First time director but seasoned screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) has made a statement with his debut film Ex Machina about life and technology that directly relates to the rapid advancements we experience with in society. Like clockwork, new tech is created or improved upon to improve quality of life – and yet every year during the month of September, new Apple products are released to the public that make communication faster, shopping more simplified and information more accessible within seconds of hitting the search bar on a web application. And soon enough, the theory and development of Garlands debut becomes more realistic – Artificial Intelligence. We already have versions of that in our homes and pockets with Siri, Alexa, and Google. The next step is what sci-fi films portray, some more silly than others – a rise and overthrowing of human life by machines.
We are not that far off from John Conner and Skynet being a reality.
How ironic that the creator’s creation destroys what gave it life. Or in this case a highly intelligent operating system to be administered the Turing test to prove indistinguishable human intelligence. After winning an exclusive office contest, brilliant programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to a one week stay at CEO of Blue Book Nathan Bateman’s (Oscar Isaac) compound sheltered in a remote location that even the helicopter can’t get too close enough to. How very corporate accommodating of Nathan to open his doors for 7 short days while Caleb lives in Brookhaven Long Island – One of the most expensive places to live in the US. Just follow the water and the spacious home will appear.
Nathan lives alone apart from his non-verbal assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and the artificial intelligence he created named Ava (Alicia Vikander). This isn’t a typical home, more so resembling a Bond villain compound in the middle of the ocean or orbiting the earth in isolation, Nathan spends his days drinking like a fish, dancing, and coding from his bedroom with extreme paranoia about his creations leaving the walls of his bunkered underground self-proclaimed paradise.
That is the true test – not recognizing whether Ava’s intelligence is indistinguishable from a human but confirming that she is intelligent by the manipulation of Caleb to aid her escape. Any horror aspect involving A.I. is present throughout Garlands brilliant screenplay. This frighting sequence of events will keep anyone up at night questioning the possibilities of intelligent life and if they walk among us. Our phones already pick up what is said aloud, and ads are curated by social media platforms based on that. It’s not that if this scenario is a possibility to happen in our lifetime but when will it actually happen. The story, written by Garland leans more heavily on the ideas of true science fiction without the distraction of the highly stylistic future or flair to cover up an incomplete hypothesis.
Ava’s look and design is stylish, modern, and sleek and paired with Vikander’s performance, Ava is never once thought to be anything but human. Vikander is cold, cutting out any and all emotion to her humanoid character yet highly curious. Appearing lifelike without actually showing it. Within that aspect to Ava’s programming, she’s highly volatile and dangerous. One lie is easily detected like having a favorite color as an adult.
Where I plotted the films direction while each of the 7 sessions were playing out waiting for Nathan’s true villainy to appear, he was Garlands ruse to distract the viewer from Ava being in total control. Like Pinocchio, there are no strings attached to her. Easily manipulating Caleb into assisting her by flirting and taking an interest in his life. If a highly skilled programmer can fall for the manipulation of first Nathan by a simple internet search profile, then anyone can. The question then becomes, how many people did Nathan invite to this advanced compound and interact with Ava only to wipe her memory and start the Turing test over again.
Nathan is no saint either – Oscar Isaac perfectly embodies a god complex genius intelligence. He’s this worlds Jeff Bezos, Geppetto and Elon Musk wrapped into one human being. Cold, narcissistic, and unhinged, Nathan is a self-isolated ticking time bomb. Treating his creations as if they are below his station, Nathan holds a certain comfort in his prejudice. 24/7 365 he’s alone living with humanoids, just like Frankenstein, Nathan is proud of his achievement yet looking for ways to improve on the current model – disregarding if Ava can consciously project human intelligence. There is always a way to improve. Once Nathan suggests there’s an improvement to be made, and this model of Ava will be wiped from existence, Caleb shows his cards – Caleb fell for Ava’s trap in hopes the two will end up together and escape the isolated bunker.
All three lead performances are vulnerable in their own way – with the two standouts being either genuine from Domhnall’s performance or disguised from Alicia’s, however, the Shakespearean tragedy weaved by Garland resides with Caleb. With each Ava session, Caleb loses all sense of reality, even questioning if he’s a human or A.I. Appearing distant to Ava at first, Caleb opens up about his life and hobbies and accepting the thought the two can be together. Nathan did “install” a sensitive area on Ava for pleasure. Can we blame Caleb for his rose-colored naivety? Getting an opportunity to be in the presence of brilliance and through a series of Turing sessions having your entire life shattered in an instant. After all the mind games, seeing him break down is just another punch to the gut.
Garland presents these ideas in an unpredictable yet anxiety inducing environment. Anticipation to see how these events play out is built the moment Caleb meets Ava in the first session. And for two thirds of the film, Garland is methodical in his direction, slowing presenting new information to the viewer. Every thought and theory about A.I. are given the chance to fully develop from all three characters perspectives. Theory trumps all here. When the film hits the climactic moment, however, Garland shifts the tone from a thriller to a slasher that feels foreign and anti-climactic. The blade easily slides into the flesh without a second thought. While the other fully realizes the terror that was just unleashed to the world at his hand. Easily the best part of Garland’s script is not knowing Ava’s plan once she leaves the compound. There’s an unlimited number of possibilities for Ava to explore and not knowing makes the journey worth the experiment.
Written By: Alex Garland
Directed By: Alex Garland
Music By: Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Running Time: 1 Hour 50 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%