Ex Machina is a 2015 science fiction film directed by Alex Garland, known for his success as a screenwriter on films such as 28 Days Later and Dredd. It stars Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander in the lead roles, with a limited supporting cast. Caleb Smith (Gleeson) wins a week-long vacation away from his job as a programmer for Bluebook, a futuristic social networking company. He becomes one of the few people to met the creator the company, Nathan Bateman (Isaac), a brilliant but volatile hermit who is intent on creating functioning artificial intelligence. To test his latest attempt, “Ava” (Vikander), Nathan recruits Caleb into administering the Alan Turing test to see if Ava can pass as a human being.
During Caleb’s stay, he realizes two very important things: Ava is much more human than he thought possible, seemingly developing romantic feelings for him during their talks. And Nathan, though friendly on the surface, is less than stable. The later causes him to question if his days on vacation will be his last, and he hatches a plan to free Ava and himself from Nathan’s control.
Ex Machina is essentially a small “art” film, with limited sets, a very small cast, and relying primarily on dialogue to drive its narrative. However, the film’s special effects budget paid off in spades: Eva’s body, a mix of humanoid skin (the real actress) and a metal, robotic form created by CGI, is a masterpiece of visual effects. I never once questioned whether she was really, physically there, and that’s the best praise I can give to any character presented through special effects. I certainly hope that Ex Machina gets some recognition for its excellence in this category. And of course, considerable credit goes to Vikander for being so convincing as a robot who is learning to feel and make her own decisions.
Of course, if Ex Machina was simply a special effects showcase, I would not be talking about it on this blog. The film has been met with generally favorable reviews, with many audiences finding it to be a fresh film in today’s climate where truly good science fiction is something of a rarity. If I’m completely honest, I found the hype around this film to be a little too strong for what is, essentially, a very good movie that does not cover any new ground. If you have seen one movie about artificial intelligence, then you almost certainly know how this one plays out. Ex Machina fails to buck the trend of A.I. movies by showing that it is dangerous to create something as smart as ourselves, playing “God” so to speak, which I find to be the most disappointing aspect about the movie.
However, aside from that criticism, I don’t have much to complain about. After all, something that is truly new in this day and age is almost impossible to find. It isn’t the themes a movie has that make it good; it is how effective the film is at entertaining the audience while challenging them to think critically. And in that category, this movie soars. Caleb and Nathan have many interesting conversations about how Ava was created, whether she is sentient and deserves to be treated with the same rights as a human, and the like. Gleeson and Isaac are very talented actors and their scenes work well together. Ava also has completely different dynamics with Caleb and Nathan, meaning that any combination of the two on screen feels different enough that the relationships feel real and stick with us.
If Ex Machina taught me anything, it’s that a smartly written film can cover the same basic themes while never seeming boring. There is nothing I got out of this film that I couldn’t have gotten from say, Blade Runner, but it is the presentation of the story, the entertaining and sharp dialogue, the nail-biting tension of several scenes, and the performances of the actors that give this movie its own unique identity. If you are a fan of the science fiction drama and want to revisit the worthwhile questions that artificial intelligence poses to us, I strongly recommend seeing Ex Machina. It is a standout in a crowded field of good movies to come out this year, and one that is worth going out of your way to watch.