Directed by Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
1 hr. 48 min.
Following in a long line of movies about women, robots and the men who control them (remember Stepford Wives?), English writer and director Alex Garland throws his hat in the ring with Ex Machina, his atmospheric and thought provoking directorial debut.
Is this movie exciting and action packed? No. If you’re hoping for sex, violence or something akin to a fast-paced thriller, this is not your cup of tea. Think quiet Scandinavian directors like Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) or Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), where words are measured carefully and the idea behind the film takes shape slowly. Or think Kubrick, who prefers to perplex rather than entertain.
There are dozens of movies about artificial intelligence (AI) and its connection to the human brain. Ex Machina chooses a similar path in which the brain and advanced technology become fully intertwined, but the questions raised in this film are intriguing: Is sexuality limited only to life as we define it? Is it possible to blend AI with old-fashioned lust and the very human desire to be free and control your own fate?
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works as a high-tech programmer for a giant Internet search engine owned by reclusive owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Supposedly, he has won a chance to spend a week with Nathan in his large, secluded estate somewhere deep in the mountains and to talk tech with a man whom he presumes to be an Internet genius.
What Caleb learns, however, is that he’s being used as a guinea pig to test Nathan’s beautiful female AI creation named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb will spend the next week giving her what he terms the “Turing test” in order to evaluate and decide whether or not her human qualities, particularly her self-consciousness, are fully integrated into her artificial intelligence.
But as he spends more time with Ava, he comes to believe that she has a mind of her own and that she wants to escape with him to the outside world. Mesmerized by her beauty and intelligence, he falls in love and thinks she has the capability of loving him as well.
All is not as it appears, however, with Nathan or Ava. Nathan has a sadistic side and Ava uses both him and Caleb to her ultimate benefit. Caleb is trapped among conflicting emotions about what is humanly possible, who to trust and how to help Ava escape.
If you’re thinking that you’ve heard this tale before, I wouldn’t disagree, but Garland infuses this film with such an alluring atmosphere and manages to pull us into asking the same questions as Caleb.
He does it with some great camera tricks, not the least of which is how he manages to make Vikander look so, well, AI-ish. He fuses this with settings that are serene, wild and potentially threatening to claustrophobic types. The so-called house is surrounded by enormous forests and mountains. The laboratory looks like something created by Frank Gehry. In other words, Garland has worked hard to plug into our visual senses and hook us like a USB cable into the story’s port.
To top it off, he’s added some electronic music by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. The techno music swirls around the theater and feels essential, as if what we’re hearing from both the actors and the music, is highly in sync.
Ex Machina may not necessarily thrill the viewer, but it sure does get inside your head and make you wonder how close we really are to fusing the human brain with our technological advances. Garland asks intelligent questions and we the audience sit hypnotized by what may be possible within our short lifetimes. Could machine and human be indistinguishable within the next 25 years or so? Garland certainly raises the issue. What is most unnerving about Ex Machina is that he may actually be right.