oscar nom: the martian (ridley scott, 2015)
what i watched last week

oscar nom: ex machina (alex garland, 2015)

Alex Garland wrote a couple of movies I liked (Sunshine and especially 28 Days Later), and Ex Machina is a carefully written film that compares well to those other movies. Garland also shows a keen visual sense ... at least someone does, one of the film’s two Oscar nominations is for Visual Effects, with four people listed (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Williams Ardington, and Sara Bennett). Garland and company make good use of a fairly limited budget ($15 million), partly by creating something of a chamber piece: most of the action takes place within one large home, and there are only three actors with substantial parts. That Garland offers a film full of ideas is not surprising; that the film looks as good and as interesting as it does it a surprising bonus.

Garland’s screenplay is also up for an Oscar, and it’s an appropriate honor. Garland juggles his numerous influences (everything from The Tempest to The Shining) without letting them overwhelm the picture. The three main characters are well-drawn, and the actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac) do well with them. Isaac chews the most scenery, but it’s a good compliment to Vikander, who properly underplays her robot, Ava.

There are some plot twists to keep things moving, but ultimately, the film succeeds or fails on its ideas, in particular the examination of artificial intelligence and the Turing test. It does indeed succeed, thanks largely to Vikander, who gives Ava just the right amount of recognizable “humanity”. The question isn’t whether Ava is “human” ... instead, it’s whether Ava can simulate a human with such skill that she can pass. And if she can pass, what defines “human”?

Ex Machina is reminiscent at times of the TV series Humans, which explored similar territory. More to the point, the movie brings to mind the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, with Cylons who look human. From my admittedly biased perspective, BSG is more successful at this than Ex Machina, but that leaves plenty of room for Ex Machina to stand out on its own. For the fascinating look of the robots, for the complex ideas, for the acting and visuals, for all of these reasons, Ex Machina is a very good movie that suggests Garland will continue to offer intriguing films in the future. In the meantime, 8/10.

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