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South Texas Living

‘Ex Machina’ latest in banner year for horror

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At the movies
April 29, 2015 | 3,545 views | Post a comment

“Ex Machina” is risky filmmaking centered around a very simple central idea. Caleb is a programmer working for Bluebook. It’s a search engine site like Google. He wins a trip to meet the CEO, Nathan, at his remote mountain retreat. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is asked to test a new A.I. that’s been developed in secret. She is Ava, an evocatively designed android. Caleb’s job is to gauge how human her emotions are. Can he feel for her? Can she develop feelings for him?

“Ex Machina” is also a horror movie, so you can guess something goes wrong. Let me add that this is the first time in a very long time we’ve had three brilliant horror movies in the theater at once (“Ex Machina” joining “It Follows” and “Unfriended”).

“Ex Machina” is the most cerebral of these. It’s an existential horror. I described “It Follows” before this “like watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed.”

“Ex Machina” is the dream that you hide away and forget and never tell anyone about, the one you wish you could scrub your fingerprints off of. It exploits some very dark recesses of our minds, particularly for men. If “It Follows” is based on dread of the unknown, and “Unfriended” is based on fear of those closest to us, then “Ex Machina” is based on a very real fear of ourselves.

As the android, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an owned object. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is her creator. He is the owner. Yet if she’s truly conscious, that poses a moral dilemma. I won’t say anything more, but suffice to say that Caleb is the overwhelmed middle man whose responsibilities are clouded by his own attitudes toward morality, his duty to a man he idolizes, and his view of women.

The job first-time director Alex Garland has done here is nothing short of revolutionary. Dialogue scenes remind me of the intimate filmmaking of Jane Campion (“The Piano”). Even if they’re on opposite sides of a transparent barrier, the connection between Caleb and Ava is palpable. The pacing itself and the spaces in between these scenes -- the connective tissue of the film -- feel just like John Carpenter (“Halloween,” “The Thing”).

The Campion-like intimacy inspires trust with the viewer. Even if we distrust what the film is telling us, we have faith that we are being guided by a reliable narrator with Ava and Caleb’s best interests at heart. When this is combined with Carpenter’s deliberate pace and diabolical visual irony, we start to distrust the reality the film is building for us. It’s like trusting someone you know is out to get you. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be as a viewer, and it’s exactly where Garland wants to put you.

You’re jerked back and forth between trusting the movie’s emotional honesty and refusing to believe anything it says. Not only does this mirror Caleb’s experience, it also reflects the contrast between the earnest and childlike Ava and her domineering egoist of a creator, Nathan.

Gleeson is good as Caleb, but it’s Vikander’s and Isaac’s incredible performances that make “Ex Machina” the movie it is. Vikander gives us far more complexity than the ingenue role of Ava calls for and Isaac’s Nathan is a frightening examination in obsession, genius, and narcissism. I’ve also seen Isaac as the lead in “A Most Violent Year” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It is nearly impossible to believe all three characters are played by the same actor.

Because it’s the third of three very good (even brilliant) horror movies in the space of a month, let me describe your wealth of choice in some more detail. “Unfriended” is the most fun, the most humorous, and the most emotionally honest (even if its characters aren’t). It’s an experiment in format, but it gives you the most jump scares and is tightly edited. “It Follows” packs the most in -- I still can’t believe the 100 minute film isn’t three hours for how much it gives you. It’s moody and atmospheric. If you’re patient with it’s very slow burn, it builds to an insane intensity. “Ex Machina” is the most unsettling. Strangely, the day I saw it, I found it cynical and hopeless. The next day, I started finding it reassuring and hopeful. In fact, it contains the least horror actually taking place on-screen. Its success is in its incredible grasp of viewer psychology -- “Ex Machina” displaces the worst of its horror into your head as you watch. As viewers, we scare ourselves at our own potential for ruining others as much as the film ever can.

Three-and-a-half out of four stars. “Ex Machina” is rated R for nudity, language, and violence.

Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at Email him at

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