Ex Machina ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac
Written and directed by: Alex Garland
Apart from the occasionally palatable scientist (Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes to mind), the field of technology and science finds communicating their astounding results with the public a difficult task. Most of us can’t be bothered to leaf through the latest MIT Review or Popular Science to discover what brilliant people are creating or are on the verge of creating. As a result, it seems as though the public consumes the possible future through mediums such as film and television. Luckily for us, we’re occasionally fed these messages through the skilled lenses of Steven Spielberg (A.I.) and Spike Jonze (Her), or through the enchanting voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her). Ex Machina is one of those films, that doesn’t give up halfway through on its’ sci-fi senses just to blow things up. It’s the best type of work in this genre- a cinematic work that takes a thought and has a conversation with the audience before, during, and after the film.
Director Alex Garland, the writer of such science fiction fables as 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, handles his first directorial charge with the hand of an old pro. As the title implies, the film deals in gods and monsters, and is never swift to identify which is which. The subtlety Garland and the cast play between beauty and menace results in a truly mesmerizing, smart fable for our time- well, for all time. The film is science fiction embodied, chock full of questions, precisely in the manner I prefer to digest it. As it wades in both the shallow waters of our societal and moral atmospheres, whilst simultaneously toeing the line between tension and horror, it stands as 2015’s best thus far.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a company called ‘Bluebook’. We come to him as he’s just won an exclusive trip to meet the company’s founder and stay with him for a week. I imagine that would be like a Microsoft programmer spending a week with Bill Gates, whether that individual would want to or not. The fictional ‘Bluebook’, the world’s preeminent search engine, was created by a mysterious, reclusive genius (is there any other) named Nathan (Isaac). By now, we know the type; disconnected, awkward, wealthy beyond our imaginations, and lonely. Nathan is indeed that, it appears, and wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a “female” android named Ava (Vikander).
We know that Ava is a robot because we can see her metal innards, exposed gears, coverings and all. If we were unable to see her interact with Caleb, however, would we be able to tell whether or not she was human? That’s his dilemma, and a striking one at that. As the audience, we’re given their dalliances like acts of a play, each separate in nature, each building upon the previous one in terms of depth, understanding, and tension level. Caleb is increasingly affected by her pleasantness, curiosity, and insight, leading to emotions he can’t quite understand, including affection for her as a female. He begins to wonder what has transpired in this compound. Has Nathan, the creator, abused her? Does he keep her prisoner for any particular reason other than his own insecurities and misgivings? Does Nathan understand the responsibility of creating an intelligence, only to then repress its’ growth?
Caleb’s task, per Nathan, is simply to gauge whether or not Ava can pass for human, but it becomes clear early on that it will not, and cannot, be that simple. From their first chat until the film’s final moment, everything Ava says and does is unpredictable, just like the film itself. Will she be child-like? Will she be motivated to evolve? Will she see humans as a threat? If she does, will she use brute force, or maybe even manipulation, to achieve that goal? Does Nathan have a “kill” switch in the event of an emergency? Why does Ava not appear to be programmed with a template of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? Is there a reason the film doesn’t touch on them? Is everything that Ava says and does simply a result of programming, or has she actually transcended what she was intended to be? I hope you can tell that just by watching, the film inspires a number of interesting and difficult questions and thoughts. Garland writes this in a way that plays on our wonder of scientific possibility as well as our inherent fears of robots and the future. We can’t help but question what happens and what doesn’t happen during the film, creating a specific feeling of tension akin to horror. The film’s location, in an isolated, constricting compound in the mountains that can only be reached via helicopter, only adds to the feeling of impending doom. The film’s color palate adds to the feeling as well- the foggy, almost smoky wash when the camera is on a human, then clean and clear when focusing on an artificial being. Whether or not it was intentional, it certainly adds a dimension and a contrast to the film.
Another subtly horrific thought is the care, or lack thereof, in which each character handles the balance of life or death. We see Nathan throwing it around, not entirely concerned for the well-being of the things he hath wrought. We see Caleb doubt himself, to the point of questioning his role in the world, and his actual existence. In one breath, Ava seems to innocently understand the delicate balance of life, and in the next, it appears that she may not care in spite of her understanding. In essence, this is what humans may not be prepared for- giving life and an abundance of knowledge to a being, without taking the responsibility for what emotions they may encounter, the real fear they develop, and the results of such things. Thus, should we never attempt create it, as we do lack the comprehension to guide it? It is quite the sensation to watch and know that Ava is a machine, while simultaneously knowing that she may be more than a human.
I should take a moment to praise the performances here as well. All three leads are just simply outstanding. Gleeson is the perfect choice for Caleb, for we already buy him as a sweet, naive programmer, and then he expands on the role to include a darker side. Isaac, is, well, Oscar Isaac. His piercing intellect and gaze make him truly believable as a genius, and his awkward attempts to be a ‘regular guy’ with Caleb are perfect. He just isn’t a regular guy- he’s a reclusive genius, no matter how hard he tries not to be. Well, he’s also one of the top two or three actors working today, which may explain how wonderful the character is. Vikander, previously unbeknownst to me, is the real revelation here. One might assume that as a robot/android, there might be a limited range to display, but she is able to convey such optimism, such intrigue, and such menace with what amounts to just a facial performance. Her longing to see and do more is not a far cry from any Pinocchio story we’ve seen before, but it may be the most honest portrayal.
There exists the slightest hint that Garland made this material accessible as opposed to trusting the audience to digest an advanced plot about artificial intelligence, but I accept that. I’m also fascinated with Garland’s continued interest in the constructs of society, and how theoretical situations affect human beings in his work. In Sunshine, he sees an interesting dynamic within the pressures of saving humanity and our human natures. In 28 Days Later, he again puts human nature to the test in the wake of an apocalypse. Ex Machina is yet another test of our theoretical resolve, and I for one don’t believe his result is far from the theoretical truth. As he put it himself, this film is designed to emulate a future not too far from now, maybe ‘ten minutes out’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reclusive “Nathan” currently holed up somewhere with his own “Ava”. For all we know, there may be robots walking among us. Maybe Garland knows this to be true. It is clear to me that he should continue telling stories, and continue to generate what all excellent science fiction does- questions. This is a film that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker.