Bonus Features Not Included
You have to feel sorry for hard science fiction fans. Whilst other reasonably niche genres like horror enjoy a renaissance with some truly groundbreaking movies recently (i.e. The Babadook and It Follows), you’d probably have to go back to 2009’s Moon for the last truly great original hard sci-fi flick. Too long have we seen it treated as an off-shoot of the action stable, despite the fact it can go in-depth into new and interesting ideas of fiction spinning out of real and developing science fact. It’s been a long old road but up steps long-time producer turned first-time director Alex Garland to give sci-fi followers something to shout about with top artificial intelligence mind-twister Ex Machina.
After winning a random lottery at work to spend a week with the company boss at his remote wilderness retreat, computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, Unbroken) is cautious about what eccentric technologist Nathan (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) has in store due to the mysterious nature of the invite and the amount of non-disclosure agreements he’s forced to sign. Nathan shows off his latest creation in Ava (Alicia Vikander, Seventh Son), a humanoid artificial intelligence android, and charges Caleb with performing his own version of the Turing Test to determine if her AI is comparable or excelling of a human being’s intelligence. However, Ava dreams of escaping from Nathan’s grip and Caleb is aware that Nathan want to see how an upgraded model performs over Ava…
A minimal cast excels in quality. Isaac’s performance as the eccentric inventor wrapped up in a Generation Y attitude catches your attention from the get go. He manages to balance the brilliance of building his own android with it’s man-made artificial intelligence and being a Tony Stark level cool guy, getting drunk nightly & programming a robot to keep up with his sick dance moves. The guy is really earning his acting stripes as he keeps on churning out great performances. I won’t keep a secret and confess that he is a favourite of mine. Gleeson is no slouch either and gets over the fear & mental breakdown of this man placed in his boundary pushing and scary situation. Considering she’s not an English-based actress, Swedish Vikander is actually a good choice to enhance the metallic yet not completely cold personality of an android. The exchanges between the three main speaking cast members really excel one another and help to draw better performances out. Hell, even Sonoya Mizuno, who plays the sex puppet Kyoko, deserves a special mention for being spot on perfect in complicated dance scenes with Isaac. Sterling job all round here.
The real highlight of Ex Machina is how Garland takes to the director’s chair and soars when given his own wings. With a resume of producing films like Dredd & 28 Weeks Later and writing screenplays for 28 Days Later & Sunshine, he’s definitely got some street cred in filmmaking & creating audience favourite movies and this is no different. There’s a brooding intensity throughout, created by a unique cinematic experience with suitable music for the extreme scientific tone of the film, an almost dulled focus (which highlights the flashy technology used also) and smashing cinematography which highlights light both naturally and artificial. The multiple times when the power goes out and the building’s lights turn red in emergency mode is subtle enough to reflect the mood change, in how it is the only time Caleb & Ava can speak truly freely from Nathan’s prying ears, without caving your skull in by being too obvious. The real life location of the hotel in Norway where this movie was shot is perfect and believable for an eccentric like Nathan, with original architecture and a design fitting someone so technologically outrageous. Garland manages to throw in a few amazing moments of horror also, like when Caleb thinks he is one of Nathan’s androids which is programmed to think he isn’t. So he proceeds to slit his arm open to see if he is a human while blood oozes everywhere and a metallic soundtrack menaces in the background. Another is the clip where you see on a time lapse monitor another android wanting to be let out of a room and proceeds to continuously bang on a door until her arms disintegrate. Both are unnervingly delicious. All in all, a superb directorial debut from Garland but given his track record, it’s hardly surprising.
The core science fiction theme of artificial intelligence is made fascinating again and it’s not because it’s been stylishly sexed up with an attractive Swedish lady. The idea of AI is not a new one in film and recent films like Chappie have touched upon the subject, but the smaller scale setting where everyone is confined to Nathan’s wilderness retreat gives the spotlight to the concept and allows time for the audience to take it in. I like how the science isn’t overly complicated and easy to follow, without dumbing itself down like some other “hard sci-fi” films (I’m looking at you Interstellar) have attempted recently. The numerous interviews we see contain segments of Caleb trying to test Ava’s A.I. to it’s emotional limits as he struggles to meet Nathan’s demands. With Ava embracing her humanity and wants to interact with the rest of the human race, there is a heavy pressure throughout whether if this is right or not. The dilemma when Caleb realises that Ava could be made redundant by Nathan in his quest to perfect the A.I. is an interesting one over humanism & perfection, which I could have happily sat down and chewed on for hours. I do like the extra effort shown to make Ava not an entirely perfect, clean person. She lies and keeps secrets like any human too. I endorse how this is a film keen to talk about ideas in science fiction, rather than being all showy with the thoughts implemented and our own imagination is left to comprehend what could be in places, in what is some of the most subtle storytelling I’ve seen in a long time from a western production. For that alone, it makes this movie really something else and really special.
So what stops me from going all the way and awarding this movie a perfect 10? Well Ex Machina suffers massively from being too obvious. As good as Garland’s style is, you can see all the twists and turns in the plot coming a mile away and there is no attempt to hide them either. The ideas that the film proposes are great but the plot that binds them is made from old rope and snaps easy into a sea of repeated clichés and betrayals. You also have to swallow quite a bit to buy the ending. The character motivations are all well and good but bloody hell it wouldn’t have killed the movie to have the helicopter throw a total “what the hell?!” face when he picks up someone who he has never met before at this super remote facility where he sees who goes in and out from there. Kinda took me out of the film if I am being honest.
I digress however. Science fiction fans have something to shout about finally. Whilst some of the filmmaking suffers a couple of notable plot related cinematic sins, the presented hard sci-fi ideas involving A.I. are more than enough to score Ex Machina a must see for anyone with an interest in the genre. Garland is given the reigns to his own project for once and in doing so nails a home run. He excels in every aspect of cinematography he presents and draws out a great group performance. An essential film for 2015.
1080p throughout, the transfer to Blu-ray has served Ex Machina. In a highly stylised film, it’s all about getting the look across as it’s super important to the feel and atmosphere created through, which thankfully the picture holds up it’s end of the bargain. An absolutely flawless conversion, the hyper stylised moments to enhance the mood such as Caleb cutting himself go up a notch to rival it’s cinematic release. With both normal 2.35:1 and 16:9 widescreen, it offers a terrific visual experience for home viewing. Despite some other elements not giving full value for money in picking up this blu-ray, it at the least looks amazing.
I think what’s missing here from this blu-ray release of Ex Machina is what has been promised elsewhere. This home media release for America will apparently have a DTS:X release, which sounds positively wonderful and the next step for home cinematic quality audio from new angles and sensational quality – we’re don’t have that here. A shame because with the soundtrack and sound mixing at a top level here it feels that something on the cutting edge is needed to help eccentriate the sound. Even old reliable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 just won’t do for a film which is enhanced by it’s top drawer audio. The mood does not feel the same as a cinema viewing and there is a lesser level tension I felt on this home media viewing. A shame maybe, but I’m keeping an eye for a second blu-ray release down the road with the reportedly sexy upgrades.
A disappointment. I feel there was room for scope for Garland to go in-depth about the thinking and thought process in his vision for this film… and you don’t get that at all with what we offer. We have five incredibly short featurettes, with the longest clocking in at just over three minutes, focusing on Garland, crew members and the cast discussing their characters with reference to the Story, the Casting, production design, creating the look of Ava and the Turing Test itself. It is fine with some interesting insight but it’s hardy a deal breaker when I’m meant to be telling you whether this blu-ray is worth picking up. I mean being generous and calling it a 15 minute documentary is not very much at all. I’m scraping the barrel with saying that the usual scene selection is an extra. Unless there’s plans for a super edition down the line (which I highly doubt since this is a highly glossed indy film in the end) I can’t give the thumbs up to what qualifies as “bonus material” here for this release. In fact, a quick look online and oh of course America is getting way more extras than us again. Nice to be treated like this ain’t it?
The Bottom Line:
I feel that the blu-ray release we get here is not one that I can flat out say you need in your life, despite the fact it contains an essential film you need to see. Ex Machina in a film in itself is brilliant but it’s hard, very hard, to look at what passes at an acceptable offering for this region and venture online to see different areas offering more extras and more audio options to definitely make you think twice before picking up this one. As great as this film looks on this blu-ray, there’s a better option on the way to import. Mild recommendation then sadly.