Some films you can watch and then forget about between leaving the theater and arriving home. Others stick with you, they make you think, they make you wonder, and they desperately make you want to see them again.
It was about a week ago that I saw writer-director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.” If you had asked me upon leaving the theater what I thought, I would have said that it was “okay.” I would have explained that there were moments in the movie that didn’t work for me, reveals I thought took too long and consequently weren’t very big surprises when they were meant to be, and a whole lot of things left unresolved/unanswered/undone.
“Ex Machina” has stuck with me however, and I’ve thought more and more about. While my qualms with the movie haven’t gone away, the more I think about what I saw and how it played out, the more I like it. It isn’t by any means perfect, there are some big and important things that I don’t think work, but if you ask me what I think now (and as I’ve pointed out previously, you are asking me as you’re reading this), I would say that it is “pretty good.”
All that said, what exactly is “Ex Machina?” Good question.
The movie stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a programmer who “wins” a trip to his reclusive boss’s hideaway. This boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is also a programmer, one who has, potentially, come up with a robot (Alicia Vikander) that has the ability to think/grow/learn. Nathan puts it to Caleb to find out whether Ava truly has artificial intelligence or not.
Thus, the games begin. Nathan is a hard-drinking, sort of nasty man with a lot of quirks. Caleb may be good at what he does, but working in Nathan’s bunker-like facility isn’t doing Caleb any favors, nor is Nathan’s general attitude. Plus, there’s Ava who is clearly playing games, but neither the audience nor Caleb can figure out exactly why.
The basic setup of the whole thing is brilliant, and Isaac, Gleeson, and Vikander are outstanding. The film looks tremendous and is visually striking. There is such an incredible attention to the feel of the movie that whether or not you buy the rest of it, you are going to be sucked in.
What I have been struggling with for a week is whether or not I buy the rest of it. The test Caleb is performing in the movie is described as Turing Test (or kind of like a Turing Test), but it isn’t really because Caleb knows he’s talking to a robot, he doesn’t have to figure it out. And right there is the first problem I have with “Ex Machina” – it never appropriately works out the background details.
How exactly is Caleb going to make this assessment? Caleb doesn’t quite know for a while, which makes complete sense, and then the question—that really important question—disappears into the background without him ever offering up a good answer. He just proceeds because he’s under a ludicrous time deadline which Nathan has established because… well, there’s no reason why Nathan establishes the deadline, he just does, much as Caleb just keeps plugging away without knowing how he’s going come up with an answer.
I really don’t want to give away any details of the movie, because a big part of it is you going through it with Caleb, trying to figure it all out just as he does. But, unfortunately, I think that a lot of things either don’t have answers or that Caleb arrives at them too slowly. We are meant to be going on the journey with him, he’s our surrogate, but as good as Gleeson is (and he’s good), the movie never offers up enough about how Caleb is doing his thing with Ava to allow us to travel with him in that most important aspect of the journey.
The other thing that very much troubles me about the movie is the ending (no, I’m not in any way going to say how “Ex Machina” closes, don’t worry). The end is absolutely acceptable, but I can imagine at least six different endings for the movie, all of which would work equally well. I don’t know why the ending on the movie is the ending. It doesn’t feel in any way more valid than some of the other choices, and I very much want it to.
I unquestionably have problems with “Ex Machina,” but I still feel like it’s smart and that it’s well put together. I want the ending to be equally smart and well put together. I want to have the sense watching the final scene that yes, it’s not something I saw coming but it’s clearly the only way the movie could possibly finish. That isn’t the ending offered.
This is where I get back to my thinking it merely okay after I finished watching it last week. My impulse was that it was an okay movie because it should have been better, but what I realized later as I thought about it is that the movie had earned being better. The three main actors are great, it’s a fascinating story, and the details in the look (and sounds) of the movie are excellent. There are pieces which fall flat, but they only fall as flat as they do because the other elements work so well. That is to say, the elements that frustrate me only do so because the movie made me expect more and if it made me expect more, well, it clearly did a lot right.
I want to go out and see “Ex Machina” again. I am not sure if I’ll feel the same way or differently about it when I’m finished, but I definitely want to see it again. And that means that it did something right.
photo credit: A24