A.I. feels inevitable. From Deep Blue to Siri to IBM's Watson, advances are so frequent and public that if Peter Dinklage ripped off his skin to reveal a metal undercarriage, explaining that he was a DARPA bot with a charisma drive and we were all test subjects, I would think, “bound to happen eventually.” In that way, Ex Machina – a movie about determining the humanity of an artificial intelligence – is an entertaining yet smart look at what could very well be around the corner.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a gifted coder, selected to spend a week with his giant software company's CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He's whisked off in a helicopter to the middle of nowhere, and makes his way to the home/research facility of his boss. Nathan soon introduces Caleb to the central character of Ex Machina, an intriguing A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb becomes the human side opposite Ava in a Turing test to evaluate the success or failure of her programming.
Ex Machina is a science fiction film with undertones of horror. Not surprising; while this marks the first time Alex Garland has directed, he is best known for writing such films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine under Danny Boyle. Garland's love of measured science fiction and horror writing is ever-present, and between the skinny lead and moody guitar score I was reminded of rage monkeys in London more than a few times.
Although the trailers love that one shot of Ava running down a hall, Ex Machina is not an action movie, much closer to Sunshine than 28 Days Later on that scale. The film's strength lies in strong performances and intelligent dialogue. Almost the entire movie boils down to scenes of two people talking as the three leads figure each other out and wax philosophical, which is engaging I swear. I only really know Oscar Isaac from Inside Lleweyn Davis, but he's an actor I'm starting to love watching (I'm excited to see whatever he's doing in Star Wars later this year), and Nathan brings many layers. He's manipulative and funny, a genius and a frat boy, introduced taking out a previous night's bender beating on a punching bag. Ava is a believable next step, bringing shades of child-like curiosity and sensuality (as unnerving as it sounds). Lastly there's Caleb, who feels authentically awkward and stand-offish, but drawn to all these curious wonders with a logical view, balancing Nathan's juvenile bro-hood.
To put a finger on the mood, it would be paranoid. Something about Nathan's isolated techno cabin comes off as untrustworthy immediately, and soon you wonder what can and can't be believed. Ex Machina keeps a thick air of deception, but I'd say the movie is more about the journey than any “a-ha!” moments.
Don't be scared off by thinking a story set in a locked-down lab might be boring to look at for two hours. Not only is the choice of shots interesting (one towards the end I was particularly fond of), the facility has a couple rooms that take in the natural splendor surrounding the locale which Garland makes good use of. The pacing isn't exactly a bullet train, but it tries to keep things varied and mostly succeeds. Speaking of the look of Ex Machina, the robot design – hell the look of everything technological – is splendid, and has a consistent quality that makes it feel possible to have all been built from one mind. Ava is fascinating to watch. I found myself observing what pieces were moving under her transparent sections whenever she was there.
The topic of artificial intelligence is more prevalent than ever in cinema, both independent and big budget, with movies like Her, Robot and Frank, Chappie, Automata and a little domestic indie called Age of Ultron to name a few in the last three years. It reminds me of all the space movies made in the 50's, so close before we landed on the moon. I have to wonder if the robo sapiens will look back at our philosophical offerings from this era and fill their mouths with laugh sparks, chuckling the way we do at people that thought the Earth was flat. It probably won't be long until we find out.
Ex Machina is smart yet accessible, led by the powerhouse that is Oscar Isaac, with a sharp script that makes you question both the characters on display as well as what is self-awareness and the morality of playing God. It's a good time!