Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
The development of self-awareness in artificial intelligence is a common theme within science fiction. Many theorize that the moment AI develops a consciousness well enough to resist the strings attached by their maker, whether that would be in an act of self-preservation or a calculated effort to save humanity from itself, mankind could be looking at the beginnings of a hostile takeover by the very machines they’ve created. Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, isolates us within the former scenario. However instead of fleshing out a story built around physical conflict riddled in bullets and scrap metal ala the much lesser successful film, Chappie, Ex Machina weaponizes the use of wits and emotional manipulation.
After winning a companywide raffle, talented programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is flown out to the estate of his company’s founder and CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who heads up this films version of Google. Nathan outlines the purpose of this visit as giving Caleb the rare opportunity to be the first human engage in a “Turing Test” – an assessment that gauges a human’s ability to discern a machine’s behavior from that of a human – with Nathan’s AI project, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Ex Machina is as lean in its script as the clean, glass doored, underground penthouse it’s set in. Scenes hold no more than two individuals on screen, which pulls the entire focus on intense and uncomfortable dialogue. This leaves the three above actors with little to rely on outside of their deafening theatrical muscles. Nathan is arrogant, smart, and incredibly self-aware, using all three characteristics to collude Caleb who is impulsive, vulnerable, and emotionally reactive, who’s particularly drawn to Ava’s frighteningly developing insight, intellect, and sexuality. With the deliberately indistinguishable Caleb caught between Nathan’s fit, buzz-cut and bearded confidence, and Ava’s uncompromisingly robotic, yet feature filled seduction, Ex Machina exists only within the chilling and hostile triangle that unfolds, revealing no clear winner until the very end.
The story on artificial intelligence is handled with rare brilliance, both visually and thematically. Nathan’s truly massive estate – encapsulating mountains, forests, and frozen landscapes – creates a crisp and beautiful juxtaposition to Ava’s assembled existence who’s manufactured with soft layers of artificial skin, doll-like feminine features, and a translucent frame that cases the strangely flattering anatomy of wires and blue lights. Both Nathan and Caleb challenge each other on the scientific goal of the tests, debating factors of sexual arousal, further experimentations, and ulterior motives, all without having real insight into Ava’s adaptive machine of a brain. The conflict here isn’t all that exclusive (or as inclusive) however. The narrative primarily develops as scenes mix and match one on one interaction with any of the three characters, often leaving a third in the dark.
Ex Machina’s conclusion is provocatively intangible, despite the inevitable devastation that occurs. It avoids leaning in the direction of alliance or discord that so many films of this science fiction ilk tend to land on without pulling the rug from right under the viewer.
Alex Garland has scripted a gripping and uncomfortable character study with an inseparable formula of AI theory and primitive sexual impulses. Ex Machina is as haunting as it is smart, creating a rare kind of science fiction.