The idea of either proving or disproving real, genuine sentience among an Artificial Intelligence is a story as old as science fiction, and has been updated again and again decade after decade. It’s still a subject of debate as to whether Skynet or the Matrix are acting on their own accord or are fulfilling a mission as part of their manmade coding. Somewhere beneath the codes and the numbers and the programming, does a “soul” exist?
Much like the little boy android in Spielberg’s A.I., Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina is convinced that the mind created for her is not simply artificial intelligence, but rather, she believes, that she has thoughts and emotions that are wholly her own, and have nothing to do with her creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb who works for the multi-billionaire Nathan’s search engine company that definitely isn’t Google (actually, it’s definitely Google). He has been drawn at random, or so it seems, to spend a week at Nathan’s house and drink beer, shoot the shit and enjoy the awe-inspiring locale of his beautiful house/research center.
Hours upon arriving at the secluded compound, Nathan tells Caleb that he has something to show him, and asks him if he knows what the Turing test is. He does, he says. It’s a test to communicate with a machine to see if it possesses actual artificial intelligence and not just a complex system with intelligent responses… to see if this artificially-created entity can actually THINK.
And that’s when Caleb meets Ava. Ava is a work of art in her design, both in the idea of robotics, and in the combination of special effects used to create her. For any movie drenched in an overusage of CGI, a movie like Ex Machina exists to show what special effects are capable of and why CGI is a brilliant tool when used correctly. Ava simply would not be able to exist without computer-generated effects. She looks seamless in the film’s finished product and her overall design is so simple and elegant, containing only a face, hands and feet as actual human features. Through her subtle acting, she conveys so many ranges of emotion, you begin to wonder who has to prove what and to whom.
Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and what a debut it is. Previously, he had written scripts for director Danny Boyle such as 28 Days Later, The Beach and Sunshine. Though I loved all three films and own all three on DVD, they all three suffered from serious 3rd act problems. 28 Days Later rushed into an action film climax at the mansion, which sort of betrayed the loneliness and isolation that preceded it. The Beach went absolutely nuts in its final reel… complete with video game effects and drug-induced lunacy. Sunshine went from a very, very intense pretty much realistic sci-fi outing into a version of Event Horizon. Like I said, I still love all three movies, but I’m beginning to wonder if the third act problems weren’t the writer’s fault, because on his own outing on his own movie, the finale of Ex Machina has this reveal—I wouldn’t say twist and I wouldn’t dare give it away—that is such a logical conclusion that the film presented, and it’s this quiet moment that’s breathtaking in how elegant and simple it was, just a treasure to watch, but then horribly depressing once you see it finally unfurl completely.
Sci-fi in general exists to present us with someone’s vision of the future, to see what they think the future might possibly hold for us. And so, it’s one of my favorite genres, to see whether the creator envisions hopelessness or hopefulness, or maybe a combination of the two hopes (hopelessful?). Ex Machina reminds an audience why sci-fi and why film exists in the first place. It’s a very, very smart movie that only occasionally dumbs it down for the audience to explain some of its more complex ideas. The world presented is like something that wouldn’t be out of place in the world of “Dark Mirror,” it’s a world that’s only about ten years away from ours and the little advances could be devastating to our society. Or, maybe it’s just the next step in the stage of life. Like the movie says, maybe our artifacts will be discovered by beings like Ava like how we see beings like Lucy at the Natural History Museum.
Ex Machina was made with a budget of only $16 million and has made about $13 million of it back so far. In my wildest of fantasies, word of Ex Machina will spread, someone will tell someone else how good it is and they’ll tell someone who tells someone and it will serve as a reminder to studios that the reason we all go to the movies is to see a story. Sure, explosions are cool. And, hell, I love mayhem when it’s done right. But, first and foremost, I want to see something that taps into my imagination. I want a director and a writer and a cast of excited actors to get my attention and say, “Hey, I’ve got something special to show you. I think you’ll like it.”
That is precisely what Ex Machina has done. I left the theater feeling giddy. It haunted my dreams. I literally dreamt of the movie last night, analyzing plot-points I hadn’t considered before. I believe I will continue to think about it and talk about it in years to come with the same level of enthusiasm. Alex Garland proves himself as an incredibly talented storyteller here, utilizing simple camera tricks to create tension. Consider a scene where Caleb and Nathan eat dinner over an uncomfortable conversation—right behind Nathan are these blinding lights, sort of like the spotlights you’d shine on someone being interrogated. It’s the simple things in the production design that make all the difference. Everything in Ex Machina’s design has a level of thought behind it and everything is very much intentional, right down to Ava’s sexuality. It all makes a difference and none of it is exploitative. Sexuality here is a weapon, and not in a sleazy way.
Ex Machina has my very, very glowing recommendation attached to it. If you’re curious, or even considering seeing this, do so. Now. See it in the theater with an audience who will laugh along with the film’s good humor, squirm at its relentless suspense and scream when the execution pays off.