I was thinking…
…how we tend to most enjoy and are least hesitant to approach that which is familiar. This is never more true than when approaching a new film. Indeed, arguably one of the most popular film series of all times, the Star Wars saga, is so loved because it strikes familiar chords within nearly everyone who sees it. As a student of Joseph Campbell, George Lucas knew to utilize recurring character archetypes and bathe his stories in the Jungian collective unconscious. We love the films because they instantly feel familiar.
Now, on the other hand, there is Ex Machina. The latest outing from British filmmaker Alex Garland (Dredd, 28 Days Later), Ex Machina (a Latin phrase meaning out of or away from the machine), consistently attempts to coat a disturbingly new pill in a familiar capsule just long enough for us to swallow it.
The familiar coating is brushed on almost from the outset as computer code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson— Star Wars: The Force Awakens) wins a company contest in which he gets to work one-on-one with the company founder and technological genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac–also Star Wars: The Force Awakens) at his private estate.
As Caleb is flown over hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness in a helicopter, the familiar early moments of Jurassic Park come to mind as the protagonists in that film arrive in similar fashion on the island where man is playing god.
When the chopper sets down a short hike from the actual facility where Caleb will be spending his next week, the pilot tells him that’s as far as he can take him and he’s on his own. Caleb suddenly mirrors the unprepared Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, being left alone on the road to a madman’s home.
Even as Caleb finally approaches the entrance to the home/research facility, the electronic eye next to the door is the spitting image of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey–a film where a computer becomes homicidal.
So freaking familiar.
The coating of familiarity is applied again and again as we meet Nathan, who, as a friend of mine pointed out, is very much like Dr. Reinhardt from The Black Hole–crazy beard included. The young man, although quite charismatic, and eager to befriend Caleb, is still unapproachable–like a firecracker whose fuse has burned down but has still not gone off for some reason.
Nathan enlists Caleb to perform what is known as the Turing Test, a test developed to determine a computer or machine’s ability to exhibit human-like behavior patterns indistinguishable from an actual human. His subject is Nathan’s breakthrough in artificial intelligence: an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander—The Man from U.N.C.L.E.).
As Caleb engages in daily conversation with Ava, she slowly reveals to him that Nathan should not be trusted. The trouble is, Nathan says the same thing about Ava.
I don’t wish to go further into the synopsis for fear of giving anything more away. Suffice it so say, the mad scientist vibe is strong throughout the picture and the tension running beneath the surface in nearly every scene can be largely attributed to the unnerving performances of all three primary actors.
But the minimalist score, composed by duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, heightens all the feelings of tension, suspense and claustrophobia as well as anything the actors do. Furthermore, there’s a certain sparseness reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s films.
Everything about the mise-en-scène in this picture is meant to add to the dichotomy of familiarity and uneasiness–the setting, the lighting, the camera angles. And I would be remiss to not mention the special effects, which are as seamless as can be imagined–an expertly blurred line between real and imagined.
Although Ex Machina could have ended about two minutes earlier, eliminating the denouement and thereby resulting in a conclusion with slightly more impact, the flick manages to tighten the emotional and psychological coils during the entire duration.
Ammo Dump rating: 9 out of 10 razor blades (you’ll see why)
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show (when it returns). And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ALphaEXray for more movie news updates.
Avengers: Ex Machina
Run time: 108 minutes