In this series, I break down and discuss what I consider to be some of the most important parts of any film: its opening. The opening scene of a film should demonstrate to the audience several key factors about that film: most commonly about the main character(s) and what’s happening in their lives. Ex Machina begins with the main character only and we see the world through his eyes.
As well as this, a film’s opening should present a reasonably accurate sense of the tone of the overall film; if it’s a horror movie, the opening should be just creepy enough; if it’s a sci-fi film, there should be a tease of highly advanced technology to be seen later.
Certain films are excellent at introducing the audience to the many different aspects of their characters and world with little effort, while others may struggle to even address the right tone of their film. Some films can introduce what they need with surprising efficiency and speed!
Ex Machina (2015):
This time, I’m going to discuss the recent science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, directed and written by Alex Garland.
This film is an excellent exercise in brevity and depth; a lot can be picked up from our central characters without relying on excessive dialogue or character’s preaching to one another.
The subtleties of their expressions, they ways in which they react and how their true colours slowly bloom are what tells us what we need to know about them. Nary a word is wasted in this film.
The film’s desire for efficiency is clear right in the opening, which may be one of the shortest film intros I’m likely to discuss here. In fact, it might be one of the most efficient and succinct openings to any film I’ve seen!
The film opens with Caleb working away at his desk in a bustling, hi-tech office surrounded by trendy co-workers as they mill about in the kitchen and at their stations. Caleb is in his own bubble; headphones on, coding away and separate from his noisy surroundings.
Without notice, Caleb receives an excited and congratulatory email. Based on the reactions of his co-workers we can assume that this is something big; everyone responds instantly and messages jump in left and right to applaud Caleb. In all the commotion, Caleb himself does not jump up in excitement, or even really look around all that much. His headphones are still plugged in and he experiences this elation within himself.
Ex Machina relies on little moments like this; actions that might not speak volumes but still indicate to us how a character chooses to behave in a given situation. As the film progresses, we steadily learn more about Caleb and it is fair to say he is more than a little introverted.
After this swift introductory scene, the film then immediately cuts to a helicopter flying over vast, undisturbed natural vistas. With forests, mountains, and glaciers as far as the eye can see, we understand that Caleb is far from civilisation, which is ironic considering he is on his way to meet possibly one of the most technocratic people on Earth.
This scene was originally longer and expanded upon Caleb’s reasons for being here as well as the pilot’s own personal experiences. Understandably, this added little to the film and was replaced with the more concise scene we are left with. It’s worth noting that this is in fact the first dialogue scene in the film. Caleb simply asks:
Caleb: “How long until we get to his estate?”
Pilot: “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours!”
This short exchange tells us so much, not only about how long they have been travelling but by simultaneously informing us about the wealth of the man Caleb is going to meet. Caleb is actually on his way to meet his employer, Nathan.
In the world of Ex Machina, this information subtly suggests that, for a man in this day and age to have such a vast and isolated natural estate, Caleb’s employer could possibly be the wealthiest person on the planet, if not among them.
Of course, for the purpose of the plot, it makes sense for Nathan to isolate himself and his work from the rest of civilisation in order to maintain privacy. The sheer extent he has clearly gone through in order to maintain such privacy though, begs curiosity.
Caleb is left in an open field and must walk the rest of the way himself. After what we can imagine to be quite the nature walk, Caleb finally arrives at the home of his boss where the two meet and the film really begins.
This film’s opening, though fast, sets up a lot of ideas in the mind of the audience. It is easy for a lot of the subtleties to fly past us but Alex Garland’s excellent script means that the average viewing will not leave you out of the loop.
The extra details are there for those who want to look deeper, but nothing crucial is unfairly hidden. It’s clear that Alex Garland respects his audience enough to not talk down to them but neither does he leave anything too high out of reach.
If you’d like to hear more about Ex Machina, consider paying a visit to the wise and charming Cinephilia Anonymous podcast for some deeper insights!
If time is of the essence, Ex Machina is an excellent example of how an opening can introduce what you need without taking up too much time, all the while building up valuable anticipation and curiosity!