Will mankind ever create artificial intelligence that will masquerade as human? Ex-Machina attempts to tackle that question along with the morality of such experiments. Should we create artificial life just because we can? When it falls outside its operating parameters, can we just discard it? Ex-Machina is a clever and beautiful film which is reminiscent of many slow burning sci-fi classics of the 70’s and 80’s, as it presents you with a thrilling suspense filled story that will keep you engaged.
Following up on his excellent script for Dredd (2012), Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this film. Ex-Machina paints a picture of a futuristic world in which one of the most powerful companies is headed by a young genius named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who has coded the world’s most dominant and popular internet search engine. Nathan is determined to bring forth the next definitive step in technology by creating cybernetic companions. Using information based on thoughts and ideas expressed on blogs, social network profiles and search preferences, he hopes to create a realistic artificial life form which will do more than just mimic a human.
The egotistical CEO tries to prove a point by bringing in an employee to administer a test, hoping to prove that his creation can pass as human. His chosen employee is Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), the seemingly lucky recipient of a contest to spend a week with Nathan at his isolated retreat in the mountains testing the latest product, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is remarkable, and quickly impresses the overwhelmed Caleb, who feeds Nathan’s ego by complimenting her design and intelligence. As the plot progresses, Ava confides in Caleb that Nathan has been lying to him and all is not as it seems. Laid out in test sessions, Ex Machina progresses in a compelling way by using each session to build the relationship between Caleb and Ava. These moments unveil some disturbing revelations about the entire experiment, culminating in a very emotionally mixed ending.
The cast – albeit small – does a sublime job with their respective roles; each character feels very real and well written. Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Ava is both innocent and intelligent, yet cold with a subtle allure. She manages to captivate me in almost the same way that she captivates Caleb, by playing the character in a very natural and uncomfortably human way, softening the robotic side of the performance. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson play off each other brilliantly, portraying the interesting relationship of a reclusive, arrogant and tormented genius mentor teaching his inquisitive, shy and lonely student.
The slow reveal of Ava’s appearance is highly effective, carefully showing off some of the outstanding visual design for her character. With translucent plastic or mesh, her internal machinery (wires, frame, and core) can be seen, presenting Ava with a prototypical mechanized look. Meanwhile, her main features (such as her hands and face) are made intentionally human to display as much human-like expression as possible. This was achieved through a mix of CGI and practical effects, and it all looks seamless.
The set design is very minimalistic and sterile, suited to a modern lifestyle with buildings that are used as both living accommodation and laboratory/test environments for new products. The high tech security lock-out systems monitored by multiple cameras and sensors combine with the cold interior to create a feeling of imprisonment and claustrophobia.
Ex Machina’s score contains electronic and mechanical sounds that are often used to create a wall of uneasy noise, building a feeling of tension as the music continues to gain in volume, slowly muting the sound design. Musically, it has little to offer in terms of memorable themes throughout the score and there are few repeated sequences in the music, as filmmakers decided to take a more random approach to this aspect of the movie.
This is a film that is both intelligent and brilliantly told. To be honest, it might even make you question the direction that we are heading with our ever growing reliance on technology and how we strive to bring smarter tech into our lives. Unlike most movies in the genre, this is a film that isn’t action orientated and is a welcome return to storytelling over special effects in science fiction. I highly recommend Ex Machina, as it is one of the more interesting films I have watched this year.