By Jacob Wampfler
“I am become death, the Shatterer of Worlds.”
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, to be certain, is a film with familiar themes. At the outset, one might wonder what this film adds to the slew of films (and television series) that revolve around the creation and development of artificial intelligence. However, amidst familiar themes, Ex Machina rarely feels redundant or unoriginal. It explores new and, at times, shocking aspects of artificial intelligence without feeling clunky or overwrought with scientific jargon. Ex Machina is a film about A.I. that has a pulse…and that pulse beats faster and heavier as the film progresses to its climax.
The scope of this film alone is refreshing and mysterious. The stakes begin quite small; the fate of the world does not hang in the balance. The film opens with little dialogue or explanation. We see Caleb (superbly played by Domhnhall Gleeson), a computer programmer, winning the opportunity by lottery draw to visit and conduct research with Nathan, the absurdly wealthy and enigmatic CEO of the internet giant, Bluebook. Caleb arrives at the billionaire’s “estate”, giddy with excitement, and soon finds out what his research will entail.
Nathan has selected him to perform the Turing test on Ava, a humanoid A.I. that Nathan has created. This test will be conducted over the course of a week (seven “sessions,” noted as such on title screens in the film), and Caleb’s job is to determine whether or not Ava is “intelligent.” Furthermore, this test has a strange wrinkle…unlike a standard Turing test where the A.I.’s identity is not revealed to the tester, Caleb sits face to face with Ava, per Nathan’s request. This aspect of the film alone creates moments of wonderment and uncanny suspense throughout the duration of the film.
Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is mesmerizing. From the very first session, the viewer is drawn into Vikander’s performance as the complex and innocent A.I. who establishes a stunning relationship with Caleb in a very short time. Her humor, wit, and even empathy draw the audience in and make one anticipate her next appearance in the film with eagerness. Ava, however, reveals to Caleb during a power outage at the research facility that all is not as it seems and Nathan is not to be trusted.
As the film draws us closer to Ava, we are, at the same time, given countless reasons to loath Nathan. Played by Oscar Isaac in eccentric and even humorous fashion (see the INCREDIBLE dancing scene in the middle portion of the film), Nathan gets drunk almost every night and boasts often of his intelligence and accomplishments. He even nonchalantly admits to less than ethical research practices as they relate to his creation of Ava and the technology used to map her facial expressions. Nathan believes that he is a god, and he will do anything to create an A.I. that displays consciousness, awareness, and sentient intelligence, the likes of which the world has never witnessed before.
Alex Garland’s sci-fi pedigree is impressive. Writing screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, Garland has demonstrated an understanding of sci-fi and suspense that strikes a difficult balance. He is not overt in stating themes and ideas, but he also leaves plenty for the audience to grab onto. This film explores a variety of pertinent topics including humanity, sexuality, intellect, consciousness, and even research ethics without feeling heavy-handed or didactic. Add to that impressive cinematography and a pulsing electronic score, and Ex Machina establishes itself as a smart, welcome indie film in a summer movie season packed with blockbuster sci-fi action. Oh, and remember that “pulse” I mentioned before? Hang on, because Ex Machina will not only make you think…it will knock you back in your seat by the time the credits roll.