 🙂

    This was a very compelling movie. I thought it was getting a little draggy then Bam, the last 20 minutes were worth the price of admission.

    Great acting. Great visuals. Great, thought provoking, story. In the end, it is a movie but you’ll walk away thinking about it hours and days after you see it.

  6.  by  ChrisV

    I loved LOVED this film. Just saw it (1:15 p.m. Sunday showing), and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long, long time. It was fascinating. The guys who didn’t like it apparently need lots of big explosions to help pass the time. This was just a sheer joy to watch. My highest ratings for this one.

  7.  by  Carl Kelley

    My sentiments exactly about the quality of Ex Machina, Christi. The coldness of the characters and the ultra-modern setting reminded me of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. And I can’t think of a sci-fi movie that I have enjoyed more since 1970 when Space Odyssey was released. I wish Ex Machina was doing better at the box office because I’d love to see multiple sequels. From what I can google, it looks like it cost $25M to make and it is just breaking after 5 months internationally.

    •  by  Peter Leyshan

      Ex Machina cost around $15M to make. It has made $33.8M worldwide so far, so it’s doing pretty good considering there is virtually no media advertising for this movie.

  8.  by  ED Denson

    I thought the movie was good, I did not like the ending, and two things I expected never happened, I thought perhaps Nathan was an AI and that was the real test. Caleb evidently wondered about himself. Second, I expected a shot to show a dead helicopter pilot. My question is this: how are the batteries to be recharged away from the house?

    •  by  Drago

      Duracell batteries last a long time.

  9.  by  Peter Leyshan

    Great review Christy. I totally agree with your review. Ex Machina truly is a rare cinema treat.

  10.  by  Peter Leyshan

    It looks like all the trolls are coming out of the woodwork.

    Ex Machina is a very well made movie. My hat goes off to everyone involved in making this movie. I think it’s a Brilliant film, as do a lot of distinguished movie critics. All the so called plot holes people think they have found are non-existent. Everything is answered in the movie. All the performances from the actors are amazing. Caleb is the gateway into the movie, but I was constantly guessing who the protagonist is, and the intentions of each of the characters. This and the atmosphere the movie creates, made for a very intense movie experience.

    4/4 stars from me also.