Star Wars homework: Ex Machina (2015)


Part of the Star Wars homework project.

Star Wars connection: lead actors Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason play Poe Dameron and General Hux, respectively, in The Force Awakens and the upcoming sequels.

I saw Ex Machina about a month ago. It has a tight, almost claustrophia-inducing focus on the three leads – indeed, with the exception of one other character, there’s almost no-one else in the movie. I thought that worked well for the story. And it unspools at a very deliberate pace. Which can be maddening – I wanted some parts to go by faster and others to last longer. BUT I think that pacing was deliberate and for me at least it added to the tension, just as the inescapable one-second-at-a-time pace of life out here in the real world can be brutal at times.

The biggest revelations for me were the performances of Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason, whom I’d only seen before in The Force Awakens. In TFA, Poe (played by Isaac) is an emotionally open guy who wears his heart and his deep goodness on his sleeve. The kind of guy who smiles with genuine happiness as he steals an enemy fighter, and greets his lost robot with a completely un-self-conscious shout of “Buddy!” And General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) is a kind of stereotypical Hitler Youth type who keeps his emotions on a tight leash except when demogoguing an imminent genocide, and who plays power politics with the best of them – sending the TIE fighters to blow up Finn and BB-8 when Kylo Ren said he wanted the droid back intact, and then later pointing out Ren’s error in letting BB-8 escape in a joint audience with Supreme Leader Snoke. Kylo Ren probably spent half the movie thinking, “The freaking balls on this guy!”

Wow, was I in for a shock. In Ex Machina, both actors play characters that are so removed from their Force Awakens roles as to be almost antithetical. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman is a closed off, manipulative enigma, and Domhnall Gleason’s Caleb Smith is a tentative, geeky nice guy. He’s not even a good guy – he’s a nervous guy who wants to be good. If you get the chance, try watching both movies within a day or two of each other and prepare yourself for some whiplash.

If I have less to say about Alicia Vikander, it’s because I’d never seen her in anything else, and she’s kind of beside the point, Star Wars-wise. But she certainly gave a remarkable performance as Ava. In fact, she creeped me the hell out, which I gather is not her usual MO, at least from interviews she’s given and people not talking about her as if she’s a psychopath. Vikander’s character is like Isaac’s and like the movie itself: a piece of tighty-wound clockwork that only shows you what it wants you to see.

Oh: the special effects were incredible, in that they did not appear to be special effects at all.

A common theme among people who dislike the movie is that it’s predictable. I think it’s predictable in exactly the same sense that Titanic is predictable. We all know or can intuit the broad strokes of what’s going to happen from about 5 minutes in – but the enjoyment comes from watching it actually unfold.

Star Wars verdict: it bodes well. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason can act. I hope Rian Johnson gives them some work to do in the next two episodes, as they’re clearly up to it.

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