I’d heard quite a bit of praise about this film before I got a chance to see it. So my review is, of course, colored by this. Sometimes I hear a film is great, and I see it, and I think, “Hey, that was great!” Or I see it and this, “Huh? What’s great about that?”
My view of Ex Machina lies somewhere in between. The performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Alica Vikander and Oscar Isaac are fantastic. No question. And the film looks great, with exceptional cinematography and special effects that are both eye-popping and subtle. That’s a fine line to walk. Every scene of this film is filled with both wonder and dread. Also, a remarkable achievement.
Sadly, the marketing and the reviews led me to believe that there was a huge “twist”, and there really wasn’t. There is a big third-act reveal. It doesn’t rise to the level of a Sixth Sense style twist. And, not to be too spoilery, the fate of Gleeson’s character was not satisfying at all. That was where writer/director Alex Garland put on his indie-filmaker hat and said, “What’s the least Hollywood way to end this movie?” Here’s a note to all indie-filmakers: The opposite of Hollywood is not necessarily good.
Now, on to the spoilers…
One of the brilliant things about the film is that it seems, at almost every turn, to want to make you not trust Nathan (Isaac). He lies to Caleb (Gleeson) about how and why he’s been brought to the lab. But, in his defense, it wouldn’t have worked any other way. Ava (Vikander) showed the ability to detect lies. The only way to test her creativity and ingenuity was to bring in someone unawares. It makes perfect sense, and isn’t really evil, just sort of dickish.
But they also very carefully had Isaac avoid any real technical speak, even to the point of him steering Caleb away from those topics. So that plants the seed that he’s maybe a total fraud. (He’s not, of course, but it’s a great red herring that had me going throughout the film.)
And the big point is that he treats the prototype robots as prisoners, which they find objectionable. But if you’re going to create this kind of automaton, that’s kind the way you’d have to do it, right? It may look horrifying, but is an open-heart surgery any less horrifying?
Nathan makes two mistakes. He tries to build a sentient robot. And he believes he’s smarter than Caleb. One is born of desire for the unknown (and probably a sincere desire to make living sex-bots), and the other is sheer hubris. Nathan is less a bad guy and more a tragic figure that we don’t like very much. That’s a pretty great character construction.
Of course, this highlights my ongoing annoyance with sci-fi films that dip their toes into AI. Why does every AI have to have a human-style robot attached to it? Skynet built Terminators. I, Robot had Sonny. J.A.R.V.I.S. eventually became The Vision. The kid in A.I. Data in TNG. Does no one remember how eerie HAL-9000 was in 2001? You don’t need a head and four limbs for artificial intelligence. The idea that both human-style robotics and AI would be perfected simultaneously and by the same creator is laughable, but we keep seeing the stories that same way, over and over. Enough.
And that ending. I just can’t handle buried-alive endings. They just leave a nasty taste in my mouth. It’s horror-overkill, particularly in a film that’s really a sci-fi thriller.