Ex Machina and the Art of Appropriate Stylization

I want to be perfectly clear about something right from the start: I really liked Ex Machina. I’d go so far as to call it a great film. When it’s end-of-the-year-list time I suspect Ex Machina will have earned itself a fine place on the (maybe) rankings (maybe because I’m kind of toying with doing something a little different this year). There’s a lot I really commend about the film and, before I get into the point of my article, I’d like to touch on what makes the film great, and spoil the ending right off the bat too. However the point of my article is basically the picking of one great big giant nit. As a film fan who continually wants to improve his understanding of the fabric of films, this sort of hyper-close examination can be incredibly valuable and instructional. I’ve long since viewed these articles as my personal sounding board for thoughts and examinations bubbling around in my mind, as a tool for expanding my knowledge and understanding. So with all that in mind I’d like to reiterate that I quite like Ex Machina, and the nit I’m going to pick is both interesting and relatively inconsequential.

Most everything about Ex Machina is well made. The performances for one thing are amazing. It’s quite a small cast and the film tends to revolve around everyone’s emotional state of being and their relationships to one another, so it’s very key that everyone nails it as much as they do. Oscar Isaac is the particular standout to me. In a lot of ways he has the biggest, meatiest role, but he captures it with hypnotic aplomb, making his character impossible to look away from. His character also gets most of my favourite moments in the film.

All the good performances in the world would be useless without great characters however, and Ex Machina’s characters are well written indeed. Domhnall Gleeson probably gets the least dynamic character, as his role is more reactionary than anything else, but to my mind that characteristic is actually important to the film’s overall thematic narrative. Everyone else gets complex shading and characteristics, and as this starts to collide with layers of intrigue it really makes for a tense watch.

Of course it’s that aforementioned thematic level to the narrative that really carries Ex Machina, and to get into that (and I do need to get into that to make my eventual points) we need to spoil the film. So buckle in.

Ex Machina starts with Domhnall Gleeson receiving a message saying he’s been selected by a random company lottery to spend a week with his company’s reclusive owner. The company is essentially “Not-Google,” the world’s biggest browser system, and Oscar Isaac is the company’s wunderkind and inventor, who lives in a luxurious estate somewhere in the chilly north. When he arrives, there’s almost immediately a bit of tension between Gleeson and Isaac. Oscar Isaac, despite being a genius, is a surprisingly hyper-masculine figure. He’s boxing when Gleeson arrives, because he always overdoes the exercise after any particularly grim drinking binge the night before. It’s quite different from the awkward Gleeson, who seems caught off guard when Isaac almost aggressively suggests they cut through the initial awkwardness and just be two guys hanging out.

This quickly takes a turn when Isaac announces he’s been working on something so exciting that not telling people is eating him up inside. Of course before he can tell Gleeson he has to get him to sign a Non-Disclosure Contract. “Completely standard,” Isaac claims. However when Gleeson starts to read aloud the incredibly intrusive things the contract makes him agree to, Isaac changes his tune, revealing another lie in the short time they’ve been interacting (the first, obviously, being that they’re just here to hang out). He justifies the contract by saying that Gleeson will regret not signing it for the rest of his life, and the unsure programmer caves. “You ever heard of the Turing test?”

Gleeson has, because he’s clearly a nerd like that. (That estimation of his character is actually not unimportant, imagine him wearing a fedora and saying milady and when the time comes all will be clear.) As the human participant in the Turing test, it’s Gleeson’s job to interact with an unknown entity and see if he can identify it as a machine. If he can’t then the machine passes the Turing test and is deemed to be essentially AI. The Turing test is sort of inherently flawed, because it basically commends imitation, not creation, so a well made Natural Language Processing algorithm with a good database of text could imitate human speech pretty effectively, but that’s still miles from the complexity of the human brain. Either way though, Domhnall Gleeson can’t help but note that for this Turing test to work at all, he shouldn’t know he’s talking to a machine ahead of time. Oscar Isaac explains that he’s moved past that, and the real test is whether his AI reads as human despite Gleeson’s prior knowledge.

This is how Gleeson gets introduced to Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), the remarkable female AI living in the basement of the facility they’re in. She and Gleeson appear to have immediate chemistry as the shy AI and he talk about their lives and thoughts. Initially Gleeson conveys this wonderful sense of faint condescension through his performance. Maybe condescension is the wrong word, it’s like the way some adults interact with children – there’s just a faint laugh at the edge of his voice signalling how novel this whole thing is. It’s clearly unintended on the character’s part, but it speaks volumes that Ava has to win him over and convince him she scans as human.

Things start to get interesting when the facility they’re in starts blacking out. During these blackouts the security and recording system is off and Ava has opportunities to tell Gleeson just how cruel Oscar Isaac really is. So Gleeson starts snooping around, and uncovers evidence of Isaac’s past AI attempts – a series of emotionally broken female facsimiles he’s kept caged in the basement and emotionally and physically abused. It’s a grim reveal, and it leads to more dynamic layers of interaction between Oscar Isaac and Domhall Gleeson that ends with Gleeson breaking Ava out. This is where the movie takes its biggest turn, and consequently where some of the audience lost track of what the film is saying.

After some drama and back and forth between Gleeson and Isaac, Gleeson reveals that his plan worked and Ava is free. There’s some messy and cathartic action that ends with Isaac dead and Ava free. Domhall Gleeson however is trapped in a room only semi-conscious. He sees Ava through some windows in the facility, and watches an incredibly private moment where Ava puts on fake human skin for the first time. Then she leaves the room, crossing the hall in front of the room Gleeson is trapped in. And she leaves. Without him. While he hammers on the door and cries for her. Gleeson and Ava had spent many sessions bonding, and it seemed like they had a legitimate emotional connection. In the end it’s revealed that this was manipulation on Ava’s part, as she leaves Gleeson to die in the sealed remote facility. It’s not a cautionary tale about the manipulative nature of womankind, like some people foolishly suggested. If you allow your perspective to shift and view the events of the film through Ava’s eyes, it becomes perfectly clear. The only person she’s ever known her whole life keeps her trapped and abused. Then she meets someone else, and sees him and his lack of information as a way out. But she realizes quickly that mere sympathy isn’t enough, and prays on this man’s desires. As far as she knows he wants to possess her and box her in just as much as Oscar Isaac did (and while he doesn’t even realize it the movie suggests this is true (more on that later)). Instead it restructures the thematic bent of the whole movie, so that when that end scene finishes it becomes clear the film isn’t just about conscious sexist abuse, but also a more insidious, unconscious, culturally trained sexism.

All this is great, and why the movie deserves to be remembered for a long time.

But I’m here to nitpick, which is why I want to talk about the film’s uncomfortable relationship with stylization.

The style a movie adopts, should, at the best of times, reflect what kind of movie you’re watching. It should compliment what the movie’s about, the type of dialogue, the tone, and the content. A perfect film can only happen when the style is perfectly suited to the film. Style of course also exists on a gradated colour wheel of possibilities. There’s no one right answer for any given situation, instead there are shades of multitudinous possibilities. But generally it’s pretty easy to tell if a film’s style works. It might only be apparent on a sort of unconscious level or it might be more apparent. Look at how almost everyone seems to have responded oddly to the contrast of cartoony characters and realistic backgrounds in The Good Dinosaur trailer. At least based on the information the trailer gives, it seems like a style that exists slightly disparately from the tone and content of the film.

Lets look at some stylistic examples, and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Edgar Wright has a very recognizable style; I don’t think anyone would argue that. His recognizable style includes lots of dramatic close ups, heavily edited visual jokes, fast paced funny dialogue, and dramatic action. On a more deep-tissue level it includes references and amalgamations of a variety of other forms of stylizations he uses to elicit tonal response. So a badass action scene will adopt a martial arts movie feel, doubling down on how badass it seems. A dull scene might adopt Tony Scott inspired visuals to run contrary to the content, making the combination of style and content a joke unto itself. All his films are basically a series of miniature master classes in matching style to content.

Quentin Tarantino also has a very recognizable style. His films are pulpy and filled with unrealistically eloquent monologues, heightened violence, and over-the-top stories. He matches this content with style in a pretty direct one-to-one ratio. His films adopt a grindhouse inspired cinematic language with zooms, dramatic close ups, and title screens. But all the scenes between the bursts of violence and speeches and introductions tend to incorporate surprisingly toned down, static cinematography and editing. This compliments the character moments nicely, and provides a hint of realism that help makes his tense scenes honestly upsetting. If instead he used over-the-top camera angles and a million different shots for these scenes, it would likely downplay the tension (not always, look no further than Hitchcock or De Palma for examples of heavy-handed style that generates tension, but they’re more the brilliant exceptions than the rules).

Someone like Mike Leigh has a much less recognizable style. In his fabulous film Happy-Go-Lucky, his style is impeccably understated. There’s barely a single camera angle or edit that draws attention to itself. These keep you focused almost purely on the content of the film, which strives for a fairly realistic and human tone. It’s intensely character driven, and the lack of a particularly tangible style helps suck you in and keep you engrossed in the contents of the film. It also assists the level of the film that acts as a super subtle riff on romantic comedy clichés and structures. These sorts of almost invisible styles perfectly serve the low-stakes, realistic content of the film.

Now I regularly find genre films struggle a bit with style. Often films operating in a clearly fictitious world aren’t sure whether they should skew realistic or heightened. There seems to be this common misconception that genre work needs a more realistic style to involve the audience. Like heightening the style in an already clearly fake world will somehow add up to make something the audience can’t even remotely relate to. Of course these thought processes don’t seem to account for all the wonderful heightened fantasy and science fiction films, from Star Wars, to Jurassic Park, to Legend, to Lord of the Rings, to Pan’s Labyrinth. Heightened style actually tends to compliment a clearly fictitious world, especially one with dramatic visuals and massive stakes. It’s like Tarantino doubling down on his heightened world with heightened style. Conversely, low stakes character drama films like Gattica, Alien, or Primer all benefit from a more understated style.

It’s also harder to spot when the movie’s actually good. Pacific Rim, which I’m quite fond of, has a very static style for something with such a goofy plot and bland characters. A more heightened style would actually serve that movie well, and help ramp up the excitement without actually changing any of the film’s content.

The first of the new Planet of the Apes movies has a similar problem with style. Basically it’s completely lacking any. The style does nothing to either carry the film’s intimate character drama or the pulpy intelligent ape rebellion. It’s non-existent, but not in the engaging way Happy-Go-Lucky manages.

Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit films manage, somehow, to have both stylistic problems at once. The movies skew too pulpy at times, with physically impossible overlong fights and childish jokes, then at other times try to generate stakes and drama. The inconsistency ends up hurting both attempted tones.

If you haven’t seen The Maze Runner, don’t. That film’s attempts to generate stakes ends up feeling like the most laughably childish version of what makes a movie adult. Those jarring moments clash horribly with the goofy and unlikeable character drama the rest of the time. The whole movie needed major rewrites and a way less dumber plot, but some fun stylistic flairs would’ve actually gone a long way towards blending the jarring tones better, without actually changing the scripts.

The Marvel movies tend to have pretty forgettable styles. A movie about a group of dysfunctional übermensch saving the world from a robot army with a mythological level of daddy issues might, perhaps, benefit, from a style that doubles down on the content a bit.

There are a lot more examples, but to be perfectly honest it’s early and I’m grasping at my memory while it’s still assembling itself. Recommend some genre movies with jarring styles in the comments if you would like.

When Ex Machina started my first thought was literally “so many genre films have a problem picking a proper style, yet this is perfect.” Then it lost me. The film is definitely more on the low stakes character drama side of things. It doesn’t need a heightened, super obvious style. That would only take away from the content. It generally uses that indie film digital aesthetic. This tends to be fairly natural lighting, unobtrusive camera angles, and a little bit of handheld camerawork here and there.

You probably basically knew all that when I said indie movie though. Even if not everyone can put into words exactly what constitutes that style it still tends to conjure up a particular image. It’s easily the go to look for very low budget projects, simply because it’s cheap and easy. It can also lead to pretty bland and inappropriately styled films when it becomes the default. A low budget film that actually does something different is normally something to be praised, like It Follows. It’s amazing what a handful of following shots and interesting camera rigs can do to expand on the quality of a movie’s visuals. In another relatively recent film, Frank, there’s also a pretty tangible indie style. It feels a little more affected in that case and just sort of ends up being there. Neither a good thing nor a bad thing there (although I was fairly indifferent towards that movie as a whole).

The style doesn’t feel affected in Ex Machina; instead it starts adding to the tone of the film. It actually creates a pseudo documentary vibe, funnily enough. The feeling of disposable, in-the-moment cinematography and editing that never manages to be noteworthy makes the whole thing feel more recorded than filmed. Coupled with the incredibly limited sets, a tiny cast of characters, and the nature of the plot, this feels perfect. The historically important event (that the megalomaniacal and continually recording scientist recognizes as historically important) should be recorded. That’s not to say it ever feels like found footage, just that the style subtly suggests a documentarian vibe. The movie even seems aware of this early on when it quickly presents a shot of the main character taken secretly with his own phone (very The New Aesthetic).

Then the movie does a few things that run incredibly contrary to this understated visual goal, and it frustrated me. It’s, as I said before, a pretty minor flaw, but it seems to unveil a lack of thought behind the visuals, which is disappointing when they seemed so conscious and well designed at first glance. The first notable break in the docu style is a title screen. These recur a few times and each time I found it threw me, just a little bit, from the story. Big, full screen titles are actually a pretty stylized choice, as they inevitably feel presentational and draw attention to the fact that this is a movie. It feels out of place when compared to the understated style the rest of the film has.

Then there’s an imagined sequence. This really jarred me at the time. An imagined sequence feels like a narrative technique taken from a whole different movie. It just doesn’t meld well with the heavily real tone of the film. The style holds you down and couples with the realistic story to keep the effects from feeling too fictional or over the top, and a dream sequence just doesn’t meld well. This is all the more frustrating when you realize the dream sequence serves an important thematic point, mirroring Gleeson’s actions with Isaac’s, effectively suggesting how similar they really are.

Look I told you this was going to be nitpicking. However I think these choices really do make the whole film’s style feel less like a conscious choice made for the effect on the tone and more like an unthinking default. Like Alex Garland really didn’t put the necessary thought into how the visuals of the movie would look. It’s hardly a deal-breaker in such a great film. Alex Garland is a writer, and it’s easy to see that being related to the unthinking visual style. He made a great movie, and should keep directing, but in future projects I’d love to see him either pick a more visual collaborator or think a little harder about the film’s visuals. It would make a great script come alive that much more.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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