With technological possibilities widening by the day, it seems as though society is more fearful of being possessed by artificial intelligence than ever before. After all, if we can barely go a day without our I-Phone on hand where could we go if they all could decide to rebel, and turn off. Along with that, what choices will we make if there comes a time where we could fall in love with something that could never grow old or die, something with intellect spanning eons beyond our own. The Spike Jonze film Her explored this a couple year ago, and now, in Ex Machina, that question is not only deepened, but darkened.
We begin in the near future with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programer at the mass-used search engine Bluebook, winning a contest to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire creator of the company, and stay with him for a week. Flying for hundreds of miles through Nathan’s massive estate, Caleb finds an affable and friendly man in Nathan, even if he does succumb to alcohol a bit more than he should. Nathan gives Caleb a proposal, he claims that he has invented the most advanced artificial intelligence ever built, and if he signs an NDA, he can meet, and interact with her for the whole week. Yes, her, a seemingly fully grown human woman built entirely of metal and synthetic skin, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a curious and sociable being, who takes an interest in Caleb almost immediately. The question is, is it genuine interest, or just crafty programming?
Ex Machina is the kind of Sci-Fi that comes rarely in this day in age. Deliberately paced, and contemplative, first time director and long time Danny Boyle screenwriter Alex Garland paces his film out more like a novella than anything. The story is fairly condensed and confined, but full of rich themes dealing with sexual imprisonment, the nature of attraction, and the parallels between man and machine. All of this is wonderfully crafted and un-pretentious due to Garland’s crackling dialogue, particularly what is given to Nathan, who brings everything back down to earth with his devil may care attitude whenever things are getting a touch too cerebral.
The performances are uniformly stellar. Gleeson makes for a compelling lead, reserved and pensive while still utterly empathetic. Even if his is not the most flashy turn in the film, he anchors the others nicely. Isaac is electric as always, bringing eccentricity, arrogance, and humanity to Nathan, who’s obsession with creating life is paired with his own inadequacies and insecurities. He provides all the film’s funniest moments as he toys with Caleb. However, the real stand-out here is the previously unknown Vikander. Initially seeming like an intelligent but fairly blank slate, she slowly curves our perception of her into a wickedly crafty, sexual being with an assertive taste for what she wants. Both sweet and scary, she absorbs attention whenever she’s on screen, with masterful visual effects (a great deal of which seem practical) aiding her robotic movements and mannerisms.
As strong as most of this movie is, there are some narrative hiccups here and there. For one, since the story is laboriously structured around Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava, and as such, the movie falls into a fairly repetitive grove after a while that feels redundant when pieces of the eventually mystery aren’t being revealed. Also, as thematically rich as certain parts of the film are, the ending feels like a major stretch to try and mold to those themes. Parts of it simply don’t seem to make sense with the characterization that has been established before, ultimately coming across as needlessly maudlin. By that same token, the ending drags out a great deal, finding several perfect points to stop, and then continuing to a decent, but not quite as impactful, final frame.
Ex Machina is a rich Sci Fi guided by ideas and intellect that uses visual effects as a seasoning instead of a spice, and that is instantly and deeply commendable. Beyond that, it’s a well acted, and impressively realized vision, especially for a first time director. However, it never quite gets into great territory, as the emotional impact of it’s biggest moments is slightly dulled by some nonsensical choices that could have tied in better with that film’s theme. It may be a little artificially intelligent, but it’s good enough to be intelligent at all.