The coolest science fiction stories are driven by the ideas they contain—ideas about fantastical technologies allowing people to do things they never could before, telling us something about them and about the world and beyond. The idea of artificial intelligence is well-tread within science fiction, but in Alex Garland’s new film Ex Machina, the idea is approached with fresh insight and some truly inventive concepts. Combined with Alex Garland’s atmospheric, minimalist direction, and some outstanding performances, what results is a thrilling yet contemplative film that is sure to become a sci-fi classic.
The artificial intelligence that is the subject of Ex Machina is Ava’s (Alicia Vikander), a robot prototype created by billionaire tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote, reclusive estate/research facility. Nathan has brought Caleb, a talented young programmer who works within his company, to his estate to participate in a Turing Test with Ava; that is, to interact with her and determine whether or not her artificial intelligence is distinguishable from a human’s.
Notice, I refer to Ava as a female. Though robotic, Nathan made sure to program Ava with a specific gender, claiming that sexuality is a necessary aspect of human consciousness and behavior. The film is filled with philosophical questions like this that grasp at the nature of existence, and of humanity. It is an interesting contrast that such grand ideas drive this rather small film, which takes place in only one location and with only four characters. Garland is remarkably economic with this minimalistic set-up. It’s the rare modern sci-fi film that doesn’t rely heavily on effects, and instead on the psychologies of its characters, both human and artificial. It unfolds much like a stage play, in that most scenes simply involve two characters talking. This may not sound like the makings of a thriller, but the smart script, steady pace, and tense, claustrophobic atmosphere create one of the most exciting movies you’ll see this year.
With such an intimate setting, Ex Machina’s small cast must do some heavy lifting, and they certainly deliver. Oscar Isaac is fantastic as Nathan, who is not the clichéd mad scientist, but something much more familiar: a bro. To be sure, he’s paranoid and brilliant with an apparent God complex and cruel streak, but his references to mythology, or Jackson Pollack, or Wittgenstein are bookended with “dudes” and “bros.” In one of the movie’s best scenes, he busts out a choreographed disco dance. He implores Caleb not to think about Ava in brainiac terms and how she’s programmed, but instead through introspection; how does he feel about her? To which Caleb answers, “She’s fucking amazing.”
Fucking amazing is right, as Ava is a sight to behold. Her face and hands are that of a human’s, but the rest of her body is transparent, showing the metal and circuitry of her interior. Vikander does a wonderful job of playing almost-human. Her manner of speaking is not all-the-way humanistic, but close, with only a faint Siri-like roboticness to it. The emotions that she displays appear genuine, but there is a slight hesitation to them that render their authenticity dubious. Throughout the movie it seemed as though we, in the audience, were participants in this Turing Test as much as Caleb, evaluating Ava’s every feature. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether she passes or fails the test.
The film has its share of “wow” moments that all the best sci-fi movies do. One of the most memorable scenes involves Nathan explaining to Caleb the ingenious and scarily plausible way Ava learned how to make facial expressions (spoiler alert: selfies are involved). Of course, with logically precise sci-fi films, flaws in the plot’s reasoning seem to be more glaring (or at least more searched for) than in other genres, and this film is not without them. The security at the facility becomes a crucial plot point, and we’re left wondering why someone as wealthy, paranoid, and brilliant as Nathan has the same card-swiping security system as our campus’s dining commons. Ultimately though, Ex Machina is a satisfyingly original film, and with an upcoming summer movie season chock-full of franchise sequels and remakes, originality may very well be worth the price of admission.