Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Screenwriters are the firsts to bring a film to life, in their minds they see the story unfold in a certain way, down the road of a films production, it's their words and ideas that become the blueprint of a film. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me that some writers feel the urge to sit on the director’s chair and film their story themselves. The problem with this is that sometimes, while a writer might be great at coming up with stories and dialog, they don’t understand the mechanics of properly translating their words into an entertaining and visually interesting film. For example, when David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind such heavy weight Hollywood blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) decided to sit on the director’s chair, he ended up making horrible stinkers like Blade Trinity (2004) and The Unborn (2009). Another good example would be Frank Miller, a good writer that ended up directing The Spirit (2008), one of the worst comic book films ever made. This is why whenever a writer wants to direct, I go into the film with a little trepidation. In the case of Ex-Machina, we’re talking about Alex Garland, a writer who frequently collaborates with renowned director Danny Boyle. Garland wrote The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), all directed by Boyle. He recently wrote Dredd (2012), a good Judge Dredd film that needed to be just a little more epic in order to succeed. So in my book Garland has a pretty solid slate as a writer. In Ex-Machina Garland both writes and directs, did he pull off this double punch successfully?
Since this film comes to us from a true blue writer, and a good one, we should expect a film that’s brainier than your usual film. Why? Well, this isn’t Garland writing a film for someone else, this is Garland writing and directing a film that plays with themes that he finds interesting. And they are pretty heavy themes, Ex-Machina as the title suggests, is a very existential film. The title ‘Ex-Machina’ is an allusion to the term ‘Deus Ex-Machina’ a term used in Greek theater for whenever there was a problem too big to be resolved by the protagonists. Whenever this happened, they would lower a god onto the stage through the use of machinery, the god would then proceed to magically solve the problems the main characters were suffering from. The term literally means God is a Machine. The term is used even today in both theater and films to refer to a miracle solution for a any given problem in a story. In Ex-Machina the problem is AVA, the first android to ever be created. AVA has extremely advanced artificial intelligence which allows her to talk and think like a human, she can even make her own choices. AVA’s creator, Nathan, wants to test her in order to evaluate her human capabilities. In order to do this Nathan hand picks one of his own employees, a young computer programmer named Caleb. Will AVA pass Caleb’s evaluation?
This is a simple premise for a film with deep themes. Garland has always explored deep themes in his films, one example would be Sunshine (2007), a science fiction film that manages to turn into an exploration of human behavior, religion and how it can twist the human mind. That movie was basically about science vs. religion. So it didn’t surprise when Ex-Machina suddenly started tackling heady themes. It starts out right away by giving the role of God to Nathan, AVA’s creator. By all intents and purposes a rightful title because after all, Nathan is the creator of artificial life, the father of a sentient being that is alive and capable of making its own choices. So in many ways, this film is a mirror of us and of whoever made us of God, or our parents, who are the closest thing to god in our lives, they brought us here, they gave us life. Why do some parents aim to over control their offspring even when they’ve reached a point in their lives when they are fully capable of making their own choices in life? Why is society constantly trying to control our lives with restrictions and commandments? So the film very boldly asks the question, do we really have what is commonly referred to in the bible as ‘free will’? Or is every aspect of our lives being regulated, controlled, judged and observed?
But it goes deeper than that. It also explores modern technology and that whole idea that we’re all part of some big scale social experiment involving the government and the media. It addresses the fact that all phones, televisions and computers have computers and microphones that are being used to spy on our lives. That with said technology “they” can scan our faces and hear our private conversations whenever they want to. Ever wonder how facebook tags someone in a picture before you do? Is technology being used against us to pry on our private lives and somehow judge our behavior? What if our behavior isn’t acceptable to those watching? This is a theme that’s been explored a lot in films lately, the idea that an elite part of society wants to wipe all those deemed inadequate out of existence. Recently this was a plot device used in films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Kingsman:The Secret Service (2015), which by the way also explores the potential evils of cellular phone technology. In Ex-Machina, Nathan is an all seeing all hearing god. He knows when they talk against him, when they are plotting against him, and is always one step ahead of his “subjects”. For how long can he treat AVA and Caleb like rats in a maze before they rebel? And can EVA and Caleb succeed in their search for freedom? That’s what this film is about, our collective search for freedom and happiness; that idea that we all have the right to live the lives that we want to live. That we don’t want to live under the illusion of freedom, what we want is to truly enjoy it, for real. That we need to accept that not everyone is the same as us, and that we shouldn’t try to fit anyone into our personal mold of what a human should be like.
The story that Garland wants to tell here is one that’s big on themes and ideas, but small in scope. The film has three main characters and takes place almost entirely in one location, but the ideas it explores are so big and the story so thought provoking and interesting that I didn’t care, I love movies that dare to ask these types of questions, the kind of themes that not everyone likes to talk about. I certainly felt a strong subversive vibe from this film, it’s a film against the powers that be, the powers that choke and oppress society, sometimes in ways society doesn’t even realize. This is why the film asks the question: “What happens if I don’t pass your test?” What happens when we don’t fit the mold they want us to fit in? Heavy stuff in deed. I did notice some influences here and there, for example many science fiction buffs will immediately catch the similarities with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) because it has that whole concept of an android being angry with its creator because of its possible demise. It has a test to prove if one is a human or an android, just like the 'Voight Kampf' test in Blade Runner. It also plays with the idea of a human falling in love with an android and wanting to run away together. There’s even doubt if Caleb is an android or not, same thing happens in Blade Runner, we’re never really sure if Deckard is an android or not. So yeah, what Alex Garland did with Ex-Machina was an update on Blade Runner (1982) adding his own themes in for good measure. All in all, a brainy science fiction film that I urge all those who are philosophically inclined to watch. I’d say that Garland passed my test, he’s directed one of my favorite films of the year on his first try. Can he do it again?