Ex Machina (2015)
I read enough good reviews of this film last year to want to get a copy. It was provided as a gift for my birthday in March, and has sat on the shelf still wrapped since then. Last night seemed a suitable time to watch it, as I had an evening on my own. I will try to avoid direct spoilers where possible, by leaving out some of the characters, and not revealing the ending..
Is this a science fiction film, or a thriller? It is about artificial intelligence, the creation of convincingly lifelike robots, and what happens when you have so much money and power, that you can do almost anything. For me, it is not science fiction though. It is much more of a slightly twisty psychological thriller that just happens to feature robots in the cast. It is not ‘I Robot’, ‘A.I.’, ‘Blade Runner’, or anything similar.
Caleb Smith works for a huge corporation, a thinly disguised version of Google on steroids. He is chosen at random to win a visit to the home of the reclusive owner of the company, Nathan Bateman. Flown by helicopter to Bateman’s remote estate, he enters the subterranean home where he meets the man who is his boss, and also the inventor of the famous ‘Blue Book’ software company. Nathan is outwardly affable, and tells Caleb that he has been brought there to assess whether Bateman’s creation, Ava, can actually interact with humans, and to decide if she possesses true artificial intelligence. The underground house is a hi-tech construction, and Caleb is given a pass that allows him into some rooms, but not others.
The film unfolds as a series of chapters. Caleb interviews Ava, followed by a debrief with Nathan. It soon becomes obvious that Bateman is not as nice as he first thought, and that he may well have a very different agenda to the one stated. Arguments ensue, and Caleb becomes disillusioned with his mentor, and more and more attracted to Ava, who seems to reciprocate his feelings. Her human face is contrasted by robotic arms, legs, and body. Seeking to attract Caleb more, Ava covers herself in clothes and material, adding a wig to complete her transformation. Bateman watches all the interaction from a bank of CCTV screens, and questions Caleb later about what he thinks of Ava’s development.
The complex is plagued by power cuts, which Caleb discovers are caused by Ava, so that she can talk to him unseen and unheard by Bateman. She confesses her fears that she will be switched off when a new model is developed, and cautions Caleb against trusting his employer, who she claims is a liar. She expresses a desire to leave the place, and to be with Caleb in a normal situation outside. As Caleb becomes more and more obsessed with the humanoid, he argues frequently with his boss, who drinks heavily most evenings, and collapses drunk as well. One such night, Caleb steals the pass key from the sleeping Nathan, and explores the forbidden areas of the complex, making some startling discoveries.
So, is it any good?
Much of the action takes place in a dimly-lit underground house, with the occasional diversion to the rugged outdoors. The small cast, and concentration on just three rooms, adds a claustrophobic feel that works well helping to build up tension. The special effects of the robotics are beautifully done, with the scenery visible through the parts of Ava, in a seamless and impressive way. Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb brings that ingenuous awkwardness essential for the character, but although Alicia Vikander is good to look at, she fails to impress as what is essentially a machine, no matter how well crafted. Instead, she acts like an attractive young girl, overriding the benefits of the excellent CGI.
The film brings nothing new to the genre. The old plots and styles are all evident, and the outcome offers no surprises to anyone who has seen many similar films.
For me, the film is all about Oscar Isaac, as the horrible Nathan Bateman. Smug, self-centred, twisted and loathsome. Think the dark side of Steve Jobs, a man with too much money and power who has lost touch with humanity, so plays with robotic characters instead. Isaac gives an amazingly good performance, and makes the film worth watching. When he is in a scene, you watch only him, and with such a small cast, he is in many. I had to think where I had seen him, as I didn’t get to see any of his recently acclaimed roles. Prince John in Ridley Scott’s ‘Robin Hood’. Really? A small part in ‘Che’ that I don’t remember, as I also don’t remember him in ‘Drive’, or ‘The Bourne Legacy’.
I won’t forget him now, I can tell you. He makes this film worth watching again.