Review: Ex Machina

Just when you thought Marvel’s Ultron would be the artificial intelligence dominating film conversations in 2015, we’re introduced to Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (Ex-Mock-E-Nuh) – a sci-fi thriller that explores the relationships between man and God, and man and machine.

Written and directed by Garland, Ex Machina is a story about Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer for Blue Book (a tech company similar to Google) who wins a competition to spend the week with the company’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The week is spent at a remote location in a building that’s equipped with an advanced security system. The building, that looks like it’s carved into a mountain, is part modern home and part state-of-the-art research facility.

After Nathan convinces Caleb to sign the most intrusive non disclosure agreement known to man, he informs Caleb he’s not there to hang out and bond for the week, but to administer what is known as the Turing Test. Named after the father of computers, Alan Turing, the test calls for a human to interact with a computer. If a human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer, the test is passed. Passing the test tells us the computer indeed has artificial intelligence.

Caleb is introduced to the humanoid artificial intelligence created by Caleb named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and begins a series of sessions to see if she can pass the test. The more time Caleb spends as the human component in the Turing Test, the more he’s drawn to Ava and starts to question Nathan’s motives.

Ex Machina could easily be an overblown sci-fi movie packed with theories and heavy handed nods to scientist whose names I can’t pronounce, or question creation about human existence. Instead, Garland keeps the plot as straight forward as possible, allowing for each character’s evolution to expound on the films bigger ideas. Ava is an AI who doesn’t give away what she knows or doesn’t know; Caleb knows he’s is in over his head but excited to be at the center of the greatest scientific creation; Nathan is at the point where his intelligence has morphed into narcissism. For example, Caleb tells Nathan, “If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man, it’s the history of Gods.” After the first session, Nathan recalls the conversation saying Caleb called him a God. When Caleb tries to correct him, he insists he called him a God. It’s a hilarious exchange that also gives insight into how Nathan views himself.

Is there an actor more on their game right now than Oscar Isaac? He’s been on a terror the past few years with Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January, A Most Violent Year, and now Ex Machina.  Isaac gives another unbelievable performance as Nathan. His character is as intelligent and imaginative as he is humorous and crazy. Isaac’s performance just put him on my “I’ll See a Movie Just Because They’re In It” list.

Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander hold their own next to Isaac. They’re both fantastic, especially their sessions together. You see both actors raise their game as both characters evolve during Ava’s sessions. Vikander may be the film’s best performer, and that’s high praise. She gives Ava just enough humanity to make you care about what’s happening to her and what fate awaits her after the test.

The film touches on different ideas like ethics, what does it mean to be human, and what is consciousness? The film never attempts to answer any of the questions but allows how the audience views the characters and their choices to answer questions. The three main characters are intelligent and smart so you’re never sure what is happening or going to happen. The pacing of the story and pulsing score keep your blood pumping – watching someone look at security footage never felt so intense.

A24 Films has another masterpiece on their hands. Like most of the film’s distributed by A24, there’s nothing like Ex Machina in theaters. It fits the mold for an A24 release – visually striking, great performances, well written, entertaining, and will stimulate conversation. I hope this trend with A24 continues.

Ex Machina is one of the most grounded sci fi films I’ve ever seen. For a film that could’ve been a complicated mess, we get a thrilling story that mixes humor with thoughtful ideas about humanity and science.  Creating deadly AI has been a genre in cinema from Westworld, to Blade Runner, to the Terminator series. Ex Machina is the brainy sci-fi thriller those movies hoped to be.

Grade: A