There’s little I enjoy more than some quality sci-fi. Even though many of the themes have been redone over and over again, it’s the way these themes are presented that separate a good sci-fi from all the rest. If you’ve seen the trailer for Ex Machina, you can probably guess that the film is about a man’s creation of an A.I, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Alex Garland, who penned the scripts for acclaimed movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, makes his directorial film debut here. It’s a beautiful, confident and smart first shot at directing, as well as a completely enjoyable and thought-provoking experience that just might be the best of the year so far.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an intelligent programmer who works at an internet company named Bluebook. He wins a company lottery for a one week visit to meet the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home somewhere in the mountains. When he gets there, he learns that Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on his humanoid A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to try to distinguish whether or not she is a conscious machine.
Nathan’s home is beautiful and sleek, but it’s also claustrophobic, empty and uninviting. All doors are sealed off and can only be opened by a special key pass, of which Caleb’s access is limited. Yet somehow, it seems the perfect reclusive dwelling for a genius billionaire.
Nathan, played impressively well by Oscar Isaac, whose career seems to be really taking off ever since Inside Llewyn Davis (and rightfully so), is an unpredictable character. When Caleb first meets him, he is quick to skip the formalities, acting not like the typical genius billionaire you’d expect him to be, but rather like more of a “dude bro.” You’d think this would make him more likable, but on the contrary, it makes him more suspicious. You know right away there’s something off about him, but you don’t know exactly what it is.
Caleb is exactly what you’d expect him to be. Polite, smart, and excited to take part in an important event of scientific discovery, even if it means he has to sign off his freedom to tell anybody anything that transpires during his visit. His sessions with Ava are meant to be nothing more than a simple conversation between the two of them in a room that is separate by reinforced glass. Ava is a remarkable looking robot, with a human face and a translucent body. Alicia Vikander brings a human elegance to the character, but even when she hides her robotic parts under feminine clothing, you never forget exactly what she is.
Although Ex Machina does feature some impressive special effects and some beautiful cinematography, it thrives on its story and small number of characters. It doesn’t have to resort to inconsequential action scenes to be involving, and that’s what I like about it. It’s slow paced, but that doesn’t mean it comes anywhere close to being boring. It slowly builds up tension as the relationships between all the characters continue to change.
Ava and Caleb’s sessions together are mildly uncomfortable, since it’s clear there’s some sexual tension building between the two. All the while you have Nathan watching everything that transpires through camera and audio. None of these characters are black and white and the story is mostly unpredictable. I thought I knew exactly what direction it was going in right off the bat, but then it turned. That’s really all I can say without giving the plot away, and I already feel like I’ve said too much. For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, avoid as many spoilers as you can because you don’t want to deprive yourself of the wonderfully oblivious experience.
It’s not all technical, serious and tense, though. There’s some genuine comedic relief spread purposely throughout, including an unexpected scene with one of the characters that I don’t even want to give away in this review because it’s so random and perfect that I refuse to take the “wtf” factor away from anyone.
Filmmakers have been interested in the idea of artificial intelligence for years. Everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to The Terminator, to this year’s Chappie. Perhaps the most interesting idea about artificial intelligence is that it isn’t completely fictional. The very questions these characters bring up in this film about consciousness, humanity and sexuality are no doubt some of the same questions we’ll be asking ourselves one day in the near future. If a robot can achieve consciousness, then what will continue to separate humans from machine? There’s so much more presented here, though, which I can’t get into due to spoilers, but you can see for yourself if you watch it. It’s a really incredible film.
Ex Machina is a wonderful sci-fi, full of amazing visuals, a great script, and complex characters who are played by some very talented actors. Alex Garland has shown that he can do much more than write the hell out of a script, this is an impressive directorial debut. It’s a smart, tense film that stuck with me and left me thinking after I exited the theater. I know it’s only April, but in my opinion, this is the best theaters have had to offer so far this year. It’s an absolute must-see for 2015.