Ex Machina is an intellectually stimulating and unsettling thriller that explores the distinction between human beings and artificial intelligence. It’s a film that asks hard questions on what it means to be human while also touching on our contemporary fears of privacy, the ever-encroaching role of technology in our lives, as well as providing commentary on gender roles. This is a movie more interested in posing questions than offering answers, meaning its appeal to audiences seeking quick thrills will be limited. Still, its ambitious filmmaking, powerhouse performances and cerebral storytelling will prove immensely satisfying for astute viewers seeking out thought-provoking cinema.
The film tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lonely and awkward computer programmer who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he wins a week-long trip to the remote mountain estate of his employer Ethan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive owner of the world’s largest search engine company. When I mean remote, I really do mean it—Caleb’s helicopter trip over Ethan’s glacier and forest-covered estate lasts well over two hours. When he finally arrives at Ethan’s home—an ultra-futuristic, near window-less bunker built out of concrete, steel and bullet proof glass—he’s surprised to learn that Ethan isn’t a nerdy Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg-type that he imagined but a bald, buff, bearded and incredibly charismatic man who talks and acts like a fraternity bro (working out and drinking are his vices).
After some chit-chat and a quick tour of the premises—he’s given a card that can access some rooms of the house but not others—Ethan informs Caleb on the real reason he was invited up to his mountain estate. He wants him to be the world’s first person to see and interact with his top-secret project: a sentient robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). More importantly, he wants Caleb to perform the Turing test on Ava i.e. to test her ability to pass off as a convincing human. He wants to know whether Ava is capable of emotion and consciousness or if she’s simply faking it. When Caleb first meets Ava, he’s undeniably impressed with her but isn’t convinced she has what it takes to pass the test. However, as the sessions progress (the sessions function as chapters in the film) and Ava begins to exhibit more and more signs of humanity (she covers up her steely robot figure with a dress and wears a wig), he comes to a horrible realization that he may be falling for her. But is he being manipulated into feeling this way by Ava or is it he who is the real rat in Ethan’s grand maze?
Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of British novelist-turned screenwriter Alex Garland, who has been responsible for three of the smartest science fiction films of the last decade in Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later. And it’s a remarkable debut at that because judging by the film’s striking compositions, controlled pacing, and meticulous attention to detail you’d think this the work of a seasoned filmmaker like David Fincher. As beautiful as the film looks, its real strength rests in Garland’s clever chess-game of a screenplay which holds its chips close to its chest, taking its time in revealing the characters motives. This means that the audience is always on its toes, questioning the decisions of the characters, wondering who is playing who, and why? The brooding score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury certainly adds to the film’s chilly and deceptive atmosphere.
Equally important to the film are its central three performers. Gleeson, who is building quite a resume, provides strong work as the audience surrogate but the real stars of the show are Isaac and Vikander. The former, who just might be the most interesting actor working in Hollywood right now, adds another memorable rogue to his gallery of creations, adding just the right pinch of insanity to the brilliant but bipolar Ethan who alternates his bouts of excitement with fits of rage and depression. He also proves that along with singing abilities (Inside Llewyn Davis), he’s also a damn good dancer. Vikander may have the trickiest part to play in a performance that is both physically and emotionally demanding. She has to convince us that she’s a machine but at the same time make us believe that Ava is capable of human emotions too. On top of it all, she has to instill a smidgen of doubt in the audience as well because, after all, she’s a robot who cannot be trusted.
In many ways, our bond and opinion of Ava over the course of the picture is Garland’s way of exploring the way we treat (and objectify) women in society. A lot of the movie is seen from the perspective of Caleb and Ethan—both who are making decisions for her. It’s only in the film’s third act do we consider her point of view. Garland also uses our perception of Ava to ask questions about our relationship (and eventual dependence) on rapidly developing technology today. How soon will it be before we develop true artificial intelligence? And what will it mean to be human in a new and strange world where humanity can be manufactured in a factory? Many of these questions are old hat—having been explored in other seminal works of science fiction from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Steven Spielberg’s A.I., and more recently, Spike Jonze Her. But it’s the execution of Ex Machina, and the way it plays with our expectations, that make it essential cinema.
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence