Plot: What’s it about?
A few months ago I was on some site. I have no idea what it was, but remember clicking on a trailer for the film Ex Machina. I was immediately interested and wanted to make sure that I had my request in for the forthcoming Blu-ray. Well that wait is now over and I was excited to see this film that had captivated me since the trailer (and trailers rarely do that). Before I delve into the plot, I’ll say that this movie has people talking. Good movies tend to do that. Much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this movie seems so ahead of its time that I’m sure it’ll be analyzed and studied for years to come. The cast is small, starring a young and promising actor in Domhnall Gleeson (son of actor Brenden Gleeson), the amazing Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander. Written and directed by Alex Garland who had worked with Danny Boyle on The Beach (another personal favorite of mine), 28 Days Later and Sunshine which this movie closely resembles in style and tone. Having no direct antecedents, the movie was written directly for the screen by Garland. I’ve teased you all enough – let’s get down to it.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for BlueBook, a Google’ish company that owns and does pretty much everything. He’s just won a contest and is summarily flown to some remote place for the span of a week. Once there he meets the reclusive, charismatic man behind BlueBook, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s a hard one to figure out, though it’s surmised that he’s an alcoholic, yet one of the most brilliant minds on the planet. Caleb’s job is simple: he’s to evaluate Nathan’s artificial intelligence creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and see if she passes the “Turin Test.” This test is based off Alan Turin (see The Imitation Game for more on him) and the concept is simple: if you’re interacting with an artificial intelligence and you don’t realize it – the test has been passed. Set in a series of seven vignettes (one for each day) we monitor the progress and interaction much as Nathan does with his all-seeing and hearing state-of-the-art house. Caleb begins to sense a more nefarious side to Nathan and together with Ava’s help, might be able to have things go his way. But is Caleb one step ahead or behind Nathan?
There are certain plot points which I really don’t even want to allude to when describing the movie. Other reviews out there aren’t so kind and it’s very easy to spoil yourself if you go reading them. Do that at your own risk. What I will say is that this is a movie that stuck with me. It had me thinking after the closing credits rolled and that’s the sign of a good film (to me, at least). It’s an open ended finale, one that lets the viewer decide what might happen just like All is Lost or Limbo, both of those films did it right as well. Certainly there are shades of Spike Jonez’s Her to be found and even a bit of Under the Skin – both great films in their own right. There are some serious moral issues in the film and ones that will most likely be addressed in our lifetime. We’re very naive to think that artificial intelligence isn’t happening in one form or the other. The main cast is amazing in their respective parts and it’s a study in action and reaction. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this film won’t be for everyone, but I found it captivating and it’s easily one of my favorite films, if not my favorite film, of the year.
Video: How’s it look?
There is a very sterile quality that’s associated with most, if not all, movies about artificial intelligence. I could be mistaken, but the ones that I’ve seen seem to possess some of the same visual qualities. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Having said that, the 2.40:1 AVC HD image is perfect. The outdoor scenes (and for the life of me I have no idea where this was supposed to take place – somewhere remote) ooze high definition. The running water, the moss on the rocks and the density of the forest all look amazing. The interior shots, more sterile and serene, look similarly amazing. The interior of the “house” consists of concrete walls, wooden walls and glass (frosted and normal). It’s a very interesting and unique look that’s perfect for the film. There’s just the right mix of science and science fiction in the visual look of the film. Suffice it to say that I was thoroughly impressed.
Audio: How’s it sound?
I don’t know why, but for some reason I was navigating around the menus and selected the “Set Up” option (something I rarely, if ever, do). I noticed a little icon that said “DTS X” and thought to myself “Ok, I’ve never heard of this. What the hell!” As it turns out, this is the first title to feature the DTS X sound mix which is, obviously, a competitor to Dolby’s Atmos. I’m not set up for Dolby Atmos and, as of this writing, I don’t even know if there’s a receiver out there that decodes a DTS X mix – I’m sure there is – somewhere. Having said that I chose the DTS HD Master Audio mix and there’s very little wrong with it. Vocals are sharp and crisp as the majority of the film is dialogue-driven. There’s a dance scene that really seems to get some use out of the speakers (yes, I said a dance scene) and a few instances in which a static fuzz really takes charge. The film seems to flow with an organic sound setup, much like Trent Reznor’s Oscar winning score from The Social Network. I’m sure very few out there will be able to decode the DTS X mix for quite some time, but for the record – it’s there.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina – Running at 40 minutes, this isn’t your standard EPK. The principal members of the cast and crew are profiled along with essentially everything we’d need to know about the film from the shooting locations, the writing and casting to some of the elements contained within. Some of the vignettes below are a bit redundant after watching this, but it’s nice to see one of these that doesn’t feel so cookie cutter.
- SXSW Q&A with Cast and Crew – The most robust supplement, running at an hour, is a Q & A session with various members of the cast and crew. Writer/Director Alex Garland takes the lion’s share of the questions and answers, but Director of Photography Rob Hardy, actor Oscar Isaac and Composer Ben Salisbury round out a very nice and interesting session.
- Behind the Scenes Vignettes – As mentioned above, most of these tend to be a bit redundant if you’ve seen the Through the Looking Glass featurette, still each of these only run about 3 minutes and offer a bit of insight into most every aspect of the film.
- Making Ava – Garland and visual effects crew discuss the physical look of Ava, making a plausible form of artificial intelligence that you knew was man made, but could also form a relationship with as well.
Nathan’s World – This actually plays out like an extended trailer, but the intended focus is on the look and feel of Nathan’s “fortress.” We learn that they actually filmed it in Norway which gave the right mix of elements to give his place a very unique look.
New Consciousness – We get a crash course in artificial intelligence as well as the Turin test and how it plays a part in the film. We get a sense for how Ava, her personality and traits also play a part in the film.
Becoming Ava – Again, the physical look and feel of Ava’s character is explored, but the focus is more on the actress who played her, Alicia Vikander who got her training as a ballerina and, thus, had a leg up as to how she controlled her body during the shoot.
Director – This is a showcase of the writer/director Alex Garland who, as mentioned above, has written several mainstream films and novels: Dredd, The Beach, Sunshine and 28 Days Later to name a few.
Cast – The main trio of actors are profiled, with some emphasis on Oscar Isaac and his immense talent as well as his ability to physically transform himself in look and feel from one film to the next. Obviously the filmmakers say they have “the most perfect cast in the world.” But of course.
Meet Ava – Actress Alicia Vikander is once again profiled, but with her performance as Ava. Again the question is asked “How do we make a film about a form of artificial intelligence that’s plausible for someone to form a relationship with it?”
God Complex – Oscar Isaac’s character of Nathan is profiled as is everything that makes him tick. He’s not based on a person, per se, rather the idea of a person who has infinite resources, intelligence, ego and the desire and drive to push himself to the utmost limits.
Music – The etherial and organic music in the film is profiled with some commentary by composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The duo tell us the motivations they had for the score as well as what makes it all so seamlessly work.
The Bottom Line
Ex Machina might not be for everyone, but I personally loved it. I love films that make me think and feel and really get my mind churning. I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s previous efforts as a writer and to see him direct a film – well it was pure enjoyment on my end. The Blu-ray is visually perfect with a robust DTS HD Master Audio mix (and a DTS X mix for those of you who might be equipped) with a nice array of supplements to boot. Highly recommended.