Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Producer: Andrew MacDonald, Allon Reich
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Oscar Isaac
A reclusive tech entrepreneur tasks a young computer programmer with evaluating the human behavior of an advanced artificial intelligence.
Billionaire tech magnate Nathan has the dangerous brilliance of Robert Oppenheimer, the sage savvy of Steve Jobs, and enough wily ego to have been a co-founder of Facebook. His is a polarizing personality where the notion of clinking beer bottles in hopeful friendship is irresistible in spite of a sixth sense warning to not turn your back should he brandish a knife. Nathan’s unrivalled cocktail of cunning, charisma, chutzpah, and intellect makes him the only mind capable of crafting Ava, an artificial intelligence possibly in possession of an advanced ability to evolve code into self-aware cognitive function.
That’s where Caleb comes in. Selected from a pool of programmers toiling in the trenches at Nathan’s world-changing search engine company, Caleb has the desired mix of nerdy know-how and naivety to play the human conductor in an impartial evaluation of Ava’s humanity-emulating prowess.
This version of the Turing test is to last six days, but it takes only one for Caleb’s idolization of Nathan to be eclipsed by infatuation with Ava. A second session soon suggests that this seemingly simple study is more than mere scientific research. Nathan may have developed an A.I. whose cunning can supersede her creator’s. Now all three intellects are engaged in a faceoff where the smartest mind in the room may not be the one everyone else thinks it is.
Mentions have been made of “Ex Machina” being a “thinking person’s” sci-fi movie. In popular media criticism, such sentiment often acts as a forewarning that suspense builds slowly, or as a preemptive tongue jutted at any downturned thumb lulled by lack of onscreen action. What it should indicate in this case is that the movie’s value beyond straight suspense entertainment comes not from requiring thoughtful reflection, but from inspiring it.
Amok A.I. has been a cornerstone of cautionary science-fiction since man first feared displacement from factory-fabricated automatons. What separates the fable of “Ex Machina” from the futuristic fears fueling its peers is its implication that technological enslavement won’t come from revolutionary robotics asserting physical superiority through corrupted computers and laser-powered weaponry. The deeper danger is humanity’s own hubris in manufacturing an artificial ability to outsmart instead of to overpower.
Often quiet with deafening silence, “Ex Machina” sits atop a bomb of unrelenting tension so deceptively reserved that its continuous fuse crackles almost imperceptibly. The film is folded into a presentation as beautifully sleek as its setting, where any sense of security is false for characters and viewers alike, and the command for attention is a dare to find a distraction.
Nuance exists in every detail. Dialogue rings of being completely conversational, yet each word is meaningful and carefully chosen. When Nathan tells Caleb, “it’s not that I think you’re too dumb,” the qualifier “too” is deliberately included so that such a sentence says more about what Nathan believes than is initially implied.
It’s hardly an eyebrow-raiser that noted screenwriter Alex Garland delivers a script layered with subtext. More impressive is his capacity as a first-time director to bring every subtlety off of each page by pulling them from the performances.
With just three links in its acting chain, “Ex Machina” has no leeway for weakness in casting. And it isn’t needed. Alicia Vikander’s soft beauty is an appropriate fit for Ava, though she leans close to the casual head tilts, wide eyes, and speech patterns seen often in previous portrayals of artificial intelligence embodiment. Domhnall Gleeson is wonderful in a role reversed from the one he played in the second season premiere of “Black Mirror.” Oscar Isaac stands out with his combination of admirable, affable, and contemptible to create the complex character that Nathan is in each onscreen moment.
Together as a solid ensemble, their trio perfectly pulls off the Rock, Paper, Scissors game played by Ava, Caleb, and Nathan. That game is ultimately won by whoever can most accurately anticipate the behavior of the other two, with the loser likely to be undone by emotion instead of by intellect.
There is a question of staying power for “Ex Machina.” Revisiting the film in 20 years time or more will probably result in a frozen time capsule of primitive perspective on the relationship between behavior and technology, and what is feared most about bridging the gap between the two. For now, “Ex Machina” stands as a poignant contemporary allegory, and as an intriguing near-future thriller.
Review Score: 90