What makes a truly great science fiction film? There are those that would argue that the genre is inspired by futuristic ideals and phenomena that lies outside of our definition of possible. However, this writer contends that a great sci-fi flick should speak to us, inspire us, and make us question what we know through the lens of the future. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina seeks to pose a question that humanity will presumably be forced to address in the near future.
A departure from Garland’s usual, action packed features (28 Days Later, Dredd), Ex Machina offers a chilling peek into the future of artificial intelligence. The film opens with sheepish programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being selected through a company wide lottery to spend a week with his employer, eccentric billionaire and tech revolutionary Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once Caleb arrives at Nathan’s home/research facility, nestled snugly within an uncanny valley (symbolism…), he learns that he was selected by Nathan to perform a Turing test on an A.I. of Nathan’s design. Through a series of sessions with Nathan’s magnum opus, Ava (Alicia Vikander), Caleb discovers that the A.I. he’s confronted with exceeds all expectations, and that not everything within the facility is as it seems. While a few of the plot points hinge on contrived red herrings, by and large, the twists and turns of the narrative contribute to an ending that can be interpreted as heart-warming, unsatisfying, or down right bleak, depending on your frame of mind.
The engine that really drives the film is not, as one would expect, the robot, but rather, the interplay between Gleeson and Isaac. Both actors are at the top of their game in Ex Machina. Gleeson’s Caleb is a poster boy of innocence and amazement, a bright-eyed newcomer broken down into a state of pure paranoia over the course of the film. Likewise, Isaac as affable tech guru and futurist Nathan presents an interesting twist on an archetype that we’ve seen before. Ex Machina is truly at its best when the two characters are alone, having a few beers and musing how the advancement of artificial intelligence is akin to the work of God. At the center of these debates is, of course, Vikander’s Ava. Though a robot (with phenomenal effects, might I add) Ava seems at the same time naive, yet calculating, never fully letting on just how aware of her situation she is. The audience seems to watch her grow as she appears to discover love, the world, and her own mortality.
Both the cinematography and sound design of the film have an austere, understated quality, ably contributing to the tension of the film. The camera work is reminiscent of sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, choosing to highlight slow pans and tight, symmetrical framing. In addition, juxtaposition between the natural surroundings of the facility and the stark grey scale of the building’s interior break up the film’s “Sessions” with a sense of eerie isolation. Similarly, the sparse, electronic score rises slowly with the action and falls away effortlessly, highlighting the cold silence that pervades the rest of the film.
If you couldn’t already tell, Ex Machina poses several lofty questions in regards to the ethics and responsibility of A.I. advancement. With this in mind, do not come into this movie expecting grand, shoot ‘em up, killer robot action, as you will be severely disappointed. Instead, what you will find is a frank, and often tense rumination on the future of humanity as a whole. To quote Oscar Isaac, “It’s promethean, man.”