Lite Spoiler Warning:
I do my best to keep spoilers out of my reviews, but sometimes this is easier said than done. I don’t personally think that this review of Ex Machina contains anything that would ruin your movie-going experience, but those super-sensitive to minor (but important) details may wish to read this after watching the film.
As per usual, you have been warned.
End Spoiler Warning.
Somewhere in the mystical ether where fictional characters frolic about, Victor Frankenstein is smiling. Why? Because in Ex Machina, his vision has been fully realized.
Sort of. Instead of deceased flesh, life is created in the form of binary code and mechanical automation. But no bother. The fine line between organic life and so-called artificial intelligence has never really been of any consequence within the confines of pulpy science fiction. And as far as I’m concerned, if the creation thinks for itself, possesses emotion, and exhibits desire, then the damn it, it’s alive.
Or is it? That’s the question poised to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young coder who believes to have won a week-long stay with the CEO of a large search-engine company. It doesn’t take long for him to discover that his seven-day escape from the real world isn’t all fun and games, and that he actually has been commissioned to test out a brand new AI.
The robot in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander), and she is a wonder to behold. Given a human face and all the appropriate limbs, Ava possesses almost all the qualities required to pass as a “real” person, save for a glowing torso and an exposed metallic (or is it plastic?) head. She exhibits behaviour that looks a lot like joy and fear, but are they real? Can she actually feel? Should we even be referring to Ava as a “she?”
According to her Frankenstein, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the answer to every single one of these is probably “yes,” but he needs to know for sure. Nathan is the definitive reclusive billionaire, you see. He’s clearly a brilliant man, but he’s also a raging alcoholic and (more than likely) spends a great deal of his time isolated from humanity.
A plot synopsis doesn’t really do this film much justice, since it really is quite simple, and frankly, not wholly original–we’ve seen the computer-as-human dynamic before and we’ll inevitably see it again. Ava’s longing for escape and human exploration is painted with shades of Pinocchio, and her blank stare is strangely reminiscent of HAL-9000’s ominous red camera. And lest we forget Data’s emotion chip-fueled antics from Star Trek: Generations. To make matters even murkier, Ex Machina works with the most skeletal of premises: a crazed inventor creates a machine that can seemingly think for itself and develop real emotion. He enlists an outside party to test his invention, and not much else happens.
Everything takes place in a single setting for the most part, a quirk that has the ability to take even the most interesting premise into dull spaces. Fortunately, this “less-is-more” system works well in the hands of first time director (but longtime screenwriter) Alex Garland. And thanks to a fair twist somewhere in the middle of the film, the Ex Machina shifts from cerebral sci-fi to masterful thriller, complete with mysterious character intentions and sleight-of-hand storytelling.
The interaction between Caleb (the tester) and Ava (the testee) is fully engrossing, especially in scenes where the robot really does attempt to pass for human, despite knowing full-well that she’s a computer. It’s easy to draw comparisons with 2013’s Her, but the relationship isn’t quite as clear cut (nor as awkward) in Ex Machina. This is probably because Ava has been given a body, whereas Scarlett Johansson’s character was merely a voice. If Caleb is indeed drawn to Ava, it’s significantly physical–a particular factor that becomes far more important during the climax.
More interesting, though, is what Ava feels towards Caleb. She claims to want friendship–notions of mechanical lust put aside–but is such a concept even possible? Or better yet–is it a good idea? A famous line from Jurassic Park comes to mind: “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Though there isn’t a dinosaur present anywhere in Ex Machina, the ethical dilemma is quite similar. If one has the ability to create life, specifically from scratch, should the concept be fully realized? And what are the repercussions of such a decision? Would society accept an inorganic life form, or would we shun it away as sub-human? Throw in real-world data mining paranoia (it’s no accident that Nathan is the CEO of a search-engine giant) and three exemplary performances from Vikander, Gleeson, and Isaac, and you’ve got yourself a powerful little indie offering.
Ex Machina asks a lot of interesting questions, but does so in a manner that is refreshingly subtle. It wastes no time with unnecessary background, allowing the characters to develop and flourish as the story slowly creeps its way off of the screen and into the psyche of unsuspecting and under-prepared viewers. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you long after the credits roll, begging for additional discussion, demanding further analysis. It’s short on narrative but long on chills, and the impact it leaves is, for lack of better wording, friggin huge.