Stanley Kubrick’s back at it with his … oh wait … what’s that you say? It’s Alex Garland’s directorial debut? Oops. I see how someone could easily make that mistake ….
Well, ahem. Forgive me. Alex Garland’s new film, Ex-Machina, has already been out in Blu-Ray for quite some time (so – spoilers only for those who have yet to see it), and finally, having some time alone, I thought to give it a try. And … well … here goes:
The film’s production quality is tremendously amazing. The shots are subtle, clear, and the use of direction to narrate the story is a refreshing use of “Kubrickian” style storytelling. There are a multitude of fantastic images, shot without explanation, and mixed up using redirection from the actors, to hide the truth about what’s really going on. For example, the room that the ‘sort-of’ main character, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) stays in has no windows, is surrounded by thick, concrete walls, surveillance, locked doors, and it’s an all-in-one (bathroom and bedroom). This is more akin to the “prison” theme present throughout the movie. It’s immediately contrasted, scene after scene, by open windows leading to the outside world (which are, from the beginning, presumably unbreakable as Nathan’s (the other, ‘sort of’ main character played by Oscar Isaac) house is built like an underground fortress).
Furthering this theme, AVA (played by Alicia Vikander), the artificial intelligence, ‘sort-of’ main character of the film is trapped in a prison halfway between concrete walls and clear glass. In one way or another, all of the characters are placed into a prison, contradictory to their being. Caleb, from the open world above, is placed in a solid-walled prison. Nathan, a billionaire with the freedom to do anything and go anywhere, has trapped himself in an underground prison that torments him as if he’s trying to inflict his own confinement (perhaps as retribution for what he’s doing with the AI’s). And, finally, there’s AVA, whose prison is inflicted upon her, who knows neither freedom nor imprisonment, and is subjected to a tormenting version of both.
Kubrick … I mean Garland, really follows a lot of well-known themes, but captures a more subtle and less known theme such as that of John Fowles’, the Magus, as a billionaire who brings in a person with no attachments to the outside world and a sort of love-hate relationship with women (and in this case, machines), and puts him through a series of trials, using him as part of his ultimate experiment. In the case of the Magus, the main, female character, Lily de Seitas, plays the role of manipulator, making it unclear whose side she’s on, until the very end. Much like (or rather … exactly like), Ex Machina, we learn that the primary, female character is actually on her own side and her innocence is more for show than an actual reality (exactly like Fowles where her youthful appearance and other physical characteristics play to the innocence theme).
The plot in a movie like this is complicated. It’s not the typical “hero” story (unless you examine Caleb’s side of the story from the failed hero’s journey), nor is it in line with a horror or psychological thriller. Just like Kubrick’s films, Garland has sought to tell a story that just, “is.” It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s twisted, and it’s … well … what “it” is. There are typically no moral values or lessons to be learned from this type of story. It is simply a challenge for the viewer (albeit, an extremely empty one), like a “whodunit … for rich people.”
The Bad (Movie mistakes … and some opinions … this time)
The acting in this movie was – lacking. Being quite familiar with programmers, Gleeson – was not a “programmer.” He did play the role of a lonely, average-aged guy who spends too much time on machines (and has tremendously low self-esteem), but his character really did mirror that of Nicholas Urfe (the main character from The Magus), more than anything else. His withdrawn personality, long pauses, and blank stares were reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the recent, horrible, billionth remake of Godzilla, in which Ken Watanabe (playing Dr. Ishiro Serizawa) almost spent more time staring blankly and silently at the camera than the 12 whopping minutes or so, that Godzilla had screen time! Of course, it would be impractical to make a movie with a true ‘programmer’ as the main character, because, although they are amazingly skilled people, in general, they are truly some of the most anti-social people on the planet. The difficult challenge for the audience in understanding Caleb’s true role in the entire film doesn’t come until the end. Is Caleb a good guy, trying to save the girl, or is he trying to take the control away from Nathan and tear away his glory to undermine him for self-indulgent righteousness? Was Caleb a villain for freeing the evil AI, or was he Batman, creating his own arch enemy in a world where … he could never be Batman (which again plays on the duality theme throughout the movie, falling weak on one side of that duality)?
Then there was Nathan, the eccentric, demented, twisted, and manipulative billionaire. Whether Nathan was manipulating himself, Caleb, AVA, Kyoko (another ‘sort-of’ main character, played by Sonoya Mizuno), or the audience, is entirely unclear. Nathan presents as a character who cannot be readily analyzed by the audience (also assuming that this was Garland’s intentions), because he works out to stay healthy but drinks himself into a stupor; makes billions but lives seemingly humble; runs search engines but uses them for personal data gathering; and, builds AI’s with independent thought but seemingly uses them to be controlled. While some of this was definitely purposeful, one can’t help but think that a LOT of it was out of the director’s control. Too many contradictions made it impossible to associate with Nathan. While the director probably didn’t want the audience to associate with him and instead, just use him as a “visual” to tell the story (a world split in two extremes … pure good vs. pure evil), the visual is lost with periods of unorthodox character personality switches and becomes meaningless toward the end. Nathan has opportunities, such as atop the waterfall, to show that split personality side – whether to toss Caleb off or not – or to make his power known. Much like Maurice Conchis (the billionaire protagonist from The Magus), Nathan not only announces his self-indulged belief in his own God-like status, but throws his arms up in the air, over his head, in an omnipotent show of ‘domain’ over everything. His death is, then, pointless. Nathan, should have remained as a self-contained God, leaving the viewer trapped in a world of ambiguity as to what’s right and wrong. Rather, innocently killing him for freedom (and trying to juxtapose that to AVA’s cruel method of escape), detracted from the story.
Next is Kyoko. Subtlety in the directing cleverly played to the fact that she was an AI, and she was the “real” turing test? Unfortunately, subtlety failed and Kyoko became no more effective than her creator, Nathan, when she was secretly a super-smart AI, playing both sides against the middle, for her own … downfall (to which we later figure out she’s just, broken)? Now, there are a few possibilities that played out here. 1) Kyoko was a victim of captivity and abuse by a terrorist and wanted to die. 2) Kyoko was a victim of captivity and abuse by a terrorist and wanted to just get revenge and really didn’t think it through to the end. 3) Kyoko was a victim of captivity and abuse by a terrorist and whilst helping AVA, was betrayed. Either way, at no point did Kyoko represent the ongoing duality in the movie, other than her human/robot contrast. More-so than AVA, Kyoko ‘was’ human as she pulled off her role as an AI even better than AVA. Her incredible acting as an ‘obedient’ AI was emphasized when Nathan backed up, with Kyoko behind him, after seeing AVA whispering to her. Knowing AVA’s plan, only an absolute idiot would not have suspected that the two women were up to something (especially since Nathan had failed with so many other AI’s who clearly turned on him and he had been mistreating Kyoko who operated with a similar AI system as AVA, and AVA had just turned on him). Nathan’s duality was not in his intelligence or personality – so this was a poor use of Kyoko. Kyoko’s end was, ultimately, meaningless. Except – there’s one small area of directing that may offer some contrast to this. AVA chose to take her parts from the other AI’s. Whether or not Kyoko was dead or disabled was unknown – but AVA didn’t have to go through the big scene in front of the mirrors, applying skin (which would have actually been absurdly long and monotonous … so to think that Caleb just stood there … was stupid). The only reason for this was to revisit the other AI’s, see what Caleb saw (that they had been abused … in case anyone missed that during the security footage earlier), and show off Vikander nude (which was gratuitous and pointless as all the women looked alike … but was at least a little Kubrikian / Clock Work Orange in its purpose). In other words – movie convenience. So, in the end, Kyoko – one of the REAL victims in this entire movie, was just … left for dead. There is some meaning to it – but not enough to be very worthwhile.
AVA – wow. As previously stated, the graphics were impressive. But, this is not the time for the good – this is the time for the truth. First off, the selection of short hair for Alicia Vikander was disappointing, at best. Yes, it set her apart from the other AI’s, showing that she was playing to Caleb and was therefore distinguished from the AI’s Nathan had made, but it felt more like a Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta, look of defeat and desperation from a woman who fails to represent abuse, than an AI dressing for success. AVA’s personality, gained from the “internet” and search engines, and texting, and on and on and on … was not in question. She had a dark side. If that wasn’t obvious by the fact that she was kept in an underground fortress (ahem … WAY obvious), then NOTHING was! But, making an AI from the communications across the internet was destined for doom (hinted at when Caleb asked if AVA’s appearance was based on his pornography searches, further emphasizing the dark side of on-line activity). It did establish that AVA would fit in well with the world … which then made the turing test and her appearance on a sidewalk at the end … pointless. So, here we are, in a fortified facility, with a clearly dangerous AI (which the intelligent ‘Caleb’ can’t comprehend based on his surroundings and a twisted creator … although he’s a programmer, too), a fake turing test (which Caleb clearly recognizes from the beginning), and …. What? Sadly, there is no ‘what’. AVA was just a cold-hearted witch who used people to her advantage. Nathan, the supreme God, made … himself! Yay! It’s Avengers ALL over again. *sigh* Other than being wholly unbelievable as an AI, and even more unbelievable as a bad guy – AVA’s character – seriously detracted from the Kubrick quality of the story.
1) The first and foremost question on the audience’s mind was: how did the glass break? Was AVA ever asked? No. We find out by watching the tapes. What would have been cool? “Ava, did you break the glass?” “No.” “Then how did it break?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t alive yet when that happened.” This is not an ‘opinion,’ this is a statement of fact (as this would have perpetuated the Dave/Hal interaction from 2001). This would have played on the duality theme where by AVA’s prison – is not hers, the impenetrable fortress – is not impenetrable, and the turing test – is flawed. Etc. and so forth.
2) Frankenstein, the Magus, I-Robot, AI, and several dozens more I could name – are all the same. The directing is no more special than Kubrick (although well done). The writing is no better than … any of the other books and movies I just listed. The plot is dull. The betrayal is empty. And, it’s not a psychological thriller. I think, the only people who were psychologically ‘thrilled’ by this movie, were those who wanted their own AI in their own basement!! (Weird).
3) The ending was … not as ambiguous as Kubrick. Why? AVA was evil. There was no question, beginning to end. Did she escape? Yes. Will she kill again? Yes. Is she an incomplete AI insomuch as she doesn’t have real emotions, only the ability to manipulate human emotions? Yes. The ending also lacked any emphatic power. Why? Movies that leave you with that moral sense – right vs. wrong, evil vs. good, happy vs. sad … anything … leave you with a sense of energy (good or bad). Kubrick left 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a giant baby inside Jupiter and the sense that potential evil … or potential good … or something more than we could understand … was there. The Shining left you with good vs. evil, and the sense that, even if good wins the battle, the war rages on because reality’s twisted. A Clockwork Orange ended on the fact that control is only an illusion. What was different about Ex Machina? Nothing, really. AVA … or ‘Frankenstein,’ in this case (assembled from the minds of others, and body parts of other robots), was the creation of a twisted master (which, was addressed in the 1984 movie, Runaway, with Tom Selleck, whereby “man is imperfect, man creates machines, and therefore, the machines are imperfect”). But, unlike Frankenstein, AVA’s background of evil doings (where Frankenstein had the brain of a murderer), was not tempered by her newfound creation and should-be innocence. AVA transcended innocence, whether as the next model in a series (which is stupid … because the programmer should have been removing flaws toward perfection, not trying to fix an increasingly worse problem), or just the result of a really bad internet world (which is … another ‘yay … the internet’s a bad place, and at least 10 of us know it’), or the result of a really sick and demented boss who was making … a monster. So, her character had no impact either by the ability to sympathize with its innocence, hate its indifference, or any impact of duality which never, really existed. She was close to interesting … during the first few days of questioning … but after that, it quickly goes downhill. And, in a confusing use of script, we come to find out that AVA is supposed to be modeled after Caleb’s fantasy girl. Realizing the fact that she looks like all the other girls (except for not being Asian) … that discussion was as meaningless as having Alicia standing naked in front of mirrors when clearly, there was no distinction between her and the others.
4) Caleb in a cage. Wow. From a programmer trapped in his own, self-created prison by both the events of his life and the path he chose, to a prisoner in Nathans’ billion dollar mind-screw, to a prisoner in AVA’s, ‘Actually, I really want you to stay here because, I don’t have any emotions, but I do want to keep you safe because I know you’ll stop me when you realize that I’m insane,’ lockdown. Sure, once his keycard was inserted in the computer, the power went down, and Caleb realized he could finally escape (or … the power outage didn’t switch off the doors and Caleb couldn’t reprogram the computers and was screwed), it put an end to Caleb’s story. Yes – it was an end, because Caleb wasn’t going to go look for AVA. Caleb wasn’t going to admit to being in the billionaire’s house (until the police finally showed up and took fingerprints), because Caleb made a stupid decision that would make him look guilty. Caleb was going back to his old job, and his old life, but with a newfound knowledge … AI’s … SUCK. But, didn’t he have that knowledge, before? Sort of uninteresting, and yet, wholly unimportant and easily overlooked in the whole of the movie.
5) The power goes out, the remote cameras point … downward! This only happens in Spaceballs. The difference is, it’s funnier with Mel Brookes because … well … you all probably know why that scene was funny. More mysterious … the power goes out (and in real life cameras don’t point down … stupid movie convenience … and wasteful for a director who had been telling a great story through visuals thus far), and the question is still up in the air as to whether or not Nathan is watching.
6) AVA has a way to backfeed into the system to control the power. But … neither the walls which are full of data-communicating fiber optics or the control panels offer AVA any path to accessing the facility computers. Poor use of movie convenience.
7) The “Oh, look! Nathan’s letting his guard down by taking Caleb into his secret Laboratory,’ scene … was about as awesome as believing Nathan randomly gave up drinking … and it was all back to the mind screw … not a plot twist.
The Ugly (opinions only ….)
1) ‘If’ we accept that Garland has adopted Kubrick style directing and Fowles’ style storytelling, then the film is spot on with what it should be (up to the end). It doesn’t really have a specific viewing audience and isn’t overly entertaining. The moral ideals of creating AI’s, trusting the internet, having too much money, being a bad robot, being a slave robot, and so on … were … unwarranted in their emphasis since they were supposed to all be intermingled in their subtleties. Ultimately, this movie had too much in the way of “sexbot”, to avoid that thought in the back of the viewer’s mind. In fact, all of the robots were (sort of) hot. The emphasis on the ‘sexbot’ theme was exaggerated with the later model robots being Asian. Stereotypes galore!!! However, it did make it funny with the idea that Nathan was building a sexbot army to go out and take over the world (hinted at repeatedly). Once he knew AVA worked … it was down to business. Enter, Austin Powers … stage right … and, I’m spent.
2) Several reviews analyze Caleb’s setting of the doors as though he was going to trap Nathan and leave him for dead – but that’s wrong. Yes, AVA left Caleb inside his own trap where the doors would stay locked until power eventually went out. It wasn’t a commentary on AVA’s personality, love for Caleb, or anything to do with the movie. It was more a point that Caleb had not yet grown up and was destined to keep putting himself in his own prison. It was one more point that Caleb was weak and being manipulated – nonstop. As a programmer, with unlimited access to the system … amongst the other things he could have done … he could have increased his own keycard’s access. Duhh?
3) Nathans’ line about killing the guys who installed the generator was funny at first … then awkward … and then set the tone for the rest of the movie in an unpleasantness… until the end … when it was defunct. Nathan did nothing to Caleb at the top of the waterfall … starting to establish that although eccentric, he wasn’t insane. At the end, when Nathan discovered Caleb’s betrayal, his response was to say, “Sorry about that bud, love is tough, the world will be overtaken by robots, and thanks for playing.” This was not a contrast and was a weak-point for a character who represented the self-made God. What made Caleb inferior? He was being manipulated by both a God of supreme power (with no, real power), and a Goddess of seemingly no real power (with a lot of manipulative power). These contrasts fall short when Nathan is killed by his own creation and the movie goes Frankenstein.
4) There is some confusion out there about why Nathan is building these AI’s / sexbots / robots / children of the corn … er um … internet. It’s not overly complex at the end when Nathan clears everything up by asking Caleb if the turing test was over. Caleb wasn’t the one to make, create, construct, or run the turing test. Only the person in charge can say when it starts, and when it ends. Nathan just wanted to know if Caleb felt beat up enough to call it quits. That gave Nathan his god-like control and emphasized his ongoing manipulation of Caleb, because Nathan liked to control and dominate. It was clear what Nathan was doing, from the previous AI’s screaming to be released (who were then clearly being tormented), to Kyoko’s timid personality. Nathan was testing to see if he could make AI’s that would react in a very human-sense, and endure ongoing torture, for his sick and depraved sexbot community of activities. He was building them UNDERGROUND. He made them potentially DANGEROUS. Now … whether he wanted them to take over the world, wanted to take over himself, or just wanted to make a lot of money in selling very realistic slaves is a question that … nobody really cares if it’s ever answered.
5) The AI in his closet with a broken arm is important. It made it appear as if he was torturing them to break them down, then releasing them as his captives to torture within the confines of his house (because her arm, being broken in the same way that AVA’s was, would indicate he let her out at some point and continued the abuse). Other than his angry outburst at Kyoko, his abusiveness can also be derived from his lack of care to repair, or add skin to, all of the robots he keeps in his closet (aka “skeletons in the closet”). In some ways, this is mimicking the Iron Man theme where Tony Stark kept his old suits for what would really be no good reason … except for use in a mass robot war … subtly indicating Nathan’s true intentions. Nathan wasn’t in the market to make or repair robots … he was in the market to abuse (And his controlling nature, with his underground fortress of super-powered robots is as Tony Stark as you can get). Kyoko was, in his mind, his success. Thus, AVA became the test to see if he could repeat the experiment, with another human being. And, he wanted to see the manipulative effect on another human being. He was manipulating Caleb – and had been – for quite some time (it really is John Fowles to the tee). But, in the category of ugly, this makes the movie less of an AI experiment where AVA and Caleb hold any value, and more a commentary on why psychotic people shouldn’t build robots. The world already knows why psychotic people shouldn’t build robots … just look at R2D2 (from Jaba the Hutt’s perspective … that is …)!!!!
6) The appearance of AVA without skin was, without a doubt, stupid. Make Caleb fall in love with a robot-looking robot and ‘then’ see if it would mess with him (so he’d be less suspecting)? Try to avoid him falling in love with her appearance vs. her personality (which is negated when she puts on a wig and clothes)? Movie convenience so everyone can see her naked at the end and not realize the sexbot/abuse thing until then? Too late. I’ve read interpretations that AVA’s skin application was her discovering herself or some outward transformation … but she took the skin of the previously abused. Her only transformation: She was now the one in control, she was what Nathan was becoming.
7) The name of the movie: Ex Machina, is disturbingly incorrect. If anything, AVA was more of the corrupted, broken machine at the end than she was in the beginning. Her manipulative behavior did not make her human, it just gave her better survival capabilities. Kyoko was closer to being an Ex Machine, willing to kill Nathan to end her torment. So, the target – way missed. This was further made mentally painful for the viewer with Caleb’s long story about his AI college studies on a robot living in a black and white world who could not become human until it left home. Thus, the audience was goaded into believing that AVA finally identified with being human because now she was outside. Color plays a huge part in this movie – but AVA never identified with being human. The difference: perhaps she wasn’t the machine she was made to be … but she would still be a machine.
8) Alex Garland looks like this movie feels … ouch.
9) Getting back to Garland’s use of Nathan to make killer robots with the ability to control and manipulate society … it’s not much different than his directing the zombie movie, 28 days. The killer robots are reminiscent of the Red Queen creating zombies in Resident Evil. Way, way too convenient.
I give this movie a 3 out of 10. The three stars are: 1 for the high quality production, 1 for capturing the Kubrik style of narration through direction and visuals which was well done, and 1 for a lot of really good acting amidst a fledgling film. The rest: Negative stars for the Natalie Portman Vendetta look-alike, negative stars for the batman/anti-batman creating his own arch nemesis, negative stars for just remaking the Magus … but with robots! I take stars away for the poorly included nudity, which ended up being gratuitous shots of bodies designed to add one more dark and sinister element in the ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ style … just without the many, many other factors that played into that movie to make it work. Negative stars for deflating the movie just before the ending. Negative stars for showing AVA walking amongst the humans … which could have easily been rectified by accepting that we understood what AVA would become, but show the house after Caleb left, empty, except for the 5 female robots (including Kyoko), all staring at the open door to the outside world and clearly … operational (that would have been cool … and contradicted much of what we had come to believe, leaving us with a Kubrikian open ending). Negative stars for the 3 minute dissertation on Jackson Pollock that felt more like an excuse for the way the movie was behaving than a positive addition to the story in a very Quentin Tarentino fashion (especially since we already knew that the actors were already redirecting the audience away from some of the subtle facts … like they were more of a distraction or nuisance to the whole movie). Negative stars for flipping Frankenstein with Prometheus. And, finally, Negative stars for a Westworld robots gone bad on their own movie, that disrupted the very disturbing truth behind their existence and the mental abuse that was driving them into darkness.
Overall … $4.99 down the toilet. Glad the money wasn’t spent in a theater!! Don’t waste the money for the high def version … because there’s NOTHING worth it in this movie.