Ex Machina (2015)

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*. I need someone to explain Alex Garland to me. Is there anything there? Ex Machina was his directing debut, and since he wrote the screenplay as well I think it’s fair to call him the author of the film. But while it’s a movie that got a lot of critical praise I wasn’t sure if it showed any clear advance. Could it be, as I suggested in my notes on Under the Skin (a more interesting film), that critics were just so hungry for anything that felt a little different from the usual comic-book and CGI fare that they felt they had to embrace a film that at least had the appearance of artistic or intellectual aspirations?
*. Garland first came to attention with his novel The Beach. It was a novel written to be made into a movie and was. I thought it was an astute, commercial work and a terrible film.
*. Garland was also a member of a blip of a British writing movement that called itself the New Puritans. They had a manifesto basically calling for literary fiction to be more, well, commercial (meaning simple, contemporary, driven by narrative, shunning poetry, etc.).
*. His work often takes an interest in science and philosophy, but never digs very deep. Wherever his head is at, his heart is in pop culture. The resulting work is mostly trash with a very thin art-house veneer. 28 Days Later did the most to make his reputation, though it was an absolutely dreadful, ramshackle script without a whiff of originality to it. Dredd adapted a comic book, poorly. Never Let Me Go was an overblown literary adaptation of an Ishiguro novel that seemed kind of unnecessary (not to mention far-fetched) to me. Remains of the Day except with clones.
*. Which brings us to Ex Machina.
*. But just before I get started: the title. I’m assuming it comes from the Latin tag “deus ex machina,” which has come to refer to a strained plot device, having originated in a bit of classical dramaturgy. What does it mean here? I don’t think very much. Is Ava our new god? The words don’t appear to have any thematic relevance unless you really twist it around. I think it’s just meant to sound heavy. But back to our feature entertainment . . .
*.Nathan, the smartest and richest man in the world lives as a recluse alone on an estate out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere, getting drunk and having sex with the twenty-first century equivalent of inflatable sex dolls. His life’s work supposedly has to do with creating a perfect Artificial Intelligence, so he brings in a young coder (Caleb) to administer a Turing test to his latest model, Ava.

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*. I never understood why Nathan was interested in A.I. All he really seems to be doing is trying to create a perfect sexbot. His androids are all babes, with their pubic hair either removed or shaved into porny landing strips. above what are, he tells us, perfectly functional vaginas. In addition, being sexy seems to be part of their programming. Note how Ava (who has apparently been designed after Caleb’s own porn preferences), when finally freed, spends so much time preening in front of the mirror, then picking out a dress and choosing to don what look to be at least four-inch heels for her walk through the forest to the helicopter. That’s somebody’s idea of perfection, I guess.
*. As an aside on the robots, how does Nathan “kill” Kyoko with a single blow to the jaw, which appears to only knock some of her fake skin off?
*. Perhaps Nathan is just the sort of hybrid that Garland enjoys. He seems eager to get involved in a bromance with Caleb, whom he calls “dude” a lot. He drinks heavily and then works it off by pumping iron the next day. He likes to lounge around his dorm barefoot. However, he’s also an intellectual and a creative type. Klimt and Pollock (surely originals) hang from the walls. He named his company after Wittgenstein’s Blue Book. He can talk about philosophy.
*. Nathan is, I think, meant to be seen as a total asshole. You can tell that much right away when he gets himself a drink when Caleb arrives but doesn’t offer his guest one. The point being that screenheads like Nathan and poor, awkward Caleb have no social skills and would probably fail a Turing test themselves, if anybody gave them one. In the event, they are given one, and both fail.
*. Something more might have been made of this — the future as constructed out of an adolescent male’s fantasy — but Garland settles on telling a far more conventional story.

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*. How conventional? Well, you see there’s this brilliant but somewhat mad scientist. And he creates a form of artificial life that turns on him and destroys him. Cue the references to playing God, Oppenheimer, and Prometheus. See Frankenstein. See Metropolis.
*. And that’s all there is. What is new here? What new wrinkle is given to this old story?
*. David Thomson once said something I’ve never entirely forgiven him for about one of my favourite movies, Tarkovsky’s Solaris: “I do not mean to be snide when I say that an episode of Star Trek explored this theme with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length.”
*. I can see where this is coming from, but I think it misses the point with regard to Solaris. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking of what Thomson said while watching Ex Machina. Indeed, I would go even further and say that this movie might have done its job in under half an hour. Instead it runs for an hour and forty-eight minutes.
*. What is there to this story that requires this length of exposition? It certainly doesn’t go toward character development. Even with only three characters, do we ever feel we know who Nathan is? Or Ava? (I’m writing Caleb off as an intelligent simpleton.) There is no story beside the basics. Even the “twist” at the end isn’t a twist but is exactly the development one would expect. There are no slow-burn suspense sequences but just a theatrical albeit minimalist presentation of a bare-bones script where a visible effort has to be made just to get the players into different rooms and locations. Really they might have stayed on a single set throughout, but Garland probably figured, correctly, that this would bore the audience to tears as the talk alone isn’t that interesting.
*. As far as Garland’s directing goes, I find it formal and dull though I suspect this was mainly by design. It fits the formal and dull layout of Nathan’s house. I don’t think this is meant to suggest that Nathan is less human than his creation, even though Ava has better taste, at least when it comes to clothes. The point, as I see it, is that he’s inferior to Ava. Humankind is something to be surpassed. If only we’d stuck to things we do well. Like porn.

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