Ok let me just get this out of the way: Ex Machina is fantastic. It’s more than fantastic, actually. Ex Machina is proper grown-up Sci-Fi, bordering on Sci-Fact. It makes you think about the very nature of what it means to be human. It is as much a study on human behaviour as it is of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Ex Machina may well play out as a ‘simple’ three-hander, but the subject matter and underlying themes present throughout are simply epic - And yet at the same time epically simple: Can a machine ever truly pass as being human to another human being?
Writer/director Alex Garland is no stranger to tackling the subject of human nature. 2007’s Sunshine was an excellent exploration of Man’s place in the universe, and examined themes of human behaviour in prolonged isolated, the human mind’s acceptance of death, and the spiritual desire to understand our existence. Ex Machina explores similar themes but in a more compact and dialogue-led manner.
The film begins with computer programmer Caleb (an excellent Domhnall Gleeson, who we shall be seeing more of in this year’s upcoming The Force Awakens) being selected at random to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who will also be appearing in The Force Awakens), the reclusive owner of the internet company he works for. The assignment: to administer the ‘Turing Test’ to a robot created by Nathan called Ava (played with perfection by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) who possesses seemingly flawless AI.
The two characters are polar opposites. Caleb is a polite, skinny, pale computer nerd. Nathan, on the other hand, is tall, muscular, confident and mysterious. And also a bit of a drinker. He lives somewhere in a forest in the middle of nowhere, in a sleek and sterile high-tech house. It is here where we also meet Ava. Although she features the body of a robot – her wiring is visible through her see-through framework – she has a very realistic and very pretty face, which Caleb seems to find unsettling. Caleb will be Nathan’s guest for the week, who so far seems very welcoming, but there’s always just something about him that doesn’t seem quite right.
And so Caleb is ready to administer the Turing Test to Ava. So what is this Turing Test exactly? Named after the British mathematician Alan Turing - the genius who cracked the German’s Enigma machine during WW2, who essentially invented the computer, and is widely considered the father of artificial intelligence – the Turing Test was Turing’s attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called ‘intelligent’. The idea was that a computer could be said to ‘think’ if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being. Since Caleb already knows he’ll be speaking to a machine, his real objective is to figure out if the AI has a consciousness or is just pretending and is merely reacting via its programming.
And so the Ava sessions begin. Caleb conducts his interviews whith Ava through a Silence of the Lambs-esque glass screen. Slowly, Caleb finds himself falling for Ava. She’s playful, slightly flirtatious, and eager to impress.
And although Nathan is observing these sessions, Ava reveals her true mind to Caleb during the infrequent power failures that occur. She claims she’s being held captive by Nathan, and Caleb seems moved to want to help her. I really don’t want to give away too much more for fear of spoiling some powerful reveals. Strange things are clearly afoot with Nathan, who also has a mute Japanese female servant who he is verbally abusive towards. And it slowly starts to become apparent that Nathan is more interested in Caleb’s feelings and reactions towards Ava than the actual results of the Turing Test. Is Ava being genuine or is she just part of some elaborate play orchestrated by Nathan? There are twists and turns and reveals throughout as Caleb slowly begins to question even his own mind and humanity. The result is two hours of edge-of-your-seat viewing.
The interplay between Gleeson and Isaac is extremely entertaining, and a tantalising glimpse into what we can expect to see in The Force Awakens.But the real star of the show is Vikander, who plays Ava with such designed precision – every move of her head, turn of her body and delivery of a line is carefully calculated. She moves fluidly but robotically at the same time. And from the very start you just feel that not all is what it seems with her either...
Ex Machina is extremely well-crafted. The many questions raised by the film – what are the dangers of AI? How will the existence of AI impact on the future of humankind? When we start treating machines like feeling creatures, what does this say about humanity? Are AI machines aware that they are just machines? – are frighteningly significant, for as Garland has himself stated, Ava is the inevitable direction our future is heading.
A superb and intelligent movie. Wonderfully acted, compelling themes, and enough twists and turns to make your mind go loopy. Demands repeat viewings, so start as soon as you can!