If this is the future, then the future is frightening. Ex Machina examines what Artificial Intelligence might look like in its most seamless and human form. The film is thought-provoking, well-acted, and its implications are quite terrifying. This marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, and Dredd), and it will be very interesting to see what he does next.
The film stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a highly talented young programmer for fictional mega search engine Blue Book, who wins a company-wide contest to come spend a week in the secluded facility of the company’s alcoholic billionaire owner Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac, who provides some of the much needed comic relief throughout the film). It turns out that Caleb is brought into Nathan’s enormous underground getaway to help facilitate a set of experiments on a new invention: Ava (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent super computer in the shape of a gorgeous young woman. Caleb is tasked with determining whether or not Nathan has succeeded in creating the world’s first truly artificially intelligent being, and in so doing, he realizes that Nathan might be hiding his true intentions from Caleb, and that the fate of Ava might just be in Caleb’s hands.
With technology evolving at the breakneck speed that it has been, films depicting a dystopian future have been extremely prominent (this year alone, Ex Machina joins Terminator: Genisys and the upcoming Avengers movie as films presenting warnings against the rise of Artificial Intelligence). Ex Machina presents a world in which one company (the aforementioned Blue Book) completes 94% of the internet’s search engine requests (with Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. all presumably a thing of the past). It turns out that the search results of Blue Book comprise the software that runs Ava, which is why she is so intelligent and advanced. The film explores several interesting and relevant moral and ethical questions relating to Ava. For example, the way in which Nathan acquired all of the data needed to generate her brain was gathered by hacking into every phone system in America (the cavalier way in which he discusses this matter with Caleb is actually quite chilling, given the current state of privacy, or lack thereof, in today’s world). Another question explored in Ex Machina (and in most of its ilk) is the question, “Just because we can, does that mean that we should?” When discussing this matter in the film, Nathan makes the point that Artificial Intelligence is not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and that he might as well be the person that does it first. As the film progresses, however, it becomes more and more clear that the world just might not be ready for Artificial Intelligence (and for Ava, in particular).
At the forefront of Ex Machina is Caleb’s relationship with Ava. We see Ava through Caleb’s eyes. We feel for her, locked away in this underground bunker, without any contact with the outside world. Aside from Nathan, Caleb is the first human (the first anything) with whom Ava has interacted. We watch as Caleb becomes endlessly fascinated with Ava. He is attracted to her sexually, he is captivated by her intellect, and—as Ava confides in him that Nathan might not be what he seems—he becomes protective of her, yearning to become her savior. This brings up the question of whether or not an Artificially Intelligent being like Ava can actually feel emotions, or if she is just manipulating Caleb to get what she wants. This is a compelling question to ponder, and the payoff at the end of the film will leave you with something incredibly provocative that will stay with you well after the credits roll.
Not only is the story well conceived and equally well executed thanks to the writer and director Alex Garland, but the performances are sensational. The lead three actors in the film (Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, Oscar Isaac as Nathan, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) are perfectly cast in their roles. Gleeson helps keep the film grounded and human. With technology at the focus, Gleeson gives the film heart, as we are seduced by Ava along with him. Oscar Isaac, as mentioned earlier, provides many laughs throughout the film, but always in the spirit of the movie. Nathan is a fascinating character; a billionaire, an alcoholic, a loner, a genius. Isaac portrays him with humor and with empathy. He is a mystery to us throughout the film. Is he really an evil mastermind? Is his plan to destroy Ava once these experiments are complete? Why did he choose Caleb for this task in the first place? Isaac, who has come to prominence in recent years for his roles in films such as Drive, Inside Llewin Davis, and most recently in A Most Violent Year, is sensational as the reclusive prodigy who has come up with the most innovative, and possibly most dangerous, invention that the world has ever known. Lastly, the casting for Ava is extremely important for this film to work, and Alicia Vikander is perfect. The way she moves, the way she speaks, the way she interacts with Caleb and with Nathan. Vikander plays Ava as a computer, yet there is so much humanity in her. This film will undoubtedly lead to some interesting roles for the young Swedish actress.
Ex Machina is one of the most original, terrifying, and relevant cautionary tales to come out in a long time. The style and the story are masterful, the performances are fantastic, and the ending will leave you breathless. See it as soon as you can. The future may depend on it.
Movie Review by Mike Danner