Earlier this year, I sat through a little film called Chappie. I didn’t like it. Fantastic production values aside, it was still a film about artificial intelligence that ripped off so many other films about the same tired subject without adding anything new.
So here’s Ex Machina, yet another film about AI, albeit one that comes with much better reviews. It’s also a much smaller film, with a cast comprised almost entirely of Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander, all wonderful talents who still haven’t quite found their huge breakout hit. There’s also the matter of first-time director Alex Garland, who comes with a lot of sci-fi cred after writing 28 Days Later, Dredd (that’s the Karl Urban one that didn’t get anywhere near its due), Never Let Me Go, and the very same Halo adaptation that Neill Blomkamp couldn’t get off the ground, so there’s your connection back to Chappie. But I digress.
I had been eagerly looking forward to this one, very interested in seeing if so much talent could bring something new to the tired subject of artificial sentience. What I got was a film that went over the same old familiar ground, but approached the subject in a way that nonetheless felt new and fresh.
The premise begins with BlueBook, a massive internet conglomerate founded and managed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive and eccentric computer prodigy. He’s also a reclusive and eccentric billionaire, living in a high-tech mansion somewhere in all the millions of acres of pristine Arctic wilderness that he owns. And one day, for reasons unknown, Nathan holds a contest; the winner gets to spend a week with him as a guest in that gorgeous remote estate of his.
The contest is won by Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who works at BlueBook. He arrives at the compound only to find that the contest was a sham and he’s been selected for something far greater than a week’s vacation with a tech CEO. This will not be the last time a character in this movie does something untrustworthy. In fact, it pretty much happens from start to finish.
Anyway, Nathan’s compound is actually more than just his home: It’s also his own personal top-secret R&D lab. His current project is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android running on experimental AI technology. And Caleb has been called in to help perform a Turing test, to see if Ava is advanced enough to pass for an actual human being.
At least, that’s what Nathan tells us. Just to make it clear, there are plenty of reasons not to trust him.
Aside from the whole “contest” bait-and-switch, there’s the matter of Nathan’s near-constant alcohol abuse as well as his mood swings, and it’s anyone’s guess how much of that is fake. We can also see that Nathan passes his time in solitude with plenty of punching bags and free weights, so there’s a very real threat of violence if he’s ever crossed. And of course, there’s the fact that this whole movie takes place on his home turf, which means that he controls everything that’s going on. There’s no chance for backup either, since the house is miles away from anyone Caleb might call for help, even if Nathan would allow him access to a phone. Caleb could potentially be in very real danger, since he’s essentially a rat in a maze.
Or is he?
Remember, we don’t have any real idea about what Nathan’s motivations are in all of this. We don’t even know much of anything about him as a character, never mind Ava. Even Caleb is sort of an enigma to us. As such, there’s really no way to tell who’s being tested, or how, or to what end. Therefore, when shit inevitably hits the fan, it creates tension because we don’t know if some error is part of the test or a genuine mistake.
In short, the story is about testing the intelligence of machines, and it’s told through (potentially mechanical) characters trying to outsmart each other. That’s brilliant.
As for the film’s examination of AI, the movie is generally very good about taking standard questions about AI and framing them in new ways. As an example, there’s never a point when anyone has to tell Ava about things like love and intimacy. She already knows about those things. This prompts Caleb to ask Nathan why the hell he made an AI with programmed sexuality. Why do robots even need sexuality? This leads to a discussion about what part romance plays in decision making, communication, etc. Perhaps more importantly, it leads to the question of whether Ava is genuinely attracted to Caleb, if her attraction is merely dictated by so many algorithms, or if she’s faking the attraction as a means to some other end. Or maybe the attraction was engineered by Nathan as a means of screwing with one or both of them.
Another example — my personal favorite — concerns the question of why Nathan invented Ava in the first place. It’s a question that Nathan himself has no answer to. After all, if technology is progressing at such a rate that a truly sentient AI was inevitable, then the question of “why” becomes irrelevant. Someone was always going to crack the code and Nathan just happened to be in the right place and the right time when all the pieces came together. Little surprise, given that Nathan is a search engine mogul who built his empire on profiling his users based on their browsing histories.
Oh, and before you go crying “spoilers!” keep in mind that all of this is coming from Nathan. Any of it could be pure horseshit. Doesn’t make it any less intriguing, though.
Of course, some points raised are weaker than others. A prime example regards the issue of what happened to all the prototypes before Ava, and what will happen to Ava if she fails the test. It’s not like Nathan would simply delete her, that would be too simple. Not to mention wasteful. No, Ava’s programming would be transferred to a computer for further debugging, some new routines are added, her memories are wiped, and she’s put into a new body. The movie is content to treat this like death, even though it’s really nothing of the sort. Leaving aside the issue of whether a non-living entity even can die, the process seems closer to reincarnation. It’s a potentially fascinating concept, one completely unique to artificially intelligent creations. Yet the film completely glosses over it, content to say that Ava will die in the worst-case scenario and that’s it.
More generally, it’s a common trap for suspense thrillers to deliver so many great potential set-ups only to fall flat when the time comes to pay off. Ex Machina, I’m sorry to say, is no exception. For every twist that was genuinely clever, we got five or more that simply didn’t work. Some were telegraphed in advance, and that’s bad enough. Others depend on the characters being more stupid than we know damn well they are. And right at the intersection of those two is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), whose big reveal is not only blindingly obvious from the start but ultimately inconsequential as well.
Moving on to the next drawback, let’s talk about Alicia Vikander. Watching her in this movie, I was very painfully reminded of Joel Kinnaman in the recent Robocop reboot. Both were given the unfortunate task of playing straight-faced robotic characters right on the cusp of humanity, and neither one of them had the screen presence to make it compelling. Perhaps more importantly, both were playing characters who were covered from head to toe in VFX and costumes that constantly distracted from the performances. I’m sorry, but just look at this. Her face barely has any expression, yet her inner workings are exposed and moving with sound effects to match. The latter is going to catch my eye every time.
That said, Domnhall Gleeson (perhaps because he’s playing a human, as far as we know) shows a much wider range of expression and uses it to very expertly sell Caleb’s chemistry with Ava. He looks so wonderfully conflicted, as Caleb is clearly very attracted to Ava, but he’s never quite sure if the machine is playing with him. And even if she’s sincere, there’s the question of whether love from an artificial being is still genuine, to say nothing of how a relationship between them would affect the test or whether professional conduct has any application here.
That brings me to another compelling aspect of this movie: The way Ava talks back to Caleb. This isn’t just a one-sided relationship in which the human educates the robot about being alive (see: Chappie, Short Circuit, etc.), and it isn’t a one-sided relationship in which the robot decides that humans are evil and need to be wiped out (see: The Matrix, Terminator, etc.). No, this is a scenario in which Ava’s sentience is tested both in the answers she gives and in the questions she asks. And she asks some really fascinating questions in this film.
Then we have Oscar Isaac, who’s surprisingly well-cast in this role. The character is endlessly compelling because he’s all over the place. The character could be laid back and casual or he could be an angry drunk, yet Isaac keeps playing the character with such intelligence and determination at all times. It’s so easy to believe that this guy really did conquer the world and make billions of dollars through sheer genius and hard work. I can’t begin to stress enough how crucial this performance was — the whole narrative is driven forward by the suspense regarding what Nathan wants and what he’ll do next to get it.
On a technical level, the film does perfectly fine. The production design and VFX are both gleaming with polish, and we’re treated to some outdoor shots that are simply breathtaking. The sound design is none too shabby, but the soundtrack could’ve used more work. There are so many times when the score sounds great, but there are too many times when it’s blaring electronic noise. Also, though I wish I could give more praise to the editing, that ending was glacially paced.
If it sounds like I’m being overly hard on Ex Machina, it’s only because there are so many good parts that I can’t spoil in this review. This really is a wickedly intelligent film with a great sense of humor that delivers nuanced and novel ideas about artificial intelligence in coherent ways, complete with an engaging suspense thriller hook. The characters are superbly delivered (either by effects, actors, or both), and it’s great to see them run circles around each other, even if the ending falters in points.
If this is the kind of thought-provoking and beautifully crafted movie that Alex Garland made for his writing/directing debut, I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.