Artificial intelligence (A.I.) seems to be a trendy topic for films in 2015. Chappie dealt (poorly) with the prospect of a sentient robot as a quickly-developing child with a blank slate perhaps in the wrong hands. The main villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron is an A.I. intended for peacekeeping that decides the best avenue to peace is human extinction. Armed with a far more modest cast and budget, Ex Machina offers its take on A.I. on a much smaller scale, but arguably has more to say than either of Chappie or Ultron as a terrific sci-fi thriller.
Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company contest to spend a week with his billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his reclusive Alaskan residence. When he gets there, he discovers that he is to take part in a modified Turing Test on an A.I. that Nathan has created in the form of a beautiful female robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Under the watchful eye of Nathan, Caleb begins to conduct interview sessions with Ava, who is confined to her room. As the days pass, Caleb begins to question his surroundings and what is going on as his suspicions mount that he is not getting the full story from Nathan and things might not be entirely as they appear.
Writer/director Alex Garland tackles directing here for the first time, after being a frequent screenwriting collaborator with Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later…, and Sunshine). The premise of the film is fairly simple as most of it involves three characters and their interactions with one another, though mostly with how Nathan and Ava are relating to Caleb. The film shares some similarities to the structure of 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, with the third act of the film descending into a kind of chaos, though not as extreme or abrupt as either of those films. It also shares some DNA with Never Let Me Go, another film Garland screenplay that deals with isolation and characters not knowing the whole story.
The majority of the film takes place at Nathan’s secluded home in the Alaskan wilderness; built onto the side of a rocky hill by a river in a lush forest that is accessible only by helicopter and a short hike. The residence is at once very natural to its surrounding environment, but also incredibly high-tech because it serves as not just a home, but also a workplace. Caleb is given a coded card that gives him limited access to the building, something Nathan explains away as being for his benefit by removing the awkwardness of uncertainty, but also removing choice. This is one of the many ways that information is withheld from Caleb.
The three main characters are interesting studies in archetypes. Nathan is (best description I’ve seen) a “bro billionaire,” someone who is rich and smart but is much more interested in the coolness of his creation than talking shop about it with Caleb. Very early on he wants to move past the boss/employee dynamic between he and Caleb and move right into to two dudes hanging out having fun. He spends his down time working out and downing beer. He’s also got some skeletons in the closet (literally and figuratively).
Caleb is a bit of clean slate, someone who the audience is supposed to project themselves onto as he is the surrogate for the audience into this world. He is fascinated by the prospect of testing Ava and talking to her. He is smart, but maybe not as smart as he thinks he is.
Ava is another fine addition to the performances of people who have portrayed A.I. before, right up there with HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roy Batty in Blade Runner, David in Prometheus, and several others. Vikander plays her with a great balance of wonder and fear; wonder at interacting with her first human being outside of Nathan, fear because she tells Caleb that he cannot trust Nathan and wonders what will happen to her after Caleb’s test is up. Also, the question of how much Caleb should trust her lingers in the air throughout the movie.
The film deals with a lot of questions surrounding artificial intelligence, including the ethics that going into creating a consciousness and the potential for abusing that power. The film strikes a good balance of giving us just enough of the “science” to make it seem plausible in how the A.I. was created. Not only that, but the way that A.I. is created and potentially integrated with the world feels like how it could actually happen in real life, as opposed to the A.I. in The Terminator or The Matrix.
The tension of the thriller aspects of this film are handled very well. All of the sessions between Caleb and Ava are videotaped and recorded, except for when there are these intermittent power outages and it is just Caleb and Ava talking through a partition of glass. These scenes are the ones that plant the seeds of doubt in Caleb’s mind about Nathan and what he is doing there. There is a great scene where the isolation and questions get to be too much for Caleb and it descends into full paranoia where he’s questioning things he even believes about himself. The ending is chilling and enchanting, and while there is a moment where you think the movie will end, it actually continues the story a bit further and ends with a callback to an important conversation from earlier in the film.
This is an impressive directorial debut. The story is well-paced. The secluded setting of the story adds to the building unease and tension. The score is sparse and also really enhances the experience of the film. There are twists and turns and hints at things going on that I believe reward a second viewing. It’s the best sci-fi film I’ve seen this year so far and a perfect vehicle to show off the talents of three up-and-coming actors whose names people should start seeing more and more frequently.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars