Note: this review will contain some spoilers.
I went to see EX MACHINA on a whim. I was at the theater with no real plans for what I wanted to see, and in the lobby was a card for a film that, as far as I could tell, featured an android with a pretty face. Around the body of Alicia Vikander were a number of quotes from reviews praising the film while almost warning against its content. Needless to say I was hooked, intrigued, and ultimately blown away.
EX MACHINA is simply my favorite movie from 2015 and easily the best film to tackle the question of what does it mean to be sentient and alive since BLADE RUNNER (1982).
When you boil it down, EX MACHINA could almost work as a play. There are really only four characters in the story, and then only three have lines of dialogue (Sonoya Muzuno manages to be hauntingly memorable without uttering a single word). The other three, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, all put in fantastic performances. Ironically, both Gleeson and Isaac would be immediately well known for their roles in STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and for playing polar opposites to their characters in this film.
Isaac in particular is chilling in the role of Nathan, his good-humored Poe Dameron replaced by a buzz cut, an unkempt beard, and an edge that suggests he could snap at any second. Gleeson, in turn, plays a somewhat awkward but well-meaning programmer named Caleb brought in to test Nathan’s newest creation.
And what a creation it is. Alicia Vikander is absolutely stunning in the role of Ava, Nathan’s almost-human AI. Vikander likely drew on her experience of a dancer to give Ava a quality that is just slightly unnatural that, when aided by the superb sound work that underlies her movements, feels just artificial enough without being a Stereotypical Android. I should also mention that the visual effects for Ava are some of the best I have ever seen, replacing parts of her body with transparent shells around her internal workings and easily deserving of their Academy Award win.
Nathan has brought Caleb in to perform a Turing test on Ava—essentially to determine whether the AI has consciousness. This test takes the form of multiple interviews between Caleb and Ava, each marked by title cards (“Ava: Session 1”; “Ava: Session 2”; etc.). These sessions take place across a glass wall, almost reminiscent of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The conversations begin innocently but Caleb soon begins to be drawn in by Ava, questioning whether her flirtatious attitude towards him is real or simply part of her programming by Nathan. Ava also begins to suggest that not everything is what it seems, warning Caleb to not trust Nathan. Eventually, Caleb begins to question everything he knows about the reality of consciousness, the motives of his employer, and in the film’s easily most squirm-inducing scene, whether or not HE is a real human.
The film’s climax is a rare one in that there is a twist that actually makes complete sense in the context of the story. It’s not simply to pull the rug out from the audience nor does it come out of left field. In that way, it’s predictable but only in a way that makes the viewer say “of COURSE that’s how the film would end.” Driving this point home is the final title card, “Ava: Session 7,” which reveals exactly who has been interviewing whom the entire time.
In a time when films, particularly in science fiction, have become increasingly loud and have prioritized spectacle over plot, EX MACHINA feels like a breath of fresh air. As a film it is small, character driven, yet intense and far more intelligent than most movies. The last time I felt this way about a science fiction is probably when I went to see MOON (2009), which similarly focused on strong performances and big ideas over effects (yet used what effects it had to its advantage). I had already been a fan of Garland’s work as a writer, and with EX MACHINA, his name is definitely on my list of directors to watch.
I honestly had never heard of Geoff Barrow or Ben Salisbury before seeing EX MACHINA, and the score that they co-wrote is very much like the film itself: ethereal, unique, and one that deftly alternates from being lyrical to downright disturbing. Much of the score exists almost subliminally, where you don’t so much hear the music but rather feel it. The opening of the film is a perfect example of this, where the music exists almost as a hum of machinery with the occasional rhythmic motif bubbling up to the surface.
Excerpt from “The Turing Test”
Of course, the score is not entirely without thematic material. The theme that is introduced for Ava is certainly the most lyrical and first makes its appearance during her first interview with Caleb. Played by what sounds like a mallet percussion instrument (perhaps the vibraphone), the simple progression of tones calls to mind John Williams’ famous five notes from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). Whether this was intentional or not on the part of the composers, it works in the film to highlight both Ava’s innocence and otherworldly qualities.
Barrow and Salisbury’s score is mostly electronic, and that serves the film well when it is called upon to dial up the tension. There are two moments in particular where the soundtrack moves from simply unsettling music and becomes almost sheer noise. The first cue, “Hacking/Cutting” first plays over a scene where Caleb begins to uncover exactly what Nathan has been up to. As unsettling as this is, the second portion of the cue scores easily the most uncomfortable scene in the film, where Caleb begins to question his own humanity and tests this by cutting into his arm with a razor blade. I should say that both excerpts below work exceedingly well in the film, but are quite uncomfortable as stand-alone listens.
Excerpt 1 from “Hacking/Cutting”
Excerpt 2 from “Hacking/Cutting” (note, this cue gets quite loud at times, so adjust your volume accordingly)
The cue that best represents the dichotomy of the music is “Skin”, which plays over the “Ava: Session 7” scene as Ava gets her freedom while ignoring (aside from a brief glance), the plight of Caleb. Beginning with the Ava theme as she begins to complete her body from the unused bodies stored in Nathan’s closet, the cue slowly twists towards something more horrific, as Caleb realizes that he’s not Ava’s rescuer after all.
As I said at the outset, I said that this was my favorite movie from 2015. Of course, that year also included films like STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and the Oscar-winner from that year, SPOTLIGHT. All three of those movies are amazing, and SPOTLIGHT certainly deserved the Best Picture honors. But I still come down on the side of EX MACHINA because it’s my favorite kind of science fiction: thought provoking and something that seems like it could really happen.
The music works brilliantly in the film, but it’s a rather challenging listen on its own. There are moments that are truly beautiful, but others that are downright unlistenable. Of course, the music is meant to be heard in the context of the film, so Barrow and Salisbury are to be commended for their fine work.
I recommend EX MACHINA wholeheartedly to anyone who isn’t afraid to be asked to think a little about what their watching or who enjoys science fiction that errs more on the science side of the spectrum.