We’ve seen artificial intelligence get raised by criminals in Chappie, we’ve seen it try to save the world by killing us in Age of Ultron, and now, get ready for it to learn about love and lust in Ex Machina. 2015 seems to be one heck of a good year for A.I. is what I’m saying.
As incredibly clichéd a concept as A.I. is, however, if I were to place those three films on some manner of “originality spectrum”, Age of Ultron would most probably be far down with Ex Machina closer to the top. Not only can I think of few sci-fi films that have explored the sexuality of artificial intelligence, but this one also explores the science and its implications/consequences a bit more intricately than did Age of Ultron or Chappie, both of which were largely action movies. Ex Machina is more of a thinking piece; a film of contemplation, not angry CGI robots crashing through houses.
We join Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented but lonely programmer at a company called Bluebook, supposedly so-called because Google was inexplicably more comfortable putting their brand on The Internship than a much smarter film. One day, Caleb is selected to pay a visit to the founder of Bluebook, a secluded super genius named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) who mostly keeps to himself in a mansion/research facility among the mountains. Caleb’s mission is shrouded in secret at first, but shortly after his arrival at the mansion, Nathan explains why he is needed there.
Nathan has created artificial intelligence, and not only that but he has also given it a body that looks, at least mostly, like a human female. He has named it Ava and it is portrayed by Alicia Vikander. Caleb’s purpose is to help Nathan perform a Turing test (see The Imitation Game or Wikipedia for more info), to see if his experiment is indeed a success. Caleb agrees to it, but soon finds that Ava is more human than he foresaw, as she begins to show signs of becoming infatuated with Caleb after a certain number of Turing sessions. Also, during power-outs that cut off Nathan’s video fee from the experiment, Ava takes chances to tell Caleb that Nathan isn’t who he seems and that there is a sinister nature to his mansion. Days pass as Caleb grows increasingly paranoid and begins to question everything around him, including the true nature of his part in Nathan’s experiment.
I was insanely intrigued by Ex Machina. In spite of an outlandish sci-fi premise, this film uses its characters and tone to create a strange sense of realism, making you believe that an experiment like this might in fact be taking place somewhere in the world right now. And really, considering the technological advancements of humanity in recent years, maybe that’s not such a far-fetched thought? And maybe this is how a newly born A.I. might act and talk upon discovering the world for the first time? Maybe it could indeed love? Humans can, so surely a mind that’s supposedly more advanced than ours can too? Who knows?
I love movies that do this to my imagination. One of the most important corner stones of truly good science fiction is the way it makes you think about the world and how we might advance. The lack of real action in Ex Machina actually makes it better, since more time is devoted to mind-stirring contemplations on the science itself. Nathan claims in one scene that A.I. shall one day look upon us the way we look at fossils and apes, and then there are scenes in which the A.I. is trying to figure herself out, which often made me recall scenes from last year’s Under the Skin. In fact, as creative as this film is, I could probably still sum it up as a mix between Under the Skin and Spike Jonze‘s Her.
Also, as far as visual effects go, Ava’s physical form is a pretty great piece of work, especially considering that no green screens or tracking markers were employed during filming. The actress filmed her scenes normally and the actual VFX work was done 100% in post.
On the note of actors, the performance of Alicia Vikander as Ava is absolutely brilliant – another thing that adds to the unnerving but intriguing atmosphere of this film. She manages to truly come off as this non-human mind that tries to understand how the world works, which makes it all the more fascinating to see her explore the concepts of love and desire for the first time. And while we’re speaking of impressive performances, Oscar Isaac makes for a consistently intense antagonist, always straddling a certain line between “friendly” and “threatening” which makes you feel as though he could snap at any second. I was in ways reminded of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, even though I could have used more of the actual wrath. And last but not least, Domhnall Gleeson makes for enough of a good lead that one shares the paranoia and uncertainty his new life subjects him to.
Ex Machina is an impressively good directional debut of Alex Garland, who has previously worked as a screenwriter on a handful of Danny Boyle films. It presents an old premise in a refreshingly thought-provoking way, it is stupendously well-acted, and it has some pretty great music that reminded me of Aphex Twin. I’m giving it my highest rating!