The Horror Honeys: SXSW Review: Ex Machina

SXSW Review: Ex Machina

A Head Honey SXSW Review by Kat

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina: "out of the machine" couldn't be a better title for this beautiful film. We've had our collective eye on this secret gem of a Sci-Fi thriller for more than a few months, and I was extremely excited to be able to see it. With a lineup that stretched for more than four blocks, Ex Machina was introduced by the moderator as "one of the best films we've shown at SXSW" and the hype couldn't be more deserved.

First time director, Alex Garland, was humble on stage as he presented the screening: "It's a huge honor to be selected for SXSW, and we really hope that you like the film..."

The story: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

Where to begin.

Ex Machina opens unexpectedly and with no exposition; we are thrown into Garland's world with no explanation of the time period, and no insight into the character of the young man chosen to participate in an experiment that is carried out by the owner of his company. We know nothing about anything, but the strength of the suspense pulls the viewer straight in. I wasn't prepared to be set up for anything but a spectacularly unsettling vibe, and I got what was coming to me. Oscar Isaac's Nathan is a charismatic, arrogant, douchebag of the highest order, and it's completely to Isaac's credit that I wanted nothing more in the world than to grab Nathan by his beard and punch him a lot. Misogynistic, intimidating, and immediately antagonistic, Nathan sets up Domnhall Gleeson's seemingly innocent Caleb for an unsettling first impression of the man with whom he is supposed to spend a week in complete isolation.

Pictured: The biggest little Napoleon Complex in Sci-Fi
But, Caleb isn't here to ponder the strangeness of his boss or the complexities of the (amazing) house he's living in for the week, it's to participate in a very special test. A Turing Test to be exact. For those who are suddenly nodding their heads at recognizing the name Turing because they've seen The Imitation Game, quit being smug. The Turing Test is an A.I. test during which a human interacts with a computer in such a way that if the human cannot discern if what they are interacting with is in fact a computer, then it has passed the test. However, in a classic Turing Test, the test subject is hidden from the tester. Caleb will be testing a machine that he already knows is a machine, because she is right in front of him. The test? If Caleb knows that Ava is a robot, can he conduct the test and still feel a detachment from her when their time is up? If he can still rationalize that Ava is a machine, the design will have failed the test and will go back to the drawing board for further work... namely a memory wipe, and algorithm reload in another attempt to achieve a singularity. 


I was utterly stunned by Ava when I first laid eyes on her in the UK trailer and poster a few months ago, and seeing her on the big screen was incredible. Her subtle nuances of action, reaction and interaction are sublimely acted by Alicia Vikander. Aside from being a shockingly beautiful woman with a disarming ingenue quality to her features and expressions, she plays Ava with a fluidity and grace that I was not expecting. Her dialogue, while extremely developed in terms of mimicry of emotion and organic thought also has an underlying logic to it, a subtle detail to the scripting that I absolutely loved.

However, nuances aren't what this test is about. While Caleb is intrigued by Ava's development, capacity to learn, speech patterns and cognitive acrobatics, Nathan is more concerned with the nitty gritty. How does Caleb FEEL about her... and when I say FEEL, I mean bow chikka chikka feel. Nathan is making sex robots, under the guise of creating the singularity, and while Caleb keeps trying to elevate his evaluations, Nathan drags it back to sexuality each time. Questions like "Do you think Ava likes you?" "Do you think she's pretending to like you?" begin to make Caleb doubt Ava's responses to his interactions with her and plants the fledgling seeds of an all too familiar enemy - mistrust of the opposite sex. All women are alike, right? Why can't robot women be like that too? Nathan breaks down all human interaction to sex, but really, why not. What is interaction but a power struggle, and what is sex if not an expression of power.

"In answer to your question, you bet she can fuck..."

I had to stop counting all the things Nathan said that made me want to punch him square in the glasses with a vodka bottle.

Pow. Right in the glasses. 
Subtle control methods are introduced throughout the film, power outages that prevent the room doors from opening, a TV tuned to CC-TV cameras located throughout the building so Caleb can watch Ava when they aren't interacting face to face... Nathan gives Caleb every opportunity to obsess over Ava, all while keeping him in a constant state of doubt as to Ava's true feelings, and whether or not she can have "true" feelings at all.

Special note: The notion of nakedness and nudity is explored in an extremely unique way. Ava's reverse strip tease as she layers clothing onto her mechanical exoskeleton is extremely private, and her nervousness at revealing herself fully dressed for the first time to Caleb is disarming and utterly perfect... almost virginal. The repetition of this process later in the film is no less amazing, and while dramatically different in mood, is no less powerful in execution.

Control is a unique construct in Ex Machina, and the reality of who is ultimately in control is an area of science fiction that has been explored by all of the great masters of the genre. Ex Machina also toys with several levels of control: the creation of a being, a parent/child relationship; manipulation as power; and the use of sexual power and manipulation as a method of control. In a world where every player has an agenda, its hard to maintain a sympathetic outlook, and any sympathy held for any character is quickly forgotten as the action unfolds. That this can happen in a film and not be a detractor is nothing short of phenomenal.

For me, the real triumph is not in the storyline, but in the visual and physical execution of the material. The audience wants to believe that Ava is real, you want to believe that she could be this beautiful creation and not a figment of someone's imagination. Passing Ava's test isn't an option, you can't help yourself.

Ex Machina had very few missteps, and while a few sequences felt like familiar science fiction territory, it wasn't a landscape that I was unhappy to be led through again. Ex Machina is a unique example of a genuine collaborative work of art. The actors performances, camera work, sound, score... everything worked together to create an arrestingly memorable and poignantly beautiful machine. Hands down, Ex Machina was the highlight of the festival.

"Why did you make Ava?"
"Wouldn't you if you could?"

Head Honey's verdict: 4.5 subtle manipulations out of 5