Ex Machina Review

After achieving early success with his debut novel The Beach (later filmed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo Dicaprio in his first post-Titanic role) and continuing with steady screenplay work like 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, Alex Garland has finally taken a turn behind the camera as director on Ex Machina. The result is a thunderous creative triumph. Working from his own original script, Garland has made a deeply engaging movie which manages to transcend its science fiction genre in a fresh, cerebral way. The subject of artificial intelligence has been explored repeatedly on film but maybe never in quite this manner, at least with such controlled focus. There's a perfectly calibrated triangle of tension here, and the viewer has a constant struggle of where to place his or her loyalties.

Immediately we're introduced to Domnhall Gleeson as a tech employee who's apparently won some kind of contest at his job. A helicopter soon takes Gleeson's Caleb to a beautiful but isolated area, dropping him off with the caveat that he'll have to go the rest of the way on his own. The arrival at a large estate owned by his boss Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) comes with little in the way of a welcoming party for Caleb. Indeed, it seems like Nathan occupies the secluded expanse by himself and with little to no outside communication. Caleb learns he's there for reasons beyond simply spending a week with the powerful founder of a Google-like search engine. The third part of the triangle is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan created whose level of artificial intelligence will be tested by Caleb. Sessions between Ava and Caleb serve loosely as chapters in the film, with each one revealing new layers about both participants.

Caleb obviously acts as something of a surrogate for the viewer, having been thrust into this odd environment largely without warning and unsure of the extent of Nathan's intentions. It's to the film's credit that it never allows us to completely trust Nathan, from the standpoint of him being sincere in his conversations with Caleb or the opposite, as a villain-like character. Isaac, whose choices in roles lately have been outstanding, makes us distrusting of Nathan but perhaps not to the extent of having him be the full-blown antagonist. Some room as to his relative virtues remains even amid his heavy drinking and generally boorish behavior. Plus the scene where he and his Asian servant create an impromptu dance party is an instant classic.

So much of Ex Machina burns slowly with just the right level of tension and intrigue. The pacing is such that little crumbs of plot are thrown as need be in what is ultimately a heavily dialogue-driven exercise. Essentially we're dealing with an entire film consisting of exchanges between two people at a time - either Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava. But it works, completely. The larger ethical and societal implications are raised with a thoughtfulness that also plays well into the script. If the prevailing idea is that artificial intelligence can be a Pandora's box of uncertainty then Garland pretty masterfully threads that particular needle. His ending, too, is an on-the-nose solution as fitting as just about anything for which one could have hoped.

In a cinematic climate so unfriendly to small-budgeted, non-blockbuster films aimed at adults, Ex Machina also feels like a ray of light. It's a hopeful sign that strong filmmaking can lead to modest success if given the opportunity. The picture's $25 million U.S. gross should qualify it as something of a sleeper hit, even if the $4 million it did in the UK wasn't quite as impressive. An extended life on DVD, Blu-ray, etc. might also be in the cards.  It's certainly one of a small handful of the finest films to be released in the first half of 2015, and it easily stands a chance of placing on quite a few best-of lists by year's end. Ex Machina extends far beyond any science fiction limitations, making for an enjoyable and expertly-paced thriller deserving of an audience.

The Disc

The Region A Blu-ray release of Ex Machina arrives courtesy of Lionsgate. A slipcover comes with the initial edition, as does a Digital HD code.

The film looks marvelous on BD. The wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio is reproduced with clarity and efficiency. Colors and detail impress. Blacks achieve a nice level of inky darkness as necessary. The result is a clean, delicate viewing experience.

Audio comes in a variety of flavors. The new DTS:X and DTS Headphone:X technologies are available for those with the proper equipment/receivers. There's additionally an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track which sounds exceptionally good from start to finish. There are ample audio cues that allow the sound to make itself known but a particular instance very late in the film is a real stand-out. It's a scene layered in confusion but amplified greatly by the audio track. Dialogue can be easily and clearly heard. Yet another option is also here, in the form of an English 5.1 DTS Digital Surround. The differences will probably be negligible to most. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.

A selection of trailers, including Under the Skin and A Most Violent Year, play upon inserting the disc.

Special features found from the menu are rather generous. There's a five-part featurette entitled "Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina" (40:00) that provides solid insight into the making of the film. Billed as "Behind-the-Scenes Vignettes" (28:39) there are eight short pieces highlighting individual aspects of the production. Lastly, a lengthy Q&A/panel discussion (1:00:57) from the South by Southwest festival with cast and crew members (including Garland and Isaac) rounds out the nice collection of supplements. The theatrical trailer isn't included on its own but is shown at the beginning of the Q&A.

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Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this sci-fi marvel about artificial intelligence and robot love, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac


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