Ex Machina (2015)

6 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From “2001” to “Blade Runner” to “Her,” artificial intelligence has been a common theme in science-fiction films. I think back to a line in a scene from “Prometheus,” in which an android asks a human he serves why he was made: “We made you because we could.” To say the least, there’s something so enthralling about the ability to play God and create life that the notion of said-life developing a soul is usually glanced over. That notion can pave the way for creative writers to explore its full potential, and with “Ex Machina” writer-director Alex Garland, best known for penning the screenplays for such films as “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go,” explores this idea to create a spellbinding, thought-provoking fable about what it means to be “human.”

The film begins as Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to participate in a test conducted by reclusive computer-scientist Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), who is CEO of the search-engine company Caleb works for. Caleb is brought to Nathan’s remote estate to stay for a week. Why is he there? Because Nathan has created an A.I. prototype named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interact with Ava for seven daily sessions and see if she can pass for a human.

To get this out there right away, the special effects involving Ava are quite outstanding. She’s covered partially in metallic skin with a human-like face, and we can also see through her to see her skeletal structure. It’s really impressive.

Ava is self-aware, speaks in a pleasant, robotic tone not unlike Siri, and seems very real, in Caleb’s eyes. He is astonished by how well she can pass as human and even becomes strangely attracted to her. This gets the attention of Nathan, who sees this as a development in the test, while Caleb starts to get suspicious of Nathan’s intentions toward Ava. Who is in control of this experiment? Who is being controlled? Who is manipulating who? Who is being manipulated?

The less I say about the story of “Ex Machina,” the better. I walked into this film cold and was constantly intrigued by each direction the complicated story took. Yes, the story is a bit complicated but only in terms of the characters and their incentives. It avoids the usual scientific talk about how Nathan created Ava and instead pushes it into symbolic-dialogue territory, with Nathan telling Caleb his reasoning for creating A.I. and what he plans to do with Ava to make way for more improvements. This has Caleb worried, since he sees her to be as human as he, while Nathan sees her as just a machine that can be replaced. Nathan loves to create life, even if he doesn’t see them as “being” or “unique,” so Caleb sees his meanings as problematic.

What I like most about “Ex Machina” is that it’s a little film about grand concepts. It’s kept in this one huge compound with four characters (Caleb, Nathan, Ava, and Nathan’s housekeeper whose identity would be a spoiler to describe) and we stay there for a majority of the film. The set itself is a suitably-unsettling place to spend an hour and 40 minutes of running time, especially at night, when it feels like a prison, with surveillance, key cards, and emergency shutdowns that happen ever so often, strangely. And the film isn’t an action film with a ton of special effects (the effects, which mostly bring Ava to life, have a purpose and are understated); instead, it’s a film about construction, philosophy, value, and character, and it’s the characters and the script’s brilliant dialogue that help bring these themes across in a very effective way. It also helps that Garland builds an edgy, disquieting tone that keeps the audience unnerved and guessing throughout the film.

“Ex Machina” also benefits from strong performances as well. Alicia Vikander provides the strongest performance as Ava, keeping the audience guessing as to whether she’s mimicking human emotions or genuinely feeling them. Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Nathan. He doesn’t play him as a typical mad-scientist type by constantly shouting and spewing exposition; he just plays him as an eccentric, deadpan, alcoholic narcissist who has a brilliant mind but is also kind of insane, especially when it comes to his fascination with playing God. Domhnall Gleeson is fine as the outsider/straight-man who isn’t sure exactly what to believe.

With intriguing concepts, smart dialogue, a low-key approach, a contained feeling, and numerous surprises, “Ex Machina” is not a film I will forget anytime soon. Some of the concepts have been explored before but not quite like this. It is one of the best films of the year.

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