I remember the first time I saw the trailer for the film Ex Machina. My first thought was that it looked incredibly creepy, and then I recall wondering if that was just my own impression or if the film was actually going to be unsettling. I hoped for the latter, and thankfully that was the reality.
Written and directed by the screenwriter of 28 Days Later, Dredd, and other hits, this was Alex Garland’s directorial debut. Ex Machina is a British-made science fiction film that also incorporates elements of suspense, psychological thriller, and even some slight horror undertones. It stars Domhnall Gleeson, who will appear in this fall’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina and this year’s Testament of Youth) and Oscar Isaac, who will star alongside Gleeson in the new Star Wars film in addition to next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse in which he will play the eponymous villain.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re probably aware of the premise: A man comes face-to-face with an artificially intelligent female android robot. As you watch the trailer, you’re left to wonder if the robot begins to turn on her creators in some what; there’s definitely a sense of foreboding, suspense, and the promise of something more than your average science fiction film.
There are no spoilers in this Ex Machina review.
In the beginning of Ex Machina, a young man named Caleb who works for a popular internet search engine is chosen by a company lottery to spend a week with the company CEO, a younger-than-expected, charismatic, heavily-bearded, heavy-drinking and somewhat “off” individual named Nathan. Caleb is shown around the bizarre home/underground facility and into a guest bedroom that has no windows before being asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Having seen the trailers, we as the audience already know what Caleb is going to find in the super-secure walls of Nathan’s underground compound, but we’re inclined to assume that the confidentiality agreement is simply Nathan being overprotective of his creation/invention since artificial intelligence is kind of a big deal.
After he signs, Caleb is told about Nathan’s creation: The first artificial intelligence. It’s Nathan’s hope—and the reason why Caleb was invited to be Nathan’s guest for a week—that Caleb will perform the Turing Test on the robot, which is a means of testing artificial intelligence to see if its “personality” is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. However, Caleb perceptively points out that in the Turing Test, the tester is supposed to be unaware that the test subject isn’t human; Caleb believes that knowing from the get-go that the intelligence is artificial will likely taint the results, but Nathan urges him on.
Over the course of the tests—consisting of one-on-one meetings between Caleb and the robotic Ava while Nathan watches via cameras—the viewer is left feeling like there’s something not right about this situation, for many reasons. For one thing, why is Ava confined to what seems to be, for all intents and purposes, a prison cell? Why is Nathan encouraging Caleb, who’s only visiting for the express purpose of expertly testing the robot, to abandon his scholarly objectivity and forge an emotional attachment with Ava? Nathan seems to be well aware of every one of Ava’s psychological and emotional traits before Caleb identifies them; therefore, what exactly is Nathan hoping to learn from Caleb and Ava’s interactions?
You might have noticed that Ex Machina has received rather impressive reviews and widespread critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes it holds an astounding 90%, then 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb and an impressive 78% on Metacritic. What everyone seems to really like about the film is like, unlike the standard science fiction film, Ex Machina is heavy not on the special effects, but rather on big ideas, strong characterizations, and a rock-solid plot that has no trouble keeping the film moving and engaging. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes called the film “an uncommonly engaging sci-fi feature.”
Ex Machina has been called a “psycho-techno thriller” that doesn’t talk down to its audience. The characters of Caleb and Nathan sometimes have some pretty cerebral, technical discussions, but they’re written in a very casual, believable way; and although there’s no shortage of big words, the audience isn’t left bewildered as to what they’re talking about. I’d go so far as to call this a minimalist science fiction film because the only real effects are what I would assume to be a rather sprawling set to encompass the labyrinthine underground facility, and then there’s all the robotic stuff such as Ava’s incomplete body.
Throughout the entire movie, the reviewer is never allowed to forget that Ava is, first and foremost, a robot; while she has a strategically attractive face to go with her human-looking hands and feet, her torso, neck, arms, and legs are either some sort of pliable mesh or some clear material that leaves Ava’s inner workings visible. Otherwise, the effects of the movie are pretty sparse, which allows the viewer to concentrate on the characters and the compelling plot. It seems like such an obvious, winning strategy in hindsight, but if you think about it there aren’t many science fiction films that take such a minimalist gamble at all, let alone have it pay off so wonderfully.
An interesting component of the film is the relationship between Nathan an Ava, or between the creator and his creation. Their relationship is reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster with Ava having much contempt for Nathan, neither one trusting the other, and with the “monster” getting to the point of wanting to cause her maker emotional harm. Even more interesting that the tone of the Nathan-Ava relationship is the fact that they have incredibly little screen time together; I think the amount of time that we viewers see them together is just a couple minutes total over the course of the movie, all of which occurs in the second half of the film. It must be said, however, that the portrayal of this creator-creation relationship in such a short amount of time owes its success mostly to the strength of the Alex Garland as the writer and director and to the incredible performances by the talented cast.
Speaking of the cast, the three lead performances in the film and truly stellar. Isaac as the character of Nathan is at turns imposing, chummy, calculating, straightforward, complex, and simple with each transition being completely natural, believable, and at times even a little jarring in their stark realism. Gleeson is your quintessential sensitive, intelligent, somewhat nerdy guy who you assume has had maybe one or two girlfriends in his entire life and, thus, is highly susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex; while this type of character might by exceedingly common throughout the film industry as a whole, Gleeson manages to give Caleb some depth and build some sympathy in the audience. Despite being the film’s pawn, you won’t get too overwhelmingly frustrated with his naïveté to continue rooting for him to the end.
The character of Ava is a revelation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alicia Vikander gets an award for her portrayal of an artificially intelligent robot who’s not only aware of her captivity, but also the tools at her disposal that could lead her to freedom. Over the course of the film, Ava’s speech becomes less robotic and takes on more of a human-like affectation with the transition being very incremental and done with sheer aplomb. As you might expect, Ava certainly stole the show. She’s the reason I will buy Ex Machina when it’s released on Blu-ray and why I’ll re-watch the film again.
Overall, I’d say that Ex Machina is one of the best science fiction films to come out in at least the past several years. It’s actually one of the best sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. The film is very small in scale, but the scope of the film and the ideas that it confronts are huge. The cast was very minimal, but the performances were excellent. While minimal, the effects that were in the film were done exceedingly well and were used in ways that drives the emotion, plot, and character development in the film. Ex Machina is a sexually-charged, psychological sci-fi techno-thriller that is sure to become a cult classic.