Review: EX_MACHINA Starts Strong, But Falls Into Cliché

Editor, Canada; Montreal, Canada (@bonnequin)
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Review: EX_MACHINA Starts Strong, But Falls Into Cliché
Alex Garland has become known for some pretty great sci-fi screenplays, such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. So it seems only natural that he would eventually direct one of his own works. 

Ex_Machina has some great elements, such as a beautiful location, top-notch production design, and (at least at first) an interesting concept; but sadly, what begins as an examination of artificial intelligence becomes a cliché of sexual desire and jealousy. I wanted to like this film, and kept hoping that Garland would find his way back after it started to come apart at the mid-way point. And it isn't necessarily the directing that is the problem, but perhaps it was a mistake for Garland to take on both writing and directing. It is the story that suffers.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented programmer at the world's biggest internet search company, wins a contest to meet the reclusive company owner and inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Taken to a remote and highly secure spot, Nathan reveals that he has brought Caleb here to help him test his robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to see if she passes for human. Of course, Ava isn't just an robot, but possibly the first AI that can pass for human. As Caleb spends his days talking to Ava, his attachment to her grows, as does his suspicion of what Nathan really does in his hideaway.

One point I have always liked about Garland's writing is his ear for great dialogue, and certainly in this regard Ex_Machina is no exception. The story and its world are set up very quickly, and within five minutes, Caleb and Nathan are meeting. Garland cuts to the chase, wasting no time with Nathan telling Caleb why he is here, and what he wants Caleb to do. Nor does Garland insult the viewer's intelligence, at least in terms of how technology and science are discussed, neither dumbed-down nor in heavy tech-speak. 

At least in the beginning, Garland creates a fascinating scenario, of the reclusive genius and his admirer, the desire to create AI and what it might ultimately appear as, and how it would be tested. But rather than explore what AI means for the future of humanity, and how humans would interact with it (or possibly reject it), the film becomes another in the recent line of films about the hopeless nerd who falls prey to an apparently manipulative woman.

At first, I was willing to go along with Garland's scenario. After all, if you were a robotics genius, wouldn't you create a robot that you found physically attractive, who would be programmed to desire you and want to look as 'beautiful' and human-like as possible? Maybe, but to focus the plot on a robot who is trying to seduce you gets dull and more than a little sexist quite fast. 

From the film's perspective, Nathan, a genius, seems to have no interest in robotics beyond making an incredibly sophisticated sex toy. Ava, a robot designed as a woman, has the only option of using her programmed sexuality to escape from her prison. Sadly, too often in film, a female robot (as, well, so many female characters) is assigned sexuality and used as an object of sexual desire as opposed to male (or male-voiced) robots, which are used as represented of the future of AI intelligence that will surpass humans.

Isaac has more than proven himself as an actor, and his performance here is probably the best part of the film. He is genuinely charming with more than a hint of terrifying genius that has gone wrong, having slipped just enough into an odd kind of insanity that he can see himself as something of a God. 

Gleeson is fine, but isn't really given much to do beyond react, but he stands in well as an intelligent yet sensitive nerd who can possibly outwit his foe. Vikander performs as admirably as she can, and is definitely believable: if it's through special effects or her own physicality, her movements as the robot trying to emulate natural human movement is spot-on. But she is given little to do besides be a cross between a prisoner and a femme fatale.

There are some good, creepy moments in the film (in particular some very odd dancing by Isaac that shows an off-kilter side to the film's tone I wished had been more explored), and at close to the climax, a Bluebeard's Castle moment that I thought might lend the film a more original perspective.

I have the impression that, at least in part, Garland is trying to make a point about human ego and hubris, how the power that seems God-like can go to a man's head. And perhaps he was trying to make a point about male power. But it didn't come through, at least not in an original way. If he was trying to examine how humans interact with robots, well, given the contest in which he placed his story, he also failed.

Like recent films Under the Skin and Her, when the female character is the 'other' (robot, computer software or alien), her existence is automatically relegated to her sexuality and desirability; her character resides solely in how the male perceives her. I'm in danger of getting too academic for a film review, but given Garland's previous work, Ex_Machina deserved to be so much better.

Ex_Machina opens on January 21st in the UK, and April 10th in the US.
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alex garlandalicia vikanderdomhnall gleesonex machinaOscar IsaacSonoya Mizuno

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BosJanuary 20, 2015 8:32 AM

I am really eager to watch this movie. There is this "new wave" of movies about humanized robots lately, like "The Machine" and "Automata" and I am quite happy about it. Also "Chappie" is coming, by Blomkamp.
I watched both the first said movies and I liked them, but honestly there was something missing...and I can't rate more than 6.5/10.
I hope that this Ex-Machina will be nicer, even if the review point out that it becomes not-so-original at some point...we will see.

Anyway, I am happy of this new wave of movies about robots with feelings. I like them.

Unflinching_EyeJanuary 20, 2015 10:13 PM

The Machine was good, but like you say, it could have been better. Partly hamstrung by its low budget I guess.

Unflinching_EyeJanuary 20, 2015 10:14 PM

Shame to hear this isn't the SF mini-masterpiece I so wanted it to be. I love Garland's SF work.

wikig1itchJanuary 22, 2015 4:34 AM

I wasn't too impressed by the trailer and what I previously read about this film. Unfortunately I was hoping I was wrong about it.

cjohnstonJanuary 25, 2015 2:32 PM

Please correct if I misinterpret you, ... you feel that there is something missing from Automata..?
..what was missing, for you?
I'm ape crazy bananas for the film.
.. For me, - it is By FAR the Best 'Bot film that I've seen.

The ..amount of detail "administered" (and executed) by the director, the script, and the actors in the film was (imo) nothing short of stellar.

BosJanuary 25, 2015 4:12 PM

Let me start by saying that my comment was e bit "generic" and about 2 movies at the same time, but Automata is of course the best between these two, without any doubt.
Far superior objectively.

But I don't know what to say in the detail about what didn't worked for me in Automata, except that it didn't.
Maybe some thoughts:
I felt that the first half of the movie was great, literally, I was involved, but was a bit of a letdown in all the second part.
I liked the BASIC premise of course, about the 2 'unviolated' protocols but then.. there was almost no more plot development.

Ok, robots want to flee the city and live alone, and ok, robots want to try to give birth to something (these are the 2 main goals of the movie). But, they started almost by making you think there was some sort of a "plan" by the robots, in which they need those nuclear batteries at all costs, right? Nope
Do they need them to reach their destination? No, it was not necessary.
Do they need them to create life? Well, they used one for the giant cockroach, but why? Can't they gave birth to something a little bit easier? I mean, the robots themselves are not powered by those kind of batteries.

So what's up with them??

I don't know man. The basic premise was STRONG, but I found the development less and less interesting by every minute.

I can't say nothing bad about the actors, or the overall quality of the 'materal' realization, it was 100% fine for me.
I simply think it lost itself a lot in all the second part, compared to the first half.

Anyway I am rating it well above the sufficiency, around "good" let's say. I enjoyed it

cjohnstonJanuary 25, 2015 6:23 PM

Fair Enough. -- I give you an up-vote not because I necessarily Agree with you on all said points per se;
.I up-vote your input because it's refreshing to converse with someone who has the civility to respond in a way that is professional and isn't riddled (needlessly or not..) with useless, pointless, and insulting profanities and insults.
And (for that matter) - some of your observations here I hadn't thought of, - either.(!)
P.S. -- color me interested here.....
..I've heard about a whole rainbow and a gadgjillion different opinions about this film: What did you think of Snowpiercer.??
(If this becomes tiresome or an irritant in any way - no worries in the least.)

BosJanuary 26, 2015 7:36 AM

Ah, sorry man, Snowpiercer is still on my watchlist.
I got it already, but I have to watch it.
Was it good for you?

cjohnstonJanuary 26, 2015 6:38 PM


it made my day ~ ...and made my next coupla weeks too while it was at it.