Ex Machina

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I don’t look forward to movies based on the cast alone. You learn your lesson about that early on. A perfect example is A Most Violent Year earlier this year. Amazing cast, average movie. The star of that is Oscar Isaac, who blew me away in Inside Llewyn Davis (amazing performance, below average movie).

Isaac is with his Star Wars co-star Domhnall Gleeson, another underrated talent.

Here’s the sign you’re watching a great science fiction flick. You have moments where you think “I saw that in Chappie a few months ago. Oh, this is a little like Blade Runner, but more like Moon or Island of Dr. Moreau. Wait…now I’m thinking Frankenstein. Oh no…this is starting to turn into Her…”

Hell, a lot of this is downright predictable. Especially after you see the trailers, which unfortunately give away so much. The marketing department needed the movie to look action packed and exciting. It’s really a low-key character study, and it’s better because of that.

Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) steps behind the camera to direct an intelligent picture he penned.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a billionaire, eccentric tech tycoon that’s a bit of a recluse. He has an estate that’s got beautiful nature surrounding him on thousands of acres of land (it was filmed at the gorgeous Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway). He picks one lucky employee, Willy Wonka style, to win a one week stay at his pad. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is that lucky guy. When he’s told by the helicopter pilot that he isn’t allowed to land near the location and Caleb would have to hike the rest of the way…you don’t bat an eye. When Nathan is punching a heavy bag as he walks in and starts taking off the gloves…its at that point things start with the intimidation. Yet Nathan is quick to put him at ease. He offers him breakfast, a beer, and a lot of “bro’s” are thrown into his speech. Seems harmless enough, yet he’s soon presenting him with a contract to sign. It’s this scene that let me know I was in for a smart screenplay. The way Caleb looks at it confused and asks about whether or not a lawyer should’ve perused it. It’s these small touches Garland did with the script that make this a brilliant film.

When Nathan drinks, we see a few different sides of his personality. How often in movies do we see drunks that just throw glasses into walls? Or the jovial drunk? Nathan sometimes tells funny stories while buzzed, or spouts quotes from Bhagavad Gita between swigs of vodka. This is such a smart picture, that it wasn’t until I was researching and reading about this movie (it was so good, doing that was a treat)…I discovered the line he quoted was what J. Robert Oppenheimer (the father of the atomic bomb) had said (“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds).

The plot thickens when Ava (actress/model Alicia Vikander of Seventh Son) saunters in. Well, she walks in that slightly robotic way. She’s an android given artificial intelligence. Nathan wants to do the Turing test, to see if a human would be able to tell if this was a machine or not. In one of the few flaws, the amazing special effects make her look amazing. We see the arms and legs with all the wires, yet wouldn’t Nathan have skin over her to make the test more authentic? Who’s complaining. It’s just a treat to see special effects used perfectly. Other movies often rely so much on them, things look fake (I’m looking at you “I, Robot”).

It’s fun listening to these two communicate. There are so many times she’s able to have a conversation seamlessly. Other times, not so much. She asks if he’s married, and he says he isn’t. Her response?

“So your status is single.”

I thought they made her character just a little to cold considering all that’s transpiring, but again…these are mild complaints. When you’re on the edge of your seat, especially in a movie that is largely dialogue driven, you’re experiencing something great.

I’ve read a handful of critics saying they love the fact that you don’t know the motivations of these three characters, but you actually do. Nathan wants the A.I. he’s created to be perfect. Caleb wants to impress his boss, but he also feels bad and has a slight crush on Ava. And Ava just wonders if her butt looks fat with all those wires you can see through the translucid epidermis. Okay, she doesn’t really wonder that, but these are female robots Nathan is creating. Is this a creepy dude with a fetish, or a brilliant scientist that knows these would sell well? Or has he just not gotten around to making an A.I. that’s a businessman talking about which stocks you should invest in.

Critics are going to call Ava a sexy robot, but she’s really not. She’s bald, which makes her reminiscent of Sinead O’Connor. Sure, she exudes some sex appeal and Nathan gave her a nice figure. When she brings out a more charming side of the naïve and shy Caleb, that makes her more attractive. In one scene she asks him if he likes Mozart. He gets a Mona Lisa smile as he replies, “I like Depeche Mode.”

It’s like they’re on a first date getting to know each other, and that’s the exact vibe that you should be getting.

Yet just as you’re thinking she seems so human, she’ll tilt her head to the side the way a confused dog does when you’re speaking to it.

Oscar Isaac is giving yet another nuanced performance in which his eyes are so perfectly expressive. You always think there’s something else going on beneath that mask (shifty eyes with glasses, the beard he gently strokes like a mad genius).

As Nathan, he has an arrogance; a coolness that makes him the perfect passive-aggressive bully. It’s so much more interesting that we can see how Caleb would be so intimidated by him, while also enjoy the fact that he’s hanging out in his “man cave.”

There’s a wonderfully understated score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. It provides an interesting electronic ambience.

Cinematographer Rob Hardy provides some nice location shots. We see the beauty of nature in one scene, and the claustrophobic walls and dark rooms in a following scene.

I absolutely loved the performances of Isaac and Gleeson, but I can picture other actors in these roles, too. The credit for this movie all goes to Alex Garland. Aside from a few missteps (which I can’t talk about without spoiling), he’s given us a movie sci-fi fans will adore. Hell, anybody will. It’s just flat out amazing.

The slow build-up is tremendous. His affection for Ava isn’t rushed. He provides an intelligent script without crazy expository dialogue of such abstract ideas or theories that you’re lost. And he does what a lot of these movies never can. Garland provides just the right amount of comic relief. That could be a dance scene that literally made me and a critic sitting two rows in front of me laugh out loud. It’s both the funniest and most awkward dance scene you’ll ever see on film.

Another humorous scene has a drunk Nathan explaining Ghostbusters in just one line (“Dan Aykroyd got oral sex from a ghost.”).

I would’ve preferred having a bit more empathy for Caleb, and there are a few scenes that don’t hold up when you really analyze them (I saw the movie twice, and I’ve been thinking about it for hours each day for the last two weeks).

People will line up days early to see the latest Star Wars or Harry Potter film. This is the movie people should be lining up for. It’s going to end up on my Top 10 list for the year, and it’ll be on many other lists, too.

Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and Rod Serling are looking down and smiling. I’m here on Earth smiling, and I’m going to be smiling again when I see this a third time opening weekend.

4 ½ stars out of 5.

* More thoughts on the movie, after seeing it a third time. It’s interesting how the characters all have some good sides and bad sides. There’s no character you can specifically say is a bad guy.

As much as I loved the score, early on they played this track that sounded a bit similar to the music in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Not sure if they did that on purpose or not.

There’s a scene where we see video of one of the characters and what he/she was doing weeks earlier (I worded that without any spoilers). I wish those videos would’ve been more clear. In one of them, you can clearly tell what is going on. In the other ones, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was watching.

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