The best science fiction creates an idea that crawls into your head, takes a bat to your most cherished beliefs, and leaves you a wreck that questions everything you believe. If it can entertain you while destroying everything you hold dear, even better.
Ex Machina follows young coder Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) as he goes to the remote home of his company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb believes he is there because he won a contest to spend a week at the home of this brilliant man, but Nathan reveals his true intentions. He has created an artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to see if the humanoid robot can fool people into thinking she is human. This strange experiment plays with both men’s minds…and ours as well.
Ex Machina is a brilliant science fiction thriller buoyed by strong performances and a compellingly twisted story. It never gives you easy answers but is incredibly satisfying. This suspenseful film will make a home in your mind long after it ends as you try and comprehend what you just saw.
Two Men and A Little A.I.
Ex Machina gives us great characters who are never quite what they seem. Their imperfections are utterly watchable. Alica Vikander’s performance is probably the best of the trio of lead characters.
Ava is a perfect marriage of amazing special effects and top notch acting. The effects are seamless and add to the strange “beauty” of the character. She is a blend of humanity and machine, an inevitable combination in today’s ever advancing society. It is a scary thought, but also strangely enticing.
Vikander infuses a child like wonder into the highly advanced robot, but it always feels just a little off. She moves mechanically with stunted gestures or odd facial tics. However, at just the right moments, all of that off-putting behavior falls away. Her waif-like voice and charming curiosity disarm the characters…and us.
Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson play our human characters, men who appear to be on opposite sides morally. But they have more in common than they would believe. Their dynamic with each other and Ava form the great dilemma at the center of Ex Machina.
Isaac is great as the narcissistic Nathan. He makes the character genuinely charming, but it always feels just as artificial as the robot he built. Like Ava, whose true robotic nature is only partially hidden by her beautiful face, Nathan’s charm is a simple facade. Ultimately, Nathan is a user, a man who believes his high intelligence gives him free reign to do as he pleases.
On the other side is Gleeson’s naive Caleb. He gives the character an awkward eagerness that slowly changes to angry condemnation of Nathan’s methods. Caleb is the “everyman” of the film, genuinely awed by Ava. Later, he is genuinely disgusted by Nathan’s nature and methods.
However, Caleb and Nathan have more in common than it appears. Caleb has a similar sense of superiority, though his is moral. As the “experiment” goes on, a desire to do what is right takes Caleb over. His black and white view of the world coupled with his naive sense of justice are just as dangerous as Nathan’s no holds barred approach to artificial intelligence.
In the end, this is what Ex Machina is about. With steadily advancing technology leading to possible new forms of life, can humanity ever comprehend the morality and danger? The film’s brilliant conclusion does not give an easy answer, yet it is satisfying. The story comes to an inevitable conclusion, but is it the right one? That is the question for us to decide.
Middle of Nowhere
Writer/director Alex Garland not only give us compelling characters, he also creates a beautifully and troubling world for those characters to inhabit. Nathan’s home is a sterile haven for technology in a beautiful valley full of lush forests, mountains and waterfalls. It is a literal prison for the characters in the middle of the real, natural world.
Nathan’s home is virtually empty for the whole film, with only Nathan, Caleb, Ava and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s servant. Garland makes it feel as though these characters alone are deciding the fate of humanity with beautifully framed long takes in the cold halls and rooms of the compound. The lack of color also plays an important part. The moment blood is spilled, it is visceral and eye catching.
Garland also crafts a compelling script. The technology and moral platitudes involved in creating an A.I. are acknowledged, but quickly tossed aside. This is an intimate story between the three lead characters and what really matters are their real interactions with each other. Garland creates his own Turing Test with his characters and all of them are compelling and real.
Composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury add to the atmosphere as well. The chiefly electronic score ranges from soothing synthesizers in quieter scenes to alarming screeches whenever the tension rises. Add this to Garland’s skillful use of his long takes and you have a fittingly troubling atmosphere for this thriller.
Out of Your Head
Ex Machina never attempts to hold your hand or steer you towards certain ideas. This is a rare film that lets you think for yourself, taking a brave chance with modern audiences that often want the warm embrace of a clear cut answer. The film simply asks you a question, one that you will probably repeat over and over long after seeing it.
Good luck with that bat wielding idea.
SCORE: 10 OUT OF 10