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Sci-Fi Film Review 2015: "Ex Machina" (Written & Directed by Alex Garland, Starring Oscar Isaac & Domhnall Gleeson)
Alex Garland Masterfully Weaves Mood, Tone And The Power Of Simplicity To Produce A Sci-Fi Film Of Rare Depth With Thought Provoking Insights
Standing in sharp contrast to each other, both my earlier sci-fi review of this year's critically divided "Chappie" and this masterful and more carefully and intricately layered "Ex Machina" both attempt to address the age-old conundrum of advancing technology and the repercussions along with the societal and religious implications of that advancement. "Chappie" started promisingly enough by setting its action in war-torn South Africa and had some well-executed set pieces and clear character motivations. However, it winds up biting off more than it can chew and gets caught up in the razzle dazzle flash of it all as director Neil Blomkamp took the weight off of his actors intentionally in order to serve as a playground for his knack for special effects.
Such is thankfully not the case with Alex Garland's directorial debut. The man who mined the scripts for two terrific gems of the last decade - "28 Days Later" and Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" - uses the expertise he soaked up working with those established directors' to carve out a film that will undoubtedly be considered a classic years from now. These days, it is hard to really ascertain what films from our era will hold up given the crowded and awfully entrenched landscape of reboots, adaptations, prequels, sequels and spin-offs that makes original ideas and executions like this one about as rare as stumbling upon a four-leaf clover. Garland is a filmmaker who truly values his audience's mind and attention span and as such he takes an incredibly simple storytelling and setting approach by placing the action all within the claustrophobic confines of several dimly lit rooms in a sparse but technologically equipped research facility/home. In all honesty, based on the production design, the film could have taken place in anyone's house or locale and it isn't made immediately clear where we are until Oscar Isaac's billionaire inventor/programmer Nathan says that it is his place/research lab. From there, the twists and turns and shocking thrills allow us to plumb the depths of this set-up and all of the existential and philosophical questions a premise like this potentially answers, approves, disapproves or corroborates.
The acting is uniformly good and the trio of actors - Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Ava the android herself Alicia Vikander complement each other wonderfully. You don't get the sense that anyone is trying to chew scenery or overpower the other and that approach creates an insulated dynamic and a unique sense of discomfort that although these characters claim to only have just met each other, you get the impression in these capable hands that they've already been through the wringer with one another before. The interplay between Gleeson's young and sprightly programmer Caleb who apparently was selected at random to participate in Nathan's Turing test experiment on Ava, conveys distrust and nervous suspicion the moment we meet him. Initially, he's smarter than he leads on because he wants to assess the breath of Nathan's grand scheme. Once he does, or at least he thinks he does, the film barrels ahead as a coolly acidic cat and mouse game of hidden motivations, several Macguffins and plenty of weighty drama and crises that seem especially real in the current age we live in. Also of note - the movie doesn't depict a far-flung future that feels over-stylized and out of reach.
Not only are the story mechanics bold and the compressed and narrow angles that the picture is shot most frequently at really make the overall mis en scene effectively creepy, but this is a great case in which the dialogue and the acting really mesh impeccably well and these characters don't feel like characters at all but rather real flesh and blood people. "Chappie" and to a lesser extent the Tom Cruise-led "Edge of Tomorrow" which did a significantly better job at balancing humor, action, spot-on performances from Cruise and co-star Emily Blunt, had characters who weren't completely believable as though they existed outside of our universe. This flick, from its first moments, looks to make a prominent statement and does so in a more intellectual way using straight dialogue and character development and really no action-oriented scenes. The whole sentient artificial intelligence gone wrong plot device has been used for the better part in mainstream media for the past several decades and is certainly one of the fixtures and themes of transhumanism and futurist literature. Now more than ever we are seeing these speculations come to disturbing life and influencing our choices and lifestyle habits. It is only a matter of time before embedding technology in our bodies becomes the norm and the line between human and machine is all but blurred. Technology, no doubt, can be beneficial to a point such as adapting to beat a disease, replace organs, make digital information even more accessible or just make life simpler with a flick of a wrist to make a payment at a store or to store an endless amount of passwords so you'll never run the risk of forgetting anything ever again. But, as "Ex Machina" makes a foreboding case against the towering presence of technology in our lives, is it something we ought to learn to live without before it consumes us completely?
I really must give props to writer-director Garland for steering this movie to no real logical conclusion especially in a predictable way. Without spoiling anything, its ending is open-ended and rather dreary but it is at the same time relieving that justice was, in some way, served depending on audience perspective. I for one intend on viewing this again and look forward to Garland's future output as he helms more thought-provoking features. And hey, if he is given a bigger budget but doesn't compromise and fold by giving in to studio pressure (*cough cough Joss Whedon*) than he could stand to expand on the mastery of this film and intrigue and captivate audiences for years to come.