The directorial debut of Alex Garland – he who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, two of the finest genre films of the 2000s – is a fascinating beast for two reasons. First, it is not a particularly sterling work of writing at all, opting too often to tell when showing would be a better service, and uneasily dancing around some particularly flat-footed dialogue from time to time that causes the film to stumble over itself more often than is acceptable. Second, and this may prove the more important fact in the long haul, it is a shockingly forward-thinking, challenging work of direction from a man who has never formally directed before (although one can be sure he has osmosis-ed his fair share of tips and tricks from working with Danny Boyle, one of the finest stylists of the modern era). Part of the visual craft has to do with what I hope will be the big coming up party of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who consistently hints at the Kubricks and the Tarkovskys of the world without ever outright quoting them. But too much of what makes Ex Machina work is too tied into the framing and the mise-en-scene beyond the cinematographer that credit must be given where credit is due. Flaws aside, Garland has learned how to create a cinematic vision that is always, sometimes even in spite of itself, refreshingly cinematic.
Admittedly, part of this credit is simply that Garland has learned just how to surround himself with other capable artists. As mentioned, cinematographer Rob Hardy plays with muted colors throughout, drifting the film along on a palette of bloody alien lighting that coalesces with the metallic edge of the cinematography that itself reveals more than we could ever hope about the nature of the film’s themes. For Ex Machina treads well-worn ground in depicting computer coder Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) and his invitation to the secret home/ laboratory of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) so that he can guinea pig test Bateman’s new AI Ava (Alicia Vikander). The cinematic nature of it all, the visual storytelling, is what allots this old dog material the new, transgressive life-blood it needs to tell the tale with conviction and vigor.
Specifically, the use of digital cinematography bestows the film with a queasy, vaguely mechanical visual air; the colors of the outside forests and mountains pop just too much, and they can’t but seem a product of one of Bateman’s computers. This itself questions the nature of technology, asking us to debate the reality of nature depicted through a movie camera, prodding at the film’s artificial qualities, and reminding that it itself is a product of trickery and computers just like Ava. One of the most accomplished things any film can do is use the fact that it is a film to expose something about the film’s subject matter, and the way Ex Machina recreates the blend of nature and artifice in its filmic visuals is itself an exploration of the unknowable middle ground between life and technology that centers the content of the piece so well. The blindingly opaque, clinically antiseptic white halls of Bateman’s house that swallow and engulf Caleb are no slouch either; they create hell’s own Apple.
There’s more though; Garland’s greatest secret is his framing of the leads, contrasting Gleeson’s stilted, awkward robotic features with Isaac’s brutish humanity. In a wonderful feat of director-actor harmony, the two male stars do a pas de deux on screen that literally questions the nature of physical humanity. We’re asked to believe that Gleeson is a lightly nerdy human twenty-something, the painfully bookish human foil to robotic Ava (a wonderfully vague Alicia Vikander who uses quiet like a sledge-hammer and finds the nebulous region between demure innocence and empowered menace that is absolutely essential for the film to work). Yet, throughout, Gleeson is asked to play the robot; nothing about his character breathes with life. He always seems as mechanical as Ava, if not more so, drawing into disarray our understanding of the line between the human and the machine.
Better, the film asks us if humanity is such a notable thing to begin with. Isaac, in the film’s earthiest performance, finds poetry in the down-home human relations man turned Dr. Frankenstein. He is categorically the most lived-in thing in the film, the only natural performance, allowing his lines to fumble without checking himself (contrast with Gleeson, who always seems to be self-policing).
Yet, Isaac is as close as the film has to a genuine villain.
Here, in the way he treats and marinates his performances, Garland wanders into something a little bit brilliant. In Ex Machina’s world, humanity is the realm of the privileged – Bateman has the freedom to stumble and indulge in humanity because his wealth and security allow him to mess up, to fumble in human ways. Caleb has to watch himself, a new human crony for Bateman’s science experiment. He has to play the robot because he hasn’t earned the privilege of humanity yet; he is a human who has been convinced of the need to robotize himself around those wealthier than he. It is a veritable Panopticon of a film, asking us to question when and where Caleb is being watched as we witness him bend himself to his superior’s will. Bateman doesn’t even have to question him or actually watch him (Garland’s framing consistently boxes off Caleb in a prison of Bateman’s making, so that even when Caleb occupies an inviting, open room he checks himself for entrances and exits all the same, knowing that the inviting qualities are false). We are watching Bateman turn Caleb into a robot by having Caleb turn himself into a robot, the robot of the masses to Bateman’s closed-off one-percenter. If Isaac’s Bateman is the only genuinely alive thing in the whole film and Gleeson might as well be a machine himself, what does this say about the way life is but a means to oppress others, to turn other would-be lives into mechanical automatons and tools?
The theme persists on to the close. Near the end, Caleb grows up, asserts agency for himself, and in a dirty trick of the light, he is himself trounced. Nihilism runs awry in Ex Machina (after all, Kubrick is at the heart), and the ultimate question of Ava’s humanity is answered in a caustic critique of the entire human spirit. She asserts agency for herself, with Vikander giving a far more human, pulsing performance than Gleeson ever does. Yet, we must remember that Ava’s understanding of humanity is defined by her creator, Bateman, and the actions she takes are products of what he would do, not really her own choices but manifestations of his definition of humanity. In other words, the realm of humanity in Ex Machina is the realm of the damned; whenever a character actually feels human, actually exhibits conviction and life blood, they use it to hurt others, for they are themselves the products of a larger, more oppressive humanity corrupting all, a humanity only looking out for itself and not really concerned with the welfare of others. Garland isn’t really commenting on AI, but on humanity, and his view is not pretty.
All of this is well and good, but Garland’s work sometimes conspires to shoot itself in the foot. The writing is at its best when it is at its most humble and non-intrusive; the script works as a mechanism for Garland the director, but when the paper isn’t ceding ground to the work on the camera, problems arise. On a scene-by-scene basis, the talkier bits don’t much come alive. There’s always a distinct freshman odor to the dialogue, even a musty quality that we might expect from a college-bound stage-play and not a visceral, potent work of lively cinema. Once or twice, the film had me convinced this was an intentional bid at self-parody (the way it essays Caleb and Bateman as characters who would speak in airy tones of false bonding and hipster-like corporatism had me going, almost as if the script was intentionally giving them stodgy dialogue to point out how stilted their lives are).
But a few two many scenes fall flat around the edges (there’s an almost cringe-inducing bit of exposition involving the Turing Test, for instance), and the film doesn’t commit enough to any challenge to allow the dialogue to stumble upon a purpose. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, but they do rob the film of some of its cryptic frontierist immediacy. Garland the director just can’t take control of Garland the writer for long enough in the end; his bread-and-butter day-job of pen and paper wishes to take over. Thankfully, when all is said and done, the pen is not mightier than the camera, and the more important Garland wins out.