Ex Machina- The Review

Alex Garland’s directorial début Ex Machina is something of a cinematic rarity; it is a science-fiction film which takes its time. Too many examples of the genre go in with all guns blazing, blinding the audience with CGI before trying to make some kind of philosophical idea that ends up making the whole film look a bit half-assed. Ex Machina hurdles these obstacles with total ease, presenting a cautionary tale that deals with very modern worries in a very human setting. Its special effects are minimalist but spectacular, its acting is consistently superb, and it demonstrates an intelligence and awareness that we don’t see that often in cinema. It is a very early 2015 science-fiction treat.

The story is simple and well contained: Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson), is a humble programmer who wins a competition to go and visit the reclusive home of his genius boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there he is enlisted to an experiment in which he is asked to spend time with Nathan’s latest creation, a beautiful robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine whether or not Nathan has truly created a free-thinking conciousness. It’s an engaging story, self-contained in this small penthouse in the middle of a huge, woodland clearing. They are completely alone out in this location, Caleb, Nathan and Ava, and their slow progression of relationships, and the breakdown of trust, is constantly making the audience switch their allegiances. Who can we trust? Is Nathan telling the truth about the test, or is he leading both Ava and Caleb along? Is Caleb keeping his judgement, or becoming untrustworthy by Ava’s almost flirtatious behaviour? And can pure, innocent Ava be as good as she seems, or does her intelligence also come with the capacity to deceive? The film doesn’t take sides, which makes it a constant challenge for the audience to decide whose side they are really on.

The film starts off as a futuristic relationship drama, which later evolves into an almost surrealistic horror film, where Alex Garland demonstrates his capacity to unnerve and disturb the viewers. This often comes from Ava, wonderfully played by Alicia Vikander, who is incredibly human despite half of her body being exposed, wires and lights blinking and moving when she does. The very idea that we have this clearly mechanical figure, that acts so perfectly, so humanely, is disturbing in itself. She’s a wonderful creation, with perfect use of CGI making her not just believable, but totally natural to the setting. Vikander herself has been trained in dancing, and it shows through her performance; Ava moves with a meticulous and deliberate grace, almost gliding across floors when walking. She is the focus of the story, and always the focus of the audience; she is consistently the most engaging and interesting character, as we, like Caleb, strive to find out the limits of her humanity.

That isn’t to say that the other characters aren’t interesting. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is a well formed character, an outsider coming into a location that seems out of time, where miracles are created but secrets are kept. Gleeson plays him well, and just like he did in last year’s Frank, he isn’t fearful of the audience not liking him. However, he often takes a back seat to Oscar Isaac’s mad scientist Nathan, a lazy drunk who almost seems to be in control of all the information the world has to offer. He’s a genius, but a recluse, untrustworthy, with a nasty streak which occasionally reminds us and the other characters of a darker nature. Isaac plays him so well, giving us a completely different form of ‘mad scientist’, a drunk genius who, even at his kindest moments, is nothing less than quietly sinister. It’s this three-way character drama that really keeps the story going, and makes the whole film work as well as it does; the intelligence of the script is only heightened by the actors portrayals of three complicated, deep characters. This is hugely impressive stuff from first time director Alex Garland, a directorial science fiction début that rivals the likes of Duncan Jones’ Moon, and bodes very well for the future. It’s confidently made, recycling old ideas with a new presentation, getting excellent performances out of a small cast and posing the audience with relevant questions for today. Science fiction cinema in 2015 could not have gotten off to a better start.

Best Bit 

The individual one on one sessions with Caleb and Ava are brilliantly engaging, as the audience is studying her and her responses just as much as Caleb is. She’s an inherently fascinating creation of a character, and every second spent in her company is totally compelling.

Worst Bit

Halfway through Ex Machina I had the realisation that the film wasn’t offering anything totally new for the genre. These are good ideas, but well worn ones, and perhaps a few new questions would have kept things a bit more fresh. However, this is barely a criticism when the presentation of old ideas is told in such a wonderfully new, unique manner.

Overall

Alex Garland’s first ever effort at directing is a complete triumph, giving us one of the best British science fiction films in years, and reminding cinema just how intelligent and thought-provoking the medium can really be. It isn’t perfect, but it is a beautifully presented, fantastically acted example of the genre, and a real treat for science-fiction fans. It doesn’t get ahead of itself, it takes its time, and it wants to make the audience think. An all too rare example of cautious, minimalist science-fiction cinema.

4/5

Whiplash- The Review

There is a pure power at the heart of Whiplash; not in the conventional Hollywood meaning, but in the ferocious tempo and noise that comes out of Damien Chazelle’s extraordinary film. It portrays the strained relationship between a young and ambitious drummer (Miles Teller) and his tutor, Mr Fletcher (J.K Simmons), who despite being an aggressive bully, gets the very best out of all his students. Their intense struggle against each other turns what could have a simple music based movie into a complex war film, where blood is shed and battles take place on the stage. Whiplash has better action scenes than most Hollywood blockbusters, as more is said through the individual beats of the drum then could ever be said with a script. This pounding psychological battle is sensationally performed through the soundtrack, and the beats of the war resonate with the audience long after the film is over. It is a violently loud, extraordinary film about the means to achieve success and the methods which can lead to it, about the mantra of practise makes perfect, and whether true genius can be achieved through dedication.

None of the film’s achievements would be possible without the central performances. J.K Simmons is revolutionary as Terence Fletcher, bringing back memories of Lee Ermy in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with his heart pumping, terrifying ramblings at his pupils, psychologically breaking them into becoming perfect musicians. His performance is extreme, but completely controlled, inhabiting a surprisingly multi-layered character that asks the audience whether he is a brilliant teacher or a repressed bully. Miles Teller is equally as important, pushing himself to impossible limits, bloody hands and all, to fulfil the impossible standards that are set in front of him. The chemistry between the two actors is electrifying, playing off each other to create a relationship that is as memorable as it is nerve-shredding. Both characters have depth, and they share an increasingly complex relationship that threatens to ruin both of them. The editing and pure pace of the movie takes over frequently, grabbing the audience and taking them on a roller-coaster experience of cinema that has the audience holding their breath until the last beat. The way that the film is made, coupled with the central performances, help contribute to an effect of furious speed, of rapid tempo that completely immerses any audience while consistently knocking them off their feet.

Teller is in direct competition with two other drummers, and he must ‘earn’ his place at the band’s core.

The question that can be asked of Whiplash is ‘does it have anything to say?’. Is there any real depth to the film, a meaning, or is it simply a roller-coaster experience that has a deliberately intense pace in order to prevent the audience from thinking about it? It’s a valid question, and one that hasn’t yet been resolved. Whiplash tries to say a lot about fame, success and the means to succeed, but often enough we are prevented from properly thinking about the layers behind the characters by getting caught up in the electrifying, exhilarating of the music. An equally valid question to ask is ‘does it need to say something?’ Can’t a film just be an experience? Whiplash does have a lot to say, if you are interested in hearing it. If not, it will start you off thrilled, and let you go completely exhausted, nerves frayed and heart pumping. It works solely as a cinematic experience, and can pose some very interesting questions to viewers who look beyond the roller-coaster elements. Whiplash avoids all clichés, turns the well-established genre of music in film completely on its head, and makes the audience stumble out of the cinema, pounding for breath. Whether or not Whiplash is deep is up for debate, but is never anything less than an extraordinary cinematic ride.

Best Bit

The finale is a remarkable sequence, cultivating all the best elements of the film and raising the tempo to unimaginable heights, bringing the whole experience to an almighty crash of a finish. Its war disguised as music, a battle in the middle of an orchestra, a finish worthy of any symphony.

Worst Bit

There are early scenes with Miles Teller’s characters girlfriend that did worry me slightly; she felt like more of a device for Teller’s character to spout his troubles than an actual human being. These worries were addressed later though, and once again the film avoided all clichés to deliver truly memorable moments, both loud and quiet.

Overall

Whiplash is a staggering cinematic accomplishment, a fantastic vehicle for both J.K Simmons and Miles Teller that allows them to achieve their full acting potential within the confines of a rapidly paced story. The editing and direction swing the audience around on an unforgettable ride, an experience that will leave some panting and shaking with the total intensity of it all. The debate as to the film’s depth or lack of it may rage on, but there is no denying the real achievement that is before us. Can we have a drum roll for the Oscars, please?

5/5