Movie Review: Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina (noun | de·us ex ma·chi·na \ˈdā-əs-ˌeks-ˈmä-ki-nə, -ˈma-, -ˌnä; -mə-ˈshē-nə\)

Derived from New Latin, a god from a machine

Ex Machina is a fascinating and frightening take on the bounds of humanity and creation in technology and artificial intelligence.

Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a workplace lottery to spend a week with his reclusive-tech-genius boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain retreat. But upon Caleb’s arrival, Nathan reveals a hidden agenda: he wants Caleb to carry out to assess, via a series of conversational sessions, the artificially intelligent robot he’s built, named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on Ava, determining whether her thinking and behavior is, at any level, distinguishable from that of a human being — and if so, where the disconnect lies. It is during these daily sessions that Caleb begins to question the humanity of the creator and the creation.

The definition of the Turing Test is to “challenge a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence comparable to, or indistinguishable from, a human.” The film embodies sci-fi film making at its best, asking questions about humanity, morality and their place in the evolution of science and technology.

In playing God, how do we define “humanity”?

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The film is paced brilliantly – cerebral, with elegant pauses and tense action and interesting dialogue. Before it gets too heavy, it is expertly interspersed with dark, and almost absurd humor – and an absolutely amazing dance number (yes….you read that right).

There’s nothing artificial about the intelligence in the meticulous writing, filming and performances in this film.

Having written some excellent films, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and The Beach, Ex Machina serves as writer Alex Garland’s sleek and sophisticated directorial debut.  He’s crafted an enticing, satirical and thought-provoking film.

The feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia is only enhanced by the use of only three speaking characters in an underground bunker: Nathan, the billionaire inventor of “Blue Book” (described as the world’s most popular search engine); Caleb, the “human” component of the Turing Test; and Ava, the alluring machine.

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Alpha-male tech-genius Nathan is a recluse, he drinks to excess and then sweats the toxins away by laying into his punch bag. Nathan is intelligent and sardonic – a genius with a “God-complex”. Oscar Isaac is excellent (as usual) and surprises us with an intense and duplicitous performance that breaks moments of intelligent theories and bro-bonding, with short bursts of manic energy, bullying and arrogance.  Isaac is exciting to watch – volatile, obsessive, intelligent and dangerous. I’m consistently impressed by Isaac.  He is poised to become a huge star (and probably will after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

Caleb, as our human component, is subject to a tug-of-war between man and machine. As Caleb develops a relationship with Ava, he begins to ask some very interesting questions. Why was Ava assigned a gender (specifically female)? Was she made to be attractive? Is she programmed to flirt? What happens if she fails the test? Domhnall Gleeson is effectively moral, vulnerable, curious and confused as the “everyman” who’s equally tested and tempted by Nathan and Ava.

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Alicia Vikander is flawless as Ava. She’s beautiful and graceful (honing in on her experience as a professional ballerina) in an unnerving and unique way – her movements are effortless and precise, assisted with the sound of whirring gears. The inflection of her voice and tilt to her head as she interacts with Caleb is unnerving – because of how “human” she seems.  She manages to convince us – just as she does Caleb – that she has “real” feelings and consciousness.

As in the films Her, Blade Runner and Metropolis, we sympathize with, what is ultimately a bewitching machine.  Ava is fascinating, mysterious and compellingly portrayed by Vikander. The makeup and effects teams have made Ava a robot of striking elegance – a human face housed in mesh, wire and moving parts.

The simmering tension between the three characters mounts to unnerving bouts of suspicion and terror. The film plays on themes of surveillance, humanity and the bounds of technology. Ava’s artificial intelligence thought processes are sparked by the terms millions of humans are keying into Blue Book – a compilation of real-time information, leads to technology that learns and adapts at an astounding rate.  Nathan harnesses the power of information to serve as our Dr. Frankenstein. Does that make Ava our monster?  Caleb, along with the audience is pushed, pulled and misdirected. As the paranoia and tension mounts – who is actually being tested?

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Ex Machina is a clever, unsettling and finely crafted thriller.  Eerie and organic in the way that it unfolds. It’s hard to talk about this film without invoking new questions or giving away intricacies of the plot. It’s the first truly great film that I’ve seen in 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Ex Machina

  1. Was very intrigued by this movie from reading about the plot. The trailer didn’t do much for me. But I will definitely give it a shot.

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