So far, I have seen only a small handful of 2015 releases, but each one of them have been absolutely stellar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see my Best of the Year list being topped by three films – Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy and my latest obsession, the absolutely brilliant science fiction thriller Ex Machina, which is nearly as brilliant as the smartest science fiction films in history.
Remember a few days ago when I reviewed Under the Skin, and mentioned how it felt like a failed Stanley Kubrick fan-fiction? Well, I can further prove the point I made there where I said that every filmmaker, especially those in the realm of science fiction, has been influenced by Kubrick. Ex Machina is a perfect example of this, and unlike Under the Skin, this film actually appears to be something that Kubrick, if he made it shot for shot, would have been supremely proud to have called his own. Screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland makes his directorial debut, and proves himself to have an imagination more experienced filmmakers lack entirely. There is absolutely no doubt that this film is smarter than most science fiction films you’d see today, and unlike Under the Skin, it isn’t a cringeworthy, creepy mess and actually serves the grandmaster both films were aiming to pay homage to well.
When one thinks of mainstream science fiction films, one wouldn’t be entirely wrong to have Star Wars, Blade Runner or The Terminator spring to mind immediately. These are all great films and iconic pieces of the science fiction canon, but they are all sprawling, multi-charactered stories, while Ex Machina takes a different approach that is so brilliant Kubrickian, and also very much like the other great master of science fiction, Andrei Tarkovsky. Both of these filmmakers’ crowning science fiction achievements were claustrophobic, scary and very haunting. Kubrick, of course, made the seminal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Tarkovsky the eerie Solaris. There were several moments where I felt that Ex Machina took many of its cues directly from these two films, and it was wonderfully successful in creating the same cold and clinical sense of paranoia that its two predecessors did, but with one small difference – both of the previous films took place in deep space, in distant galaxies from us. Ex Machina is entirely earth-bound, and I have to give great kudos to Garland for creating such a bleak atmosphere of being trapped and hopeful, while still retaining the earth-bound setting. In addition to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, I could spot obvious references to The Shining, A Clockwork Orange and of course (obviously), AI: Artificial Intelligence (yes, I know it is a Spielberg film, but Kubrick did create the basic idea).
The three core castmembers of this film do spectacular work – Oscar Isaac is absolutely terrifying as Nathan, the reclusive and sinister billionaire businessman, inventor and, as it turns out, god. It will be impossible for Oscar Isaac to become the heartthrob people believe he is trying to be, and that is not a criticism – it is an absolute compliment, as I can see Isaac becoming the next Al Pacino – a strangely charismatic leading man who is perfect for both heart-pounding heroic roles, or sinister villain roles. He is building a magnificent career, which can only continue to hit high after high. Domnhall Gleeson (the son of one of my favorite actors ever), is brilliant as Caleb, the shy but very smart milquetoast lured into Nathan’s lair to perform tests that could quite possibly help Nathan completely change the world. Finally, Alicia Vikander is quite something here as Ava, the mysterious and beautiful AI built by Nathan. Superb performances by these three, but Oscar Isaac definitely gets the best role and the most brilliant performance.
You know what I love? I am sure if you’ve read some of my other pieces, you’ll know how critical I am of genre cliche – and no genre has more cliches than science fiction. I won’t delve into what cliches Ex Machina has, because that would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but I will tell you which cliches it does retain – none of them. The best feeling in a film for me is when a truly unexpected twist occurs, and Ex Machina has a twist that makes The Sixth Sense look pale in comparison. This film truly took me by surprise, and the twist near the end left completely speechless, and made me love this film even more. A good, shocking twist is hard to create, but Garland managed to do it here, and major kudos for that.
Ex Machina is such a fantastic film – dark, gritty, creepy, haunting and most of all, truly entertaining. It could quite possibly be the smartest film of the year, and will hopefully stand the test of time. It deserves a fanbase equal to that of the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. This is the smart science fiction film for the next generation – intelligent and bleak. Don’t be surprised to see this film pop up next year on my annual Best of the Year list, because I think this has a nice high spot carved out nicely for it. A brilliant film.