Ex Machina July 29, 2015
The directorial debut of Alex Garland, Ex Machina, is one of the most ambitious films of the year. Draped in metallic interiors and dankly cool exteriors, it is a sci-fi tale of extreme minimalism, its simplicity making its captivating ideas seem booming, life-sized. Questioning what we’ve come to know about technology and making the idea of artificial intelligence an unsettling reality, Ex Machina is at once distressing and wickedly smart, by turns cunningly provocative and subversively satirical.
The movie opens in the banal headquarters of Bluebook, a search engine corporation in the same category of Google. Leading programmer Caleb Smith’s (Domhnall Gleeson) mundane workday is suddenly interrupted by an announcement — he has been selected, as part of a companywide contest, to visit idiosyncratic CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his sheltered, mountainous home. He is to spend a week there, no interruptions and no sudden flights out.
Upon arrival, Nathan reveals that he is in the process of perfecting a new kind of artificial intelligence, not in your average Siri form but in the embodiment of a humanistic android. Caleb will be the living, breathing partner in a Turing Test that will decide whether or not Nathan’s machine will prove effective in the material world. The robotic invention in the process of analytical refinement is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an extraordinarily complex machine that may turn out to be much more perceptive than Caleb, let alone her creator, ever expected (or wanted).
With only three main cast members (four, if you count Sonoya Mizuno, who turns eyes but never speaks a word), Ex Machina feels claustrophobically minimal in its every move, with few actors, few ramifications in its set design (mostly consisting of futuristic deco), and few plot points to complicate the intricate details of the story. Reminiscent of the slow burn sci-fi of last year’s Under the Skin (which I mistakenly underrated), Ex Machina dazzles in its understated elaborations, its mysteries building and building until it reaches a bloody (but not unexpected) conclusion.
As the film glides along, it grows ever apparent that Nathan is not really who he seems and that Ava has a lot more on her programmed mind than sitting through quaint little tests with a strawberry blonde sad sack. The way Ex Machina twists and turns about can sometimes be predictable (it’s clear from the start that it’s impossible to trust any sort of revolutionary AI), but never is it any less than fascinating.
The conversations between Caleb and Ava are edged in an underlying mist of erotica and magnetism — while it’s obvious that Caleb has an attraction to the android, his understandable incapacity to show it makes their relationship all the more tense, one of mutual yearning and objectification. The exchanges that go back and forth between Caleb and Nathan, however, are compellingly passive aggressive: whereas Ava remains an awesome question mark throughout the entirety of the film, the bond between Caleb and Nathan is immediately apparent. It is one of distrust, paranoia; while it seems as though they are equals at first glance, their kinship is more relatable to 1972’s Sleuth, in which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine played a puzzling game of one-upmanship where the hero of the film (shockingly) didn’t win the battle of wits.
Isaac alternates between a charismatic façade and a bullying one, always ensuring that he stays the wiser; his ability to maintain a villainous undertone, though, is what makes Isaac’s performance so great. It, at first, is hardly blatant that he shouldn’t be trusted, but something about his body language, his manner of speak, suggests otherwise. Gleeson resonates as a mild-mannered protagonist perhaps too in over his head to pull off any wanted attempts of heroism, but it’s Vikander that runs away with the film. While she provides the most simplistic performance in Ex Machina, Vikander has the difficult task of appearing robotic and humane. Her characterization is something of a wonder, making Ava simultaneously sympathetic, blank, and vaguely threatening.
But while Ex Machina is an acting triumph, it will stay long in the memory for its quips about modern technology. We’ve become so heavily reliant on our digital counterparts that part of one’s soul will forever belong to a social media app or a search engine, never to be brought back. Ex Machina ponders how far we will go with our advances before it’s too late, before man becomes machine and the human population transforms into nothing but a memory. This is science fiction at its best: nominal but stirring in the way it proves to have relevance in the lives of the viewer. A-