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After winning a competition to spend a week at the mountain estate of his company’s brilliant CEO (Oscar Isaac), programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to discover he has been chosen to take part in a study of artificial intelligence. Sworn to secrecy and cut off from the outside world, Caleb meets his subject: a beguiling and seductive android (Alice Vikander)—and is plunged into an A.I. experiment beyond his wildest dreams. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Ex Machina
The concept of a robotic ‘soul’ has always been ripe for cinematic drama since the release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. For whatever reason, the subgenre blew up in the last year or so, including Gabe Ibáñez Autómata (2014), Caradog W. James’ The Machine (2014), Neil Blomkamp’s CHAPPiE (2015), and, for the purposes of this review, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (even Disney’s recent Marvel hits Big Hero 6 and Avengers: Age of Ultron explored the humanity of robots). Garland began his career as a novelist, but his name has been on the lips of sci-fi fans for some time, following his writing duties on Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), and Pete Travis’ Dredd (2012), but he hadn’t found his way behind the camera until now. It’s actually impressive that he waited to direct until he could develop a project from the ground up, despite having the clout to do it a long time ago. He restricted his screenplay to affordable set-pieces and special effects, so that he could maintain creative control of Ex Machina. This all means that we can lay most of the film’s success and failure right at his feet, which is awfully convenient for me.

The value of Garland’s storytelling experience is undeniable. Despite the sci-fi trappings, a lot of the film is structured like the early acts of a murder mystery. We’re repeatedly given just enough information to ensure that, despite its familiar parts, we know there’s something sinister behind the curtain. The use of the Turing Test – a real-world psychological test for computers developed by Alan Turing in the 1950s – draws direct comparisons to Ridley Scott’s neo-noir classic Blade Runner (1982), in which the title character uses the fictional ‘Voight-Kampff’ test to distinguish ‘replicants’ from humans. The director himself has also cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) and Ken Russell’s psychedelic nightmare Altered States (1980) as inspirations, though the even more obvious influence would be the most old-fashioned sci-fi story about man playing God – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.

 Ex Machina
Garland’s technical jargon and Big Ideas aren’t entirely unique, but many (like the concept of an artificial intelligence operating on the same principles as an Internet search engine) are interesting enough to frame the psychological themes that he wants to explore. The focus on ‘telling’ over ‘showing’ opens Ex Machina up to some potent criticism about Garland extending some concepts beyond his reach and stretching the story beyond its limitations. As the third act rolls in, there is a surprising lack of ambiguity and it becomes clear that the Big Ideas and existential questions are secondary to the sometimes disappointingly recognizable narrative games the film plays. However, the revelation that Garland is engaging the audience on an entertainment level over an intellectual level isn’t a full-swing strike against the movie in the end. Even without the benefit of bombastic action or elaborate special effects, the last act reveals are unveiled with palpable suspense and grace. The only thing really missing is tonal variance. The occasionally wacky additions, like a disco dancing sequence swooping in from out of the blue during a particularly tense moment, are too few and far between.

Storytelling is, of course, Garland’s usual forte, so it seems appropriate to focus on his writing. But this is his first film as director, so his stylistic successes are certainly worth celebrating. Ex Machina is a slick and visually appealing production. The purposeful limitations in time span (the entire film takes place over a week), location, and characters (only five actors are really required to tell this story, including the guy that flies the helicopter) are its greatest strengths. This connects it to a small collection of small cast/single location psychological dramas (usually based on stage plays), including Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth (1972), or Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994). This narrow scope is unusual for Hollywood sci-fi, which tends to celebrate grand scale action and special effects, but has continued to serve character-driven independent features – like Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) and Shane Carruth’s micro-budgeted Primer (2004) – for many years. The sets are not diminished by the stage-like design; rather, they feed the valuable sense of claustrophobia.

 Ex Machina

Video


Ex Machina was largely shot using Sony CineAlta digital HD cameras (in 4K, according to specs) and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. Despite the futuristic vibe, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy actually take pains to reproduce film-like imagery with edge-distorting anamorphic lenses, soft lighting, and mostly naturalistic colouring. Hardy also revels in soft focus and blooming lights, which keeps most of the edges soft and makes the digital noise look an awful lot like film grain. The cleanliness of digital HD ‘wins out’ in most cases, especially in the sterilized, fluorescent-lit interiors, but the lens distortions and chromatic aberration definitely affect the image, including the sharpness of details and separation of elements. The good news is that these all appear to be intended artefacts. Considering that the disc space spent on uncompressed sound (more on that below), compression effects should probably be a bigger issue. The only real problems occur during the bright red lit sequences, which display notable banding effects/low-level noise.

 Ex Machina

Audio


Ex Machina is the first ever Blu-ray to include a DTS: X soundtrack, which is DTS’ answer to Dolby’s Atmos format. It appears that no theaters or home video receivers support the format just yet, so, obviously, I’ll be skipping right to the included DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option. This particular movie is kind of a weird choice to debut the format, because it’s primarily a soft affair and tends to be driven by dialogue. The multi-channel arena comes in handy during a brief helicopter landing scene and the sudden blaring of Oliver Cheatham’s ‘Get Down on a Saturday Night,’ but is otherwise seemingly wasted on quiet breezes and humming lighting rigs. On the other hand, there is a lot of understated environmental ambience going on, so perhaps the DTS people were happy to show off their new format’s abilities with more subtle noises, like the opening of automatic doors and twitter of circuitry. Composers Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, who worked on the Garland-scripted Dredd[/h], give the track more breathing room with largely non-melodic, atmospheric music. The score drives the LFE and swirls around the stereo/surround channels beautifully.

 Ex Machina

Extras


  • Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina (40:00, HD) – This five-part behind-the-scenes featurette includes a series of cast & crew interviews and on-set footage. Subject matter covers the narrative themes/concepts, Garland’s directorial approach, characters, the cast, locations, photography, costume & production design, and make-up/digital effects.
  • SXSW Q&A with Garland, cinematographer Rob Hardy, star Oscar Isaac, and composers Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, moderated by TechCrunch’s Jordon Crook (1:01:00, HD)
  • Behind-the-scenes vignettes:
    • Making Ava (3:40, HD)
    • Nathan’s World (3:30, HD)
    • New Consciousness (3:10, HD)
    • Becoming Ava (3:20, HD)
    • Director (3:10, HD)
    • Cast (3:20, HD)
    • Meet Ava (2:40, HD)
    • God Complex (2:50, HD)
    • Music (3:10, HD)
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


 Ex Machina

Overall


Ex Machina might not be the super-smart science fiction movie that some viewers are expecting, but it is a keenly crafted and entertaining psychological thriller. Assuming you’re ready to meet it on that level, it is definitely worth a watch. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray features a smidge of compression noise during the brightest sequences, possibly caused by the inclusion of two uncompressed audio options (including a first of its kind DTS: X track), and a solid collection of supplemental features.

 Ex Machina
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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