Film Club - Ex Machina


Amelia Davidson explores the gripping sci-fi thriller Ex Machina in this week's addition to MUSE's Film Club.

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Image by Universal Pictures International

By Amelia Davidson

If you fancy watching a mellow and heart-warming film, this is not the one for you. With plot-twists hiding around every corner, Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland, is sure to have you clinging to the edge of your seat. The film epitomises all that is great about the sci-fi thriller genre: technology, risk and opportunity all tied into a brilliant story of human interactions with artificial intelligence.

A sense of unease is present from the moment Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee of the prominent search engine company Blue Book, is whisked away by helicopter to a remote forestland. He has supposedly won an office competition to spend a week with the mastermind behind the company. Nevertheless, no phone signal, no windows in his room, and an alcoholic host somehow makes for an unusual work getaway. Gleeson effortlessly portrays Caleb’s nerves, discomfort and excitement all completed by confusion as to why he is really there.

It turns out that CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), has some new technology hidden away in his remote home; her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb learns that he is to be the judge in a modified Turing Test; an examination designed to determine whether a computer has artificial intelligence. As the test goes on, Caleb becomes increasingly tangled in an ethical conundrum. Is Nathan Ava’s creator, or is he her captor? Technology is the product of man, and yet is it right for man to play God over a man-like machine? Thought provoking questions will fill your mind as you come at a loss over who to trust and what to think.

Sexuality is a component in the mind of every living species, and yet when this quality is assigned to a machine the result is unnerving. Ideas of femininity and vulnerability cloak Ava in shrouds of sympathy which distract from the reality that she is a capable machine. The ability to construct ulterior motives is perhaps the most human and most manipulative use of sexuality. By the end, all stereotypical associations of femininity, vulnerability and the need for a male saviour are called into interrogation.

Garland cleverly deforms the freedom of a wild forest landscape into an oppressive site of restricted liberties. Some doors of the house open, others do not. It is a place of great invention and yet a sense of entrapment oozes through the screen. This isolated atmosphere is intensified by Garland’s focus on just three characters who are under constant surveillance within the CCTV equipped home. Only when there are power cuts do we see a withdrawal of surveillance, yet while the cameras are off, the sense of unease only grows.

Andrew Whitehurst was the visual effects supervisor of the film; he is highly experienced, having been involved creating the visual effects in the Bond film, Skyfall. What is so remarkable about Whitehurst’s approach to Ex Machina is that despite Ava’s mechanical form, no greenscreens were used. Instead, after filming each scene, the actors were asked to step out of the room, and then the camera operator re-filmed the scene through mimicking the same camera movements. This created two versions of the same scene to manipulate and paint Ava in and out. The product was a highly authentic conversational intimacy between Ava and the other characters.

Whilst the cinematography helps to create the authentic feel to the film, one must never underestimate the value of faultless acting. Alicia Vikander (playing Ava), manages to balance the essence of being a human with being a machine. The viewer involuntarily finds themselves attempting to complete a Turing Test of their own on Ava because she balances these qualities so successfully.

A balancing act is also achieved by Oscar Isaac (playing Nathan) who teeters on the knife-edge between masculinity and vulnerability. He smoothly transfers from moments of masculine strength, exercising and showing off his extensive intelligence, to moments of complete drunken weakness. This creates a believable depth to his character.

Many minute details are also a source for fascination, right down to the naming of the film. ‘Deus ex Machina’ is a Latin translation of the Greek phrase meaning ‘God from the machine’. With the removal of ‘deus’, this draws the translation ‘from the machine’. Garland centres the film upon the creation (Ava), rather than the God (Nathan) who created her. This perhaps raises the question of whether Ava is the new God, the new creator of the future relation between man and machine?

Garland does not skimp on his creativity in the naming of the characters either. Indeed, their names are inherently concise character descriptions. The name Ava derives from Latin to mean ‘life’. The name Caleb is a Hebrew name meaning ‘faithful and loyal’, meanwhile the name ‘Nathan’ means ‘he gave’. These simple names can tell the entire story - Nathan gave life to Ava, whom through her free will could manipulate the faithful.

At 108 minutes of suspense, nail-biting and unexpected plot twists, Ex Machina is current streaming on Netflix.