doomsey reviews Ex Machina

Ex Machina 108 min., 2014
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Alex Garland
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★★

What we create is ultimately a reflection of ourselves.

* * *

Ex Machina posits the existance of strong AI, a technical term that refers to artificial intelligence designed to mimic the intelligence capabilities of humans.

After making it big in search as the CEO of “BlueBook”, the Mark Zuckerburg-like “brogrammer” Nathan (Oscar Isaac), cashes in not only the infinite amounts of money but also the limitless human behavior data his company has collected to move to a remote compound and develop a strong AI without the risk of leaks on his project. He is, in fact, so secretive that his assistant (and the only other resident of the compound) Kyoko (newcomer Sonoya Mizuno) doesn’t speak English, to ensure that anything she does hear can’t possibly get to the press.

Eventually, though, he needs to have someone come and see his creation. For this, he brings in Caleb, one of his employees (“Can we just be two guys, not the whole employer-employee thing?”) to meet his creation. Through heavy glass, Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander and some impressively disconcerting digital effects), an android with a human face attached to a fabric-and-metal body, with blue, glowy transparent bits (including squishy “structured gel” brain). Caleb is the human component of a modified Turing test, the goal being to see if Caleb could see her as human, even with clear visual evidence she is a machine.

I was expecting this setup to lead to the usual “is a machine that can love, human?” trope (Chobits, Her), but Ex Machina surprised me by going in a different direction. Presumably during his path to the top, Nathan stepped on a lot of people, and his idea of a human-level AI is one that can deceive and manipulate people to get what they want. Nathan believes himself to be too strong to be manipulate, so he brings Caleb in, to see what Ava does when she thinks Nathan isn’t watching.

Garland’s sparse production (only 3 actors have more than bit parts) in vast spaces reminds me of Kubrick, and specifically 2001. Acting is spare. The outside of the compound is beautiful; exteriors, and some interior shots into picture windows with vast mountains and forests, were shot in Norway. Inside, the compound—Nathan describes it as a “research lab” but it looks more like a space station—is largely underground, with large, artificially lit spaces, wide hallways and keycard readers on each door. Cameras peer into every nook and cranny, recording 24/7. Glass is everywhere, but there are no windows.

Like Kubrick in 2001, Garland maintains the cold, sober tone in the acting and postproduction as well. While it would be easy for the characters in this film to lapse into comedy, Ex Machina avoids this. Isaac comes off as sincere and unguarded even as he lies, Mizuno’s Kyoko portrays sad isolation, and Vikander’s Ava moves and talks in a vaguely inhuman manner than puts her character slightly on the near side of the so-called “uncanny valley”. Digital effects abound but are restrained; only Ava’s semitransparent from is jarring and this effect is intentional and deliberate.

The end result is a film that is more than the sum of its parts, that takes well-trodden elements from sci-fi canon and forms something new and unexpected. It asks questions. It makes us think about what it means to be human. And like Dredd, also written by Garland, it both inhabits and expands its genre. Garland is a smart, talented writer, and Ex Machina reflects this. We are all richer of it.

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