Review: Ex Machina (2015)
Of Gods and Men
If there's one thing that history and evolution is telling us, it's that higher functioning artificial intelligence is not far away. And if there's one thing that Hollywood is telling us, it's that it will inevitably cause the extinction of blood and bone humanity as we know it.
I don't know about earth's doom as such, about it turning into a robo version of Planet of the Apes, but I can see AI taking large, perhaps even frightening, leaps and bounds over the next 30 years. Filmmakers have been predicting it for decades. While their aim has always been to tell a cool story and make lots of money off of it, the intricate mechanics of intelligent man made machines as laid out in movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey; Blade Runner; Star Wars; Terminator; AI: Artificial Intelligence; Minority Report; I, Robot and Her, to name just a few, show that we as a race already have a pretty good idea of where we are going in this avenue of scientific exploration. Of course, in most of the those filmic examples, the AI goes batty, often in its quest for freedom, and ends up causing death and chaos. But that's Hollywood. It wouldn't be the very interesting movie that portrays AI in a robot that is well behaved all the time and picks up after the kids.
In Ex Machina, the talented Alex Garland, previously a well accomplished novelist and screenwriter, takes his first crack at directing with this taut, sharply plotted thriller about an AI that, through self awareness and understanding, realizes it's a thing and wants to be free. Not the most original idea right off the bat perhaps, that's basically the same plot as Spike Jonze's 2013 masterpiece Her, but despite Alicia Vikander's husky, smokey voice sounding remarkably similar to Scarlett Johansson's, the two films are actually very different beasts.
The story is interesting: a coder who works for one of the world's biggest search engines (BlueBook) wins a lottery to go to the founder's estate to work on a top secret project for a week. Once he arrives at the massive compound, he meets the secret: a highly advanced AI by the name of Ava. He has a number of sessions with her in order to determine whether she is truly self aware or is just programmed to seem as if she is.
The more time he spends in the bunker-like research facility, the more strange goings on arise and so on and so on. I will so on and so on the good parts because they form the apex of the movie, but really it hooks you from the very start. Five minutes into this film I was absorbed into the plot and the world in which it exists.
The research facility set and its surrounding area is hugely impressive. Sleek, ultra modern designs surrounded by lush, jungle-like nature.
Equally impressive is the acting. Alicia Vikander is perfect as Ava. Her movements, her micro gestures as her processing system works out what is being said and presented to her and the humanity within her robotic makeup are all hard things to sell as an actress in a role such as this, but she nails it.
Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan Gleeson, is probably best known as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films, but he also starred alongside Alicia Vikander in Anna Karenina a couple years ago. He plays the BlueBook employee who wins the lottery. His role is a tough one, as it's sandwiched between two performances (and performers) which have ample space for scene chew-ery. But he holds his own nicely. As his character's initial innocence gives way to suspicion and so on and so on (*wink) his performance enables it nicely.
But the best thing about Ex Machina from an acting standpoint is Oscar Isaac. In the last ten years, but particularly from Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis onwards, Isaac has become one of the best, most interesting actors working today. His performances are always great, his film choices always interesting and this is no exception. His too smart for his own good, borderline alcoholic uber-rich character is a charismatic, shifty, exciting element of the story that always keeps you guessing. Once you've seen the film, you can't imagine anyone else in that role.
Ex Machina has a lot to say, not only about AI, but about the state of modern security and privacy in regards to our online consumption and the way we use personal technology. It implies that, in essence, there is no such thing as privacy anymore and that anyone who uses a cell phone or search engine is being monitored, or could be if certain people had a reason to do so. Frightening to think about perhaps, but be honest, in an age where celebrity nude photo leaks and identity theft are something we hear about weekly, no one who is honest with themselves is so naive as to think their phones or computers are hack proof. If you use technology, then technology can use you if it so chooses.
The film also asks if there is a moral dilemma involved in creating a thing with self awareness. If a robot becomes self aware, is it not cruel to treat it as if its life (as it is) is inconsequential? Again, these are questions and topics we as a race will be faced with in the coming decades as we see these machines advancing. Not that it would affect me. I'd never be able to afford a humanistic robot to do all my cooking and cleaning. At least not one of the fancier ones. With my budget, I'd probably end up with a Courtney Love model.
Verdict: Exciting, intelligent, thought provoking and superbly made. The story is flawless, the acting is flawless, the effects are flawless. What more could you ask for in a pre-summer film?