Ex Machina Alicia Vikander

Ex Machina film review: what we made of Alex Garland’s directorial debut

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Read the shortlisted Under Her Eye reviews then vote for your favourite.

As part of Stylist’s Under Her Eye initiative, we’re on the hunt for three new female film critics. We asked aspiring reviewers to send in a 450-word review of their favourite film – and after an overwhelming response, we’ve whittled it down to a shortlist of 20. 

Read one woman’s review of Ex Machina below and click here to see the other entries and vote for your favourite.

Tightly written, dazzlingly stylish, and understatedly brilliant, Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina confidently blends classically engaging thriller elements with unsettling, cerebral musings on society, humanity, and gender.

The film’s premise is simple: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a chance to spend some time at the home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), his genius but reclusive boss. Once there, he learns that he’s to be the human component in a Turing test to decide whether Nathan’s AI creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass as human.

When Caleb objects that the test will be compromised by the fact that he can see the subject is machine, Nathan replies that the true test will be whether Ava can pass for human even with the knowledge that she is not.

Garland’s writing and cinematography can only be surpassed by Gleeson, Vikander, and Isaac’s incredible acting, whose pitch-perfect performances infuse the film with a haunting and claustrophobic presence.

Every expression, every low, synthetic beat, every word and every frame have purpose. Even as the tension builds to unbearable levels and begs for release, Garland’s calculated and subdued directorial style keeps the viewer trapped. There’s no escape from the questions the film poses.

When the violent ending does come, it doesn’t feel predictable, or even gratuitous; it feels inevitable and cathartic. Both Ava’s and the viewer’s freedom have become synonymous, and thus we can’t help but empathise with her struggle to break out.

Far beyond an exploration of whether machines can truly share in our humanity, and what it therefore means to be human – which, though fascinating, is not a new concept to science fiction – Ex Machina is a scathing remark on the impossibility of female freedom in contemporary society. Only a complete rupture from the social order, the film preaches, can ensure women’s liberation.

That’s not to say Ex Machina is without fault. As powerful as the narrative of female emancipation is, it is strictly a white feminist triumph. Our last character, Kyoko (played by Japanese-British actress Sonoya Mizuno), is no more than a western male fantasy: sexy, silent, and subservient. She’s sexually abused by the man who created her and ultimately is utilised in the film solely as a foil to the white female lead.

Likewise, the overt and covetous sexualisation of Ava and Kyoko’s bodies in which the viewer is complicit, could be criticised as the result of yet another male director objectifying the female form, under the pretext of ‘making art’.

However, these narrative flaws play an important role. The prior serves as a reflection on the historically problematic nature of women’s movements: is it not that white women’s rights have often come at the cost of leaving women of colour behind? And is it not that as a society, we have all become complicit in the objectification of women, no matter how much we attempt to distance ourselves from the pervasive influences of media?

No matter the criticisms directed at it, Ex Machina is a must-see film, at the very least for the essential conversations it will inevitably inspire. 

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