Ex Machina 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.
However, the film 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, and those qualities make the film worth seeing.
It’s just doesn’t chart any new territory or thinking about the issues it raises. It exploits those issues, but only to add complexity and dramatic tension to the story it wants to tell. 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.
What’s it about?
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, 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. He is to 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.” But as her creator, he insists he doesn’t have the objectivity to know for certain, thus the need for Caleb.
But upon actually meeting Ava and speaking to her, 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.
The longer the sessions continue, the more Caleb’s sense grows that Natha, hasn’t actually been honest about anything. Further, he comes to suspect 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?
Strong directorial debut
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.
Nathan presents himself as a “regular Joe” and demands that Caleb relate to him as though they are “best buds”, 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 and Nathan seems even more intimidating, more calculating, and more dangerous in terms of his hubris and his ambitions.
Vikander breaks out
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.
Could have been more
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, you may find yourself wondering by the end if Ex Machina could have been much more than it ends up being.
The film leaves just about all the questions potentially raised about ethical use of technology 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.
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.