Writer Alex Garland, known for penning the screenplays to the Danny Boyle sci-fi spectacles 28 Days Later and Sunshine, marks his directorial debut with this stunning sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, a film that examines the meaning of existence, consciousness, and morality without ever tipping over into pontification.
Taking viewers quickly into its mise-en-scène, of a nearly hyper-sterile modernity offset by beautiful natural mountainous surroundings and verdant touches of plants, the plot points are just as swiftly settled in the opening moments of Ex Machina. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a highly skilled coder who has won a contest to spend a week with reclusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac), founder of Blue Book, the world’s largest and most powerful internet search engine (think Google), at his mansion tucked away in the mountains. Upon his arrival, Caleb is immediately presented with an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) and the real reason he was brought there. Nathan has developed an advanced form of artificial intelligence, drawing on the vast resources of his internet search engine, and placed it in an amazingly beautiful and intellectually spellbinding android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is to be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not Ava is truly intelligent and self-aware, or merely simulating intelligence.
Immediately, through various sessions in conversation with Ava, Caleb is intrigued with Ava, and Ava does seem to be quite self-aware. However, Caleb begins to grow increasingly concerned with Nathan’s erratic behavior, including heavy drinking and violence towards his sexy live-in made Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Nathan seems to swing between waxing deeply philosophical on his role as both a god-like figure, and drinking himself into unconscious stupors. But Caleb, nevertheless, cannot keep himself from falling deeper into an infatuated state with Ava and her AI, especially when, from beyond the ever-watchful eye of Nathan during a power outage – one of numerous that frequents Nathan’s mansion — she reaches out to him, both asking for help and warning him against Nathan’s lies. Caleb is now caught in a serious conundrum – should he stay loyal to the man that brought him there, or should he help the android he has developed such a fascination for. This leads to a dizzying and fascinatingly philosophical final act.
Even in this debut film, Alex Garland shows his filmmaking mastery, over both the camera and the screenplay, the latter being no surprise at all. While Ex Machina (its title a reference to the phrase deus ex machina, literally ‘the god from the machinery’) explores some of the classic anxieties of science fiction such as the morality of scientific progress, the fear of humanity being superseded by its own inventions, and what is the true meaning of existence and life, Garland never lets these ideas overwhelm what is, in fact, a superbly balanced dramatic thriller at its core with an undercurrent of sexual tension that also runs through the film. This latter point only serves to drive home the questions of what does it mean to be alive, Ava being a sexually provocative AI, either by design, or by choice, something neither we, nor the central male characters of the film can answer. And is Ava’s sexuality a crucial part of her being self-aware or not?
The film is beautifully designed as well in it modern landscape accented by the constant reminder of the natural world, the verdant tree lined mountains and waterfalls surrounding Nathan’s mansion, judiciously placed plants in the home; it’s like Garland wanted to visually symbolize the discord between nature and technology – and it worked.
Ex Machina was one of the best films to come out in 2014 and certainly one of the best directorial debuts.
Ex Machina was shot in 4K on Sony CineAlta F65 and F55 cameras with Cooke Xtal Express, Kowa Prominar and Angenieux Optimo lenses with various cameras used for additional scenes. A 4K DI was used for processing/color coding. This new Ultra HD Blu-ray comes as a “pure” 4K HEVC encodement with HDR10 high dynamic range. The film is purposely soft with a subtle, cool color palette and some warm midrange highlights. Therefore the differences between the Ultra HD and Blu-ray are not as stark as some may expect, they are subtle and in keeping with the intent of the film, but they are noticeable. For starters, while the film still has a soft overall look, there is definitely more detail to bee seen. The opening scene on Caleb’s face in the office shows more texture and more “grain” for lack of a better term. The flight in the helicopter shows more texture in the snow, grass and waterfall. The colors and highlights are also slightly more vibrant. As Caleb and Nathan walk down the corridor when he first arrives at the house, the white and light of the walls looks whiter and brighter and when he enters his room, the amber color of the lit wall also stands out a little more than in the Blu-ray version. Again, these are more subtle changes, but ones that are in keeping with the overall visual subtlety of the film. If this Ultra HD looked “in your face” it probably wouldn’t look like Ex Machina. That said, if you’re expecting more “wow” this isn’t the upgrade for you. If you don’t have this film yet, then this is indeed a step up from the Blu-ray.
The DTS:X audio mix is an extremely subtle mix that has been available on the Blu-ray Disc release. Dialogue is full and free from clipping and there are some subtle atmospheric sounds that fill the surrounds and overhead channels – very subtle. The musical score is what is mostly immersive about this sound mix apart from the opening sequence where a helicopter flies overhead. There’s also an alarm that bounces through the room. This sounds good in the 7.1 compatible version (for those without a DTS:X equipped system) and even more realistic in DTS:X.
No new special features have been included with this Ultra HD reissue and all previously released on-disc special features reside on the included Blu-ray Disc.
- Standard Blu-ray with main feature and special features
- Digital HD UltraViolet
- Through the Looking Glass: Making Ex Machina (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:39:59)
- SXSW Q&A with Cast and Crew (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 01:00:57)
- Behind the Scenes Vignettes (1080p/24; 00:28:40):
- Making Ava
- Nathan’s World
- Becoming Ava
- New Consciousness
- Meet Ava
- God Complex
- Lionsgate Trailers
The Final Assessment
Ex Machina is heady, beautiful, sexy, brilliant — sci-fi as it should be. An astounding and triumphant directorial debut for Alex Garland and a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi thriller.[amazon_auto_links id=”100653"]
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