WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
In the realm of science fiction cinema, there have been more than a few with an emphasis on artificial intelligence. And why wouldn’t there be? The subject of technology allowing (creating) computers with their own version of intelligence is one that is simultaneously intriguing and terrifying. In the age we live in, what with phones that talk to us (subconsciously, for now) and every answer to every question (besides the deep, philosophical ones) at our fingertips, is it too far off to assume the events in a movie about A.I. are unrealistic? It’s something to consider, and that’s why Ex Machina works as a brilliant and haunting piece of modern science fiction.
The story takes place sometime in the distant future (as a matter of fact, this could very well be in the present) as we meet Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer that has just been selected the winner of a contest that will allow him to meet the CEO of Bluebook. What is Bluebook? Think Google, but only double (maybe triple) the size. The search engine, owned and operated by Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is the largest in the world, generating a whopping 98% of all internet searches. The mysterious Nathan, living by himself in the middle of the forest and mountains (it’s never specified just where these mountains are), is who young Caleb is on his way to meet.
When he shows up, we see luxury. A nice house, expensive equipment, and top gear technology. In walks Nathan, nearly bald and fully bearded, floating through his home in comfort, with nothing more than pajama pants, a t-shirt, and his bare feet. His obviously intelligent, working on some kind of secret project beneath his estate in the forest, but his personality and tendency to get drunk at night by himself has a way of convincing us that he’s slightly off the map, literally and metaphorically.
After talking Caleb into signing the “standard (okay it’s not standard)” agreement contract, he reveals his secret project to him. He has built an A.I. and has summoned Caleb for the purpose of being the human component in a Turing Test, which is, of course, a test to see if a computer can convince a human that it has a mind of its own. This A.I. is in the form of Ava, a humanoid design, wires and metal visible, but with a face that will take its toll on Caleb’s hormones.
As the tests continue, Caleb grows to care for Ava, but the movie has an even better time exploring the character of Nathan, whom Oscar Isaac plays with a tempestuous style. His character is one that ranges from crazy villain to grounded realist, and it’s Isaac’s performance that stands out as the most entertaining. But not even he can hold back Alicia Vikander, who brings an effectual sense of emotion to her robotic character that makes you not sure what to believe. For a role that requires mostly only facial expressions, this is a knockout performance.
However, the movie does suffer from some flaws that I noticed the first time I saw it, and then proceeded to really bug me the second time around. Firstly, the movie is predictable, and by predictable I mean nothing really surprised me in the culmination of events in the third act. They occurred, and I simply thought, “Yep. Saw that coming.” Not to say that the events should’ve unfolded differently, but I think that maybe writer/director Alex Garland could’ve concealed some of the major hints a little better (did he really expect us to be surprised with the twist involving Kyoko??).
Secondly, there is some expository dialogue that simply isn’t necessary whatsoever. In the beginning of the film, Nathan asks Caleb if he knows what a Turing test is. After Caleb affirms this, Nathan stares at him, anticipating further dialogue, to which Caleb continues and gives us a definition of a Turing test as if he’s reading right out of Webster’s dictionary. It isn’t particularly a recurrent problem (there are only a handful or less of scenes like this), but it did bug me upon both viewings of the film.
Lastly, characters make weird decisions that I’m not sure I can relate with, fully grasp, or even intellectually understand. After reading the contract and realizing that a lot is at stake, Caleb mentions that he should probably get a lawyer. Nathan responds that he doesn’t have to sign the contract, but in a year or so, he will realize what he’s missed out on and he’ll regret it for the rest of his life. This one line of dialogue is enough to make Caleb sign the contract without hesitation. I simply can’t relate with a ridiculous design such as this. Even though I thought Domhnall Gleeson gave a good performance, I found that his character was the weakest in the screenplay, never making wise decisions and somehow becoming less likable as the film progressed.
All that said, Ex Machina is a solid example of the fact that a movie can be flawed while being better than just “pretty good.” This is borderline-brilliant work from writer/director Alex Garland on nearly every level in the book. Some are saying the movie is being overhyped, and even though I clearly have some issues with it, I can’t agree with that. From the moment this movie starts, it doesn’t stop, sometimes crawling at a slow pace but never creeping like a snail. I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times left me amazed at just how quickly 108 minutes passed by. It’s probably the fastest “slow movie” I’ve seen in years.
Also, much credit goes to Alex Garland, who writes a smart sci-fi story with intriguing ideas and matches them with fluent and keen direction. First time director Garland, who worked with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine (he wrote the scripts) as well as the more recent Never Let Me Go and Dredd, takes what could be a typical man/machine thriller and spins in some interesting ideas. The way in which Garland writes the making of Ava (and how Nathan uses his search engine to create her/it) is smart and provocative, just like the film itself.
His direction is equally enthralling, as the movie’s aforementioned pace never gets in the way of the ride until the climax, which, although predictable, is still intense, riveting, and in some ways, cautionary. I think it could’ve ended a few minutes before it did (everything after the closing of the elevator was unnecessary) and I’m not sure how I feel about the decision made by the helicopter pilot at the end (did he just take Ava and leave Caleb??), but to be honest, I loved Ex Machina. And believe me, “loved” is not a word that I will typically give to a movie with such notable flaws. But this is such a well thought out film that I’m almost willing to overlook the flaws until the running time ceases, because once you’re in it, you’re in. And I promise, it doesn’t let up.
1 hr. 48 mins.
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Written and directed by Alex Garland