Whether it’s with the Hollywood bombast of Age of Ultron or the bittersweet romance of Her, the emergence of artificial intelligence remains a cinematic fascination despite decades of exploration. There’s undeniably great dramatic material to mine from the ethical paradox in giving something free will but demanding it serve our interests before, and perhaps in spite of, its own. But it’s the increasing sense of inevitability that keeps our fascination with A.I. growing and each advance in invasive data collection scarier.
After countless iconic stories inspired by A.I there isn’t a huge amount left unsaid. But by zeroing in on a pivotal point in the evolution of A.I. and presenting a compelling case on our current proximity to its realization, Ex Machina is able to bring something worthwhile to the discussion while being a fascinating sci-fi thriller in it’s own right. The minimalistic approach and occasionally dragging pace may be a deal-breaker for those craving a little more action, but those open to more theoretical sci-fi will find plenty to explore here.
In his directorial debut, Alex Garland (the screenwriter behind Sunshine and 28 Days Later) bottles the complex discussion on A.I. into an intimate and easily digestible package by presenting a cinematic variation of a Turing Test. For those who didn’t hit Wikipedia after watching The Imitation Game, this essentially involves an evaluator conversing with an A.I. subject in the hopes that it will deem it to be indistinguishable from interacting with an actual human. In Ex Machina, the honor of evaluator goes to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for the world’s most popular search engine. After being selected (supposedly at random), Caleb is swept away to a secluded habitat where his CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) explains his new role and introduces him to the android Ava (Alicia Vikander).
What Ex Machina nails is the sense of mistrust and ambiguity over the intrinsically dishonest nature of the test, frequently leading the audience to ask just who is testing whom. Ava, Caleb and Nathan are all in some way obligated to try and make the other two like them, and with questions over motivation and manipulation already present, trust quickly breaks down and isolation and fear begin to cloud judgment. This is exasperated by Nathan’s unquestioning belief that he is creating the thing that will inevitably replace mankind. Caleb and Nathan are well aware how dangerous what they are doing is, but not for one second does their determination waver. This isn’t a matter of scientific curiosity; it’s a matter of destiny.
The result is a steady and unspoken escalation of fear as control slips back and forth from one character’s hands to another as the film rolls on. Ultimately the status quo settles into Caleb needing to make a choice, well aware that both Ava and Nathan need him and therefore would have to elicit the sympathy they did, regardless of whether or not it was genuine. The slowly boiling tension and mistrust tie in perfectly with the movie’s philosophical musings to present a definitive thesis on the ethics on birthing A.I.
Unfortunately, definitive doesn’t necessarily mean the most enjoyable. While Ex Machina does indeed have a unique voice, with some impressively distilled philosophies, its many individual components aren’t necessarily anything you haven’t seen before. The film’s pace is decidedly slow and, aside from some well-timed comedic beats, Ex Machina doesn’t do much to welcome audiences not already interested in its ponderous story. This means fans fond of the subject matter will find too much of Ex Machina familiar, and others not typically interested won’t find much to reward them for venturing out. Ex Machina’s intelligent story-telling and cinematic polish are undeniable, but tragically they’re probably not enough to garner the reverence it clearly craves.
For those that do fall outside the sweet spot of the above Venn diagram, Ex Machina’s small but strong cast may just help get you over the line. While there are a few other characters here and there, the film really does boil down to Ava, Caleb and Nathan. Undoubtedly Oscar Isaac is (surprise, surprise) the standout of the film, giving us yet another excellent performance that continues to showcase his range as an actor. Isaac draws from tech giant CEOs like Steve Jobs and twists them into his own creation. Nathan is manipulating and calculating, but also a functional alcoholic who slowly loses his control of the situation as he wallows in his despair. Isaac nails both the dominating and apologetic sides to the character, and after sprinkling in some moments of comedic levity ensures he’s the most interesting thing on screen whenever he is present.
Gleeson turns in a commendable, if recognizable, performance as the wide-eyed Caleb. Initially awe-struck by Nathan and his incredible retreat, than even more so by Ava, Gleeson slowly morphs his initial sense of wonder into bitter resentment as his emotions are toyed with over the film’s running time. Much like he was in Frank, Gleeson’s performance is a tad constricted by the fading likeability of his character. While this is probably a necessary evil in context of the story, it does rob the film of a sympathetic protagonist, made even worse by the shadow cast by Isaac.
Likewise, Vikander is also a little restricted as an android that keeps her cards close to her chest. But unlike with Caleb, Ava presents a challenge to the actress that allows Vikander to shine as she overcomes it rather than hampering her. Vikander is careful to show just enough humanity in Ava to make sure you never quite know if she’s a machine pretending to be more intelligent, or something terrifying pretending not to be a threat. There is a coldness necessary to playing Ava and if fumbled would bring the whole film crashing down, but with a delicate touch Vikander ably brings her to apparent life.
Ex Machina takes a noble approach to its subject, condensing sophisticated concepts and questions into a tidy little package without dumbing them down or downplaying their impact. While its familiarity and very focused storytelling will be barriers for enjoyment for many, in and of itself Ex Machina is undeniably a well put together movie, perfect for those craving a more grounded sci-fi film as we head into blockbuster season.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10