First things first, be forewarned, if you have yet to see this movie and plan to with a blank slate, this review is chock full o’ spoilers.
Now that that’s out of the way, let me first say I’m still not entirely sure if this is a movie I really, really like or one I just really enjoyed watching, but may not stick with and inspire me to re-watch multiple times, as my favorite movies do. I’m a bit disappointed to say that the further in time I get from leaving the theater, the more I think the latter applies.
The problems with this movie are definitely not the subject matter. Slickly-done A.I., intrigue, themes of gender roles, patriarchy, the human race’s technological advances exceeding our control with unforeseen consequences? Yea, sign me up. I geek out on all of that, and this movie certainly delivers on all of these themes and more. It’s also not lacking for gorgeous cinematography, fine acting, tasteful well-placed music, and a haunting, hypnotic overall narrative, much in the vein of the classic of all Sci-fi classics, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
No, all the elements for movie greatness are accounted for. The devil, as it often is, lay in the details. First, to quickly summarize the plot; A young, enigmatic super-mega tech genius CEO of a fictional super-Google offers a contest to his employees to win a week with him at his secluded massive compound somewhere in what looks like the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. The winner of the “contest,” our protagonist, is a younger and talented but lonely tech hipster-ish 20-something who’s a bit apprehensive but obviously jazzed to hang for a week with his Steve Jobs-ish super boss he was likely to never meet under normal circumstances.
As it turns out, Mr. super genius CEO guy happens to be a raging alcoholic that seems more interest in dudebro-bonding with our contest winner, but actually wants him to Turing Test his newest A.I. creation, the lovely and precocious Ava. Ava comes across as something like season 1 Lt. Cmdr. Data meets Cherry 2000. Brilliant and ever inquisitive, but lacking in every social norm and starved for male attention. We’re led to believe that Ava has an adorable schoolgirl crush on Mr. Hipster contest winner, who develops a predictable crush in return, and dude-bro alcoholic CEO genius guy just wants his new friend to legitimately help him decide if Ava is really more than the sum of her parts. And, as with most movies of this type, nothing is what it seems. Dude-bro CEO has a nefarious plan, Protagonist hipster thinks he’ll outsmart said genius CEO dude, and Ava, meanwhile, has plans beyond either of their comprehension. (she turns out to be more HAL than Data) It really would have been more apt to be titled “Hidden Agenda.”
So far, so good. The set up is actually pretty traditional, despite it’s sci-fi background. We have a typical protagonist, a fairly typical villain, and a damsel in distress. In true cerebral-ish movie fashion, everything gets turned on its head and… hang on, because plot twists lie ahead. The problem, at least for me, is that many of these supposed jaw-dropping plot twists were actually pretty predictable. Moreover, they were set-up fairly ham-handedly, requiring characters to make some terribly obvious omissions and oversights in logic. Maybe I’m being a bit nitpicky, and because the director was obviously going for a 2001-like tone, in some respects I’m very unfairly comparing that movie to this one. But, for now let’s blame the director.
Problem 1: Villain CEO guy. Super genius or complete idiot? So, it turns out our protagonist didn’t randomly win a contest (duh) and that he picked our protagonist guy for a reason. Well, many reasons. This is blindingly obvious to anyone watching except for some reason our protagonist guy himself doesn’t quite figure it out until about 2/3 through the movie, when he realizes out loud that if the fictional Google janitor had won the “contest,” that might not have been the best person to judge whether your robot is sentient. Sharp thinking there, buddy. Secondly, CEO guy wants and needs our protagonist dude to stealthily peak his nose into places he’s explicitly told him not to (oldest trick in the book – “whatever you do, don’t press the red button!)
This obviously acknowledges that hipster kid is smart enough to get his hands on some shit that could seriously mess up his diabolical plans, and put him in some immediate danger. I guess he just supposed he knew where hipster dude would draw the line.. but eh.. guess not. Oops. Way to see the whole chessboard, Mr. Supergenius. To make matters worse, (last warning for huge spoilers), when the shit hits the fan and his robots (oh yea, his mute Japanese maid/sex slave is a robot too.. which I figured out about 10 seconds after she was introduced) are on the loose and pissed off, Genius’s plan involves just basically trying to scold them and fist-fight them rather than a) Having a remote kill-switch, which would be the VERY FUCKING FIRST thing I’d design when building sentient robots or b) running, screaming, and hiding like a scared 5 year old, which would be the 2d thing I’d do if plan a) failed. But no, he goes the Caesar Milan route, like the Poodles got out of the crate during the dinner party, so he gets stabbed and bleeds to death.
Next, hipster guy doesn’t think through a lot of his actions, nor what’s going on around him. He seems to be very apprehensive from the start about the weirdo who brought him to his creepy, isolated compound, which shows maybe he has some good instincts working for him. Yet he seems to take everything this guy (and Ava, for that matter) says and does at face value. He apparently buys that CEO guy has no control over the power outages, and even goes a step further and believes that there’s no way to see or hear what he’s saying to Ava during these power outages. So you never thought maybe a super-paranoid tech genius in a huge isolated ultra-futuristic robot-building compound might not have access to battery-operated cameras and microphones? Oh. Ok.. Well, he did. Oops
In the grand scheme of things, I realize these are fairly minor quibbles. One might say dickish nitpicking. But then, maybe it’s because I had much higher expectations for this movie than were realistic. My very first clue as to the fact this movie might disappoint me on a few minor levels were when the ticket booth guy couldn’t even understand what movie I was trying to buy tickets for. The reason? I was pronouncing “Ex Machina” as… “Ex Machina.” As in, the way it’s actually pronounced.(geez.. what an elitist asshole!) I realized after the first 3 “what?”s that this guy is probably used to hearing “2 tickets for Ex Ma-sheen-a, please.” This immediately made me remember this was not some kind of arthouse flick or experimental movie. This was a big-budget major release. And as such, the tent needs to be fairly wide in order to turn a profit. Translation? You can’t just entertain me. You better entertain all of them too.
So… sure, you can make your movie smart, but you better not make it that smart. Again, I’ll make a completely unfair comparison to 2001. When Kubrick decided to take on 2001, he teamed up with famed Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, to make a no-bullshit real deal as realistic-as-possible groundbreaking sci fi masterpiece, fuck whatever critics and mass audiences think. And he was in position to do so, as his box office success with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove more or less gave him free reign with limited studio interference. And the early returns were probably MGM’s worst nightmare. Critics basically called it pretentious crap, and audiences walked out confused and disoriented. In fact, the whole thing was looking like an historic flop after its first week in theaters, until acid-dropping hippies started showing up en masse, which spurred everyone to re-evaluate it.
These days, there’s no way a studio is going to take that kind of chance. And Alex Garland, fine director he is, is no Stanley Kubrick, nor would he have the kind of armor Kubrick had to make a completely visceral, intense, void of any Hollywood tropes movie, assuming he would want to. Again, terribly unfair comparison. But that’s the frustrating thing to me. That this movie could have been more. Was it a smart movie? Sure, but it could have been a little smarter. Was it minimalist and free of fluff? Ehh.. to a good enough extent, but it could have been more so. One thing I will give the movie a lot of credit for, is that it’s steering you to believe it’s going to end up tied in a nice, happy guy gets girl in the end Hollywood bow, and then takes and abrupt U-turn to leave our protagonist in the dust. That was refreshing. (and I’m guessing test audiences fucking HATED that)
So, in closing, I guess my real issue with the movie is that it wasn’t made for me, which is of course completely unrealistic. But it frustratingly had all the elements of a movie that could have been for me. Ehh.. I probably really am nitpicking here, as I would definitely, heartily recommend this movie. I did enjoy it. And you should go see it. Besides, what else is there to watch?
Yea I’ll shut up now. Go see this movie.