Alex Garland’s feature directorial debut, Ex Machina, is all about figuring out whether or not an A.I. is capable of truly expressing emotions versus merely simulating them, but the movie itself is more robotic than the subject being assessed.
The film begins with Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith, a cubical bound programmer working for the world’s most popular search engine who wins a contest and scores a weeklong trip to the CEO’s secluded mountain estate. Soon after arriving, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) reveals that Caleb’s been chosen to conduct a Turing Test to deem whether or not his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is true artificial intelligence and indistinguishable from a human.
Ex Machina has absolutely no problem pulling you in. Before you even know a single thing about Caleb, Gleeson’s natural charm and innocence gets you rooting for him. From there, the mystery takes the reins. He’s flown to an extremely remote location for a completely unknown reason and, just like Caleb, you’re eager to find out what Nathan has in store for him. And Isaac doesn’t disappoint. Nathan is an eccentric showman and Isaac takes it to the maximum to great effect. Something clearly isn’t quite right about the way he lives his life, but, for lack of better terms, it’s impossible not to drink the Kool-Aid and come to the conclusion that he’s offering Caleb the chance of a lifetime.
From there it’s on to the heart of the movie, Ava. There’s a reason why we’ve seen a number of A.I. movies and continue to get more each year. The idea of someone creating a machine with the ability to think and feel is downright fascinating, and, sure enough, the sessions Caleb holds with Ava are entrancing. Ex Machina isn’t an action-packed showy exploration of artificial intelligence. Under Nathan’s watch, Caleb is conducting a very methodical assessment of Ava, but he’s also doing the same to Nathan as well, and the dead-on, thoughtful performances from Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander make this the most captivating element of the film.
Caleb, Nathan and Ava are all making important decisions throughout, assessing each other’s choices and then figuring out what to do next. The constant overlap does create a significant amount of suspense, but eventually it does expire because there’s minimal emotional investment in characters. A.I. or not, there’s something cold and mechanical about all three of them. In a way, that does create some interesting parallels and it adds a curious, clever layer to the experience, but it also leaves you feeling empty and indifferent in the end.
It was also a bit disappointing that Ex Machina didn’t delve deeper into the technology behind Ava. Nathan briefly mentions how search engines sparked her creation. The concept is actually easy to wrap your head around and makes a lot of sense, but after revealing the basics, the movie doesn’t take it any further than that. Instead, it moves forward with the understanding that she just is what she is and now we’ve got to figure out whether or not she’s a success. Clearly Garland set out to deliver a deeply character-driven A.I. film and picking apart her programming could have steered it in a different direction, but the idea is so surprisingly grounded that that’s what I was most interested in.
Ex Machina is a strong feature and a huge achievement in a number of ways. There’s a surprising amount of very effective humor courtesy of Isaac’s character, there’s an extremely riveting scenario at the core of the film and there’s also tons of stunning visual work to admire as well. But, for an exceptionally unique and layered character study, Ex Machina has a surprisingly minimal amount of humanity and that keeps the film from striking a chord on a deeper level and having a lasting effect.
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