Review – Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Directed and written by: Alex Garland
Produced by: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects



Hollywood has been making films about robots for a long time. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, robots were portrayed as evil, as something to be feared. As our understanding of robots increased over time, films like Star Wars (1977) showed them more as helpful companions to humans, and they were often used for comic relief. Now that we are well into the 21st century, and robots have only become more advanced and commonplace in the world, where does that leave us? Many people have expressed their concern involving the role of robots in society – in particular artificial intelligence. Because of this, the film industry has reverted back to it’s portrayal of robots being a threat, playing on people’s fears that they will eventually take over our society.

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Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Our main character is Caleb Smith (Gleeson), a young programmer who works for the company BlueBook, the world’s most popular search engine. He wins a competition to spend a week with the CEO of the company, Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Caleb is flown out to his remote estate, and as soon as we are introduced to Nathan we can see a stark contrast between the two characters. Caleb fits the classic stereotype of a nerdy programmer, he is skinny and shy, somewhat awkward. Nathan however is attractive and charismatic, he seems very sure of himself. At the start, he is welcoming to Caleb, treating him like an old friend rather than one of his employees. However as the film’s plot progresses, we soon see a rapid change in Nathan’s behaviours and personality.

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After signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan informs Caleb that he has created a robot named Ava who has artificial intelligence, and he has brought him to his estate to perform the Turing Test on him – in other words, if Caleb can believe that Ava is capable of forming her own emotions and thoughts, and if he can form a connection with her despite knowing she is a machine. The only other person living in Nathan’s home is Kyoko (Mizuno), a servant who Nathan claims does not speak any English. The acting really is one of the best parts of Ex Machina – Oscar Isaac is great in his role as an antagonist, and Sonoya Mizuno puts in an amazing performance for a character who has no spoken lines.

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Caleb has a session with Ava every day – the seven days format is one example of the theme of religious imagery in the film (a reference to God taking seven days to create the world). At several points, Nathan is compared to a God, as he has created Ava. Ex Machina also has parallels to Frankenstein because of this, in that it follows the story of a man driven to insanity by his own creation once he realises what it is capable of. A close relationship quickly develops between Caleb and Ava and she begins to flirt with him, but Caleb is unsure if she has been programmed to do this or if she really is capable of having feelings for him. She also tells him not to trust Nathan. This leaves Caleb with the dilemma of who to believe – while most people would not trust a robot over a human, Nathan has started to show worrying behaviours such as angry outbursts and heavy drinking.

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Caleb comes across some disturbing footage of Nathan interacting with other robots he had created in the past, and learns that he plans to upgrade Ava, essentially killing her. Kyoko reveals that she is also an android, and Caleb becomes paranoid that he is a robot himself, cutting open his arm in a scene that feels very reminiscent of Blade Runner. Although they definitely have their differences, I do think that you would enjoy Ex Machina if you are a fan of Blade Runner. This series of events leads Caleb to put his trust into Ava, and they plan to escape that night.

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When Ava escapes from her room, Nathan attempts to stop her and a struggle ensues which leaves Nathan and Kyoko dead. Ava takes skin, hair and clothes from Nathan’s previous android models to give her the appearance of a human female. She then leaves the house, ignoring Caleb’s screams for help as he is locked in Nathan’s room, and boarding the helicopter that has arrived to take Caleb home. The ending leaves the viewer with a lot of questions on their mind, and also shows that Ava has passed the Turing Test. Throughout the film we are lead to believe that Ava truly is capable of human feelings and consciousness, but as Nathan says towards the end of the film, she was programmed to use Caleb as a means of escape, and now that she is able to do this he is no longer any use to her. My only criticism on the ending is that I feel the last few minutes were unneccessary, and would have been more effective if it had ended at the point where Ava gets into the elevator and leaves Caleb behind.

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When watching Ex Machina, it’s quite clear to see Alex Garland has been influenced by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Aside from the obvious similarities to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with a plot featuring artificial intelligence, Ex Machina also has that feel of isolation and descent into madness shown in The Shining (1980). Both films take place in large homes in a remote area, cut off from the rest of society. The shots of nature in Ex Machina show a contrast between the advanced technology that is taking place within the house, and the simplicity and stillness of the outside world. When you watch The Shining, you can tell from early on in the film that something is not quite right, although you can’t put your finger on what it is straight away. Ex Machina has this same effect. The cinematography is fantastic, the film is beautifully shot, but also very simple, not over the top or flashy like so many of those in the sci-fi genre. The score also plays a vital part in adding to the creepy, uncomfortable atmosphere that runs throughout the entire film. Although it is not a horror film, I felt quite unnerved at several points while watching it. The use of red lighting in the power cut scenes was particularly unsettling, and the idea that this could someday become a reality is what makes it somewhat scary. We know that zombies or vampires or werewolves aren’t real – but AI robots are, and with technology becoming more and more advanced every day, it’s difficult to predict where it will go next.

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Ex Machina opens up a number of discussions about artificial intelligence and technology in general – are robots really capable of independent thought and feelings? Should we be concerned about them becoming more intelligent, are they a threat to our society? A film doesn’t have to make you think or question things to be good, but it’s always interesting when it does, and Ex Machina is a great example of this.


Overall, I would give this film an 8.5 out of 10.