The Slow Burn Satisfies in Stunning Sci-Fi Thriller Ex Machina
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2015 16 Apr
DVD Release Date: July 14, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: April 17, 2015 (limited); April 24 (wide)
Rating: R (for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence)
Genre: Science Fiction
Run Time: 108 min.
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson
What do you think of when you hear the term "science fiction"?
The best known science-fiction stories on the big screen include the heady philosophizing of the early Star Treks to the blockbuster space operas that wear the term "sci-fi" rather loosely. Then there are the classic man versus machine movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or the much more recent Moon.
A Frankenstein story set in the word of computer programmers and artificial intelligence, Ex Machina is on the cerebral side of the genre, a story that trades spectacle for subtlety without ever seeming obscure or too mind-bending. Instead, it’s spellbinding and satisfying, propelled forward by yet another impressive role for Oscar Isaac, who has given three Oscar-caliber performances since 2013 (this film, 2014’s A Most Violent Year and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis).
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) has been chosen. He's just won a company contest to spend a week with its founder, Nathan Bateman (Isaac), at Nathan's remote estate. Dropped off by helicopter, Caleb finds his way to a structure that is much sleeker inside than it looks like from without.
It's not a house, says Nathan, who greets Caleb upon his arrival. It’s a research facility—a place where Nathan is working on something that Caleb can be part of, if only he’ll sign a nondisclosure agreement with a level of detail Caleb has never seen. Nathan tells him that if he signs, he'll be part of a breakthrough project. If not, they'll just enjoy drinking together and chatting with each other for a week.
Caleb doesn't need much convincing. He signs and is soon introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander, Seventh Son), Nathan's latest stab at creating Artificial Intelligence (AI). Nathan explains that Caleb is to be part of a Touring Test determining the degree to which Ava can express human consciousness—a prospect that clearly delights the young programmer.
What starts as a feeling-out process—Caleb asks Ava how old she is—quickly grows into something more intimate, with Ava asking Caleb if his status is "single." She covers her robotic limbs with a dinner dress, chooses a head of human hair and informs Caleb, "This is what I'd wear on our date."
Watching Ava and Caleb's relationship rapidly develop is Nathan, who uses video cameras to monitor their interaction. But Ava has one ability Nathan can't control: she can cut the power within the facility for a few seconds and use that time to speak directly to Caleb. When she does, she warns Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted.
What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game in which Caleb can’t be sure if he's the cat or the mouse. Is Nathan really not able to hear Ava's comments when the power goes out, or is Nathan testing Caleb's loyalty? Between sessions with Ava—the film is divided into Ava’s sessions with Caleb, with each introduced via a title card—the two men discuss Ava's progress while Caleb tries to guess how much of his interaction with Ava he can keep to himself.
As with all stories of the Frankenstein mythos, the inventor (Nathan, in this case) is toying with creation, bringing things to life with a God-like power to influence and control his subjects. The film's dialogue is written by director Alex Garland (who earlier adapted for the screen another great story of creature consciousness, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go), and Garland paints Nathan as a cruel and manipulative. At best, he’s simply using his power and knowledge to the fullest, answering Caleb's question about why he made the AIs with, "Wouldn't you if you could?" and telling Caleb that he's "not lucky" to be part of Nathan's plan, but rather has been "chosen." Yet there's never any sign of beneficence on Nathan's part. He's a simmering mad-genius type, controlling and manipulative rather than kind and compassionate.
Ex Machina is as cold and heady as Nathan, but it's also quietly wondrous at times, especially when it focuses on the budding relationship between Ava and the lonely Caleb. You might say that, at its heart, Ex Machina is a love story that raises all the questions we feel when we fall for someone: Does she feel the same way about me that I feel about her? Is this too good to be true? How can we move forward together? Or, in our darker moments, Am I just being used?
Unlike 2013's Her, in which a man falls for a disembodied operating system with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, the premise of Ex Machina is easier to embrace, in no small part because Ava has a physical form. But the prospect of a relationship with an artificial being carries with it the possibility of betrayal, and Ex Machina doesn't flinch from exploring the darker possibilities of its scenario.
But there's nothing artificial about the intelligence at the core of Ex Machina. If you associate science fiction with star fighters and light sabers, Ex Machina might not be for you. But for fans of slow-burn, ideas-driven sci-fi, Ex Machina delivers something much more compelling: a story that explores familiar ideas in new ways, and that will leave you thinking about it long after you've left the theater.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Numerous uses of the f-word and other foul language
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Nathan drinks almost constantly, and Caleb sometimes joins him
- Sex/Nudity: The AIs are shown nude several times, from both the front and back, in full; Nathan discusses the way Ava has been built for sexual pleasure; Nathan and Caleb are seen kissing the AIs; Nathan explains to Caleb what a ghost does to Dan Aykroyd's character in Ghostbusters; discussion of sexual orientation, during which Nathan tells Caleb that his sexual preference was programmed by nature, nurture or both; Caleb discusses his "porn profile" with Nathan
- Violence/Crime: Caleb cuts himself; a man is punched; Nathan fights with his creations; Caleb recounts his parents' death in an automobile accident
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Ava asks Caleb if his status is "available"; mention of "the history of gods"
Publication date: April 17, 2015