The world of science fiction film is cluttered with ideas about the various directions our forays into artificial intelligence (AI) could lead us. Many of these are no more than cheap, discounted versions of better ideas, meant to serve as nothing more than a component to fuel a space battle or alien invasion. Then, every once in a while, a film will come along that has something to say. Something about the human condition, about science, about love, or even about us as a species. Sometimes these movies become bigger than themselves, a capsule of contemplation ingested in the soul as the ending credits roll.
Ex Machina is one of these films.
As soon as the final frame faded to black, all I was left with was awe and wonder. I cannot remember the last time I walked out of a film infused with such a creative spark in my being. For a film unfurling a fairly simple story, the complexities it saddled my mind with felt infinite. The ‘fiction’ in this science fiction film seethed with realism, a future of a modern society that seems not so far off at all. What does it all mean? With technology already approaching this now, what will happen with us? What is possible? More importantly, what is now IMPOSSIBLE?
What is this film that I am rambling on about? Ex Machina is writer / director Alex Garland’s love letter to Kubrick. Within the frame of his lens he tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer selected by his company to participate in a very unique experiment by his company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). This experiment requires a person to interact with a ‘female’ robot, enhanced with synthetic skin to create a more alluring appeal, and test her revolutionary AI.
Ava (Alicia Vikander), as Nathan names her, is programmed to FEEL, to think and grow as any rational human would. The test for Caleb becomes, quite simply, can he begin to feel for her in return? Within his allotted week at this remote test facility, can a robot convince him that she is, for lack of a better word, real? This is one of the most intriguing concepts for a film of this sort in some time. We are always so occupied searching for the next Terminator of Johnny 5, we sometimes forget the human emotion and thought process such AI could truly ascertain.
Where the story goes would lead directly into spoiler territory and this is a film each person will experience differently. Just go in knowing this is that rare film that engages on multiple fronts. A thought-provoking story is a good start, but entertaining performances and smart, efficient direction which are key components in elevating a film to a more elite status. Something Ex Machina has in spades.
It all starts with Gleeson as the intelligently naïve mouse, cornered in Nathan’s maze. Gleeson brings a bright mix of wide-eyed optimism, understanding, and compassion. His character is much more than he initially appears, and Gleeson carries the weight of the film with dignified purpose.
While Gleeson serves as the audience’s window into this experiment, Isaac is the life of the party. At first glance, Isaac seems as little more than comic relief. As the layers of his brilliance are revealed, and the isolation of his existence becomes more evident, Isaac leaves the film with a more nuanced character than I think even the script could have indicated. Nathan is a character sparsely present yet ominously ever-present, and he ultimately becomes the character you NEED more of.
Ironically, the heart of the film rests with Ava. A relative newcomer, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander manages to create a robot of complete believability, as well as establishes her as a character we can somehow sympathize with. The audience itself becomes the experiment, as we become as fully vested as Caleb in Ava’s situation, ourselves forgetting the obvious mechanical trappings of her frame and instead become enraptured by the alluring nuance in Vikander’s performance. This is a career making performance for Vikander, and cannot wait to see what she brings us next.
Alex Garland is already beloved by film buffs and snobs alike the world over. 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine are just a few of his recent accomplishments. The auteur has written some of the most insightful sci-fi films of the last decade and here he steps into the director’s chair to cement his place among the visionaries. In the hands of a lesser talent, this becomes a rip-off of “Her” or another Chappie. Instead, Garland wants to truly ponder the implications of our descent into robotics and intrusive AI, a Frankenstein for the digital age. Confidently, he asks the question deserving of a collegiate consortium that I have never felt has been effectively pondered on-screen: What if AI is the solution, and WE are the problem?
If I have given high praise to Ex Machina, it is because the film has damn well earned it. Days later and Ava is still in the back of my mind, keeping my inquisitive nature in full view. Garland has given us a thing of beauty – a rare, shining example of an entertaining film, completely devoid of some of the more pompous tropes common in this genre, which also offers the audience something extremely insightful. Ex Machina is the science fiction opus we have been pining for.
4.5 stars out of 5.