Ex Machina Made in: UK Language: English Director: Alex Garland Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuna Year: 2015
Synopsis: Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a 26 year-old coder at a tech company called Bluebook, which is the world's most popular search engine (an obvious reference to Google). One fateful day, he wins an office-wide lottery to spend a week hanging out with Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) Bluebook's mysterious founder and CEO.
The brash and brilliant Nathan is pretty much a hermit living in a secluded but luxurious compound surrounded by miles of wilderness. Shortly after arriving, Caleb soon learns that the place is also a massive, high-security research facility where Nathan spends all his time pursuing the next technological breakthrough.
His latest project is artificial intelligence, and he enlists Caleb's help in testing an ultra-advanced robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb's task is a twist on the Turing Test. The Turing Test was an experiment in which a human tester, under the supervision of an evaluator, would unknowingly interact with a computer for the purpose of determining whether or not the machine would respond in a convincing, human-like manner.
But in this case, Caleb is aware that he's speaking to a machine. He is to determine not only if Ava has a degree of consciousness on par with that of an actual human, but if he is actually able to relate to her as he would a real person.
Ava is confined in a locked room, where she and Caleb are separated by a large glass partition. As he gets to know her, Caleb soon finds his interactions with Ava more and more unsettling. Although clearly a robot, she does have a very human-looking face and exhibits detailed expressions that can easily be interpreted as genuine emotions. Is she merely programmed to mimic those expressions? Or does her highly advanced operating system actually give her the ability to feel them?
Caleb's interactions with Nathan aren't any more comforting. Nathan's methods of creating artificial life are a pandora's box of consequences that humanity won't be able to control. Is he a genius or mad scientist? A visionary or psychopath?
As Caleb finds himself bonding with Ava, and that's where Ex Machina starts taking a dark turn. she warns him that Nathan is extremely dangerous and not to be trusted. Caleb is sympathetic, but at the same time senses a game of manipulation. But who is the real villain? Is there one at all? Or is this all just part of the experiment?
The Good: Ex Machina is very intense and fascinating. Although the overall theme of artificial intelligence and it's implication has worldwide consequences, director Alex Garland brings all of that to focus with a simple setting and small group of characters. The effect is very personal and intimate. A multitude of themes arise, ranging from the examination of our own humanity to the possible consequences of technological evolution. Garland does a great job portraying these in an intelligent, engaging manner.
The small cast is superb. Domhnall Gleeson perfectly portrays the shy, geeky, but ultimately likable tech employee that we've all come across at some point in our lives. Oscar Isaac (set to appear in the upcoming Star Wars movie) gives a fiery performance as Nathan, who deftly portrays the kind of genius that fascinates and terrifies at the same time.
But the show-stopper is Alicia Vikander's performance as Ava. Just how does a human actor play a robot trying to be human? Subtle but brilliant visual effects aside, it is Vikander's performance that brings out everything appealing and creepy about the future of AI.
The Bad: Not too much to complain about here. Although I wish there was just a little more exposition. The scenes dealing with Nathan's philosophy, thoughts about technology, human nature, and artificial intelligence itself were really compelling. I wish Alex Garland could have given us a bit more on that front.
Who would like this film: Ex Machina is for fans of independent films and the type of science fiction that's a bit more cerebral. It's probably best suited for a tech-savvy audience, but its central theme shouldn't be lost on anyone.
It's a bold film for a more mature audience, as some of the sexual themes might not go over well with the faint-of-heart. Avoid if you're easily offended by nudity, but bear in mind that it's there for reasons other than shock value.
The central theme of technology threatening humanity is nothing new. It's existed for decades (since the invention of the atomic bomb), but Ex Machina doesn't take a two-dimensional, anti-technology stance. It addresses a variety of issues facing society as technology continues advancing, and makes its points effectively in a sincere, down-to-earth tone.
It's a dark, cautionary tale that's bound to spur intelligent, meaningful conversations. The film is gripping, with it's most effective scares coming not from anything onscreen, but from the story's plausibility.