Science fiction is easily my favorite genre above all else. It’s a genre built on exploring new ideas, often through new or exotic technology. Of course, most movies, books, video games, and TV shows prefer the trappings of science fiction rather than the substance. It’s easier and more marketable to show a scary red-eyed android blasting a city apart than it is to make a movie about how that artificial intelligence was created and all the work and science that went into testing said intelligence.
Don’t get me wrong. I still like Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I also like the latter category, into which Ex Machina falls.
Set in around the modern day, a young programmer named Caleb gets invited to spend a week at his boss Nathan’s elaborate mansion in the mountains. Nathan reveals his personal project: Ava, the world’s first genuine artificial intelligence. Caleb helps Nathan tests her sense of consciousness through dialogue and questions, only to grow more and more enamored with the AI, who seems to be more than a pretty face on a robotic body. Of course, Nathan himself reveals that he’s testing Caleb as well, and not all of Ava’s motives are entirely innocent either.
So what does Ex Machina have to offer?
A small but effective cast.
Everyone’s performance in this film is remarkable, from Domhnall Gleeson’s befuddled but sweet-natured programmer to Alicia Vikander’s childlike and surreal performance as Ava. Oscar Isaac does a fine job as Nathan, always managing to be funny and engaging, but with that undercurrent of malice that’s never fully explored until the third act. A lot manages to get said between these three characters, especially in scenes without dialogue and a lot of facial expressions.
Smart writing about science and engineering.
When Caleb and Nathan are talking about stochastic thinking processes or the limitations of the Turing Test, it’s never exactly dull. Like any good science fiction story, they touch on the science behind AI creation and Ava’s behavior to advance the story itself. With each discussion, we probe a little deeper into the nature of the plot. Is Ava as human as she seems? How much of her reactions are based on Nathan’s programming? And just what is Caleb’s role in testing the depth of her personality and her reactions?
A creative use of empty spaces.
This film is very much like a beautiful void (to borrow Douglas Adams’s review of Myst). Inside Nathan’s elaborate mansion are several long empty corridors and stark white rooms with minimal decor, giving a strong alien vibe to Caleb and the audience. We’re also treated to brief shots of the magnificent empty landscape of mountains and woodlands outside Nathan’s home, further adding to the sense of isolation—and imprisonment.
But you also have to consider the empty spaces in the script, too. As much as the film uses dialogue to build rapport between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava, some of the most impactful moments have no dialogue. All you need is one look into a mirror or a meaningful glance to deliver as much raw emotion as a shout or a punch would. Of course, there’s plenty of shouting and punches thrown at the very end if you’re into that sort of thing.
I really liked this movie. It’s not action-heavy or particularly fast at times, but it gets its premise across and really puts the audience in a constant state of curiosity about a female AI and her place in the human world—especially given the nature of those humans.
Ex Machina is available through Universal Pictures in the US and currently showing in theaters.
Bibliography: Ex Machina (film). Directed by Alex Garland. Produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich. Written by Alex Garland. Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac. DNA Films, Film4 Productions, Scott Rudin Productions. A24 (distributor). US release date: April 10, 2015.