Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
The theme of artificial intelligence is one explored time and again in science fiction, and it’s a fascination that seems to be only increasing as such ideas move into the realm of science fact. Just look at how the recent driverless cars debate has ignited responses in the media stretching from impressed excitement to apocalyptic dread. Alex Garland’s tense, cerebral film evokes precisely this mix of wonder and unease, making for an engaging cinematic experience.
The story follows Caleb (Gleeson), a bright young coder working for Blue Book, the world’s number one search engine, who wins a lottery to visit the home of his reclusive boss, Nathan (Isaac). Once arrived in the breathtaking mountain vista of Nathan’s high-tech cabin, Caleb learns that his employer has been working on an AI and he has been summoned to assist by performing a variation of the Turing Test. It is a variation because in the traditional test the human participant has no preconception who they are dealing with, but Caleb’s interactions with Nathan’s creation will be face to face. Despite her human face and silhouette, the mesh frame and glowing components within her leave no doubt that Ava – bewitchingly played by Vikander – is a robot. Nathan wants to see if her consciousness will convince nonetheless. The ensuing action takes the form of a number ”Ava sessions” followed each time by a debriefing with the increasingly thorny Nathan. I won’t reveal any more of the plot than that, but suffice to say this is a pretty powerful psychological thriller and Caleb’s journey is both troubling and fascinating as he gradually comes to unravel the truth about Ava, about Nathan’s intentions, and about himself.
It’s hard to make a film like this without calling to mind the behemoths of AI-centric cinema cinema like 2001 or Blade Runner. Ex Machina doesn’t have anything particularly groundbreaking to add to the canon but then I didn’t feel it was trying to do this. Rather than extending its horizons, the film succeeds by drawing inwards. As Nathan remarks of his subterranean research facility ”it’s not cosy, it’s claustrophobic” and the same is true of the piece as a whole with its main cast of just 4 (one of whom – Nathan’s live-in maid – does not speak) and single, isolated location. Ex Machina seems knowingly to evoke many of the tropes of the genre, setting up the expectation of certain classic plot twists, only to veer in a subtly different direction. The thrill here is in working out just what is going on, and that will be all the greater if you can go into the cinema – as I did – fairly cold. There is a link to the trailer in first image caption, but it’s fairly spoilerific so if you haven’t seen it already I’d advise against clicking.
Vikander puts in a superb performance as Ava, her movements simultaneously graceful and stilted. I also loved her design, which meshes the mechanical with the sensual and raises questions about the nature of the fantasy that Nathan has been trying to fulfill. There is a lot of voyeurism in Ex Machina and it has a strong feminist theme. Like Caleb, we are invited to scrutinise Ava, to try to unravel her mystery and to decide if her consciousness convinces; and by focusing so squarely on woman-as-object the film also has a great deal to say about the objectification of women.
In short, Ex Machina offers plenty of food for thought without – thankfully – ever feeling too preachy or loaded with techno exposition. It’s worth watching for its fantastic lead performances, great soundtrack, and beguiling visuals, both technological – in Ava – and natural – in the breathtaking Norwegian landscapes that serve as an exterior backdrop and periodic release from the prevailing claustrophobia. At a time where much sci-fi seems to be striving to introduce ever more epic scales and bigger stakes, I also found it refreshing to watch a film that managed to be gripping with such a small cast and – up until the taut finale – surprisingly little action. Sometimes to achieve the best human drama you just need a robot. The idea that artificial intelligence can inspire such fear because it holds up a mirror to the human mind that created it is hardly a novel one, but this is a powerful and deftly executed iteration of the trope. I hope the film will do as well as it deserves to.