The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Ex Machina

See Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson onscreen together -- before they filmed Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Ex Machina is a British science fiction thriller that came out in 2015 and was written and directed by first-time director Alex Garland. It tells a simple story about robots, manipulation, artificial intelligence, and human nature. Part of the reason it’s a choice for this column is because the two lead characters are played by Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson, who will be playing Poe Dameron and General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, respectively. The film is a perfect jumping-on point to judge the acting capabilities of these two actors and show us the dedication that they will bring to Star Wars.

General Hux

Gleeson plays a young programmer named Caleb who works for Bluebook, the largest search engine in the world. At the beginning of the film, he’s told that he’s won a contest to spend a week with the eccentric CEO of the company, Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac). When he gets there and signs a non-disclosure agreement, he discovers that he’s there to perform a Turing Test on an artificial intelligence rather than spend a week just hanging out. What unfolds is a thrilling game of cat and mouse between Caleb, Nathan, and the AI herself, AVA, played by Alicia Vikander.

Since the film is set in an isolated home in the woods, the acting and suspense take center stage, offering a perfect platform for Isaac and Gleeson to show us what they can do. And what they can do is nothing short of stunning.

Much like Star Wars, this film contains many references and homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In interviews, Oscar Isaac stated that part of the inspiration for his character was the director of 2001 himself, Stanley Kubrick.

While the connections to Star Wars and George Lucas might seem skin-deep, with little more than the actors cast in their roles, there’s much more to it. The film itself explores the sort of science fiction that Lucas explored in films like THX 1138 and in episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars like “The Deserter,” where the humanity and ethics of the clones are explored in great detail.

Darth Vader - Revenge of the Sith

To see how stories filter through all kinds of movies, however, both Ex Machina and Revenge of the Sith share connections with Frankenstein — both the book and the films. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac is cast as Frankenstein and Alicia Vikander is his version of Frankenstein’s Monster. The ending plays out much the same way as the source material, but if you aren’t as familiar off the top of your head with Frankenstein, I won’t ruin it for you. In Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas borrowed from the classic cinema versions of the story, echoing Frankenstein’s creation of his monster to Palpatine’s creation of Darth Vader. In fact, when Darth Vader takes his first few steps as a newly transformed monster, more machine than man, it’s a direct reference to Frankenstein.

EV-9D9

The film also explores the idea of the rights of artificial intelligences. It makes one wonder how much freewill Artoo and Threepio might be given if they had emotions. It also evokes questions about EV-9D9 and her torture of droids in the bowels of Jabba’s Palace. Can droids in Star Wars feel and emote? Watching a movie like Ex Machina through the lens of curiosity would certainly put these questions in our minds as we set out to view Star Wars with a more discerning eye.

For those interested in seeing what two of our best actors from The Force Awakens are capable of, Ex Machina is a tight thriller that is going to force you to think. It is, however, rated R by the MPAA for graphic nudity, language, sexual references, and some violence, which is to say it’s not for the whole family. If you need a movie for a night with the adults and a riveting philosophical discussion afterward about artificial intelligence and the quality of actors associated with The Force Awakens, this is the movie for you.

Availability: Ex Machina is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD and can be streamed on most online video services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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