While it touches on a number of contemporary concerns and outright fears regarding the progress and pervasiveness of technology and the ethical questions that progress inevitably brings forth, Ex Machina is, at its core, a psychological thriller, an interpersonal drama built upon mind games, seduction, and deception. As such, it may prove to be somewhat of a disappointment to those hoping for a more thought provoking, boundary-expanding science fiction film. It’s certainly an elegant, efficient, and extremely well-acted film, featuring strong, memorable work from all three of its principals, and those qualities make the film worth seeing.
It’s just doesn’t chart any new territory or thinking about the issues it raises in regards to the direction our world is headed, technology-wise. It exploits those issues, but only to add complexity and dramatic tension to the story it wants to tell, and thus by the end all the science fiction elements feel like a bit of a cheat. A bit more ambition and willingness to really explore the potential ramifications of what it puts forth might have raised Ex Machina to the level of “great” science fiction cinema. As it stands, it’s just a solid, engrossing (albeit slow-building) thriller with dressed in the trappings of modern sci-fi.
Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II) plays Caleb, a computer programmer working for a tech giant responsible for creating and marketing the world’s most utilized search engine, “BlueBook.” At the film’s outset, Caleb wins a company-wide contest, the prize of which is a weeklong stay with the company’s reclusive software genius owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival at Nathan’s secluded compound surrounded by dense forest and ice-capped mountains, Caleb learns that Nathan has something very special in mind for him to do during his stay, a task that Caleb is uniquely suited for: be the human element in a Turing Test upon Nathan’s newly-completed artificial intelligence, Ava (Alicia Vikander, Seventh Son). Nathan believes that Ava is truly self-aware, that she is, for all intents and purposes, “alive”, rather than simply aping human behavior and consciousness the way a lesser computer might. But as her creator, he insists he doesn’t have the objectivity to know for certain, thus the need for Caleb. Excited by the prospect of being a part of such a momentous, potentially world-affecting breakthrough, Caleb eagerly agrees.
But upon actually meeting Ava and speaking to her in the strictly controlled and monitored environment in which Nathan has placed both of them over the course of several “sessions”, it becomes apparent that something is very, very wrong. While Ava seems to respond to him in ways that are clearly indicative of self-awareness, she also exhibits behaviors that immediately send up red flags, such as attraction toward him and suspicion and distrust of Nathan. The longer the sessions continue, the more Caleb’s sense grows that Nathan, so candid and straight-forward about the nature and intent of his work when he isn’t drinking himself unconscious, hasn’t actually been honest about anything, and that he and Ava have real reason to fear what may happen once the week is up and the “test” comes to an end.
That is, if even Ava is being honest and genuine with him. After all, if she truly is as “human” as Caleb comes to believe she is, couldn’t she be capable of lies and manipulation, as well?
Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) demonstrates the same proclivity toward character driven drama and a measured approach to building tension and suspense here that he’s shown in the previous scripts he’s penned. He’s also making his directorial debut here, and it’s a strong one, as he’s able to bring forth from his stars scene after scene rife with palpable tension and conflict. Each encounter Caleb has with Nathan, played with tremendous nuance by the phenomenally talented Oscar Isaac, is one that’s likely to set your teeth on edge, as Nathan presents himself as a “regular Joe” and demands that Caleb relate to him as though they are “best buds”, drinking buddies just hanging out and shooting the breeze as they talk about Caleb’s work with Ava, while at the same time projecting with his every unspoken gesture his intellectual and physical superiority and complete control over their social situation. When paired with Domhnall Gleeson’s meek and awkward Caleb, a young man who from the start projects being more at home communicating with or through technology than he is in his own skin, and Nathan seems even more intimidating, more calculating, and more dangerous in terms of his hubris and his ambitions.
It’s also all about nuance and subtlety when it comes to Alicia Vikander’s captivating work here as Ava, whose words, gestures, and movements are just artificial enough to suggest that she’s mechanical in nature but thinks, reasons, and feels as a human might. Hers is easily the difficult task in terms of character, as she has to maintain the preciseness and efficiency of movement and speech that a machine might, while at the same time projecting just enough human feminine qualities to make Caleb, and thus the audience, wonder just what else is going on in her head aside from responding to Caleb’s testing. It should serve as a breakout performance for Vikander, who is set to appear in at least two more Hollywood features before this year is out and whose star is clearly on the rise.
But for all those quality performances and all the palpable tension and suspense that gets built up as layers upon layers of deception are peeled away and the agendas of each of the principals is finally laid bare, leading to a climax that plays out differently than you might expect, you may find yourself wondering by the end if Ex Machina could have been much more than it ends up being. All the questions potentially raised about ethical use of technology, the cavalier regard that some scientists and engineers seem to have for the staggering ramifications of creating “life” via technology, not just programs designed to simulate human behavior but actual thinking, feeling machines, and if such a thing is possible, the ethical treatment of the life those scientists create, all of it is left on the table relatively unexplored save for the parts that are necessary to make the film’s twists and turns work.
That’s just fine when your ambition is simply to create entertainment. But truly great science fiction that has a lasting impact on those who read, see, or experience it doesn’t simply exploit such material to set up drama and suspense. It tackles those questions and makes some statement in answer to them.
Ex Machina makes no such statements, nor does it ever really try to, which leaves it just shy of being what it could have been.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac. Directed by Alex Garland.
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence.