Friday, December 8, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #20. "Ex Machina" (2015)

Scene from Ex Machina
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Ex Machina
Released: April 24, 2015 
Release Number: 20
Directed By: Alex Garland
Written By: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Plot: A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breath-taking humanoid A.I.
Major Awards: 3
Golden Globes
-Best Actress (Drama): Alicia Vikander (Nominated)
-Best Original Screenplay (Nominated)
-Best Visual Effects (Win)

With director Alex Garland's Ex Machina, A24 entered a new era. It was the second renaissance period where suddenly the studio was considered a legitimate threat to big studio films. Along with critical acclaim and a solid box office run, the philosophical sci-fi tale would become the first chronologically to not only earn an Oscar, but win one. It was the start of an era where the films, no matter how oddball, were now part of the cultural conversation. Ex Machina may have not been the first smash movie that the studio released, but it was a turning point where everything about the studio was realized, even in terms of its quirky marketing approach. It took 20 films to get there, but A24 was finally becoming the studio it always dreamed it could be.

The story began when Garland was 11 or 12 years old. With an interest in computer coding, he began to think that computers had a mind of their own. As he grew older, he began to have discussions regarding neuroscience as well as various forms of philosophy. While working on pre-production for Dredd, he had an epiphany. Along with influence from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Altered States, he borrowed elements of philosophy from books written by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ray Kurzwell. His plan was to have creative freedom, and part of that came with having the film produced on as small of a budget as possible, which would be $15 million. Its influence from computer iconography would be built into every detail, including the use of a red, green, and blue color pallet to capture the way that a computer screen operates. The story is also said to borrow influence from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and William Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios, and in Valldalen, Norway. The film was shot using 4K resolution and featured no special effects while filming. With that said, the film used special effects in post-production to make Alicia Vikander's character appear more robotic. There were a reported 800 VFX shots, of which 350 were used for "robot" shots. Garland claimed that the story was meant to feel like it took place "10 minutes from now," where technology like this could exist, but would still seem like a surprise. A lot of the direction also pulled on the imagery of man and robot being confined by occasionally reversing the visual depiction of surroundings. It was meant to suggest the hierarchy of control that each character brought, suggesting that artificial intelligence had the chance to overthrow man if they weren't careful.

The film centered around actors Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Each had played different forms of artificial intelligence throughout their career, with Isaac and Gleeson set to star in that fall's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This would be Isaac's second film with A24 following A Most Violent Year the previous year. He conceptualized the character as being a cross between mysterious geniuses Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick, claiming that his beard was directly influenced from Kubrick's. Each of their names were said to be pulled from biblical names, whose names correlated to their actions: Vikander played Ava (first woman), Isaac was Nathan (a prophet), and Gleeson was Caleb (a spy). The music also was rooted in technological references, including the song "Bunsen Burner," which played on pinball game "The Machine: Bride of Pinbot," which was another tale of metamorphosis.

The film first premiered in the United Kingdom in January of 2015. At the time, there were no plans for a United States release. When Universal and Focus Features refused to release it, A24 decided to take up the mantle, and in the process set up an April 2015 release, as well asa  screening at South by Southwest. During this event, they set up a Tinder profile for robot character Ava, which linked to an Instagram page that promoted the film. The film was appealing to a younger audience, and it began a slow word of mouth by the time that the film would receive a small release. The film would go on to gross $36.9 million at the box office. It would become one of the first big successes for A24, becoming their highest grossing film to that date, beating previous record holder Spring Breakers at $31.2 million. The scene in which Isaac is seen dancing even became a popular meme.

The film also had an impressive resurgence of critical praise. It received a 92% rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. David Sims of The Atlantic would write that "Ex Machina has a precise visual sheen that evokes David Fincher, and earns the sudden, quiet, powerful scares of his best work." There was even praise of its script, with Bill Graham of The Film Stage writing that "Ex Machina has both a heart and soul. Within these close quarters, there is something to chew on, observe, and explore." The general praise also referenced the various allegories that the film evoked, with many like Matt Zoeller Seitz even rating the film highly. This would lead to an impressive run during awards season. This would lead to the studio's second Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, for Vikander. It also became one of the first A24 films nominated for Oscars, and one of three that would win at the 2016 Academy Awards (along with Amy and Room). Vikander would win an Oscar, but for a different film (Best Supporting Actress - The Danish Girl). Many believed that she deserved it more for Ex Machina. Its win for Best Visual Effects made it the lowest grossing winner of the category since What Dreams May Come.

If Ex Machina marked anything for A24, it was a turning point for their reputation. They weren't just an indie start-up that made really good movies. They also won awards for provocative indie films that were different. This idea would only continue to expand over the next few years, especially as they branched out and began doing things like documentaries. For the immediate future, they would have to deal with another oddball project that didn't resonate quite as well as Ex Machina. The next film would star an Oscar-nominated actress named Hailee Steinfeld playing a comedic role, but it was alongside an odd line-up of lesser supporting actors. Barely Lethal wasn't ever going to be Oscar material, but it was going to be proof that A24 was still taking risks that weren't always that successful.

Up Next: Barely Lethal (2015)

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