Movie Review: ‘Ex Machina’

ex machina 2Plot:  Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnal Gleeson) works for Bluebook, the most used search engine in the entire world.  When he’s chosen by reclusive Bluebook founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to spend a week at his secluded estate in the mountains, Caleb is intrigued.  Soon he discovers that Nathan is working on something even more important than a search engine–artificial intelligence.  Moreover, Nathan wants Caleb to help prove that A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is the real deal.  But are Nathan’s intentions truly altruistic or do secret, darker motives drive him?

Review:  Somewhere inside Ex Machina is a fantastic movie waiting to be unleashedIt’s just too bad director Alex Garland and company weren’t able to realize Ex Machina‘s full potential.  Uneven pacing, sub par acting (especially by Gleeson), and a plot-line so slow to develop that it challenges R2D2 traversing an oil slick covered glacier for deliberateness, Ex Machina proves a science fiction misfire from the word go.

The biggest issue I had with Ex Machina was its main character Caleb.  I felt little to no connection with him as a character.  Even when Nathan begins manipulating Caleb and  playing mind games, it was impossible for me to conjure up any kind of empathy.  This is due in no small part to the mediocre acting of Gleeson.  Aside from his small role in Dredd, Gleeson has failed to impress me in anything he’s been in.  His Caleb comes across as whiny and needy and although some of his discussions on what constitutes consciousness with Nathan are fascinating, it’s not enough to lift the performance above anything but average.  I have to say I’m a little concerned about his part in this December’s The Force Awakens, as rumor has it he’s to be Luke Skywalker’s son.  If that’s the case he better step up his game.

Isaac fares slightly better as the reclusive and eccentric Nathan.  A drunk with an extreme God complex, Isaac fits this role perfectly.  His manipulation of Caleb is masterful.  Isaac’s best moments come when he plays Ava and Caleb against each other.  At one point the head games get so bad that Caleb slices into his own arm thinking he may actually be an android.  It’s truly Machiavellian.  The problem is that there isn’t a lot of depth to Nathan.  We never know what drives him, his background, if his intentions are truly altruistic, or if he just wants to be remembered as the next Einstein.

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Of the three main characters, Vikander gives the best performance.  She brings a childlike yet somehow vaguely seductive quality to Ava.  In many ways she is just as mysterious as Nathan.  Does she truly feel attraction for Caleb or is it a desperate plot to ensure her escape from Nathan’s compound?  Until the penultimate moment I never really knew, and to Ex Machina‘s credit that was well done.

Director Alex Garland’s weak directorial debut might have been ameliorated had Ex Machina contained a captivating script.  Unfortunately, the script is just as plodding as the film itself and while the themes and dialogue about consciousness are fascinating, they belong in a documentary or a book, not a hard science fiction film.  For a guy who wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, I expected way more.

There are some strong visual components to Ex Machina however.  Ava’s robotic body structure and brain are seamless and beautiful.  Also Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barlow’s eerie and discordant score generates a consistent sense of foreboding.  This dovetails nicely into Rob Hardy’s cinematography.  The juxtaposition of the grandiose mountains and valleys against the austere environment of Nathan’s complex makes for a nice touch.

Unfortunately, a novel idea and great aesthetics don’t always make for a good movie.  You have to have substance, chemistry, and cohesiveness, components that Ex Machina severely lacks.  Although Ex Machina aspires to the heights of the robot from The Iron Giant, it never rises above K-9 from “Doctor Who.”

My rating:  5/10

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