REVIEW: 'Ex Machina'
As the early scenes of Ex Machina unfold, a question – a slightly disturbing, even deviant question – pops up in your mind. It concerns Ava, the allegedly artificially-intelligent android around whom the story revolves. You might feel a little filthy thinking about it, and so writer-director Alex Garland tackles it head-on with one of the best scenes in the film: Ava’s creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) confirms that, yes, “you can f*** her, and she’ll enjoy it”.
This is an example of one of the greatest strengths of Ex Machina. It doesn’t want to tell some purely high-minded story about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) testing his boss’ new creation for A.I. The film wants to engage with us, using concepts and language we understand. Garland’s film acknowledges that if we’re going to determine whether Ava is conscious, then that means not being afraid to discuss how sexuality works into it – after all, as Nathan goes on to argue, what is human consciousness without an awareness of sex?
The film is punctuated by plenty of similar scenes – the frankness with which Nathan and Gleeson’s character Caleb discuss Ava is some of the most refreshing sci-fi writing I’ve encountered in a while. They sound less like the technological geniuses they are and more like two buddies talking about a girl they ran into the night before. This is combined with other moments of dry humour (like a bizarre R&B dance sequence) that inject realism and warmth into the secluded, hyper-modern Norwegian compound where the action takes place.
That action is kicked off when Caleb is invited to spend a week at the compound, to conduct a Turing test on Ava. The remoteness of the location and the fact that Nathan is the CEO of the largest search engine in the world (conceived as a blend of Google and Facebook, called Bluebook) is immediately overwhelming for Caleb. But as soon as he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), he becomes obsessed with understanding how genuine she is – and whether she has real feelings for him.
Of course, Ex Machina is not all bawdy bro-talk or increasingly tender test sessions between Caleb and Ava. The prevailing vibe of the movie is still an ethereal, cleanly designed one, and this eventually helps ratchet up the tension in the film’s final act, as Nathan’s real motivations are revealed and the facility transforms into a psychological and physical trap for Caleb.
The subtext of the emerging relationships between the three main players becomes clearer with each session with Ava. Caleb is a very smart, perhaps a bit too trusting, while Nathan is like an older, angrier version of him. With the addition of Ava into the mix, we see how Nathan’s actions are like those of a jilted lover: he resents how Ava becomes interested in Caleb, and seems to think that Ava owes Nathan affection because he created her. It’s not until later that we see what this type of thinking has driven him to do.
For his part, Caleb tries his best to keep Nathan’s impulses at bay and keep his own head on straight, but the character we end up watching the closest is Ava. Like Caleb, we end up evaluating her self-awareness. What is the more convincing proof of consciousness: that she has wants and needs (which might include being with Caleb) or that she may be manipulating her encounters with Caleb (as Nathan claims) to escape the facility and see the outside world?
Perhaps more compelling is the question of whether Ex Machina isn’t just a movie about technology or artificial intelligence, but about how men try and often fail to understand women. As much as the men in the film may believe they know how Ava thinks (in part because Nathan initially designed those systems), Ava proves that there’s something fundamental about her that can’t be quantified or mapped. And that may have more to do with her gender and sexual orientation than anything else, at least from the perspective of Caleb and Nathan. It would be fascinating to see how a female filmmaker would handle this story if the genders of the characters were flipped – how would the dynamics change, and what truths would it reveal?
As both the writer and director, Garland wisely avoids filling the film with too much plot or high stakes– instead, he sits back and lets his actors prowl through Nathan’s compound, which allows the bottled-up feelings between them to simmer and boil. There is no countdown towards a climactic event, no clear-cut villain to defeat, and while that places a lot of demands on the film’s small core of actors, Gleeson, Vikander and Isaac are more than up to the task. Vikander is the most obvious revelation: in many scenes, the CGI design of her character limits her performance to just her face and hands, and yet she feels just as present as anyone else in the frame.
Artificial intelligence is a growing sub-genre in sci-fi – Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her handles the topic beautifully, while Neill Blompkamp’s Chappie from several months ago severely fumbles it. Ex Machina confidently joins Her as another engrossing, if sometimes unsettling, inquiry into the interactions between humans and technology, and between men and women, a movie we may look back on in fifty years and marvel at how troublingly accurate it would become. Ex Machina gets four stars out of four.
What did you think of Alex Garland’s directorial debut? Is it a cautionary tale for our tech-obsessed society, or were you turned off by its creepy implications? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!