Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to travel to the isolated house of the CEO of the company he works for. When he arrives, he is greeted by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who informs him he wants a friendship, rather than an "employer-employee" situation. Nathan soon reveals that he has been constructing an AI in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), and that Caleb is there to test her in order to discover whether she is simply a computer, or whether she has her own consciousness.

Ex Machina is a film of big ideas. It also serves as the long awaited directorial debut of established screenwriter Alex Garland. As he also wrote this film, it could be said that this is his first feature film, and unfortunately this shows. Writing a film without directing it requires the ability to develop plot and characters without worrying too much about how the film will look. However, take on board the act of directing, and things become complicated; perhaps a little too complicated for Garland. Ex Machina is far from a bad film, in fact it's actually quite a good one, but it just doesn't feel completed to the point where it's tough not to wish that this didn't serve as Garland's debut. This is a project of concept and a film of ideas, so much so that it seems Garland forgot to give it a plot.

Ex Machina is thought provoking, and it is undeniably interesting. It soars immediately into its ideas without a moments hesitation, but tries so hard to make us think that the simple act of storytelling seems to have been left behind. Garland initially opts for an accelerated pace; we're at Nathan's house within five minutes of the film's opening, which is a respectable decision. But then everything begins to slow once we are introduced to Ava. Whilst her introduction and the repeated "Ava Sessions" are initially a wonder to behold, they soon become tedious and monotonous. We simply don't learn enough each time to be excited for the next. Whilst Garland has constructed some nice ideas, he is in such a rush to tell them to us that his pacing is a catastrophe throughout.

This probably isn't helped by Ex Machina's bloated runtime. Lasting a little under 110 minutes with such scattershot pacing, the film's three act structure is almost indistinguishable. Act one could be seen to have ended five minutes into the film, leaving the final act around 80 minutes away. This wouldn't be so bad if we actually learnt new information about our characters throughout this elongated period, but Garland spends so long throwing Ava at our faces that he forgets about the human characters. This could have been intentional (Ava ultimately has more personality than either of the other two leads), but the narrative suffers for it. Thankfully, when the final act comes, it is nothing short of fantastic. The slow burn approach slingshots into a loud, action packed crescendo with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan festival. It's actually quite exhausting.

This final act works on so many levels due to the numerous ideas and concepts that Garland has laced throughout. By the time the action ramps up and the plot (finally) begins to build, Ex Machina doubles its interest level. With character twists coming at every turn, it's impossible to know where our support lies. Characters we initially rooted for, we now dislike. For a film that lacks any real (human) character work in its first two acts, it does a hell of a lot to try and apologise for this come the final half hour. But Ex Machina also succeeds due to its basic concept, which is undeniably compelling, and its laudable visual effects, which remain stunning throughout. It's also refreshing to be treated to a Sci-Fi feature so wonderfully adult. If you're looking for a fun, light hearted dose of science fiction, Ex Machina is not the film for you.

Whilst it does fall flat on a few too many cinema necessities to be labelled a genre classic, Ex Machina is so loaded with interesting ideas and themes that it only just falls short of "must see" status. When Nathan asks Caleb whether he feels Ava has consciousness, he may as well look into the camera mockumentary style. We are as much the subject of the Ava Sessions as Caleb, and this is partially what makes this film so invigorating. Even though it might not work on a cinematic level, Garland's debut is a violent, superbly acted feature, and so thought provoking that you won't forget it for a long, long time. It's wonderfully original and filled to the brim with interesting concepts, but Ex Machina is a little too big for its own good, and the story suffers. Call me ignorant, but I'd take that over an unoriginal, plot heavy drama any day.

To Summarise: It struggles to find a coherent narrative under the weight of its brilliantly unique concept, but Ex Machina just about remains a thought provoking, effectively produced burst of grown up Sci-Fi.

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