Every spring brings us at least one film worth our attention. Usually, this is a film that’s a little too complicated to fit in well with the typical summer blockbusters, or it’s a little too off-kilter to harmonize with the prestige pictures released in the fall leading up to “awards season.” The Spring is the time when studios release films they really aren’t sure what to do with, or so it seems.
This year’s too-complicated, off-kilter stand-out is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a sci-fi chamber piece about a man, Nathan, his self-aware fem-bot, Ava, and the rube tasked with determining the scope of Nathan’s achievement, Caleb. Ex Machina is a series of conversations, mostly, about human relationships, what motivates them, and how we can tell when they’re genuine or not. The film is also about the ethics of scientific achievement, the lengths we are willing to go (or that we are willing to let others go) to advance us technologically, and the real worth of that advancement. Kent Webber does a particularly good job interacting with that last set of concerns in his original review of Ex Machina for our website, which we posted a couple of weeks ago. His review prompted me to see the film.
If my synopsis of the film makes it sound like a staid work of science fiction-influenced, philosophical cinema—“At the Movies with Lucas and Bergman”—I’ve done Ex Machina a disservice. The film is also drenched in dread. It’s an unnerving film, both because of the obvious mind games Nathan and Caleb are playing with each other and because of the detached yet calculating way Alician Vikander portrays Ava. As Josh Larsen explicates in his article about the film for Think Christian, Ava may be self-aware, but the crux of the narrative eventually hinges on whether or not she is aware of anyone else. Empathy becomes the distinguishing mark of the human. Neither Webber nor Larsen spoil the film, and I won’t either. Ex Machina’s climax is too evocative to dare ruin. (Josh Larsen’s review on his own website, Larsen on Film, is also great.)
While Ex Machina’s third act is harrowing, it’s also the point that the film where I began to feel… hoodwinked. For the first two-third of the film, we’re given this tense and engaging exploration of what it means to interact with other people, the things that complicate those interactions, things like gender and power and sexuality and personal histories and expectations and race and wealth, and the inherent difficulty in knowing someone who will also be ultimately unknowable. That’s compelling stuff that is both influenced by and yet transcends everything that divides us from one another. The first two-thirds of Ex Machina is about human relationships.
Then, the third act kicks in, and the plot overtakes the theme and supersedes it. The final movement, while terrifying, simplifies the film instead of enriching it further. What happens, how it happens, and the images included make the film about the interactions between men and women only instead of about all humankind. It’s as if the filmmakers felt obligated to give the audience this kind of conclusion instead of leaving us in a much more complicated place. I think Ex Machina is a better film than either District 9 or Elysium, but I feel similarly about Ex Machina as I do about the structure of those films. I also felt the same way about Sunshine, which Garland wrote. I’ve long pinned my disappointment in the end of that film on Danny Boyle, but perhaps I ought to disperse the blame.
I think Ex Machina is a great film. It’s probably the best film I’ve seen this year. If, as Larsen suggests, the final act of the film hinges on an opportunity to empathize—and I don’t think Larsen is suggesting that was writer/director Garland’s intention—then perhaps Ex Machina answers its questions about human relationships that I find so compelling. (For what it’s worth, Garland has been cagey in interviews, preferring to propose more questions rather than answers about the film’s “meaning.”) Still, the images in the finale are striking, and they don’t have anything to do with relationships or empathy; they have everything to do with self-determination and gender (dis)empowerment. What a confounding film. I think I need to see it again. If you haven’t seen Ex Machina, see it, and let me know what you think.
You might also find these reviews of Ex Machina helpful: