Ex Machina is a slow-burning performance showcase, a disturbing psycho-techno fable, and great case for the resurrection of smart science fiction all rolled into one.
Artificial intelligence is a concept that is all but inevitable in the field of contemporary technology, but it’s a concept that’s been explored in no shortage of movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, I Robot). Ever since robots and computers have found their way to the screen, so too did the idea of AI. Ex Machina, written and directed by Sunshine writer Alex Garland, is here to give artificial intelligence a dark and foreboding upgrade the likes of which it hasn’t seen since Blade Runner, a heady, contemplative, and disturbing thinking person’s psycho-techno movie that asks the age old question: what does it mean to have consciousness?
The premise is a simple one; Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a mid-lever computer coder who’s given the opportunity of a lifetime to meet his reclusive visionary of a boss, Steve Jobs pastiche Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is flown out to Nathan’s private home, a science lab/high tech house built under a lush green forest that would make Bill Gates blush, to meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android that Nathan’s been perfecting for public sale. Caleb is tasked with administering a Turing test (a test of whether a computer or artificial intelligence can pass for human) on Ava over the course of a week, fully aware of her (its?) status as an automaton and seeing if he can still tell the difference. Over the course of their acquaintance, Caleb and Ava bond and he strives to break her out of of the house so she can live her own life.
The first thing that needs saying about Ex Machina is Alicia Vikander herself as Ava. Covered in an elaborate head-to-toe android makeup, she gives an incredible performance as an AI whose world is as big as a 6×6 room but whose mind is as expansive as all outdoors. Her quizzical sense of longing and overall character arc provide the main emotional heft in a film that’s rife with dark ideas, and she doesn’t miss a beat getting there, even if the film is content with her simply devolving into a one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype by the end of it all; her performance is a revelation that’s so much more than the ill-conceived ad campaign on Tinder during South by Southwest made it seem.
Some of those dark ideas are explored through all three protagonists; Nathan is a particular kind of visionary recluse with Steve Jobs’ look, intellect, and inflated ego that drives him to treat everyone around him like a test subject, except for Sonoya Mizuno as his assistant Kyoko, whose job description seems to begin and end with…stress relief. Ava has never seen any person before except for her “father” Nathan and introducing a blank slate like Caleb into the picture brings out the worst in everyone. Gleeson’s Caleb is the kind of fly on the wall who barely even has a life to go back to once he’s done, but he proves himself to be one step ahead of the game once he’s tested, but two steps behind Ava when all is said and done.
I will say I was a little disappointed that a character so layered as Ava is forced by the screenplay to utilize her/its sexuality to get what she wants. David from Prometheus and Chappie weren’t forced into this corner as a passing block for consciousness, so why must Ava? She’s clearly the most “human” character in this film, unlike Nathan and Caleb who are both combinations of isolated, awkward, and biased, so why cut off her complexity at her appeal to her male counterparts?
Either way, Isaac and Vikander have the show-stopping performances here, but Garland’s screenplay makes it all cohesive, squeezing more suspense, intrigue, and sheer intellect out of a sparse story involving four characters than I could’ve possibly imagined. The foreboding synth-based score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow also deserves to be recognized. It’s no wonder that Garland brought them along from the 2012 project Dredd, which they wrote and composed, respectively. Intelligence is the word that should be hovering in the back of your mind at all times with every aspect of Ex Machina; it’s a slow-burning performance showcase, a disturbing psycho-techno fable, and great case for the resurrection of smart science fiction. Don’t miss this one.
The A24 film opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 10, 2015.
Below are some photos from a special screening this week:
-Dylan “CineMasai” Green