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Deus Ex Machina?

              Original science fiction movies don’t come along very much. Most that we see whether they be superhero movies, space operas like Guardians of the Galaxy, or even attempts at exploring a high concept or idea like Interstellar, aren’t very original. And there are definitely aspects of Ex Machina that aren’t original, that have been seen and explored before. But what makes Ex Machina different is how it takes these somewhat familiar concepts like A.I. and restricts them to a confined setting and few characters and it works wonders creating a thrilling narrative and a gripping work of speculative fiction.
                Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coding programmer working for the movie equivalent of Google who wins a contest to spend a week at the secretive home/lab of the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once he arrives he finds there’s a catch: that he has to administer the Turing test on Nathan’s new robotic creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to prove that it really is an A.I. But during tests Caleb communicates and forms a relationship with Ava while she hints that something is not all right at the facility and especially with Nathan.
                First-time director Alex Garland has previous experience as the screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go and he brings the same intensity to this film. He creates an unsettling atmosphere and air of mystery but also cautious intrigue and amazement as we like Caleb discover more about Ava. There are only four characters in Caleb, Nathan, Ava, and Nathan’s housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and so the film is very dependent on their performances. Gleeson and Isaac who will be appearing together in Star Wars: The Force Awakens later this year are very compelling. Gleeson captures the curiosity and often naivety of this guy seeing technology and ingenuity he’s never before witnessed, while Isaac radiates an unnerving compulsiveness and off-kilter attitude. But the standout is Vikander who emanates a real sense of the unknown getting just the right level of ambiguity for her character and her situation. Garland also wrote the screenplay and it’s exceptionally good where even in the points of low action the dialogue between Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava is fascinating and magnetic.
                The film’s style you can tell is heavily influenced. While there are moments that feel reminiscent of something from Cronenberg or Danny Boyle (Garland has written a few of Boyle’s films), to me it felt a lot like something from Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had of course developed the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence and had come up with a number of its plot points before he died and his friend Steven Spielberg took over. That film didn’t turn out as well as was hoped, but this feels a lot closer to the kind of A.I. film Kubrick would actually have made. Largely because Garland utilizes a lot of his style. The editing and transitions of ‘Sessions’ really hearkens back to The Shining one of my favourite horror movies, as does the small cast, slow but tense build, and isolated setting. But there are aspects too like the recurring absence of sound and score that echo 2001: A Space Odyssey and sexual undertones familiar to A Clockwork Orange. Hell Nathan’s constant monitoring of the compound feels a lot like HAL 9000.
                But perhaps the best aspect of this film is how it keeps you guessing. The story takes some very unexpected twists and turns and everything is stranger than it may initially seem. A few of these from the tonal and character hints you can guess, but others take you completely by surprise. There’s a creepiness to the situation and character actions. The way in which Nathan was able to program Ava’s intelligence is particularly creepy. You’re often in the same boat as Caleb, not sure who to trust and determined to find out what’s really going on. And the film’s structure makes even little things really tense. The guessing doesn’t stop with the end credits. The ending certainly raises questions itself and is the perfect conclusion to such an eerie experience. For a film called Ex Machina it certainly doesn’t end with a Deus Ex Machina! It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller that just happens to also be a creative sci-fi story.
                Ex Machina is a tremendous film that acts as a brilliant speculative fiction, as suspenseful as it is creative with an unpredictable narrative, characters, and motivations that make you uneasy in all the right ways. And after seeing something like Jurassic World, it’s also great to see CGI that looks convincing and is integrated flawlessly. The acting, writing, and just overall execution of this film is superb. When a film leaves an impression on you that you just can’t sway, you know it did something really right, and Ex Machina is going to be in my head for weeks!

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