EX MACHINA (review)
Written and Directed by Alex Garland / Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac
Ava: Is it strange to have made something that hates you?
Writer-turned-director Alex Garland (28 DAYS LATER, NEVER LET ME GO) makes his debut with the claustrophobic sci-fi thriller EX MACHINA, and as far as directorial debuts go, this one is utterly fascinating. No stranger to the genre, Garland has managed to create a film that is one of visual beauty and intellectual stimulation, breathing new life into a genre that is over ridden with explosive special effects and vapid dialogue. Taking cues from films such as BLADE RUNNER and A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, and more recently HER and UNDER THE SKIN, EX MACHINA questions the limits of scientific endeavour and then challenges what we believe about human mortality, gender and love. It is at its core a philosophical examination of human and AI coexistence, flawlessly packaged as an unsettlingly sexy thriller that is an altogether provocative piece of cinema.
Opening in fictional Bluebook offices, we are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, UNBROKEN, FRANK) who has just won an interoffice lottery. As he picks up his phone to send a text message about his victory, we are shown the view from the inside of one of his devices cameras as it creepily scans his face. Co-workers come by to congratulate him, and the film quickly cuts to a stunning aerial landscape shot and a helicopter that Caleb is being flown in to an undisclosed location (but in reality is Norway). Caleb has won the opportunity to spend a week with a brilliant scientist who is also the owner of Bluebook, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, DRIVE).
After the initial awkwardness of realizing he is spending a weekend with his boss, the real reason he is there quickly unfolds. Nathan has been working on a new AI model, something he believes would be indistinguishable from another human, and Caleb was brought in to perform a Turing Test (named after Alan Turing, the subject of last year’s THE IMITATION GAME). The test is designed to determine a machine’s ability to exhibit certain qualities that are equal to, or indistinguishable from a human. It sounds simple enough but then Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander, SON OF A GUN), an AI robot that, despite the visible wiring and mechanics, is just stunning, and far more real than what Caleb was anticipating.
After a few days and a few tests go by, Caleb quickly learns that there is something more at play, other than a sexy robot seducing him, or an alcoholic recluse antagonizing his very experience. Who is playing whom in this dangerous game?
To go more into the plot would be a disservice to all and would ruin the experience that is EX MACHINA. Yes, you will be sitting there wondering what exactly it is about and where the story is going, but watching the twists unfold among the beautiful dialogue exchanged between these three characters is all part of the enjoyment. Nathan and Caleb talk about the science behind the AI, never in a way that is inaccessible to the audience, yet also never dumbed down or approaching pandering. The conversations between Ava and Caleb begin as simple “getting to know you” kind of banter but transition to deeper and more meaningful discussions about human mortality and the unfairness of AI’s having an “off” switch.
The visual element of the film is equally as compelling as the dialogue, and just as arresting. Filmed at the extraordinary Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway, Nathan’s research facility and home is gorgeously minimalistic. Chic Scandinavian design has been popping up everywhere you look over the past few years, but in film it has never looked as gorgeous as it does here. The cell-like subterranean bedrooms, with their lack of windows and smooth surfaces, versus the floor to ceiling windows located on the higher floors that give breathtaking views of the Norwegian landscape, make for a stunning juxtaposition between man-made construction and the natural world.
The idea of robots questioning their existence and their marker is nothing new but EX MACHINA manages to maintain an air of originality from beginning to end, all the while paying subtle homage to its predecessors. Yes, there will be some comparisons from film buffs and genre fans, but there aren’t enough to claim that this film isn’t a clever, unique and utterly compelling movie. It’s been a long time since I have walked away form a movie feeling the way I did after this one. Garland just draws you into this impeccable world that is filled with as much beauty and creation as it is with destruction. As robots seem to be in the news more and more these days, it seems that Garland is right on point with his timing. He asks us to explore a dialogue about the implications of AI creation, but not only does he get us to think about what we are experiencing, but he gets us to feel it as well.
How many sheep would you give Ex Machina?