Review of “Ex Machina”

Several luminaries, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, have recently warned against the development of artificial intelligence. Hawking even going so far as to warn it could begin the end of the human race. Despite these dire predictions, researchers continue to explore the frontier of creating a machine that can think or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers. In science fiction films, the definition of artificial intelligence, or AI as it’s commonly referred to, is expanded to include the notion that the machine is in fact alive, self-aware and capable of all human behaviors including evil. Adding the evil element is crucial to use AI as the main driving force of a story. In “Ex Machina,” the AI is incased in a synthetic brain and housed in an android that could be considered very attractive, even sexy; but as the old saying reminds us, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) writes code at Bluebook, the top search engine in the world. Bluebook’s billionaire creator and owner Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is conducting a lottery amongst his employees with the winner getting to spend a week with Bateman at his secret compound. Caleb wins and soon finds himself in a helicopter flying to his eccentric boss’ home. Inaccessible by any other means, Caleb is left by the chopper and must walk along a river to a sleek home that can only be accessed by a security key card which is made for him at the entrance. Walking in, Caleb finds Bateman working out with a heavy bag. The two exchange small talk but it is stilted and uncomfortable. Bateman encourages Caleb to relax and consider this as two buddies hanging out at a really cool house for the week. Bateman tells Caleb the reason he’s there is to perform a Turing test on a new artificial intelligence program Bateman has created. The Turing test is designed to determine if a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The next morning, Caleb is surprised when an Asian woman walks into his room and delivers his breakfast. Bateman says her name is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and that she doesn’t understand any English. It’s a way to maintain security as Bateman’s home is also a research facility. Other than Kyoko, they are alone. Caleb is put in a room with a glass wall that looks into a larger suite of rooms. Soon Ava (Alicia Vikander) walks into view, sees Caleb and approaches. Ava is an android housing Bateman’s artificial intelligence. Her face is the only part of Ava that has skin. The rest of her body appears to be a metal case and transparent areas where you can see her inner workings. Ava is curious about this new person, only the second she’s ever met. Caleb is amazed at her grasp of language and her ability to learn. Caleb and Bateman discuss his impressions of Ava and Bateman shows a propensity for megalomania as he turns something Caleb said into implying Bateman is a god. The next day as Caleb and Ava are talking, the power goes out and the facility goes to emergency batteries. The outage also knocks out all the security cameras and microphones recording their interactions. Ava warns Caleb not to believe anything Nathan says. Confused, Caleb doesn’t report what Ava said to Bateman. Over the course of their talks, Ava puts on clothes and a wig to appear more human and Caleb begins to feel pity for the android that is locked away from a world about which she is so curious.

“Ex Machina” is a subtle tale of life, love, loneliness, deception, ego and what exactly it means to be alive. The U.K. film written and directed by Alex Garland is a quietly riveting tale. It is accessible sci-fi that asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. It is the kind of movie audiences will either love or hate but won’t be able to walk away from without having a strong opinion either way.

Aside from the somewhat creepy performance of Oscar Isaac, the standout role here is Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Vikander doesn’t do the expected stilted, emotionless performance that is the standard interpretation of artificial lifeforms. Ava is slightly emotional. You can see it in her face as Caleb describes the loss of his parents in a car crash when he was a teenager. The mixture of pity and concern on Ava’s face was a surprise as one might expect an unchanging expression from an android. Instead, Ava gives a minimal indication of anguish. It is enough to get the point across but not so much as one would expect from a person. Ava is in the wasteland between humanity and machinery. Vikander’s performance is a tour de force of subtlety. It is a subtlety the audience believes as Ava is an unknown that could behave in a million different ways from overly emotional to completely blank. Since Ava is an AI, perhaps she would misinterpret what was expected of her reaction. Vikander and director Garland play this scene and many others perfectly with a “less-is-more” philosophy. They let Gleeson and Isaac handle the big emotions while Vikander has the harder job of showing what a new consciousness would do. Ava’s movements, accented with quiet, slightly mechanical-sounding effects, are also measured and economical. There are times when Ava is shown lying down, curled up in a fetal position. In looking back, I now wonder why? Ava doesn’t sleep and can’t tire in the traditional sense so why is she lying down? Is it an effort to show us just how human she is? Is it motivated by Ava’s desires to be accepted as human so she does the things humans do? The fact I am asking these questions a full day after seeing the film speaks to the impact of the story.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic as Bateman and Caleb. Their initial uncomfortable interactions give way to an uneasy friendship which slowly dissolves. Isaac plays Bateman as someone who is constantly on the line between normal, average person and complete psychopath. Isaac turns Bateman on a dime, making a simple discussion into an uncomfortable showdown. Bateman always seems to have other motives behind his actions and Isaac is able to show the audience that he’s scheming without making it obvious. Bateman is not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s much more dangerous. Gleeson plays Caleb as a goldfish thrown into Bateman’s shark tank; but Caleb soon learns to have as dangerous a bite as his boss. Gleeson has Caleb wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ava. It is a quick trip from considering her a science project to a person in trouble that needs his help. The cat-and-mouse game between Bateman and Caleb is just as interesting as the Ava storyline.

Ava’s look is as much a character as Ava herself. The mixture of metallic frame, transparent limbs, skull and midsection and a lifelike face make it nearly impossible to take your eyes from her. The effect is mechanical and futuristic without being so completely alien as to make Ava distracting. Her face, often shown in close up during her conversations with Caleb, is her only normal-looking human feature; yet it’s enough for the audience to quickly join Caleb in thinking of her as a person. There are other moments in the film without spoiling anything that show just how different a creature she is. All of the visual effects in the film are flawless.

“Ex Machina” is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. There are several times we see fully nude women. There is a brief scene where a character describes how it’s possible to have sex with Ava and that she would enjoy it. The violence comes at the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say it is brief and rather graphic. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

After Star Wars came out back in the late 70’s, science fiction enjoyed a brief renaissance. Sadly, many of these films were merely repackaged plots from westerns and other genres that were now set in space. Many studios thought if their films had spaceships and ray guns they would make money. They were wrong as they didn’t try to make the stories they were telling compelling enough for the public to part with their cash. That has always been the problem with science fiction: If you peel away the special effects is there a story worth telling and being seen by an audience? Often the answer is no; however, “Ex Machina” is compelling and asks the kinds of questions that may need answers in the next 50 years. In the meantime, go see the movie.

“Ex Machina” gets five stars.

After all the hype and publicity it’s finally here: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theatres this week as the only wide release. Normally I don’t say which film I’m going to review next; however, I don’t see any point in being coy when one of the most anticipated movies in the last 20 years is opening. So, next week you can be assured of what I’ll be reviewing. Here’s the latest trailer:

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

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