Ex Machina (15)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac
Running time: 108 min
A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
Alex Garland’s debut directorial feature Ex_Machina is, in a word, fascinating. Garland, who has screenwriting credits for 28 Days Later and Sunshine to his name, proves himself behind the camera with his thrilling and deeply philosophical sci-fi movie which touches on some of our greatest fears as human beings.
Ex_Machina centres on Caleb (Gleeson), a talented computer coder and programmer, who wins the opportunity to spend a week with the CEO of his Google-esque search engine company employer, Blue Book. Caleb is thrust into a secluded world with the brilliant and creepily charismatic billionaire Nathan (Isaac) and his artificial intelligence creation Ava (Vikander). Nathan elicits Caleb to participate in a week-long series of tests with Ava known as the Turing Test- the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The tests are the crux of Nathan’s vision as the creator; he is driven by achieving artificial intelligence and because of this, he watches on CCTV as Ava emotionally engages with Caleb.
The Turing process descends into an intense struggle with emotions for Caleb because of Ava’s beauty and artificial personality. She has piercing blue eyes, an unsurprisingly flawless complexion and speaks with softness and compassion towards Caleb. She wants to know about Caleb’s past and asks him personal questions. Her expressions and reactions to Caleb’s comments show an emotional sophistication and advanced level of understanding towards humans which transcends traditional AI.
The film becomes a riveting odyssey into the minds of the two humans and Ava and, while there are obvious differences in the psyches of the characters, they are collectively portrayed as tense and mysterious in expert fashion by Garland.
The director blends a stylish minimalism into the narrative which gives the film a stripped-down feel and with which his needle-sharp script helps create an overriding sense of discomfort and ambiguity. The film evokes a longing to escape. Nathan’s research facility is deep in the forest and requires a two-hour helicopter journey to reach. These entrapped surroundings cut off the civilisation Ava dreams about interacting with- she expresses a desire to observe heavy foot traffic in a busy traffic intersection in New York, where Caleb is from. This feeling of confinement induces a chamber-like atmosphere where we see the characters becoming increasingly unhinged.
This discomfort stems from the overarching theme of the piece- it explores the potential and limitations of artificial intelligence. It is driven on the premise that humans are unnerved at the rise of machines. It showcases what a brilliant mind like Nathan’s can create and the results show flashes of utopia but also a hellish environment where humans are not entirely in control. It touches on the issue of surveillance, phone hacking and the idea that there is something frightening in the prospect of a world where humans and robot entities combine.
There are moments of profound philosophical insights from Nathan and Caleb but also sequences of stripped-down human emotion. Garland creates a slick and riveting piece of sci-fi cinema which adds greatly to the exploration of human-machine relationships in Spike Jonze’s Her. Ex Machina is an unconventional yet confidently crafted film which plunges the viewer into a dark yet dazzling world of claustrophobia, paranoia and mistrust which leaves the viewer thinking about technological advancements in the future and how they will continue to shape our society. But Garland’s film never feels implausible; there is a consistent association with the characters and an empathy which is rarely achieved in this genre of cinema.
Where similarly-themed films with promising ideas have failed in recent years, Ex_Machina is buoyed by a trio of thrilling performances from Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander and led by the ambitious but assured direction of Garland. The director creates credibility which is an admirable feat considering the premise. The film achieves in being at once an unnerving psychological thriller and an audacious sci-fi odyssey which asks a poignant question; can artificial intelligence ever truly achieve consciousness?
5 out of 5 nerds