I would love to see someone watch a double feature of Ex Machina and Her. If Her was a person telling us to come and embrace the strange and beautiful places where technology is taking us, then Ex Machina is the person screaming at us to run away while we can from the complex, questionable artificial intelligence which we are creating.
This is one of those incredible films where the moment it ended I wanted to dive back into the mysterious, absorbing world writer/director Alex Garland had created. I wanted to talk to someone in great detail for hours about what they got out of the questions and theories that the film brings up. There’s no way not to have a fascinating discussion after seeing something like this. Ex Machina is more than just your average Frankenstein style take on the artificial intelligence. It’s an absorbing look into the inevitability of technology transforming into a more evolved version of ourselves. We get to experience the first step in the evolution of the next great species, something that we ourselves built.
I’ll try to keep the synopsis to the bare minimum but I should warn you that it’s probably better to read what follows having actually watched the flick. What you need to know is this; Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working at one of the biggest companies in the world. He ends up winning a contest to come and visit the giant, near underground home of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of the company. When he gets to Nathan’s home, Caleb discovers that he will be the first to experience the artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that Nathan has created.
The movie distinguishes itself firstly by taking place mostly inside the house of Nathan. If Apple were to make a house, this would probably be what it would look like. You’re stuck inside this minimalist, underground home with countless hallways and a slick, metal design for most of the movie. Garland was clearly inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining as the production design seems built to make you feel a sense of imprisonment throughout. He wants to make you feel the trap we are making for ourselves in the developments we’re making. The cold, distant architecture of Nathan’s home at least sets up the mysterious tone the director is trying to get across. A lot of period pieces get credit for the production design but the realistic yet surreal sets that were built for Ex Machina are equally if not more fascinating to explore.
The film also establishes itself by only featuring three big characters throughout, four if you’re counting Nathan’s quiet and secretive assistant Kyoko. That not only helps with the isolation of the production design but it also allows for truly brilliant conversations to sprout between Caleb, Nathan and Ava. The movie hits its peak when you’re watching these well developed, richly crafted characters discuss their vastly different outlooks on this strange, groundbreaking situation. The revolution doesn’t come through violence or fights but rather through a series of enrichingly written discussions.
I admire the film for not taking the easy route when it came to the main character of Caleb. They could’ve made him just your average schmuck who gets sucked into this wacky situation that’s beyond him. Instead, Caleb is made to be this brilliant, intellectual who can hold his ground against a genius inventor and an enigmatic robot. There are points where I was trying to figure out the ways in which the other two characters could be putting him into a trap and I was surprised how many times Caleb was able to confront and address these theories that I had. This movie easily could’ve made him an ordinary guy with clear intentions but the movie adds a layer of mystery even to him. You begin to question if he’s working for someone or if he has ulterior motives for the things that he’s doing. Though Gleeson’s subtle performance is often overshadowed by the more loud and inventive performances of Isaac and Vikander, it’s still great work from him and it’s another film he can add to the quickly increasing resume he has built for himself over the past year with this and Frank, Unbroken and Calvary.
Nathan on the other hand is certainly eccentric but you often find yourself wondering to what degree his madness is. You can see him as having gone crazy but you also get a lot of moments where he comes off as a normal guy with a habit of heavy drinking. One moment he’ll be comparing himself to a god and the next he’ll be making a reference to Ghostbusters. What are the areas this character is willing to go to in the accuracy of his invention? What is his moral code when it comes to the treatment of his creation? A lot of people may know and praise him from Inside Llewyn Davis or A Most Violent Year but I think this might be the first time I’ve been deeply impressed by a performance from Oscar Isaac. Of the three performances in the film I think I might enjoy Isaac’s the most because there’s a wide range that he gets to show with the character whether it be humor, terror or arrogance among other things. The conversations him and Caleb have are riveting to watch because you’re getting some insight into this sarcastic, cynical genius who you can’t take your eyes off of because you’re trying to find the full intent of his character.
Mark my words, Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava will go down as one of the best debut performances of the year. Ava is interesting as a robot because her character takes into consideration something that many artificial intelligence films don’t notice, attraction. It becomes clear quickly on that Caleb is becoming attracted to Ava but the big question ends up being how much of her attraction to Caleb is real. Unlike in Her where you can almost immediately tell that there is something at least sympathetic about Samantha, Ava appears human at times but also at times has errors and you have to wonder if it’s in fact real. Does she have any sympathy for other human beings? Would her release into the world cause further chaos or peace? What will be her reaction when she meets her creator? You are juggling this endless collection of questions that haunt you about Ava long after the final shot comes and goes.
The big end theme isn’t what truly makes the film original so much as the way it is delivered. In the conclusion of the film, Ava is shown to be the clear dominant one of the three. This robot that has been built to satisfy the desires of Caleb is like a smarter, stronger version of him and the robot has the same amount if not more power than Nathan but lacks the laziness and human faults. The film ends with the only certainty being that the AI will live another day in a larger world and what her next move will be is beyond us. Ava to me symbolizes the start of the next great species and what will lead to the fall of mankind. We have built this machine that can imitate emotions without the flaws of actual human beings. The only possible step after that is that these machines will be able to outthink us and corner and entrap us into extinction. The people who invented them will be destroyed and the men they were supposed to service will be forgotten and made unnecessary.
It sounds like something you’ve seen before but never in the way Garland presents it. The movie often looks like it’s being shot from the eyes of a security camera that’s being hidden within the walls, following our main character. The more I thought about it, that camera is Ava stocking and observing the battles of the two main characters. The movie plays out like this mental game of dominance being played in dimly lit halls between the human and the machine. Caleb and Nathan spend a lot of the time lying to each other in trying to prove that they are better than the other. This movie is about people tricking each other and ultimately it’s about why the robots would probably win this game. Even the smartest of humans are capable of failure and Ava can use a single weakness to get rid of all your other pieces in this metaphorical game of chess.
Years from now, students will be writing long thesis papers of the meaning of this film. Everything here from the score to the characters feels damn near perfect. Ex Machina has amazing performances, ambiguous characters and themes that will make you think twice before buying that next big piece of tech. From the first minute I was mesmerized by the simple yet unique way in which Alex Garland presented the bleak, cold future we might have to look forward to. This year can’t be so bad if I’m already giving my best possible rating for a film so early on in the year.
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Corey Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland